Exploring 1 Timothy – Sound Words

“Timothy and Lois” by Willem Drost, circa 1650s

In the coming days and weeks, I would like us to take a break from all of this political commentary and dig into a lovely little book of the Bible that has many practical applications for the Church today: 1 Timothy. I intend to bring you a series of essays, hopefully little more than 1,000 words each, that address some of the aspects of this letter that have left the greatest impression on me. Today, we start with the concept of “sound words”.

If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.

1 Timothy 6:3-5

The Apostle Paul is writing to Timothy, the young pastor of the church at Ephesus (in modern day Turkey). He implores him about the need for “sound words” – that is, words that are backed up by strong doctrine and beneficial to the Church. Paul does two things in this brief passage. First, he emphasizes the importance of sound words, which have their origin in Jesus Christ and help us to conform to godliness. Second, he makes a distinction between two different types of words, or two different types of doctrinal disputes.

In contrast to the sound words that he encourages Timothy to use, Paul speaks of a “different doctrine” and a “morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words”. Here we see that not all words are created equal. Sounds words and doctrine lead us into godliness. Bad doctrine or frivolous words lead to “envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth”. In other words, we ought to defend sound doctrine, but to avoid worldly disputes.

This theme of good doctrine vs. bad doctrine and sound words vs. unsound words is found throughout the book and is the very first topic that Paul chooses to address after his initial greeting.

As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions.

1 Timothy 1:3-7

Here again Paul makes a distinction between the benefits of true instruction – “love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” – and the dangers of “fruitless discussion”. He refers to “strange doctrines”, “myths”, and “endless genealogies”. Here Paul is apparently referencing some of the pagan or Gnostic ideas of the day. Later on, he seems to have in mind those who have an incorrect understanding of the Mosaic Law and says they “do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions”. These are not the sound words the apostle commends to us, but mere human speculation not built on a firm doctrinal foundation.

Facsimile of a 5th century fragment containing 1 Timothy 3:15-16 from the Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus

At another point, Paul actually warns Timothy that “the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons…” (4:1) Now, there’s a phrase you don’t hear every day: “doctrines of demons”! Paul called it like he saw it. Just what did he have in mind when he used that phrase? “…Men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth.” (4:3) These could very well be the self-styled “teachers of the Law” that Paul alluded to earlier, who in fact did not understand the Law.

Just after that, Paul tells his young associate, “In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women.” (4:6-7a) Note here the descriptive language of being “nourished on the words of the faith”. What a beautiful picture of how the Word of God daily sustains us and leads us into righteousness! In contrast, we are to avoid the mere “worldly fables” that he says are only appropriate for old ladies. By this, he did not mean to say that all women are stupid, but rather he probably had in mind the kind of disintegration that happens in conversation among people with too little knowledge and too much time to kill.

You might compare this with a comment Paul made in his second letter to Timothy when he referred to “weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 3:6b-7) However, in that very same letter, Paul commended Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice for the “sincere faith” they had passed on to him. (2 Timothy 1:5) These were women who held to sound words rather than worldly fables, and it paid great dividends in the history of Christianity.

It is not surprising that Paul should place an emphasis on sounds words and doctrine when writing to a fellow pastor, but we also see in both his letters to Timothy how concerned the apostle was that every member of the Ephesian church be focused on such things. We too should be mindful as we live the Christian life to hold to sound words like these: “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am the foremost of all.” (1 Timothy 1:15)

All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

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