One of the frequent comments about this verse is that it doesn’t appear to fit very well in the context of the surrounding verses: it appears to be an intrusion into the flow of Paul’s thought in this part of 1 Timothy.
I don’t think this is the case! I would like to suggest that this is an illustration of what Paul is saying in the surrounding verses—in a similar way to his military, athletic and farming illustrations at the start of 2 Tim. Ch. 2 -the difference here being that it is simultaneously a piece of practical advice for Timothy himself.
Well, what is “going on” in these verses?
Let us look at 1 Tim. 5:22-25.
In v. 22, Paul tells Timothy not to lay hands quickly on anyone, nor share in their sins—the structure of this little section is (approximately)
a) Hands quickly (2 words)
b) no-one (medeni) lay on (2 words)
b`) nor (mede) share in (2 words)
a`) Sins of others (2 words)
Laying on of hands is for commissioning, and/or to show solidarity. If the person is sinful, then the person laying on hands is linking himself in some way with the sinful person. In Acts, and in Titus, we see that Paul always left an interval of time before appointing or arranging for the appointment of elders, and there are other examples, such as the “testing” of potential deacons etc., and he clearly here wants Timothy not to get “caught out” as a result of being “taken in” by superficial appearances.
This is why Paul goes on to say that (v. 24) that the sins of some men “go before” – Timothy is obviously not to lay hands on them (and thereby “share” in their sin). They are easy to spot, so Timothy is unlikely to get caught out by them! But for others, their sins “follow on”. These people may look superficially suitable for leadership or commissioning, at least in the sense of having nothing obviously bad about them, but wait a little says Paul, and their true character and sinful actions will show themselves. Likewise, good works are also plain beforehand, (The last part of v. 25 is rather obscure to me. Is Paul referring again to the bad works that “follow on”, as in v.24b, (that seems to me to be most likely) or does Paul perhaps mean that bad works by people with initial good works will eventually become apparent, or that people with good works tend to be more “up front” in the sense that their bad points as well as their good are also immediately apparent “on the surface”? Whatever the precise meaning, the structure of the passage (see below) requires that something correspond to the eventual exposure of the people whose sins follow later in v.24b.)
So what about the passage about not drinking water, but using a little wine?
Well, I think this is a practical illustration, analogy or type for what Paul has just said, and it is structurally located between the “not sharing in sins of others” section and the information that with regard to some men, all may not be not initially what it seems.
Likewise, the water may look OK—there doesn’t seem to be anything amiss, but, if Timothy drinks it he will, after an interval of time, have what Paul somewhat euphemistically refers to as “frequent stomach weakness”. (Cue anecdotes about drinking the local water and the effects that follow on, er, behind!) This corresponds to the potential candidate for leadership who looks reasonably OK, but if Timothy commissions him (corresponds to drinking the water) he will regret it, since the man’s unsuitability will later become apparent in unpleasant ways! (By contrast, wine here is good, and corresponds to good works that are apparent beforehand).
Clever Paul has made his point very memorably! I think that, least for Timothy, there would be little doubt that “keep yourself pure” is a double-entendre, strategically located between not sharing in the sins of others, and not drinking water !!!!!
The structure of the passage as a whole backs up this interpretation. It is 53 words long in the Greek text, the first half is 26 words, the second half 27 words. (The structure suggested below only really “makes sense” if one accepts the link between water and sins that may only become apparent later, and between wine and good works.)
Suggested Structure of 1 Tim. 5:22-25
A) Hands quickly no-one lay on not share in the sins of others . Keep yourself pure
B) No longer drink water,
A`) but wine a little use because of the stomach of you
B`) and the frequent of you weaknesses. (26 words)
A“) Of some men the sins plain before are, going before to judgement.
B“) Some (sins) but indeed they follow on.
A“`) Likewise also the good works plain before are
B“`) and those otherwise (being) be hidden not can (27 words)
(A final note: in B“ and B“`, Paul doesn’t specifically use the word “sins” – even though that is what he is referring to (e.g. “those otherwise” in B“). Likewise, Paul is rather circumspect regarding what he is talking about in B`. Hmm!)