Could you help me to understand the following passage? “Some men’s sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment: and some men they follow after. Likewise also the good works of some are manifest beforehand; and they that are otherwise cannot be hid” (1 Timothy 5:24-25).

It will first be important to observe the larger context in which this puzzling text is found.

In 1 Timothy 5:17ff, Paul provides instructions regarding certain matters relating to the elders of a local congregation, namely:

  1. they may be supported in their work;
  2. if necessary, they may be disciplined; and,
  3. they are to be appointed with great care and caution.

It is within this concluding segment that the passage in question is found.

Within this context the apostle cautions: “Lay hands hastily on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep yourself pure” (v. 22).

In biblical times, the laying on of hands was employed in sacred settings, but with a variety of applications. Each case must be examined for its particular significance. Sacrificial animals were dedicated by the laying on of hands (Leviticus 1:4), and Levites were set apart by this ritual (Numbers 8:5-20). Jesus blessed little children by laying his hands on them (Mark 10:16). Healing occasionally was effected by this method (Luke 4:40; 13:13). Too, the impartation of spiritual gifts was conveyed in this manner (Acts 6:6-8; 8:14-17; 19:6; 2 Timothy 1:6).

But the rite was also employed in setting apart men for specific and crucial roles of leadership—in this case, the eldership (cf. Acts 13:3; 1 Timothy 4:14). The emphasis of the passage seems to be, therefore: “Do not hastily appoint men to roles of leadership.” The evangelist is urged to take his time in such matters; study the character of these men, in advance of such a serious matter. It is a general truism that it is much easier to place a man in an office than it is to take him out!

Paul buttressed this word of caution with an appeal to a common principle—one which warranted rehearsal, both in a positive and negative fashion. The text lays down the same truth in two ways, i.e., with reference to the “sins” of some and the “good works” of others.

The thrust of the first half of the passage, therefore, seems to be this: Some men’s sins are so evident (open, unconcealed, obvious), that their possible appointment to a leadership role may be dismissed immediately. In such a situation, “judgment” (opinion, determination) can be made early-on; the issue, then, will not have to be dealt with in a more open forum later. There is no need to proceed further in the case of well-known transgressors.

On the other hand, the “problems” with others may not be so apparent initially. A man may be appointed to an important role, only to have his serious character flaws revealed at a later time. Therefore, be deliberate and cautious in the appointments made for leadership roles in the church.