Jesus tells the church that having good theology and avoiding evil is not enough. Jesus also wants our love: love for God and love for neighbors. Brian Watson preached this message on January 24, 2021.
I want you to imagine something. Imagine that you live in England. And imagine you have receive a letter in the mail. This is not just any letter, but an official letter from the British royal family. The letter informs you that Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and his new wife, Meghan Markle, will be relocating from Nottingham Cottage, on the grounds of Kensington Palace, to your house. That’s right, Prince Harry and his wife, two months after their marriage, are going to live with you. They want to live among the common people, and there’s no discussion, no debate. They’re not asking you if they can live with you. They’re just announcing that they will move in.
How would that change your life? What would you do? You would probably clean your house better than you ever have before. You might buy new furniture. You would be on your best behavior. You would probably make sure you had Harry and Meghan’s favorite foods. Of course, this enthusiasm might wear off over time. But what if you were told that the fate of England depended, at least in part, on how you managed your now-royal house? That would keep you motivated, wouldn’t it?
Okay, that’s a silly thing to imagine, I know. (I deliberately chose British royalty instead of American politicians because American politicians are now so hated.) But you get the point. If you had very special guests in your home, that would probably change how you live. And if you knew that the health of your house affected the whole nation, well, you would probably do your best to live in a right way. Of course, today’s British royals are really symbolic figures. Imagine if King Henry VIII was your royal guest. Now that was a monarch with power. And he was the Supreme Head of the Church of England, too.
Well, there is a greater reality that this should remind us of, one that isn’t just a silly thought experiment. If you are a Christian, you are part of the church, the body of Christ, God’s household, and God’s temple. You are part of God’s home on Earth, his temple where he is worshiped. You are even part of his family. And that should change the way you live. It should change how we live as individuals and how we conduct ourselves in this local church. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Three months ago, we started to look at the book of 1 Timothy. It’s a letter written by Paul, an apostle, which is a fancy way of saying a special messenger of Jesus. Paul was commissioned by Jesus to travel throughout the Roman Empire, almost two thousand years ago, to tell other people about Jesus and to plant churches. He helped established a church in Ephesus, a significant city in the Roman Empire located in the western part of what we now call Turkey. Paul left his younger associate Timothy there, to make sure that the church was healthy. Specifically, Paul wanted Timothy to protect the church from false teachers and from bad behaviors. And he wanted Timothy to have the church function according to God’s design for the church. In other words, Paul wanted Timothy to have the church go the way God wanted it to go.
Today, after some recent detours from 1 Timothy, we get to the center of the letter, which states why Paul wrote it. Since we’re looking at only three verses of this book today, let’s read them all right now. This is 1 Timothy 3:14–16:
14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
Paul tells Timothy why he is writing this letter. Paul has left Timothy in Ephesus. While Paul hopes to come to Timothy soon, he realizes that he may not be able to get there quickly. So, he writes this letter to Timothy, “that . . . you may know how one ought to behave” in church. Timothy is to make sure the church is in good order. Specifically, he is to protect the church from false teachers and also from behavior that is not in line with the message of Christianity. Toward the beginning of the letter, Paul tells Timothy, “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3). Some people had been teaching a different message, and they “made [a] shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim. 1:19).
But it’s not just right beliefs or right teaching that Paul is concerned about. He’s also concerned about right behavior. The two are related. If you have right beliefs, you should behave rightly. And there’s even more motivation to behave rightly, because the church is “the household of God.” The church isn’t a museum that houses memories of a dead god. No, the church is “the church of the living God.” God is alive, and he makes his home on Earth with his people.
This should blow our minds. God doesn’t just dwell with his people. God dwells in his people. That’s because the church isn’t a building; the church is a group of people. God dwells among the church, but he also lives in individual Christians. The third Person of God, the Holy Spirit, dwells in believers. If we are God’s house, shouldn’t we live accordingly?
