First Timothy is a letter from Paul to Timothy relaying advice concerning Timothy’s ministry in Ephesus (I Timothy 1:1-3), hence it is classified as a Pastoral Epistle. The author devotes the majority of the epistle’s first chapter to encouraging his protégé to remain faithful (I Timothy 1:3-11, 18-20). After a brief tangent (I Timothy 1:12-17), Paul reiterates his argument by closing the chapter with an obscure reference to Hymenaeus and Alexander that functions as a cautionary tale (I Timothy 1:18-20).
This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme. (I Timothy 1:18-20 NASB)Hymenaeus and Alexander exemplify the danger of relenting in the faith. Jouette M. Bassler (b. 1942) explains:
The author’s purpose in mentioning them here is to provide concrete counterexamples to Timothy’s faithful discipleship, a common technique in hellenistic moral exhortation and one used extensively in II Timothy (see II Timothy 1:15-18, 2:15-18, 3:1-12). Identifying Hymenaeus and Alexander as “certain persons” (see also II Timothy 1:3) who have “suffered shipwreck in the faith” (i.e., whose piety or fidelity to saving doctrine has been destroyed)...returns the argument to its opening emphasis on opposition to sound teaching. (Bassler, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 46)Paul’s naming of his opponents is rare; even earlier in First Timothy the apostle names sins, not sinners (I Timothy 1:3, 6, 7). In the Pastoral Epistles, four are named who failed to persevere: Alexander, Hymenaeus, Philetus and Demas (I Timothy 1:18-20; II Timothy 2:14-19; 4:10). In naming names, Paul kills two birds with one stone as he fortifies his charge while correcting his opposition’s errors.
Nothing is known definitively about Hymenaeus and Alexander. For them to have been expelled, they were clearly once in the church. The fact that they are named and have influence suggests that they were prominent leaders who have defected and become false teachers.
Hymenaus is a very rare name. It also appears in II Timothy (II Timothy 2:17) and some believe that the Hermogenes that appears in the second century apocryphal work Acts of Paul and Thecla is a conflation of Hymenaeus.
Jerome D. Quinn (1927-1988) and William C. Wacker (b. 1951) note:
The name Hymenaeus recurs in II Timothy 2:17 along with a person called Philetus as examples of “those who have deviated in the truth” about the resurrection. The name is not documented otherwise in the New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers, or the Septuagint. The Greeks and Romans invoked the god of marriage under that name (or Hymen), but they rarely named their children after him...Jewish people did not use the name at all. (Quinn and Wacker, The First and Second Letters to Timothy (Eerdmans Critical Commentary), 145)Alexander, not surprisingly, is a far more common name (Mark 15:21; Acts 4:6, 19:33; I Timothy 1:20; II Timothy 4:14), twice connected to Ephesus in the New Testament. As such Alexander has been linked to a Jewish man who tried to speak at a riot in Ephesus years earlier (Acts 19:33) and a trouble making coppersmith who later caused “much harm” to the apostle (II Timothy 4:14 NASB).
Philip H. Towner (b. 1953) comments:
The name “Alexander” was more common and often taken by Jews. Four occurrences of the name in the New Testament have something to do with Paul (Acts 19:33[2x]; II Timothy 4:14) and are all, even if coincidentally, linked to Ephesus. On balance, though some maintain that the additional reference to his trade in II Timothy 4:14 intends to distinguish between two people bearing the same name, it seems just as plausible that the additional information supplied at a later time was meant to identify the same opponent who, because of Paul’s disciplinary action...moved to a new location and posed a new level of threat to Timothy. (Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus (New International Commentary on the New Testament),160)Though many attempts have been made to connect the Alexanders, it cannot be done with any certainty.
Whoever Hymenaeus and Alexander are, Paul does not mince words, diagnosing that they have “suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith” (I Timothy 1:19 NASB). In the ancient world, shipwreck was used proverbially, like the modern use of “train wreck”. Even so, this is not an expression that Paul would have uttered lightly (Acts 27:14; II Corinthians 11:25).
