How do we avoid shipwreck in the Christian life?
A textual study of 1 Timothy 1:18-20
From time to time in the media we will witness the footage of a shipwreck. Some of these will still be visible above the waterline, perhaps run aground on a sandbank, their skeletal remains being pounded by the surf. Others are shipwrecks discovered for the first time on the seabed, the relics of ships that once knew days of pride as they sailed the seas. Shipwrecks make dramatic sights, a beautiful vessel now lost to the unforgiving power of the ocean. Even the word “shipwreck” itself is intense, portraying destruction and loss.
Given such a striking image, it is instructive to see it used in the Apostle Paul’s letter to Timothy in the New Testament:
18 Timothy, my son, I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well, 19 holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. 20 Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme. (1 Timothy 1:18-20, emphasis mine)
The Apostle Paul believed he had witnessed in others what he described as a “shipwreck of faith”. What do we learn from these verses about the meaning of this phrase and how might this passage encourage us, by contrast, to keep our faith afloat?
Beyond the extended account of the shipwreck narrative in Acts 27 (which doesn’t actually use the same shipwreck word), there are only two occurrences of the word “shipwrecked” in the New Testament. The verb in Greek is ναυαγέω (nauageō) which is a compound verb, joining together the Greek words for “ship” and “break.” (1) The first occurrence is a literal reference by Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:25: “Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea . . .” The other occurrence is where the word is used metaphorically in the 1 Timothy passage, quoted above. (2)
In the Timothy context, the verb is used in the aorist tense. One of the Greek past tenses, the aorist conveys the idea of a completed past action. Paul’s use of the shipwrecked word in the aorist denotes the finality of the shipwreck – something very destructive has taken place. Given the strength of the image Paul uses, what might he mean to speak of a “shipwreck with regard to the faith”?
We obtain some clues from the two individuals mentioned by Paul in verse 20. When Paul speaks of faith being shipwrecked, he does so from having witnessed it in the lives of others. In his letter to Timothy he tells of Hymenaeus and Alexander, who Paul believes have suffered a shipwreck of faith. Do we know anything about these men?
The name Hymenaeus is mentioned again by Paul in 2 Timothy 2:17-18 and would seem to refer to the same individual: “Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some.” Paul’s assessment of Hymenaeus is that two things have happened to him: he has departed from the truth (erroneously believing certain things) and he is actively drawing others away from true faith. (3)
Alexander is a more difficult character to place. The other occurrences of an Alexander in the New Testament, which could be the same man are in Acts 19:33 (a Jewish man in Ephesus) and 2 Timothy 4:14 (where Paul writes, “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm.”) (4) Given the occurrence of Hymenaeus’ name in both of the Timothy epistles, it seems more likely that the reference to Alexander in 2 Timothy 4 is the same person as in 1 Timothy than the person mentioned in Acts. However, we cannot be certain. If the Alexander of 2 Timothy is the same man as in 1 Timothy, then all we know is that he acted against Paul in a way which caused him great harm.
Beyond the names of these two men whom Paul cites as examples of those who suffered a shipwreck of faith, what else do we learn in the text which can help us understand what happened to them? In verse 19, Paul implies that Hymenaeus and Alexander have rejected “a good conscience.” (The grammar of the Greek sentence links the verb “reject” only with the word “conscience” in verse 19 and not the word “faith”). (5)
The word translated “rejected” is the Greek verb ἀπωθέομαι (apotheomai). It conveys the sense of “pushing something aside.” (6) It communicates a very definite act of rejection. The term features regularly across the Pastoral Epistles (7) where its use implies a departure from faith as revealed in the gospel of Christ. The multiple use of the term links with the main role entrusted to Timothy at Ephesus, which was to oppose false teachers (1 Timothy 1:3). The two men have rejected “good conscience”. Paul sees conscience (8) as being an inner quality that moves someone from inner conviction to right outward behaviour. The use of the shipwreck nautical metaphor leads our thinking to see conscience as a life-stabilising factor which, when weakened, may lead to imbalance. (9) Other nautical metaphors in Scripture also convey ideas of faith being stabilised. (10) Indeed Paul considers that conscience may be influenced negatively (cf. 1 Timothy 4:2) if someone embraces false teaching. So Paul sees there is an inner process at work: the right ordering of fath in the human heart leads to a good conscience. (11) The deep error of Hymenaeus and Alexander was a rejection of the true gospel, which then weakened their consciences so that their lives were no longer guided by the Holy Spirit towards right ethical conduct. This was destroying, not only their own faith, but the faith of others.