The language of “God’s house” indicates that Paul has something particular in mind. God’s house is the temple. The language of “pillar” also indicates that Paul is thinking of a temple. The temple of God isn’t one special building that we all have to make a pilgrimage to. The temple of God is God’s people.
This is what Paul writes in another letter, a letter to the church in Ephesus, the same city where Timothy was when he received the letter that we’re now studying. In Ephesians 2, Paul says that there is one people of God, consisting of Jews and Gentiles, who were brought together by Jesus. In verses 18–22, he writes,
18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
The whole of the church is a temple, built upon the cornerstone, who is Jesus. The cornerstone determines the shape of the building; it is the most important stone. The temple is built upon God’s word; the New Testament was written by “apostles and prophets.” And this temple is growing, as more and more people are added to it. It is the “place” where the Holy Spirit dwells. It is the “place” where God is worshiped.
The apostle Peter says something similar in 1 Peter 2. He writes,
4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:4–5).
In the Old Testament, animal sacrifices were offered to God to make atonement for sin and to bring peace between God and his people. But the fact is that those sacrifices didn’t actually atone for sin. They foreshadowed the only sacrifice that could pay for human sin, which was the death of Jesus on the cross. So, sacrifices for sin are no longer made. But we do make spiritual sacrifices, offerings to God of praise (Heb. 13:15), good works (Heb. 13:16), and finances given to ministry (Phil. 4:18). In fact, our very lives are offered up to God as “living sacrifice[s]” (Rom. 12:1).
Getting back to 1 Timothy, Paul says that the church is also a “buttress.” The Greek word that’s translated as “buttress” only appears this one time in the New Testament, so it’s not clear exactly what it means. It could mean “stay,” “support,” or “bulwark.” It is a support to the truth. Paul has something specific in mind when he talks about the truth. He doesn’t just mean “truth” in general. In the previous chapter, Paul said that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Paul means the gospel, or good news. That is the message of Christianity. Ultimately, Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). And the gospel is a message about him.
The church is meant to support, or uphold, the truth. The church isn’t the only support; that’s why Paul says that the church is “a pillar and buttress of the truth,” and not “the pillar and buttress of the truth.” Even if all Christians on Earth were to die, the message of Jesus would remain the truth, and that truth is witnessed to by the Bible and is supported also by the Holy Spirit. But the church is a guardian of the truth. We need to have a firm grip on the truth of who Jesus is and what he has done for us. We need to teach the truth about God and his kingdom. We need to teach the truth about God’s plans for the world, how we can be reconciled to God, and how we should live for him.
That’s what Paul gets to next when he talks about the “mystery of godliness.” That’s an interesting phrase. When Paul uses “mystery,” he doesn’t mean it in quite the way that we do. We usually talk about “mystery” in terms of something we can’t figure out. Paul does mean that, but he doesn’t mean it’s a secret. Paul means that what we couldn’t figure out on our own, God has now revealed. We could not figure out God’s plans through unaided human reasoning. We couldn’t discover on our own how to be right in God’s eyes. But God has revealed that information to us, and that’s what Paul writes.
When Paul writes “the mystery of godliness,” he is stating the reason why we should live godly lives, or why we should be devoted to God. The reason is Jesus: who he is and what he has done for us. This is what the church needs to believe and confess.
What follows is probably a poem or a hymn:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
This is something that Paul probably didn’t write. It was probably an early hymn of praise, a poem that captured some of the important elements of Christianity. If you look at the translation that we use, the English Standard Version, you can see that the hymn is six lines long. The ESV divides it into two stanzas of three lines each. The New International Version divides it into three stanzas of two lines each. There’s some debate about the structure of the hymn, but either way, the message is clear.
The first line, “He was manifested in the flesh,” refers to Jesus’ incarnation, when the eternal Son of God added a second nature and became the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. In John’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus is the “Word of God.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus has always existed, but over two thousand years ago, “he was manifested in the flesh.”
