“3 I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience the way my forefathers did, as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day, 4 longing to see you, even as I recall your tears, so that I may be filled with joy. 5 For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well.”
This section begins the body of Paul’s final letter to Timothy and much of it hinges on those few beginning words, “I thank God.” The Greek term for thank is from the same word translated as grace (χάρις) in v. 2. The idea is that of profound gratitude directed to God. What follows is not so much a list of things that Paul is grateful for, but more of an overflowing heart that is set in a constant mode of gratitude. Sitting in a dungeon and awaiting execution, Paul does not mope or complain, but reaches out to beloved Timothy with a heart filled with the knowledge of God’s grace to him.
This letter is meant as an encouragement to Timothy. Perhaps we should stop and consider why Timothy is in need of encouragement. (1) There were false teachers running rampant in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3) and there are still more to confront (2 Tim. 2:16-18). (2) Paul, Timothy’s mentor, is rotting in a Roman prison as a criminal of the state. The charge against him is the crime of preaching an illicit or illegal religion. This charge is unsettling on its face because it would run contrary to all that Paul has elsewhere taught. But the implications of a conviction would mean disaster to all Christians living in the Roman Empire.
There are a few things that we must understand. First, it is important to know that there was no such thing as religious liberty in the Roman Empire. The Romans understood that religion and culture are inseparable. If you want to make the world Rome, then you cannot allow various religions that are not Roman to exist. This was not a new concept. Alexander the Great knew this when he attempted to Hellenize his new empire, and this was the motivation behind Darius’ (Daniel 6) and Nebuchadnezzar’s (Daniel 3) decrees before them. A people who worship the same God/gods are a unified people.
The Jews were something of an anomaly within the Roman Empire. They were one a few exceptions to the general rule. As a whole, they were exempt from the charge of illicit religion or religio illicita and thus enjoyed the freedom to worship under Rome. In the early days of Christianity, they too enjoyed this freedom because from the viewpoint of Rome, Christians were just a sect of the Jews. Much of this changed by 64 A.D.
When Emperor Nero set fire to his own capital he had to find a scapegoat and he found it in this new religion now known as Christianity. As Tertullian would later write, “If the Tiber floods the city, or if the Nile refuses to rise, or if the sky withholds its rain, if there is an earthquake, or famine, a pestilence, at once the cry is raised; ‘Christians to the lion.’”
Paul is writing about three years (67 A.D.) after the first Roman persecution within the confines of a dungeon and is awaiting execution. What is his crime? Inciting religio illicita or propagating an illegal religion. But is this accusation accurate? This is necessary information but let us return to the text.
These three verses are a single sentence in the Greek. We’ll trace Paul’s argument as best we can and as we do, we’ll notice that Paul’s encouragement comes to Timothy in an objective, personal, and logical manner.
An Objective Defense (v. 3a)
“I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience the way my forefathers did”
The flow of thought in v. 3 might be traces like this: I am grateful to God…as I constantly remember you… But what about all that he says in between? Why does Paul mention his clear conscience and the faithfulness of his forefathers? What does this have to do with his gratitude to God as he remembers Timothy in his prayers? These words are not added without reason. Paul is building to a point.
When we read that Paul serves (or even worships – λατρεύω) God with a clean conscience, we must understand that he is speaking of service as a Christian. Some have argued that he “served” God while a Pharisee with a clean conscience; that he acted out of ignorance. This not only misunderstands this phrase completely, but glosses over many heinous sins knowingly committed by Paul. Don’t forget that Paul (then referred to by his Jewish name, Saul) presided over the illegal execution from a kangaroo court (Acts 7). There was no way that a clear conscience would result from these actions. What is meant here is that his service/worship of God as an apostle of Jesus Christ has been and continued to be done with a clear and clean conscience. But why does he compare this to his forefathers?
The Greek is very brief here. Ἀπὸ προγύνων literally means from parents/ancestors. The point is that his service is perfectly in keeping with the faith of his Jewish ancestors. He worships and serves the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the apostle of David’s seed, the fulfillment of Abraham’s promise. This is a defense that he is in no way guilty of following after a foreign god unknown to previous generations but that he worships the one true God, Yhwh, just as his forefathers did.
Paul is rotting in prison and awaiting execution because he has been found guilty of religio illicita. But if the faith of the Jewish people had been granted amnesty, then there is no way that Paul could actually be guilty of such a charge. He preaches and holds to the same faith as the patriarchs. He preaches the one whom Moses and the prophets promised. To be bound to Jesus is not to depart from the Old Testament faith but to be woven into it. Paul writes with a clear conscience that he is neither guilty of breaking Roman law, nor the Law of God. He worships from what he knows, that salvation comes from the Jews. He worships in spirit and in truth (John 4:22-24).
A Personal Desire (vv. 3b-5a)
“as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day, 4 longing to see you, even as I recall your tears, so that I may be filled with joy. 5 For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you”
In this next section there is a theme of memory that pops up time and again. Three times Paul remembers or is reminded about something. Following this thread will form our study.
