In his pastoral epistles, Paul makes a number of references to the prophetic experience(s) that Timothy underwent. While it may seem like a fleeting and peripheral issue to some readers, proper exegetical care may inform our interpretation. Below, we will examine the prophecies about Timothy and encourage you to draw your own conclusions.

The following is an excerpt from Word Biblical Commentary Volume 46: Pastoral Epistles.

This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience.

1 Timothy 1:18-19a, ESV

Excursus: Prophecies about Timothy

The prophecies of 1 Tim 1:18 are located in two other places. In 1 Tim 4:14 Paul urges Timothy not to “neglect the gift [χάρισμα] (charisma) that is in you, which was given to you through a prophecy accompanied by the laying on of hands of the council of elders”. In 2 Tim 1:6 Paul reminds Timothy to “rekindle the gift from God that is in you through the laying on of my hands.” 2 Tim 1:5-7 is an encouragement to Timothy to continue firmly with his task; this note of encouragement is also found in the present passage. The mention of confessing “the good confession before many witnesses” (1 Tim 6:12) may also refer to this event.

Five issues are raised concerning these passages.

(1) The three passages seem to refer to the same event.

Twice Paul refers to the χάρισμα (charisma), “gift,” Timothy received, presumably the gift of evangelism/teaching necessary for his ministry (see 1 Tim 4:14). Twice Paul mentions that the prophecy was accompanied by the laying on of hands. There are some differences, however. In 1 Tim 4:14 Paul refers to προφητεία (protheteia), “prophecy” (singular), and in 1 Tim 1:18 to προφητεῖαι (protheteiai), “prophecies” (plural). In 1 Tim 4:14 it was the elders that laid hands, while in 2 Tim 1:6 it was Paul himself. But these differences are not insurmountable.

  • Several elders could have prophesied the same message; while they were different utterances, they were the same prophecy.
  • Paul could have been part of the council of elders (1 Tim 4:14 refers to the group); and 2 Tim 1:6 could refer only to Paul’s personal role. 2 Tim 1:3-7 is a personal paragraph; it would be natural for Paul to think of his own role in Timothy’s commission (cf. G. Bornkamm, TDNT 6:666 n. 92). Even if these prophecies were made at different times, they could carry the same message.
  • Zahn argues that “where Timothy is thought of as overseer and director of the life of the church,” it is natural to think of the corporate call to ministry; but “where he is thought of as an evangelist,” the emphasis is on Paul’s individual role (Introduction 2:98).

(2) The precise meaning of προαγούσας (proagousas), “previously made” (1 Tim 1:18), is questioned.

The verb can mean either “to lead, precede” (of place) or “to come before” (of time). It can therefore be translated “prophecies that led (me) to you,” or “prophecies previously made concerning you.” The only other occurrence of the verb in Paul is in 1 Tim 5:24 where it is used locatively. The preposition ἐπί (epi), “about,” is not decisive because it can designate motion toward a goal or introduce the person upon whom something happens. Context requires that the prophecies concerned Timothy’s call to ministry because Paul is using them as divine validation that Timothy should stay in Ephesus. The only other indications are the two other references to this event, and they only say that Timothy received a gift at that time. A decision is difficult, but the translation “prophecies previously made about you” is preferred because of the argument’s flow.

The gifts Timothy received probably included the gift of teaching (see 1 Tim 4:14), and Paul is arguing that just as his own gifts were sufficient for his ministry (v 12) so also Timothy’s gifts, made known through the prophecies, are sufficient for his task. However, Hort makes a powerful argument for “prophecies which led [me] to you.” His thesis is that when Barnabas and Paul separated (Acts 15:36-41), Paul chose Silas (although v 41 says that only “he,” i.e., Paul, traveled through Syria and Cilicia), but wanted to “find a Divinely provided successor to Barnabas” through a vision like those given to Ananias (Acts 9:10-11, 17) and Cornelius (Acts 10:5-6). When Paul arrived at Ephesus (Acts 16), prophecies pointed him to Timothy as that divinely appointed successor (“Lecture XI,” 177-84).