The last line of the hymn, “taken up in glory,” refers to Jesus’ ascension to heaven. After Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave, he ascended back to heaven. So, the first and last lines bookend Jesus’ coming to earth and his leaving.
The middle lines indicate what Jesus did and how people have responded to him. They don’t tell us everything about what Jesus did, but they tell us some important things. The second line says that Jesus was “vindicated by the Spirit.” This is probably a reference to his resurrection. When Jesus died, it might have looked like he was a failure. If he stayed in the grave, we might wonder if his death had any meaning. But his resurrection vindicated him, showing that he is who he claimed to be, the Son of God. That’s what Paul writes at the beginning of his letter to the Romans:
1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:1–6).
The resurrection, accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit, declared that Jesus is the Son of God, that he has power over sin and death, and that the sins of his people have been paid in full.
The third line of the hymn says that Jesus was “seen by angels.” This could possibly refer to the fact that angels appeared at Jesus’ resurrection. It could be a reference to the apostles, who saw Jesus, because the word “angel” can also mean “messenger.” But it more likely refers to angels in the spiritual realm. The risen Christ was seen by people and supernatural beings.
The fourth and fifth lines seem to belong together. Jesus was “proclaimed among the nations” and “believed on in the world.” Apostles like Paul and Peter told people throughout the Roman Empire about Jesus, and many people believed in him.
Now, this is just a poem. It’s not a very detailed statement of systematic theology. So, more could be said about who Jesus is and what he came to do. Who is Jesus? He is God. More specifically, he is the second Person of the triune God, the Son of God. And he became man. So, we say he is the God-man. Why did Jesus come into the world? Paul doesn’t explicitly mention Jesus’ death on the cross. Why did Jesus come into the world? “To save sinners,” as Paul says in the first chapter of this letter (1 Tim. 1:15; cf. Matt. 1:21). How did he do that?
Jesus saves sinners by fulfilling God’s plans for humanity and then dying for the sins of rebellious human beings. God made human beings in his image and likeness. That means we were made to represent God, to reflect God’s character, to rule over his creation, to worship him, and to love and obey him, the way children would love and obey a perfect father. But from the beginning, human beings have turned away from God, living life on their own terms instead of his. Instead of building our world around God and accepting the role he has given us, we build our worlds around ourselves, rejecting his authority. The rebellion of the first human beings created a separation between God and human beings.
Jesus is the one who closes that gap. He came to fulfill God’s plans for humanity. He is the perfect human being who always loves and obeys his Father. Yet though he never sinned, he died in the place of sinners, bearing the penalty that they deserve. All who believe in Jesus, who trust him, have their sins forgiven, are adopted into God’s family, and have eternal life. Though they die, they will live with God forever in a new creation, which will be established when Jesus returns to Earth to bring history as we know it to an end.
This is the “mystery” revealed to the church. This is the reason why we should pursue godliness. We do that because God first pursued us.
Our behavior should line up with the reality that we are God’s family, part of his very household. We don’t behave well in order to become part of his house. No, we are chosen by God, the gospel was preached to us, we believed, and we were adopted by God into his family. This is not because of merit. It’s not something we deserved. It’s not because we were so lovable that God just had to come rescue us. It’s not because we’re so good, because we’ve first cleaned up our house. No, it is all a gift from God, because he is love.
As I said earlier, we are God’s temple, the place where he resides on Earth, the place where he is worshiped, where we offer up spiritual sacrifices. God wants a beautiful temple to live in. The fact that he chooses to live in us is amazing. But God wants us to be purified, to become a house fitting for a king.
In his wonderful book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis describes what it’s like to become a Christian. He likens the Christian life to being a house that is undergoing renovation:
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and to live in it Himself.
God wants to refashion us so that we are a good house, children who act like our Father, people who represent the family name well, a great building for an even greater God to live in. As Lewis says, sometimes this refashioning hurts.
