The Power of a “Last Will and Testament”: 2 Timothy 1:1-18

Oil Painting of St Paul
Jan Lievens Painting of St Paul ca.1627-29. Oil on canvas Nationalmuseum Sweden, from Wikimedia Commons

Studies in 1, 2 Timothy, Titus—Lesson 23 (2 Timothy 1:1-18)


by Reta Halteman Finger

Let’s start by paraphrasing 2 Timothy 1:1-18:

“This letter is from Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ to Timothy, my beloved child!

I am so grateful to God for you! I pray for you night and day and long to see you again. You have such a sincere faith—a faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and now lives in you. If you get discouraged from time to time, remember the gift God gave you when I laid my hands on you. It was not the gift of cowardice, but of power, love, and self-discipline. Don’t be ashamed of our Lord Jesus, or of me, his prisoner. Join with me in suffering for his gospel.”

So begins 2 Timothy, the final letter attributed to the apostle Paul, and one which appears to unite and authenticate his entire corpus of thirteen epistles. But If you have followed the lessons of 1 Timothy and Titus, the other two of the three letters known as the “pastoral epistles,“ you become aware of a different tone or flavor as this letter begins. Timothy is not just “a loyal child in the faith” (1 Tim 1:2). He is a “beloved child” (2 Tim 1:2). In his early life, he was raised in the faith by a devout mother and grandmother, but since then, Paul has become his father.

The storyline behind this letter is that Paul is writing from Rome, chained to a soldier while he is under house arrest (Acts 28:16, 20, 30). He must know that he will not survive there long under Nero, so he writes his “last will and testament” to Timothy, his son in the faith, now a leader of the church in Ephesus. He is, in effect, passing on his gifts of evangelism and teaching, encouraging Timothy not to be ashamed of the suffering that often results when empire is challenged.

Uses of testamentary literature

Thus far in our study of 1 Timothy and Titus, I have argued, along with other sources, that these two pastoral epistles are pseudonymous and probably written a generation or so after the lifetimes of both Paul and Timothy. But is this also true of 2 Timothy? Could Paul actually have written this letter? Or is it possible that some later church leader wants to carry on Paul’s legacy into the future by applying Paul’s teaching to new situations? In this way, later church leaders are encouraged to keep the faith and not “turn away” from Paul, as he says has happened in Asia (1:15).

In truth, a document written in the form of a “last will and testament” does not assure its authenticity. Writing and attributing a testament to some great leader or well-known character from the past was not uncommon. It was a way to make predictions that were being fulfilled in the times of the readers.

A canonical example of this is Genesis 49, where the dying Jacob calls his twelve sons together: “Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come” (Gen. 49:1, italics mine). How could Jacob have known, for instance, that “the scepter shall not depart from Judah” (49:10) centuries before the land of Israel existed and even longer before kingship was established?

A similar but much longer writing called “The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs” can be found in James H. Charlesworth’s 1900-page, two-volume collection of The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (1983; Vol 1, pp. 782-828). The same collection contains seven other examples of testamentary literature. Although there is no archeological evidence of Hebrew as a written language before the time of David, each of these Testaments is, in turn, attributed to Adam, Job, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, or Solomon. The actual dates of these Jewish “falsely-attributed” writings span many centuries, from the second century BCE to the fifth century CE.

(Side note:  verse 9 of our canonical letter of Jude cites an argument between the angel Michael and the devil over Moses’s body. This event is referred to in the “Testament of Moses,” dated in Charlesworth to the first century CE.)

Second Timothy’s place in our biblical canon

We have already established that the last words of a great and widely-known leader are very important to be passed on and imbued with authority for future communities. It is possible that this document (2 Timothy) enabled 1 Timothy and Titus to also be included in the canon—and then served as the capstone for all thirteen letters attributed to Paul.

Annette Huizenga’s commentary discusses two further ways in which this letter has been, and continues to be, useful in the church. First, she suggests, it was not written only to Timothy. In the references to “we” and “us” (2 Tim. 1:7, 9, 14; 2:11-13), readers see that Paul was also writing to a community. Even by naming disciples who have turned away from Paul (1:15), or praising Onesiphorus, who was not ashamed of Paul’s chain (1:16), we see the struggles of living in community.

Second, in this letter “Paul” affirms Timothy’s leadership and all who follow him. In fact, says Huizenga, this letter is “one of the first pieces of explicit evidence that supports the church’s practice known as apostolic succession.” But she also sees a downside to a great leader passing on wisdom to the next generation. In a male-oriented, patriarchal society such as the Roman Empire, apostolic succession resulted in male-only succession. This has restricted leadership roles for many women throughout church history (Wisdom Commentary, p. 98.)

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. Read through 2 Timothy 1:1-18. What are your feelings about the author and about the recipient? In what ways does the mood of this chapter differ from that in 1 Timothy?
  2. The concept of shame occurs several times. Why is this an issue? Is it more important for males than for females?
  3. What are your thoughts about the concept of “apostolic succession,” and have you experienced it in your church? Is it different for males than for females?
  4. What do you conclude about the authorship of 2 Timothy?

Sources used:

Charlesworth, James H., editor. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volumes 1 and 2. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1983, 1985.

Huizenga, Annette. 1-2 Timothy Titus. Wisdom Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.