Reminded to Pray (v. 3b) – Paul’s gratitude to God flows from his memory of Timothy while he prays for him. The term we translate as prayers (δέομαι) indicates a strong petition, or even begging. Paul is constantly petitioning and begging God on Timothy’s behalf. How often does this occur? Constantly. Night and day. It would be curious to know whether or not Paul could even tell the difference between day and night as he sat chained in his basement prison. The point is that he is in constant prayer (he had little else to do) and while he prayed he constantly remembered Timothy.
Reminded of Fellowship (v. 4) – This verse is driven by the word longing. The Greek (ἐπιποθέω) speaks of a great and earnest desire. There is an implication of desperation. It would not go too far to translate this as I need to see you! What has brought this on? His memory of Timothy’s tears.
This term recall/remember (μιμνῄσκομαι) shares a root with the term remember (μνεία) in v. 3. The only difference is that the verbal idea comes from outside rather than inside the subject. Put more simply: Something outside of Paul jogged his memory of Timothy’s tears. What that something was, we do not know. But somewhere along the line he was caused to remember the tearful parting from his son in the faith.
Paul and Timothy parted company on several different occasions. Some commentators point to the tearful parting between Paul and the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. Others point to Paul’s departure after leaving Timothy in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3). But the evidence shows that Paul was able to visit Timothy sometime after writing his first letter to him and before his current imprisonment. It is most likely that this tearful goodbye occurred there. Timothy likely suspected that he would never see Paul again, and so their departure was filled with many tears.
There is nothing weak or effeminate about these tears. They were evidence of Timothy’s great love for his mentor and fellow laborer in the faith. The fellowship they shared so greatly surpassed shared miles, troubles, and campfires. They shared a common savior, a common message, and a common ministry. Their bonds of fellowship were tighter than most modern Christians have ever experienced. Paul remembers the tears shed from broken fellowship, broken from distance and not from disunion. As he remembers these tears, he longs to see him again so that he might be filled with joy. He longs not for release, but just to see Timothy’s face again. He misses that sweet fellowship.
Reminded of Sincerity (v. 5a) – More than fellowship, Paul remembers Timothy’s sincere faith. The word here literally means unhypocritical (ἀνυποκρίτος). Our understanding of hypocrisy may not well represent meaning of this Greek word. It literally refers to a mask commonly used by actors performing a play. An actor would don one mask while playing a certain part, but then put on a different mask when playing a different role. We may think of a hypocrite as someone who says one thing but does another. That is not quite accurate. A hypocrite is a pretender who dons a mask in order to deceive while there is an altogether different face behind that mask.
Paul is comforted by this memory of Timothy’s unhypocritical faith and seeks to encourage Timothy by this memory. But how does Paul know Timothy’s faith is genuine? Because he knows where his faith came from.
A Logical Diagnosis (v. 5b)
“which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well”
This statement regarding Timothy’s spiritual heritage takes us all the way back to Paul’s first missionary trip through Galatia in Acts 14. It is here we read about Paul and Barnabas preaching the gospel in Lystra and establishing churches with elders. In chapter 16 of Acts we read of Paul returning to Lystra and finding a young son of a Jewish believing woman, Timothy. Timothy’s mother Eunice and grandmother Lois heard the good news from Paul and Barnabas that Jesus of Nazareth was the seed of David and had come in the flesh and believed. This gospel was passed down to Timothy. But this line goes well beyond that.
Paul makes a connection here from his own spiritual heritage to Timothy’s. This faith was first found in Lois, Timothy’s grandmother, and Eunice, Timothy’s mother. These Jewish women were true Israelites who believed in the promised coming Messiah. These were Old Testament saints made right before God by their faith in the promise. This faith became evident when Paul and Barnabas revealed the gospel (good news) that the promised One had come.
You see, Timothy’s faith comes from the same lineage as Paul’s. They are both sons of Israel and proclaimers of Israel’s Messiah. This encouragement begins with a defense – Paul is innocent of religio illicita. He does not preach a different God or a different religion. The encouragement turns personal – Paul has not forgotten Timothy and painfully desires to see him again. Then the encouragement turns pointed – Timothy is in the same boat as Paul. He can stand and preach, or he can equivocate.
Paul is concerned much more with the future ministry of the gospel than he is about himself. If he is found guilty of religio illicita then it will be open season on Christians throughout the empire. There would be a temptation among the churches to give in to the most common heresy that plagued the first generation of churches, the heresy of the Judaizers. If the church were to bring her followers under the Mosaic Law, then the Jews would leave them alone and the Romans would not see them as Christians. The bloodshed could so easily be avoided!
Paul stands tall and calls Timothy to stand with him. Christians are not preaching a separate message from the Old Testament and are therefore in perfect accord with Roman Law. There is no need to equivocate the massage, and those who do are damned (Gal. 1:8-9)! We had no need for a mask then, and we have no need for a mask now. We preach the faith of our fathers. The One promised to them as come and will come again! Preach Christ, Timothy! We may live or we may die, but we must be found faithful. Soli Deo Gloria!