S.M. Baugh (b. 1954) expounds:
Hymenaeus and Alexander...are said to have “shipwrecked their faith.” This image is powerful anywhere, but particularly at Ephesus, which was one of the most important seaports and shipping distribution points in the eastern Mediterranean. The shipwreck image was also vivid for Paul, of course, since “three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea” (II Corinthians 11:25). With the small size of sailing craft in those days...lack of compass and other navigational aids, and the unpredictable storms at certain times of the year in the Mediterranean...shipwrecks and drowning were all too common events for travelers by sea. Hence, shipwreck became a fairly common metaphor for tragedy or downfall in life. (Clinton E. Arnold [b. 1958], 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 50-51)Thomas C. Oden (b. 1931) adds:
Ordinarily ships having wrecked cannot be recovered. This was a radical image of destruction of that which was once sound. When the reliable ship, faith with good conscience, becomes corrupted by novel teachings it founders on the shoals, as did Hymenaeus and Alexander, about whom Timothy appears well informed already. These individuals, “not content with their own destruction,” wrote Epiphanius (320-403), “desire to involve others in death with them” (Letters, From Epiphanius to Jerome XCI, NPNF 2 VI, 185). (Oden, First and Second Timothy and Titus (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 123-24)As Oden alludes, Hymenaeus and Alexander’s plight affects others. Literally what is shipwrecked is not “their faith” (CEV, ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NLT, RSV) but the faith (ASV, KJV, NIV, NKJV, NRSV) (I Timothy 1:19).
Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) clarifies:
The Greek is not totally clear as to whether the reference is to the personal faith of Hymenaeus and Alexander or “the faith” in general, thinking of the havoc that they have wreaked not only in their own lives, but also in those of others. The text is rightly translated “the faith,” but the nuance probably includes the thought of damage done both to their faith and by them to others and to the witness to the faith when they thrust away the Christian teaching, since they were leaders. (Witherington, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, Volume 1: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Titus, 1-2 Timothy and 1-3 John, 209)
The specific infraction that Hymenaeus and Alexander committed is not stated though it is clearly grievous enough to have upset Paul. It can be deduced that their error began with the rejection of “good conscience” (I Timothy 1:19). George W. Knight III (b. 1931) specifies, “The relative pronoun,ἥν, must have ἀγαθὴν συνείδησιν, and only it, as its antecedent. It is rejection of “good conscience,” not rejection of faith that causes shipwreck regarding faith (Knight, The Pastoral Epistles (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 109).”
What began as a rejection of good conscience evolved into bad speech (I Timothy 1:20). Warren W. Wiersbe (b.1929) sees a pattern, generalizing:
Professed Christians who “make shipwreck” of their faith do so by sinning against their consciences. Bad doctrine usually starts with bad conduct, and usually with secret sin. Hymenaeus and Alexander deliberately rejected their good consciences in order to defend their ungodly lives. Paul did not tell us exactly what they did, except that their sin involved “blaspheming” in some way. (Wiersbe, Be Faithful (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon): It's Always Too Soon to Quit!, 28)
Based upon another reference to Alexander in the Pastoral Epistles (II Timothy 2:17), many have concluded that their error is an over realized eschatology, one of the early forms of Gnosticism. Thomas R. Schreiner (b. 1954) and Ardel B. Caneday (b. 1950) examine:
It is in the midst of extended exhortations to Timothy to be faithful to his charge as a minister of the gospel (II Timothy 2:1-16) that Paul associates with Hymenaeus and Philetus, “whose teaching will spread like gangrene” (II Timothy 2:17). In II Timothy 2:17 the apostle says these two men “have wandered from the truth” because they teach that the resurrection has already occurred. Their heresy is similar to one that Paul counters in I Corinthians 15, a form of overrealized eschatology. Belief that the resurrection has already happened creates a mutated version of Christianity, a version Paul does not regard to be Christianity as all. It seems that these two men believed and taught that when Christ arose resurrection was complete. They collapsed the not-yet resurrection of believers into the already resurrection of Christ, so that they believed there is no future resurrection on the last day. This heretical belief influenced and shaped how they behaved with regard to the appetites of the body. Whereas this heresy in Corinth evidently prompted some to indulge in the bodily appetites (I Corinthians 6:13), in Ephesus it evidently prompted ascetic prohibition of marriage and use of certain foods (I Timothy 4:1-5). Their heresy strikes at the very core of Christian faith... (I Corinthians 15:12-14). (Schreiner and Caneday, The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance & Assurance, 228-229)Thanks to letters like the Pastoral Epistles, the modern Christian is unlikely to make this theological error. Even so, the cautionary tale holds today: rejecting good conscience can result in calamity and blasphemy. Even Christian leaders can be guilty of these sins.
