Two important historical factors affect the proper interpretation of 1 Timothy:
Paul’s relationship to the church in Ephesus
- Some of the most important historical background for 1 Timothy is found in Acts 20. In Acts 20, Paul was on his way to Jerusalem, where he expected to be persecuted and possibly even killed. While on his way, Paul stopped in Miletus and summoned the elders of the Ephesian church for what he thought would be the last time he ever saw them (20:17-25). In the course of his speech to the Ephesian elders, Paul addressed their role as shepherds of the church at Ephesus, specifically warning them that savage wolves would come in among the church at Ephesus, seeking to destroy the church (20:28-31). And so the Ephesian elders were to commit themselves to shepherding the precious church of God in Ephesus.
- Paul had warned the Ephesian elders that false teachers would arise from among them who would seek to twist the truth and to entice some of the Christians in Ephesus to follow their false teaching (20:30). In 1 Timothy, Paul is now instructing Timothy to take the lead in battling these false teachers.
The false teaching encountered in 1 Timothy
- Paul first addressed the false teachers in 1 Timothy 1:3-7. He identified the false teachers as those who taught a different doctrine (1:3), who devoted themselves to myths and speculative thinking (1:4), who had wandered into vain discussions (1:6), and who wanted to be teachers of the Law, but who were unqualified for that task.
- In 1 Timothy 4:1-5, the false teachers were devoted to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons (4:1), and they required an ascetic abstinence from things that God had created to be good and to be enjoyed by His people (4:3-5).
- And in 1 Timothy 6, the false teachers were characterized by arrogance, needless quarreling, and the thought that godliness was a means to financial gain (6:3-6)
To sum up the historical context of 1 Timothy, Paul wrote to Timothy as Timothy ministered to the church in Ephesus. Paul was addressing an issue on which he had already given the leaders of the church at Ephesus instructions. Apparently, the church was still not prepared for the threat from these false teachers, so Paul felt the need to address this issue again. Just as Paul had predicted, false teachers had arisen in the church at Ephesus. These false teachers engaged in rampant speculations rather than in sound teaching, which led them to require the church at Ephesus to abstain from things God had given for their good. So these teachers were leading to division in the church, and they were seeking their own financial gain instead of the benefit of the church at Ephesus. And so Paul instructed Timothy to deal with these false teachers by standing against them and by giving his attention to the teaching of God’s Word.