Studies in the Pastoral Epistles and Philemon
1. 1 Timothy 1:3-11 - The Law Used Properly
The early church had doctrinal disagreements and behavioral problems. Paul asked Timothy to take care of several problems in Ephesus. Just as Roman emperors sometimes used “open letters” to publicly proclaim the instructions that a new governor was given, so also Paul used a letter to explain to the congregation what Timothy was authorized to do.
Confident speculations (verses 3-7)
After a brief introduction, Paul explains Timothy’s commission: “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer.” Some people had added new teachings to the gospel. Paul’s letter does not tell us exactly what the false teachings were, but it does give us some clues. Some of the same ideas were in second-century Gnosticism, which taught salvation by learning various mysteries (the Greek word gnosis means “knowledge”).
Paul gives hints about heresy when he adds, “or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith.” Gnostics said that there were numerous layers of authority in the heavens, and we must learn the names of those spiritual powers in order to ascend toward God. Paul may be referring to similar ideas with the word “genealogies.”
People were spending their time on speculations for which there was no proof. The modern equivalent might be prophecy, which at first may seem to attract people to the gospel, but ends up distracting people from what’s most important. The real focus of God’s message is faith—trusting in God, not in trying to learn things that everyone else has missed.
Apparently, some people liked these speculations, so why did Paul tell Timothy to put a stop to them? “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” Paul wanted people to focus their faith on Christ.
But some people no longer had good motives and were trying to get followers for themselves. “Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” Some people like to be known as teachers who bring new facts and new conclusions, and they can attract a following by speaking with confidence. They state (or imply), “You need what I am teaching and you can’t get it anywhere else.”
Laws made for sinners (verses 8-11)
In Ephesus, the false teachers had their own slant on the law. Paul begins to address that issue with a truism: “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.” But what is the proper use of the law? Paul explains that in the next few verses: “We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers…”
As some Greek philosophers noted, good people do not need laws to tell them not to steal and kill. Virtuous people don’t want to do those things anyway. But bad people are tempted to do such things, and so the law gives them a minimum standard of conduct. In contrast, the Christian standard is the maximum—we want to let Christ live in us, bear the fruit of the Spirit and do the will of the Father.
Paul continues his list of ungodly behavior: “…for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers.” Greek society had few sexual restrictions, but the New Testament has many. Paul’s first word, pornos, covers a wide range of sexual practices, and is given the appropriately general translation “sexual immorality.”
Paul’s second word, arsenokoitēs, comes from roots meaning “male” and “bed.” These words were in the Greek version of Leviticus 18:22, which prohibits male-with-male sexual activity. Paul apparently agreed with the traditional Jewish restrictions on sexual activities.
Paul summarizes: the law is made “for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” Paul’s doctrines, always given in conformity with the gospel of grace, include some demands on our behavior. If an activity does not conform to the gospel, then it is right to prohibit it.
Things to think about
- What confident speculations affect Christianity today? Why do people follow them? How can we avoid being misled by them?
- If the law is not made for righteous people, is it possible for them to use it properly? Did Paul use it?
The author, Dr. Michael Morrison, teaches classes in the New Testament at Grace Communion Seminary. More information about the seminary can be found at: www.gcs.edu. It’s accredited, affordable, and all online.
Author: Michael Morrison, PhD