Scribal Homilies from First Timothy: The Proper Use of the Law

We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. 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, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and 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. 1 Timothy 1:8-11 NIV

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Introduction

One of the most popular television genres is crime drama. From the long running Law and Order (with its countless spin offs) to relative new comers such as Blue Bloods and the BBC’s immensely popular Sherlock, we are not lacking for entertaining police procedurals and legal dramas. In spite of their long history in television we continue to see more and more crime dramas being produced each year with a wide variety of different characters taking different approaches to the administration of justice.

Saint_TimothyWe just can’t seem to get enough!

Justice never gets old, and that is why we come back again and again to the same stories we’ve watched innumerable times before. However, there is another factor involved in our seeming obsession with crime dramas: the characters. Each character brings with them their own interpretation of justice and that is what keeps the genre fresh. From straight shooters, like Frank Reagan, who always do the right thing, to those who operate more in the grey, such as Harvey Specter or Patrick Jane, right along the spectrum to those, like Alan Shore, who manipulate the law in order to justify their illegal actions we are sure to find someone we can empathise with.

In the city of Ephesus, Timothy was combating a group of false teachers who were using the law improperly which is why Paul begins by saying, “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.” Paul begins by clarifying his position. He agrees with the false teachers assessment of the law: It is good. The law is good. This is what the false teachers believed. For them the law was the very foundation of their theology. However, Paul goes on to clarify his position. He writes, “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.” If one uses it properly.

What Paul is saying to us is that there are legitimate uses of the law and there are illegitimate uses of the law.

We can’t get into all the legitimate uses of the law here, instead we will consider the false teachers’ illegitimate use of the law and Paul’s corrective on those points. However, what we should bear in mind here is that Paul isn’t giving us his comprehensive theology of the law, rather, he is making use of one point in his theology in order to combat the false teaching that was taking root in Ephesus. We shouldn’t think that what Paul says in this passage is all that Paul believes about the law. Not even close. Paul is far too clever, far too nuanced for that, as we shall see as we consider the ways the false teachers were using the law to further their own agenda.

Illegitimate Uses of the Law

We can see Paul combating the false teachers on three fronts in regards to their use of the law.

Firstly, Paul identifies where the false teachers began to go wrong. Secondly, he shows us the root of their error. And finally, he explains the consequences of their false teaching for the lives of Christians.

Lessons in Missing the Point

Paul has already identified where the false teachers began to go wrong in verses 3 to 4 and 6 to 7 where he tells Timothy, “command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies… Such things promote controversial speculations… and… 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” (NIV). The false teachers had begun to go wrong because they misunderstood the Old Testament; they were obsessed with apocryphal stories and were reading into the various genealogies looking, no doubt, for something akin to the Da Vinci Code. As a result they were spreading nonsense, but nonsense they were absolutely certain was true, and so they set themselves up as teachers of the law espousing competing forms of The Ephesus Code: How to Understand the Real Meaning of the Old Testament.

In their misinterpretation of the Old Testament they missed Jesus because the key to understanding the Old Testament is the Person and Work of Jesus. The various stories, genealogies, and characters found in the Old Testament all anticipate the coming of a greater Story, a greater genealogy, a greater Character. If the Old Testament contained the end of God’s Story then we would have to conclude that it is an unhappy ending – God’s people are still enslaved, much of their history is shrouded in unresolved sorrow, and God has shown himself unfaithful to his covenant – but if we conclude that the Old Testament, though unhappy in many of its parts, is incomplete and that it’s culmination is found in Jesus and his life, and all that means, then we can say with confidence that the ending of God’s Story is inexpressibly happy! In Jesus we have the person all his people were waiting for: the truly righteous King, the truly compassionate High Priest, the truly courageous Prophet, the truly faithful Son and Brother who through his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return brings us into the family and people of God who will reign with him on a renewed earth where all our unresolved sorrow will come untrue and in its place will be unending joy because finally, in Jesus, we have forever, all we’ve longed for. In Jesus we find the person we’ve always been waiting for.

