Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Seminary, recently looked back on 32 years of church ministry. What does he miss, now that he’s no longer in the pastorate?
His surprising answer: funerals.
One of the big reasons is that after a funeral, he was typically invited to a family member’s home. People milled about, picked at food, nursed their grief, shared stories, and both laughed and cried. In that hour, people often lean on “the pastor” for both human and divine comfort. Ministers become part of a sacred trust, Barnes observes, when church members (and others) they care for deeply are “walking around with their souls exposed.”
When Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus, there’s reason to think he was exposing his soul to coworkers who needed to (re)open theirs to Paul, and even more to God. Having spent a few years pondering these letters, I’d like to point to a couple passages that telegraph a depth of emotional connection that may elude readers either unfamiliar with Paul’s Pastoral Epistles, or so overfamiliar that they’ve come to seem staid and commonplace.
Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:11, “But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.” This translation omits one little word before “man of God,” a word translatable as “O!” In Greek the word marks emphatic personal address and is usually emotionally charged, as the exclamation point implies (1101).
There is surely deep feeling in Paul’s appeal. Nowhere else in the New Testament is anyone called “man of God.” The phrase is used, however, in the Greek Old Testament (well known to Paul and Timothy) of notable figures like Moses, David, Elijah, and Elisha. Paul likely uses it here to rekindle Timothy’s sense of the sacred bond that secures him—with God and with those under his pastoral care. Elsewhere in the sweep of 1 Timothy, Paul both bolsters Timothy and also summons him with a repeated stirring charge to oppose false teachers and to transcend these perilous times in which “some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (4:1). Similar poignancy markers dot the Pastoral Epistles.
Paul’s deep feeling, appealing to Timothy to reciprocate in persevering at Ephesus for the gospel cause (1 Tim. 1:3), is no less on display with flourishes like “flee from this” (6:11), “fight the good fight of faith” (6:12), and the climactic “In the sight of God . . . I charge you to keep this command” (6:13–14). One can imagine Paul choking back tears as he wrote or dictated.
The Trapped and Their Trauma
Sometimes insight into Scripture comes from study of the text and its ancient setting. Other times a current event opens our eyes to something we’ve seen in Scripture a thousand times but missed. Take “trap” in these verses:
He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap. (1 Tim. 3:7)
Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. (1 Tim. 6:9)
. . . and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. (2 Tim. 2:26)
While writing this article I was reminded of what “trap” means. My wife and I live well off the county road in a rugged wooded area. A neighbor runs livestock, so wire fences line our steep driveway. At lunch today someone alerted me to a dead deer along an eight-foot bank above our road. That fence had become a trap.
I took the tractor down to investigate. A 100-pound whitetail doe, seemingly asleep seen from a distance, lay quietly on its belly, chin flat on the ground. But its eyes were open straight ahead, and it was covered with flies and stank. Its rear flank and one hoof were snared in unforgiving woven wire. It must have tried to jump over, but misjudged.
What was most painful to see was the wide stretch of bare ground and mounded dust to the right and left of the carcass. The doe had obviously bucked and pawed and twisted and writhed and tried every way possible to liberate its hind legs. I’m guessing it died of a combination of exhaustion, terror, and thirst. That deer was trapped.
The grotesque vision of people trapped like animals can move a minister to Christlike compassion.
Paul knew the feeling. He was once trapped in doing the Devil’s work—in his self-righteous spleen at Stephen’s stoning and at other junctures where he had lethally pursued Christ’s followers. He brings this up to rally Timothy’s wonder at God’s mercy and grace (1 Tim. 1:12–17).
Paul was moved by Jesus’s voluntary entrapment—the glorious Son of God confined for a time to humanity, to servitude, and eventually to the most inglorious death the Roman empire could concoct (Phil. 2:7–8). He became poor, that others through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul reminds Timothy of the peril of the Devil’s trap. It’s a hazard with horrible possibilities both in this life and also the next. As a pastor Timothy must be vigilant in avoiding that trap himself, and he should let the plight of the ensnared move him to exemplary gospel outreach.
For example, those needing to “escape from the trap of the devil” (see 2 Tim. 2:26 above) are, in context, Timothy’s opponents. Paul states in the preceding verse, “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2:25). Instructing detractors gently in the hope of their repentance is far from easy. It’s easier to join the fight and cut them off. But the grotesque vision of people trapped like animals can move a minister to Christlike compassion. We surely glimpse a wounded heart in Jesus when he said, “Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:16). Here one exposed soul reached out to another.
Pastoral Letters, Pastoral Heart
Paul’s Pastoral Epistles have long been regarded by some as non-Pauline and hailing from a post-apostolic era. They’re viewed as sterile, institutional, and shallow, quite apart from being forced and fake representations of the real Paul.
But pastors who study, teach, and preach the Pastoral Epistles do well to look closely for something else. Their own involvement in the care of souls may give them eyes that scholars who write commentaries too often lack. They may then detect the vibrancy of a Christ follower who learned an openheartedness toward God, developed deep rapport with coworkers like Timothy and Titus, and penned the Pastoral Epistles in the same mode he lived, served, and was martyred: with his soul exposed.