In 1 Timothy 4:10 Paul wrote this to the young pastor-evangelist: “…our hope is in the living God, who is the Savior of all people and particularly of all believers” (NLT). What does it mean that God is the Savior of all people? The word “savior” there is the regular NT word for “savior” (soter – σωτήρ). Is Paul saying that God saves all people universally?
First of all, if that were the case Paul would be contradicting himself and other Scriptures that talk about eternal punishment for those who refuse to repent and believe (cf. 2 Thess 1:8-9; Rev. 6:16-17, etc.). Another angle to consider is the context of Paul’s words to Timothy. Timothy was in Ephesus around 65AD. The word “savior” in that Greco-Roman context was used for emperors or wealthy people who helped others. Here’s how Steve Baugh explains 1 Timothy 4:10 with the historical context in view:
In first-century society, the word “savior” was familiar as the title of gods, emperors, provincial governors, and other patrons who provided certain earthly benefactions to communities or individuals in time of need. “Savior” was virtually synonymous with “benefactor.” This can be easily substantiated, but an inscription from Ephesus illustrates this point by using the two words in parallel. The guild of silversmiths honored a provincial governor as “their own savior and benefactor in all things.”
One especially important example of “savior” relating to earthly benefactions comes from a recovered statue base inscription from Ephesus, which Timothy may have seen many times by the time he read this letter—recall that it was received at Ephesus (1:3). The statue was erected in honor of Julius Caesar in 48 b.c. after he had saved the province from financial ruin. The inscription reads: “The cities of Asia, along with the [citizen-bodies] and the nations, (honor) C. Julius C. f. Caesar, Pontifex Maximus, Emperor, and twice Consul, the manifest god (sprung) from Ares and Aphrodite, and universal savior of human life” (IvE 251; emphasis added). Both Caesar’s divine honors and the “savior” title are of interest, for, in contrast, Paul says that we have set our hope in a living God—not this long-dead “manifest god”—and that our living God is the true benefactor of even these misguided pagans, “and especially of those who believe.” In other words, Paul’s statement in 4:10 has a polemical side effect in its original context.
With this historical background in mind, it makes sense to say that the living and true God is the “benefactor” of all people, specifically his people. The Psalms teach this truth as well: The LORD is good to all (Ps. 145:9), he gives food to the hungry (Ps. 146:7) and he opens his hand to satisfy the desire of every living thing (Ps. 145:16). He is a good God and benefactor of all people – especially those who trust in him.
The above quote is found in The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary – 1 Tim. 4:10 – by Steve Baugh.
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015