(3) The basic content of the prophecies is the same regardless of one’s decision above.

If the prophecies were “previously made,” then they pointed to Timothy’s spiritual gift of evangelism (2 Tim 4:5); although Hort emphasizes that as Paul’s associate Timothy’s giftedness would have been unique (“Lecture XI,” 185), and perhaps an indication of “his future zeal and success in the promulgation of the Gospel” (Ellicott, 21). If the prophecies pointed Paul to Timothy, one would expect them not only to single Timothy out but to tell Paul why Timothy was qualified for the task.

(4) When did this occur?

The other two references associate it with the laying on of hands. If we are correct in assuming that this is somewhat parallel with the commission of Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:1-3; cf. 1 Tim 4:14), then the prophecies were made either at Timothy’s ordination into service in general or at a commission for a special task such as his ministry to Ephesus. We know nothing about how Timothy initially came to Ephesus; in 1 Tim 1:3 he is already there and Paul is urging him to stay; therefore any decision is tentative.

However, Hort’s judgment is convincing:

If St Paul received Timothy as Divinely made the partner of his work in place of Barnabas, it would be at least not unnatural that there should be some repetition of the solemn acts by which human expression had been given to the Divine mission in the first instance. If this explanation of “the prophecies” is right, they must on the one hand have in substance included some such message as “Separate for me Timothy for the work whereunto I have called him”; and on the other hand that separation or consecration would naturally take outward form in fasting and prayer and laying on of hands by the representatives of the Lycaonian Ecclesiae, in repetition of what had been done at Antioch (xiii. 3).

In this case however one additional element would be present, viz. the special relation in which St Paul stood to Timothy: he was Timothy’s father in the faith, and his subsequent language shews that this essential fact was to be of permanent significance. It would be natural therefore that as Jewish Rabbis laid hands on their disciples, after the example of Moses and Joshua, so not only the representatives of the Lycaonian Ecclesiae but also St Paul himself should lay hands on the disciple and spiritual son now admitted to share his peculiar commission. (“Lecture XI,” 183-84)

(5) What’s of prime significance is the role these prophecies have in relation to the spiritual war Timothy must wage.

Along with encouraging Timothy, Paul mentions these prophecies because ἐν αὐταῖς (en autais), “by them” (instrumental use of en), Timothy is to fight the good fight. Either Timothy will be inspired by them, or the spiritual gift which these prophecies bore witness is his weapon. The former agrees well with the note of encouragement running throughout this chapter. The latter accords well with the emphasis that Paul places on Timothy’s role as a teacher of the word.

There is nothing in the context of these three passages to suggest that we have here a sacramental act whereby “the grace of the office is transferred” (contra Dibelius-Conzelmann, 70). The Spirit showed that Timothy was equipped for ministry and this fact was publicly recognized by the community leadership. The predominant note is not one of authority transferred or of the importation of official status but of blessing given. There is also nothing to suggest that Timothy was commissioned as the bishop over the church in Ephesus and the first in a line of unbroken apostolic succession (contra Lackmann, “Paulus ordiniert Timotheus”). The references to this event are sufficiently general that they need only refer to Timothy’s general call to ministry.

If the text’s self-witness is accurate, Timothy was in Ephesus because Paul sent him, not because the church commissioned him. We will therefore avoid speaking of this event as an “ordination,” lest we anachronistically read in later church development. Warkentin sees the laying on of hands as indicating that Paul views Timothy as his successor “analogous to that of Moses and Joshua” (Ordination, 137) and interprets much of the PE within that Jewish/rabbinic context.

Keep Reading

Word Biblical Commentary prophecies about Timothy

As you can see, the Word Biblical Commentary spares no detail. Use this tool to break down interpretive methodology and other textual issues. This series emphasizes a thorough analysis of textual, linguistic, structural, and theological evidence, all in the context of biblical theology. Add this to your account today, especially if you’re a:

  • professional theologian and instructor
  • seminary or university student
  • working minister

Want to see more content from the WBC?

Write A Comment