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Bible Commentaries

Hamilton Smith's Writings

1 Timothy 3

Verses 1-16

(d) Oversight in the church of God (verses 1-13)

(V. 1). The apostle has spoken of the relative position of men and women, and the conduct suitable to such in the house of God. This prepares the way for instruction as to oversight in the church of God. The apostle says, “If any one aspires to exercise oversight, he desires a good work” (N.T.).

In the apostle's address to the elders at Ephesus, three things are brought before us as characterising oversight. Firstly, the overseers are to take heed to themselves and “to all the flock”. They are to seek that their own walk, and the walk of the Lord's people, may be worthy of the Lord. Secondly, they are to “feed the church of God.” They think, not only of the practical walk of God's people, but they seek the welfare of their souls, that they may enter into their Christian privileges and make soul progress in the truth. Thirdly, they are to “watch” over the flock that it may be preserved from the attacks of the enemy without, as well as from the corruptions that may arise within the Christian circle through perverse men who divert souls from the Lord to themselves ( Act_20:28-31 ).

Such was the work of oversight, and the apostle speaks of it as “a good work”. There is the testimony of the grace of God that is to flow out from the house of God, and already the apostle has spoken of this as “good and acceptable in the sight of God.” There is also the care of those who compose the house of God, that their behaviour may be suited to the house, and this care for souls is also “a good work”.

It is important to remember that the apostle is not speaking of “gifts”, but of local office for the care of the assembly. Christendom has confused gifts with offices or charges. In Scripture they are quite distinct. The gifts are given from the ascended Head and are “set” in the church ( Eph_4:8-11 ; 1Co_12:28 ). The exercise of the gift cannot then be confined to a local assembly. The office of overseer is purely local.

Moreover, there is nothing in the instruction as to ordination of individuals to these offices. Timothy and Titus may be authorised by the apostle to ordain (or “establish”) elders ( Tit_1:5 ), but there is no instruction for elders to appoint elders, or for the assembly to choose elders.

The fact that these servants were authorised by the apostle to establish elders clearly proves that, in the apostle's day, there were assemblies in which there were no appointed overseers. They lacked duly appointed elders for want of apostolic authority (direct or indirect) to appoint them. It is plain, then, from Scripture, that there can be no elders officially appointed except by an apostle or his delegates. It would appear that for man to appoint elders or ordain ministers is to act without the warrant of Scripture.

This does not imply that the work of the overseer cannot be done, or that there are not those fitted for the work in a day of breakdown. The work of overseers was never more needed than today, and those who are scripturally qualified for the work can in simplicity serve the Lord's people in their own locality; and it is well for us to recognise such, ever keeping in mind the exact force of the apostle's words, when he says, “If any one aspires to exercise oversight, he desires a good work.” The apostle does not speak of a man desiring “office” in order to hold a position or exercise authority, but of the desire to exercise this “good work”. The flesh likes office, and position, and authority, but it will shrink from “work”. When this is seen, we may have to admit that there are few that have the desire that the apostle contemplates.

(Vv. 2, 3). The qualities that should mark such are clearly set before us; and, as one has said, “The directions even as to elders and deacons are not, so to speak, merely for their own sake; they show us the character that God values and seeks from His people” (F.W.G.).

The moral character of the elder must be above reproach. He must be the husband of one wife, a qualification that would have special application to those emerging from heathenism with its polygamy. A converted man, though not to be rejected because he had more than one wife, would be unfitted for oversight. Moreover, such an one was to be sober in judgment, discreet in his words, decorous in behaviour, hospitable. He was to be apt to teach, not necessarily implying that he was gifted as a teacher, but that he had aptness to help others in their spiritual exercises. He was not to be a person given to excess in wine or violence in action; on the contrary he was to be mild, avoiding contentions and free from covetousness.

(Vv. 4, 5). Moreover, he was to be one who ruled his house well, having his children in subjection - exhortations that clearly indicate that the overseer was to be an elder, not only married and possessing a home, but having children.

(V. 6). He was not to be a novice. A young Christian may be used of the Lord to preach to others as soon as he is converted, but for such to take the place of an overseer would obviously be wrong, and probably lead to his falling into the fault of the devil. The fault of the devil, one has truly said, was that “he exalted himself at the thought of his own importance” (J.N.D.).

(V. 7). Finally, the overseer must have a good testimony from those without, otherwise he will fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. The snare of the enemy is to entrap the believer into some questionable conduct before the world, so that he can no longer deal with questionable conduct among the saints.

(V. 8). The apostle further gives us the necessary qualifications for deacons. The deacon is a minister, or one who serves. From Acts 6 we learn that his special work is described as “serving tables” and, as the connection shows, this refers to meeting the bodily and temporal needs of the assembly, in contrast with the work of the overseer which is more especially concerned with meeting spiritual needs. Nevertheless, it is none the less necessary that the deacon should have spiritual qualifications. Those chosen for deacons' work, in the early church at Jerusalem, were to be men “well reported of, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” ( Act_6:3 ). Here we learn that, like the overseers, they were to be grave, not double-tongued, not given to excess of wine or covetousness.

(V. 9). Further, they were to be marked by “holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.” To hold correct doctrine is not enough. Orthodoxy without a pure conscience would indicate how little the truth has power over its possessor; hence how powerless such would be to affect others.

(V. 10). Moreover, the deacons must be those who have been tested and proved by experience to be blameless in their own conduct and thus capable of dealing with matters that would of necessity come before them in their service.

(Vv. 11, 12). Their wives were also to be grave, not slanderers, and faithful in all things. Their character is specially referred to, inasmuch as the service of the deacons, having to do with temporal needs, might give occasion for the wives to make mischief unless “faithful in all things”. Like the overseers, the deacons are to be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their homes well. Again, these exhortations imply that the deacon is not a young man, but one that is married and has children, and thus a man with experience.

(V. 13). In case it might be thought that the office of a deacon was inferior to that of an overseer, the apostle specially states that those who use the office of a deacon well obtain for themselves a good degree, and much boldness in faith which is in Christ Jesus - a truth, as it has often been pointed out, strikingly illustrated in the history of Stephen ( Act_6:1-5 ; Act_6:8-15 ).

(e)The mystery of piety (verses 14-16)

(Vv. 14, 15). The apostle closes this portion of his Epistle by definitely stating that his reason for writing “these things” is that Timothy might know how one ought to behave oneself in the house of God.

We are told that the house of God is “the assembly of the living God”. It is no longer a building of material stones, as in the Old Testament days, but a company of living stones - believers. It is formed of all believers living on earth at any given moment. No local assembly is ever called the house of God.

Further, it is the assembly of the living God. The God who dwells in the midst of His people is not like the dead idols that men worship, that can neither see nor hear. That our God is living is a truth of blessed but solemn import, but one we can easily forget. Later the apostle can tell us that we can “both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God” ( 1Ti_4:10 ). The living God is a God that delights to support and bless His people; nevertheless, if the holiness that becomes His house is not maintained, God may make manifest that He is the living God in solemn governmental dealings as with Ananias and Sapphira, who experienced the truth of the words, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” ( Heb_10:31 ).

Moreover, we learn that the house of God is the pillar and base of the truth. The “pillar” presents the thought of witness; the “base” is that which supports. The house of God is not said to be the truth, but the “pillar” or witness of the truth. Christ on earth was “the truth” ( Joh_14:6 ); and again we read, “Thy word is truth” ( Joh_17:17 ). However much the assembly may have failed in its responsibilities, the fact remains that, as established of God upon earth, it is the witness and support of the truth. God has no other witness on the earth. In a day of ruin it may be only a feeble few who will maintain the truth, while the great professing mass, failing to be a witness, will be spued out of the mouth of Christ.

It is important to remember that the assembly is not said to teach the truth, but to witness to the truth that is already found in the word of God. Nor can the assembly claim authority to decide what is truth. The word is the truth and carries its own authority.

(V. 16). As the assembly is the house of God - the living God - and the witness and support of the truth, how important that we should know how to behave ourselves in the house of God. In view of pious behaviour the apostle speaks of “the mystery of piety”, or the secret of right behaviour. One has written of this passage, “This is often quoted and interpreted as if it spoke of the mystery of the Godhead, or the mystery of Christ's Person. But it is the mystery of godliness, or the secret by which all real godliness is produced - the divine spring of all that can be called piety in man” (J.N.D.). This mystery of piety is what is known to piety, but not yet manifest to the world. The secret of godliness lies in the knowledge of God manifested in and through the Person of Christ. Thus in this beautiful passage we have Christ presented as making God known to men and angels. In Christ, God was manifest in the flesh. The absolute holiness of Christ was seen in that He was justified in the Spirit. We are justified in the death of Christ: He was sealed and anointed altogether apart from death - the proof of His intrinsic holiness. Then, in Christ, as Man, God was seen of angels. In Christ, He was made known to and believed on in the world. Finally, the heart of God is made known by the present position of Christ in the glory.

All this is spoken of as “the mystery of godliness”, because these things are not known to the unbeliever. Such, indeed, can appreciate the outward conduct that flows from piety; but the unbeliever cannot know the secret spring of piety. That secret is only known to the pious; and the secret lies in the knowledge of God; and the knowledge of God has been revealed to them in Christ.

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Bibliographical Information
Smith, Hamilton. "Commentary on 1 Timothy 3". "Hamilton Smith's Writings". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/hsw/1-timothy-3.html. 1832.