Why does Paul name names in this epistle? Should he have publicly called out Hymenaeus and Alexander? What do you think caused Hymenaeus and Alexander to stumble? Which typically comes first, bad thought or action? How would you behave if you stopped listening to “good conscience”? Have you ever known anyone who “suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith”? Does Paul write the backsliders off? Have you ever given up on someone? How should the Christian respond to those who have suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith?
Paul flexes his apostolic muscles in his response to Hymenaeus and Alexander: “I have handed [them] over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme (I Timothy 1:20 NASB).” Though rare, this seems to be an established disciplinary recourse known in the Pauline churches as there is a precedent in Corinth (I Corinthians 5:5). There, however, Paul instructs the congregation to hand the offender over (I Corinthians 5:5). The use of the first person verb here suggests his direct role in the action. And that action is difficult to read.
One’s interpretation of “handed over to Satan” is crucial as it dictates not only how the church handles the lapsed but also reflects how God responds to sinners.
Walter L. Liefeld (b. 1927) analyzes:
It is not clear what it means to hand someone over to Satan. It appears to be a much stronger action than the one prescribed in II Thessalonians 3:14-15, not to associate with someone “in order that he may feel ashamed.” The language is close to that in I Corinthians 5:5, where an immoral man is to be “handed over [paradidomi, as here in I Timothy] to Satan.” In I Timothy the purpose is correction; in I Corinthians it was to save the person’s spirit by destroying the “flesh,” which could, as in the NIV, mean destroying the sinful nature or, perhaps more likely, afflicting the incestuous man physically...These two men must learn not to blaspheme. Since they are already in the church, their blaspheming is more serious than Paul’s (I Timothy 1:13), who acted in ignorance. (Liefeld, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus (The NIV Application Commentary), 79-80),
The esoteric clause is problematic and as such has been interpreted in several ways. Thomas D. Lea (b. 1938) surveys:
To “hand over to Satan” has at least two possible interpretations. First, it may refer to some illness or physical disability Satan is allowed to inflict on evildoers (see Job 2:6). J.D.N. Kelly (1909-1997) insists that we “must infer that illness, paralysis, or some other physical disability was in the Apostle’s mind.” Second, it may be used as a semitechnical phrase that regards life in the church as the sphere of the Spirit and life outside the church as the sphere of Satan. Paul may have been saying that he had removed the offenders from the fellowship of the church and placed them in Satan’s realm, where they would experience his malice. This seems the more likely interpretation. (Lea and Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus (The New American Commentary), 81)The latter interpretation is most common. “Handed over to Satan” has been read as synonymous with excommunication. In an age where there was one church, excommunication was especially tragic. The underlying supposition is that Satan rules this world (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11; II Corinthians 4:4) and outside the confines of the Church, there is no safeguard against attack. When one is “turned over to Satan”, she is more susceptible to “the snare of the devil” (I Timothy 3:7; II Timothy 2:26).