Paul considered the actions of these two men to necessitate strong response. He reminds Timothy that he had “handed over” these men “to Satan” (verse 20). The Greek verb concerned is παραδίδωμι (paradidomai) which is often used of someone being handed over to suffering. It is sometimes rendered in English as “betray” but is used, for instance, of Jesus being handed over to the Roman authorities for trial (Matthew 24:10). The full phrase “handed over to Satan” is used only once more in the New Testament, in 1 Corinthians 5:5 where a believer who acted immorally was excommunicated from the church. Towner sees the phrase “handed over to Satan” as referring to a disciplinary action known within the Pauline churches, which involved the expulsion of those whose actions were proving destructive. (12) It carries the sense of someone being put out of the Church and therefore being placed no longer under the Church’s protection, but falling under the influence of Satan.
The harshness of the discipline exercised towards these two men had a redemptive aim: “to be taught not to blaspheme” (verse 20). This is in keeping with the other use in 1 Corinthians 5:5 where the expulsion of the person from the Corinthian assembly was designed so that “the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” So although Paul believed that the shipwreck of faith incurred by these men had serious implications, he still held out hope that discipline would lead to repentance and a new start.
Given the seriousness of the faith shipwreck communicated by these verses, how does Paul encourage Timothy to keep his faith afloat? How can we avoid shipwreck in our faith?
Paul acknowledges that owning Christian faith can be a struggle. Timothy is commanded to “fight the good fight”, a phrase likening the Christian to someone involved in a military campaign. (13) Timothy can be encouraged in his struggle by doing two things. First he is to remember the particular prophetic encouragements upon his life (verse 18). The text does not provide us with any additional details here, but it implies that at some point previously, Timothy had received prophetic words from God which were meant to strengthen and to guide him. All the instructions which Paul was giving to Timothy were “in keeping” with these prophetic words. So Timothy could have confidence that his ministry sat within God’s calling for his life at that time. William Barclay suggests that in his writing Paul was calling Timothy to act true to his name. (14) Timothy in the Greek is τιμοθεος (Timotheos), a compound word bringing together the words for honour and God. By acting in line with the prophetic words spoken over his life, Timothy was bringing honour to God.
The corollary of Timothy recalling these prophetic encouragements from God is that this would help him to hold onto faith (verse 19). Hymenaeus and Alexander had lost their grip on faith; they had departed from sound teaching and embraced error in their understanding. Timothy is called to hold onto faith, to stand upon the good foundations that were buit into his life (2 Timothy 3:14-16 is an insightful summary by Paul to Timothy in a later letter of those faith foundations). If Timothy continues to hold onto faith, then his conscience will remain tuned to the Holy Spirit and the ship of his life will stay afloat and on course.
How do we avoid a catastrophic shipwreck of faith? How can our faith be kept afloat? We might answer those questions with a great many responses. But Paul’s words to Timothy ask us to remember the biblically orthodox foundations of our faith and regularly recall to mind the personal encouragements God has spoken to us. And then, steering clear of the dangerous rocks of false teaching and unethical conduct, we will navigate life’s ocean with hope.
Vine W, Unger M & White W, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1985, p571
Arndt W & Gingrich F, A Greek Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, Chicago,1957, p534
Douglas J & Tenney M (eds.), New International Bible Dictionary, Zondervan Grand Rapids, 1987, p456
Douglas J & Tenney M (eds.), New International Bible Dictionary, Zondervan Grand Rapids, 1987, p33
Towner P, NICNT The Pastoral Epistles, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2006, p158
Arndt W & Gingrich F, A Greek Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, Chicago,1957, p103
It occurs in 1 Timothy 1:6, 4:1, 5:15, 6:21; 2 Timothy 2:18, 4:4; Titus 1:9
The Greek word is συνειδησισ (suneidesis). See Arndt W & Gingrich F, A Greek Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, Chicago,1957, p786 for its semantic range
Guthrie D, Tyndale NT Commentary, The Pastoral Epistles, IVP, Leicester, 1990, p78
See my extended article on the “Anchor of the Soul” metaphor in Hebrews 6:19
Towner P, NICNT The Pastoral Epistles, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2006, p158
Towner P, NICNT The Pastoral Epistles, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2006, p161
Arndt W & Gingrich F, A Greek Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, Chicago,1957, p770
Barclay W, The New Daily Study Bible, The Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon, St Andrew’s Press, Edinburgh, 1975, p56