Apostolic Succession and Paul’s First Letter to Timothy

In St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy, we find what I consider to be one of the most moving lines in all of Scripture.  Paul writes to him, “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you.”  (1 Timothy 6:20) St. Paul often writes in his role as an apostle how he has been entrusted with the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:17, 2 Corinthians 5:19, Galatians 2:7, 1 Thessalonians 2:4, 1 Timothy 1:11, 2 Timothy 1:12, Titus 1:3).  Throughout his ministry he has endured many hardships (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).  He set aside his prominence as a Jewish rabbi and a Roman citizen, and in his words “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”  (1 Corinthians 9:22) And now he is taking the role of apostle and guardian of the faith entrusted to him, and is entrusting Timothy to carry on his place.  His heart-felt plea to Timothy is to be willing to guard this gift with the same fervor and dedication he has seen in Paul for many years.

We are first introduced to Timothy in Acts 16, where we learn while his mother was Jewish, his father was Greek.  So while he was “acquainted” with the Jewish Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:15), he was not brought up in the Jewish faith, since he had never been circumcised (Acts 16:3).  But he became a constant companion to Paul, is mentioned as a “fellow worker” (Romans 16:21) and is sent by Paul to teach (1 Corinthians 4:17, 16:10).  And while St. Paul is credited with writing many New Testament letters, in several of them he sends them from both himself and Timothy (2 Corinthians 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Colossians 1:1, 1 Thessalonians 1:1, 2 Thessalonians 1:1, Philemon 1:1).  We also learn he has been ordained by Paul (2 Timothy 1:6-7), and church history tells us he becomes the first bishop of Ephesus.  Hence we see St. Paul refer to Timothy as “man of God,” which is an Old Testament term used for prophets.  It is only used twice in the New Testament, both times by St. Paul referring to Timothy (1 Timothy 6:11, 2 Timothy 3:17).  It denotes his role as an ordained bishop.

St. Paul’s letters to Timothy are most likely written from prison, where he awaits his fate.  And in these letters, we can see sure and certain signs he is passing on his apostolic authority to Timothy, and how what has been entrusted to him is now being entrusted to Timothy.  The term the Catholic Church uses for this is “apostolic succession,” and the Catechism says this:

CCC 861 “In order that the mission entrusted to them might be continued after their death, [the apostles] consigned, by will and testament, as it were, to their immediate collaborators the duty of completing and consolidating the work they had begun, urging them to tend to the whole flock, in which the Holy Spirit had appointed them to shepherd the Church of God.  They accordingly designated such men and then made the ruling that likewise on their death other proven men should take over their ministry.“

We see in Paul’s first letter to Timothy he sends him the qualifications for bishops and deacons, as he will now be responsible for filling these offices within the Church (1 Timothy 3:2-13). 

Other passages from Paul’s first letter to Timothy:

As I urged you when I was going to Macedo′nia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogieswhich promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith; whereas the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.  Certain persons by swerving from these have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.”  (1 Timothy 1:3-7)

This charge I commit to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophetic utterances which pointed to you, that inspired by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience.  By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith,” (1 Timothy 1:18-19)

 If you put these instructions before the brethren, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the good doctrine which you have followed.”  (1 Timothy 4:6)

 Command and teach these things.  Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.  Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching.  Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the elders laid their hands upon you.  Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress.  Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”  (1 Timothy 4:11-16)

 Command this, so that they may be without reproach.”  (1 Timothy 5:7, referring to instructions for the care of widows).

We also see Timothy now has the authority to ordain others – As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.  In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without favor, doing nothing from partiality.  Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor participate in another man’s sins; keep yourself pure.”  (1 Timothy 5:20-22)

Teach and urge these duties.  If any one teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing;” (1 Timothy 6:2-4)

 “But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.”  (1 Timothy 6:11)

As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy.”  (1 Timothy 6:17)

And then at the end of this first letter, we come to Paul’s impassioned plea – “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you.  Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith.  Grace be with you.”  (1 Timothy 6:20-21)

Throughout this letter we see Paul giving Timothy a charge – to ensure correct doctrine is known, to teach, to instruct, to command certain behavior from his flock, to correct flawed doctrine and to make sure qualified leaders are appointed in the churches.  In others words, to step into St. Paul’s shoes. 

My next post will look at the second letter St. Paul writes to Timothy. 

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