137. ‘Honourable Standing’ as the Messiah’s Agents (bathmos) 1 Timothy 3:13

As Paul concludes his description of attributes that church leaders should possess and exhibit consistently, he expresses a promise. NIV renders 1 Timothy 3:13 as “Those who have served well gain an excellent standing (bathmon…kalon) and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.” He uses the noun bathmon (“standing”) to describe the first element that effective servant leaders gain or possess. This noun occurs only here in the the New Testament.

The term gains currency in Hellenistic Greek. Within architectural discussions it describes stairs. For example, the Greek translation of 1 Sam 5:5 (1 Reigns 5:5) explains why people entering the temple of Dagon in Azotus “do not step on the step (bathmon) of the house of Dagon in Azotus to this day.” When Hezekiah falls sick and petitions Yahweh for healing, the prophet Isaiah promises that Yahweh will heal him and allow him to live fifteen more years. Hezekiah seeks a sign from Yahweh that will verify this promise. Yahweh causes the shadow close by on the steps to retreat  ten steps (deka bathmous) (2 Kings 20:9-11 (4 Reigns 20:9-11). Whether these are literal ‘steps’ or degrees marked on some instrument to measure the sun’s movement is unclear. Josephus used the same noun in his recounting of this story (Antiquities X, 28). The grandson of Sirach (Sirach 6:36) encourages people to seek the  counsel of an intelligent person “and let your foot wear out the steps (bathmous) of his doors.”

Josephus also used this noun to describe steps. When Herod built the Herodium, one of his hilltop palace/fortresses, he “provided an easy ascent by two hundred steps (bathmois) of the purest white marble” (Wars I, 420). Various sets of stairs within the Temple precinct of Jerusalem are also described as bathmoi (Wars V, 194-198). According to the dictionary composed by Hesychius the “steps” (bathmoi) of a ladder are its rungs.

In another context Josephus has Ananus, the High Priest, give a speech to the people of Jerusalem, urging them to attack the Zealots who have occupied the temple precinct. In a short history lesson he berates the people for allowing this rather small group to gain such control because they were unopposed in their previous outrageous actions. The people of Jerusalem, then, laid “each step (bathmous) for the audacity of these profane wretches to mount” (Wars IV, 171). These are not literal steps, but rather stages by which the Zealots seized power.

A different application of this idea of steps or stages occurs in Philo (De Aeternitate Mundi 58.4,8). He is discussing various ideas about human creation. He asserts that “nature has created the stages of age as a sort of steps (bathmous) by which man may be said to go up and down, up while he is growing and down in the times of his decreasing….The limit of the upward steps (bathmōn) is the culmination of youth.” Bathmos can describe various stages or steps of human development.

Within astrological treatises this noun (bathmoi) signifies the various zones or progressions of the zodiac.

The use of this noun bathmos to describe a step, stair, threshold, stage is clear. However, the sense in 1 TImothy 3:13 leans more in the direction of status or rank. Perhaps the use of this noun by Procopius (early first century A.D.) to describe military rank attained by soldiers resonates more closely with Paul’s statement. Procopius (Historia arcana, 24.4.3) describes how soldiers advance in rank (bathmos) due to the death or desertion of colleagues. In an inscription ((IG XII.243) from Mitylene (Lesbos) an official is described as performing in a manner worthy of his standings/ranks (basmois — a dialectical form of the Greek noun bathmos).

Lexical meanings are always shaped by the context in which the word occurs. At least five factors influence the sense of bathmos in 1 TImothy 3:13. First, the noun is used along with the participial phrase “serving well” which expresses the reason or cause for promise being made. Second, the noun itself is modified by the adjective kalon which adds the nuance of quality to the noun, i.e. it is “good,” “fine” or “honourable.” Thirdly the promise also includes the idea of “great confidence/boldness (parrēsian).” Fourthly, both nouns (bathmos and parrēsia) receive further definition by the phrase “in the faith which is in Messiah Jesus.” Lastly, all of this is something these individuals “are obtaining/gaining/acquiring for themselves” in the present time. Most commentators also raise the question of whether this “standing” is from God’s perspective or the congregation’s perspective.

To begin with the last question first, given that the overall context, according to the last phrase is “the faith which is in Messiah Jesus,” this suggests that the primary perspective  is godward, but this has implications for the social reality of the “diakonoi,” whether within the congregation or the larger cultural context. “Serving honourably or in a fine way” as the Messiah’s agents establishes in a very public manner their relationship with, commitment to, and ‘location’ in the Messiah Jesus and his authority. In other words people know where they “stand” in terms of their life focus and worldview. It is not a matter of achieving a certain status, e.g. military rank, but rather the acquisition of an “honourable standing” as the Messiah’s representative. This is accompanied by “great boldness or confidence” in relationship to the faith. Christian leadership places one in the position of speaking the Gospel and speaking for the Gospel. This is what Paul is encouraging Timothy to grasp and demonstrate as he serves the Ephesian church.




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