The ultimate goal of expulsion is a return to inclusion. N.T. Wright (b. 1948) surmises:
As in I Corinthians 5, this seems to mean that such people are to be put out of the Christian assembly, forbidden to meet with, and eat with, the rest of the church. Paul saw the fellowship of the church as the place above all where the power of God was active to heal, guide, lead and direct individual Christians. To forbid people access to it was therefore tantamount to sending them away into outer darkness, to a place where the only spiritual influence they might come under would be that of ‘the accuser, the satan. The aim, of course is that after a very short time in such a condition they would realize their mistake and come back with sorrow and penitence, ready to learn wisdom. That is what probably happened in the other case, as II Corinthians 2 seems to indicate. (Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters : 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, 16-17)The fact that Paul aims to “teach” them a lesson is further cause for hope, as “taught” implies living through the experience. In this reading, being handed over to Satan is an exercise in “tough love”.
Rob Bell (b. 1970) theorizes:
What is clear is that Paul has great confidence that this handing over will be for good, as inconceivable as that appears at first. His confidence is that these two will be taught something. They will learn. They will grow. They will become better...“Satan,” according to Paul, is actually used by God for God’s transforming purposes...There is something redemptive and renewing that will occur when Hymenaeus and Alexander are “handed over.” (Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, 89)The agency of Satan supports the author’s original premise. Deborah Krause (b. 1962) connects:
Through their example he is able to reaffirm the theological claim made earlier in the doxological formula in I Timothy 1:17...God indeed is immortal and invisible, and due all glory for all eternity, because within the letter writer’s theological system even Satan can be marshalled for the purposes of teaching right doctrine. (Krause, 1 Timothy (Readings: A New Biblical Commentary), 44)William D. Mounce (b. 1953) concludes that the goal is indeed redemption:
Despite all the trouble Hymenaeus and Alexander have caused, the purpose of Paul’s delivering them to Satan is not merely punishment but remedial, looking forward to the day when they might learn not to blaspheme. παιδεύειν, “to instruct,” means not only to educate but more significantly “to practice discipline,” “to discipline with punishment” (BAGD, 603-4). Timothy and the Ephesian church must discipline to the extent of punishment, but they must do it with the goal of redemption. (Tertullian thought that both men were eternally lost [De pudicitia 13:99f.].) The word is used of divine discipline (I Corinthians 11:32 [where it is remedial]; II Corinthians 6:9; cf. Hebrews 12:6, 10; Revelation 3:19 [where it is also remedial]) as well as human discipline (Luke 23:16, 22)...This difficult balance of firm yet not vindictive discipline is admirably represented by the only other occurrence of the word in the Pastoral Epistles. Paul tells Timothy that he must discipline his opponents with gentleness, hoping that God will grant that they repent, come to know the truth, and escape the snare of the devil (II Timothy 2:25-26). Throughout the Pastoral Epistles we see that Paul desires not only that the opponents be silenced but that they turn from their evil ways (cf. Titus 1:3). (Mounce, Pastoral Epistles (Word Biblical Commentary), 68)Though their fate is unknown, the goal of their having been handed over to Satan is for Hymenaeus and Alexander to reassess their apostasy, see the error of their ways and return to fellowship. If God could save Paul, the self professed worst of all sinners (I Timothy 1:15), he can certainly salvage these two from their shipwreck.
Even in the early days of the church, there were dissenters. When Hymenaeuses and Alexanders invade your church, know that the Church survived others before them. And there is always hope for them as well.
Does God punish or discipline? When have you experienced tough love? What other alternatives did Paul have in dealing with Hymenaeus and Alexander? How would your life be different were you to be expelled from your church? Do you know anyone who has been driven out of a church? What are the guidelines for being removed from your church? In comparison to the New Testament era, do we discipline church members enough today?
“The man who has experienced shipwreck shudders even at a calm sea.” - Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE)