Fearful Oaths

by Robert Strivens16 June 2015

How do we emphasise to someone the seriousness of what we have to say? ‘Now listen very carefully’, or ‘I want you really to pay attention to what I’m going to say’. This is how Paul does it: ‘I command you before God who gives life to everything and before Christ Jesus who witnessed before Pontius Pilate the good confession ...’, and ‘I bear witness before God and Christ Jesus who is coming to judge those who live and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom ...’ (1 Tim. 6:13; 2 Tim. 4:1).

In this way, at end of each of his letters to Timothy, Paul underlined toTimothy the seriousness of the commands that he was giving him for the fulfilment of his pastoral duties. He invokes the Godhead in majestic and awe-inspiring ways. There is nothing quite like this in all the rest of Paul’s writings. What do we make of them?

Firstly, note that Paul each time invokes both God and Christ, heightening the solemnity and seriousness of his charge by calling on the Godhead in this full manner. We are reminded of who it is to whom we are answerable. What other people in this world think of us pales into complete insignificance besides the responsibility that we owe to the triune almighty God. It is to him, ultimately, that we have to account for the discharge of our ministry. As Paul says elsewhere, we do not even judge ourselves; it is before Christ’s judgment seat that we will appear.

In 1 Timothy, Paul piles up nouns, adjectives and participles to underline the awe-inspiring nature of the God whom we serve: he is blessed, alone powerful, king of king, Lord of Lords, alone undying, inhabiting unapproachable light, whom no one can see, with power and eternal glory (6:15-16). In 2 Timothy, he expressly refers to the judgment to come and, as in 1 Timothy, to the appearing of Christ at his return. All this, to underline to Timothy the utter seriousness of the charge he is giving him.

Secondly, see how Paul matches the invocation in each case to the charge that he gives to Timothy. In 1 Timothy, he links Timothy’s ‘good confession before many witnesses’ with Jesus Christ’s ‘good confession before Pontius Pilate’. The effect of this is to underline, alongside the awesome nature of the God whom he invokes, the way in which Christ has identified with his servants in this world. This gives encouragement: it is not just the awe and fear of God that motivates us, but the fact that Christ has been here and done (perfectly) what he now calls us to do (though we do it very imperfectly) - to witness to Christ and to the truth that is in him in this hostile world.

Finally, it is remarkable that the charge in 1 Timothy relates to Timothy’s manner of life (righteoussness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, gentleness, the good fight of faith, vv. 11-12), while that in 2 Timothy relates to his preaching and gospel service (proclaim, convict, rebuke, exhort, be watchful, bear with evil, evangelise, fulfil your ministry, vv. 2, 5). Each of these two vital constituent elements of the gospel minister, then - our life, our word ministry - are underlined with these fearful invocations of the Godhead whom we serve. We are to take both life and word most seriously. As Paul says earlier in 1 Timothy, ‘Watch yourself and your teaching, continue in them; for as you do this, you will save both yourself and those who listen to you’ (4:16). And Paul meant that very seriously indeed.


 

 

About the author

Robert Strivens

MA (University of Cambridge, Corpus Christi College)
ThM (Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia)
PhD (University of Stirling)

Having trained for the pastoral ministry at LTS, Robert pastored an evangelical church in Banbury for 8 years. Prior to training for the ministry, he was a solicitor in private practice, working in London and Brussels. He has been involved in training pastors in French-speaking West Africa. He teaches New Testament and Greek and also lectures on Contemporary Issues. His doctoral research was on Philip Doddridge and early 18th century Dissent. He is married to Sarah and they have three sons.