In ________ We Trust

This brings us, secondly, to the root of their error: the false teachers’ doctrine was “contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God” (1:10-11 NIV) and so their hope for salvation wasn’t in Jesus but in their myths, their genealogies, their meaningless talk, their controversial speculations, and their interpretation of the law. They were trusting in their own merit to save them because they had understood the secret meaning of the Old Testament. They had discerned the hidden importance of the Old Testament genealogies. And they appointed themselves teachers of these things to the ignorant who need their help in order to share in salvation. The difference between Paul’s gospel and the false teachers’ gospel was that Paul gave glory and praise to Jesus for freely giving salvation through faith whereas the false teachers gave themselves glory and praise for having earned salvation by their superior understanding. The difference is Grace vs. Merit, Faith vs. Effort. And Paul is emphatic that God’s work of salvation is received by faith (1:4) through an outpouring of God’s grace in Jesus (1:14).

Before we utter a hearty “Amen” we would do well to remember that we are not immune to false teaching, we are not safe from abandoning the gospel, as Paul warns the Corinthians,

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12 NIV)

We may have all our theological i’s dotted and doctrinal t’s crossed. We may never waver on the divinity of Jesus or the saving nature of his life, death, and resurrection. But we all too easily stray into the Forgetful Green wherein we understand the gospel but it ceases to move us. The only way to avoid this is to prayerfully meditate upon the gospel in all its multivalent glory. To revel in its scandelous beauty. To be impelled toward adoration of our God who graciously saves.

The Law is Good?

Finally, Paul explains the consequences of this false teaching for the life of believers. Paul begins, “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly” (1:8 NIV). Paul tells us that there are legitimate and illegitimate uses of the law, the false teachers were using the law illegitimately because they were looking to it in order to earn their salvation. But the trouble with earning your salvation is that it requires constant maintenance, if you achieve salvation by meeting some requirements, for example by reaching a certain level of knowledge or morality, are you secure? Of course not. You’ve only met the minimum requirements of approval. If you want to be secure you’ll need to go beyond the minimum requirements and continue to build upon whatever you’ve already done but here is what Paul says (1:9 NIV), “We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers…” and he includes an extensive (though by no means complete) list of people who, according to God’s law, are lawbreakers.

Now, what Paul says here is a little confusing. In verse 8 he has just said the law is good but immediately after, in verse 9, he says it’s not for the righteous (i.e. Christians, those made righteous in Christ). And what we have to remember here is that Paul is address a particular heresy which teaches that people earn and maintain their relationship with God by obeying the law. Paul isn’t saying the law has no relevance for Christians (1 Corinthians 7:19, cf. John 14:15; 1 John 2:3) but that just as it isn’t the power behind our justification neither is it the power behind our sanctification:

“[Paul] does not mean that the Christian and the law have nothing in common. [He] means that the Mosaic Law is not the key to righteous living.” (Mounce, Word Biblical Commentary: Pastoral Epistles, p.34)

The law is powerless to transform us, that’s what Paul is saying here, but it can show unbelievers their need of transformation (cf. Romans 7:7-13) because it has power over them to condemn. However, that is all the power it has over their hearts. They need the gospel to free them from the law’s power of condemnation and to transform them into obedient people who obey God, not to earn or maintain his approval, but because they know he loves them completely and his love for them creates in their hearts a love for him.

Conclusion

The gospel frees us from the power of the law, the power of condemnation. The gospel is God’s stamp of approval on us, not because we have earned it but because Jesus has earned God’s approval for us and given it to us as a gift. The law, whether the Mosaic Law or a perversion of that law as the false teachers in Ephesus espoused or even our own laws, our codes of honour, the things we do to justify ourselves, can never give us the approval of God. They only condemn us because we can never live up to them fully, not even the laws we make for ourselves. So as we live each day, whether we are at school, university, or work, we need to remind ourselves that our approval comes from God and we need to share with our neighbours, our friends, our families, our work colleagues the good news that we don’t need to earn the approval of God, of others, or even our own approval because Jesus has earned the approval of God, the only approval that really matters, for us and offers it to us freely if we only trust in him.

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