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The three Pastoral Epistles are unique among Paul’s thirteen letters because they were written to Paul’s co-workers, Timothy and Titus, who were exercising pastoral oversight of churches. Both men were dealing with false teachers and other trials that made pastoral duties challenging. Although addressed to Timothy and Titus, the letters end with Paul’s benediction, “Grace be with you,” with “you” in the original Greek being plural. Thus, they are, in a sense, semi-public. Paul expected the letters to be read to the entire church. With this in mind, let’s look at four tips for reading the Pastoral Epistles.

1. Read the Pastoral Epistles with reference to the corporate body of Christ and your participation in it.

Many Christians today have lost a sense of the importance of the church. To them, the Christian life is more focused on their personal relationship with Christ than on being an active member of the body of Christ. Paul’s concern in the Pastoral Epistles is for the health and faithfulness of the church. It is the place where God’s people are nurtured and grow in faith. This is why Paul spends time detailing qualifications for godly leaders, including both elders (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–16) and deacons (1 Tim. 3:8–13). It is also why Paul repeatedly exhorts Timothy to devote himself to the teaching and preaching ministry of the church. A healthy church requires God’s people to be fed the manna of the read and preached Word of God.

The Pastoral Epistles, although written to individuals, aim to build up Christ’s church and encourage active corporate life together. This includes worship together (1 Tim. 2; 4:13), working and serving together (2 Tim. 2:21; Titus 3:1), generosity to others in the church (1 Tim. 6:17–19), and serving one another faithfully. In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul presents the church as central to the Christian life, not an afterthought or add-on.

2. Recognize the danger of false teaching and the necessity of combatting it.

Paul takes up more time in the Pastoral Epistles combatting false teaching than any other subject. In 1 Timothy, he devotes three passages throughout the letter to false teachers. In fact, at the beginning of the letter, instead of the standard section of thanks that normally follows the opening greeting in Paul’s letters and which was customary in his day, he immediately addresses the false teachers at Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3–11). Paul comes back to the false teachers in chapter 4 and again in chapter 6. Combatting false teaching is also prominent in 2 Timothy and Titus.

Why does Paul so strenuously combat false teaching, even setting aside social convention in letter-writing to do so? Because false teaching is a life-and-death matter. Salvation and eternal life rest on believing and holding fast to the truth revealed by God in Christ. Thus, Paul treats it as deadly serious. As Paul writes of the false teaching in Galatia, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Gal. 5:9).

The flip side of combatting false teaching is the necessity of teaching the truth. This leads to a third tip for reading the Pastoral Epistles.

3. Take note of the centrality of the ministry of the Word.

Paul gives instructions for many ministries of the church, but the one he emphasizes most is the ministry of preaching and teaching the Word of God. He exhorts Timothy to “devote [himself] to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation [preaching], to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). The ministry of the Word is critical to faith. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. Moreover, sitting under the Word strengthens the faith of God’s people. In 2 Timothy, Paul exhorts his younger colleague to “preach the Word . . . in season and out of season . . . for the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Tim. 4:2–3).

The ministry of the church also includes corporate prayer—for those in the church, as well as for rulers and authorities outside of it (1 Tim. 2:1–2). It involves the hands-on ministry of elders and deacons. Qualified elders are needed to care for God’s people spiritually as shepherds. Deacons are entrusted with a ministry of mercy, caring for physical needs. While deacons often do their work in the background, unseen by most in the church, God gives a wonderful promise that “those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 3:13). All ministries are vital to the proper functioning of the church, yet the Word is central.

4. Read the Pastoral Epistles with sensitivity toward the heart of a godly servant of Christ.

Historically, Paul has often been depicted negatively—even by many in the church. A popular physical description of Paul is that he was short, bald, and bowlegged, with a big nose and one unbroken eyebrow, usually wearing a scowl on his face. Paul has also been described as irritable and unable to get along with people. He parted ways with Barnabas, the son of encouragement, of all people. And he refused to give Mark a second chance.

Yet, as is displayed in Acts and his other letters, Paul’s love and compassion for others overflows in the Pastoral Epistles. He refers to Timothy as “my son” and as “my beloved child.” He calls Titus “my true child in a common faith.” But we especially see Paul’s heart for others at the end of his last letter, 2 Timothy. We hear his heartbreak over those who abandoned him. But we also see his love for other colleagues and friends, such as Timothy, Luke, and even Mark, with whom he has evidently been reconciled. The Pastoral Epistles make it clear that Paul’s deep love for Christ overflows in his love for others.

This article is part of the Hermeneutics collection.