In these articles, we have already looked at 1 Timothy 3:15 on a number of occasions. As we have looked at this verse, we have seen it in relation to what follows – the description of “mystery of godliness” outlined in verse 16. However, we would be doing the verse and our subject a considerable disservice if we failed to consider the preceding context as well. Paul explicitly links the truth of verses 15 and 16 with the earlier part of the epistle, looking back over the first three chapters, as he says, “These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (vv14-15, KJV).
“These things” embraces quite a sweep of practical teaching regarding the teaching of truth and the refutation of error, the scope and pattern of public prayer, and the adorning and silence of women. Each of these topics is relevant to behavior that is fitting, and in fact, essential, for the word “oughtest”’ goes beyond what is desirable to what is necessary to conduct in the house of God. And this conduct is essential because the local assembly is the “house of God,” the place where God’s order and authority are acknowledged; and the “pillar and ground of the truth,” the place where the Word of God is proclaimed and its precepts practised. So, all the requirements outlined in 1 Timothy 1-3 are motivated by the great facts of what the assembly is and what it is for.
What is true of the general context of the first three chapters is also true of the immediate context of chapter 3. In the earlier verses of this chapter, Paul outlines the qualities necessary in two different types of individuals. The labor of elders and deacons is essential for the local assembly to discharge its divinely designed function as “the pillar and ground of the truth.” In a previous article, we have thought about the role of the elder. Now we will consider what Paul has to say about deacons.
In considering 1 Timothy 3:8-13 we will consider pretty much everything that Paul has to say about deacons. Only in Philippians 1:1, and probably 1 Timothy 4:6, do we have another reference to deacons as carrying out a particular work in a local assembly. However, the noun diakonos is used in many other places in the New Testament. Its basic meaning is simply “servant,” and in other places where it occurs it is used to describe a variety of servants and a variety of service. In this epistle and in Philippians, however, a particular type of servant is in view.
Precisely because the word used is both common and non-specific, there has been considerable debate as to what sort of work a deacon might carry out. In various denominations, the term is used of an ecclesiastical office, and generally, though not universally, that office is seen as concerned with the practical details of church life (paying the bills and mowing the lawns), rather than the spiritual.
It should go without saying that every assembly needs those who take responsibility for its practical and physical needs, and that we ought to appreciate and esteem those who labor in this way. It is also important to note that spiritual qualifications are important even for the most mundane and menial tasks carried out in God’s assembly. But, notwithstanding this, work of this nature is not what Paul has in view in these verses.
Note, however, that Paul does have work in view. The deacons of which he speaks are servants; theirs is not an ornamental role, but one which is defined by their work for others. In spite of the AV translation and common ecclesiastical usage, the word does not describe an office, but a work. The phrase “use the office of a deacon” in verse 10 translates diakoneō, a verb perhaps better translated “served well as deacons” (NET).
The wider usage of the term emphasizes the hard work and service that are involved in deacon work. It also tells us something about the dignity of that work. The deacon was a servant who was commissioned by and represented a higher authority. Imagine attending dinner in the home of a wealthy friend whose servant waited on you at dinner. That servant would not be acting on his own initiative, and while his service was to you, it would not be for you. Rather, his service would be for his master, and in his solicitous attention he would represent his master. So, too, with these deacons. Their service was commissioned by and representative of a higher authority. And the authority in view is not the overseers, but the risen Lord, a point that Paul emphasizes in 1 Timothy 4:6: “If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister [diakonos] of Jesus Christ” (KJV). Timothy’s service was to the brethren, but it was for Jesus Christ.
We are assisted in understanding the precise nature of deacon service by the two references to “the faith” in verses 9 and 13. These references to faith strongly suggest, though perhaps not conclusively prove, that the deacon’s role is primarily one of teaching.
This is especially clear in verse 9, where the apostle speaks of “holding the mystery of the faith.” This expression embraces both the origin and reception of truth. “The mystery” identifies “the faith” as something inaccessible to human reason, but divinely revealed to mankind. It emphasizes that what God has revealed has been received and obeyed by believers. In a context where false teachers were producing and propagating their own distorted doctrines, the deacon was to hold the one, undefiled, and unifying Truth that originated with God and was acknowledged by His people.
The deacon must hold this Truth, and he must hold it in a good conscience. Conscience is a theme that Paul returns to repeatedly in this epistle (1:5, 19; 3:9, 4:2), and it is linked with Timothy’s calling and fitness to teach, and the unsuitability of the false teachers. Here it refers to an ethical fitness to teach, based on the requirements laid out in the surrounding verses. But it also refers to the way in which the deacon handles the Truth without distortion, in accordance with what has been revealed. The deacon must hold the Truth of God in such a way that his conscience before God is pure. And this inward endorsement must be marked by an external one; he must “first be proved.” This proving involves the recognition of something as genuine after examination. A formal examination is not envisaged here, but the deacon must have demonstrated his reliability both morally and in his teaching, so that the believers may have confidence in his ministry.
Deacon service, by definition, is hard work. But there are compensations for the labor involved. And, like the endorsement, these are external and internal. Externally, faithful deacons will “purchase to themselves a good degree” (v13, KJV). By their efforts in the study and teaching of Scripture, they earn the respect and regard of the saints. And the promise to deacons should be an exhortation to believers more generally, for we are responsible to appreciate and esteem those who faithfully instruct us in the Word of God.
Allied to this external reward is an internal one: “great boldness [‘confidence’ ESV; ‘assurance’ NIV) in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.” This could refer to the deacon’s own faith, and a number of translations go beyond the original in this direction by translating as “in their faith which is in Christ Jesus.” Dubious though this is as a translation, it may certainly be correct as an interpretation. However, the context here would tend to favour the view that this is the faith in the same objective sense as verse 9. Most likely what is promised to the deacon here is an increased assurance in the subject matter of his teaching – a confidence that the Word of God is sufficient to meet every need of sinner and of saint.
We do not hear a great deal about deacons, but the work of these servants is vital if the house of God is truly to be “the pillar and ground of the truth.”