Our behavior should line up with what we profess to believe. But that doesn’t just mean how we live our individual lives. The way that we “do church” should line up with Scripture. That’s what Paul stresses throughout the letter of 1 Timothy. The problem is that so many churches aren’t organized and run according to God’s word. It’s no surprise that so many churches abandon “the mystery of godliness,” forsaking the truth of the gospel.
The reality is that while the truth should change how we live, often how we live changes what we think is true. Many people forsake the gospel because they don’t want to live the way God wants us to. Some people reject the truth of the Bible because of Christianity’s sexual ethics. They may reject Christianity outright, or they may revise the Bible to suit their desires. In that case, sex is an idol, a false god, and truth is put on the altar and sacrificed. Some people reject Christianity because they worship the idol of power, or of money. They don’t want God to be King, or they don’t want to be told to give money away to the church and to the poor. Some people sacrifice the truth to the idol of being acceptable in the world’s eyes. They are afraid of being seen as backward or foolish, so they alter Christianity so that it fits with the spirit of the age. But, as one person wisely said, those who marry the spirit of the age will soon become widows (or widowers), because that spirit always changes.
When some view of the good life, some view of human flourishing, puts anything other than God at the center of reality, truth will be sacrificed and an idol will be worshiped. This is what we rebellious human beings do. So, we need to hold on to the truth.
Doctrine gets a bad reputation among some people. The straw man argument is that those who care about doctrine have reduced Christianity to some cold, lifeless, dead orthodoxy, a religion of facts but not a living religion of the heart. But doctrine simply means “teaching.” Everyone has doctrine. Everyone has a creed of some kind. And our doctrine will either be true, or some mixture of truth and falsehoods, or completely false.
If we personally know the living God, we will know what he is like. We’ll know facts about him. If we really know God, we can’t fail to know who he is. We’ll know if he is triune. If we really know Jesus, we’ll know he is divine. To claim that Jesus was merely a man or prophet shows that we don’t really know who he is.
A few weeks ago, I was in Washington State, where I used to live. I was there to attend a friend’s funeral. After the service, I happened to meet someone who grew up in my hometown of Wenham. He is the same age as my oldest brother, Ted. I knew that they were in the same high school class and they both played on the basketball team. I also knew he lived somewhere north of Seattle and that he was a firefighter, just as my friend was. But I don’t recall every having personally met this man, named David.
When we met, he told me that both he and Ted put the same Scripture, Proverbs 3:5–6, under their high school yearbook photo; went to Gordon College; and went on the same mission trip.
But what if David started saying some things that didn’t line up with what I know to be true of Ted? What if he said, “Yeah, I remember Ted had that beautiful sister. What happened to her?” If he said that, I would say, “Uh, we didn’t have a sister.” He might say, “Oh, I must have been thinking of someone else. But Ted drove that awesome Corvette, right?” “No, but he drove a 1970s Dodge Dart for a while.”
If this went on for a while, I would start to wonder if we were talking about the same person. Either his memory would be really mixed up or he was thinking about a different person.
And that’s how it is with Jesus. Some people preach “another Jesus,” which is something that Paul noted elsewhere (2 Cor. 11:4). Mormons don’t believe the same Jesus we do. Muslims don’t think Jesus is the Son of God, that he is divine. They don’t believe he died on the cross, and therefore they deny the resurrection. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus isn’t God. Are they really talking about the same Jesus?
If we know Jesus personally, we’ll know facts about him, just the way that if we’re married, we’ll know facts about our spouse. We may not know everything, but we’ll know important things. Christianity is ultimately a relationship, and real relationships must be built on truth and love.
And that knowledge should lead to right behavior. Theology, our knowledge of God, must be lived out. One theologian said, “Theology is all about knowing how to sing the song of redemption: to know when to shout, when to mourn, when to be silent and when to hope. But in order to enjoy the song and sing it well, we must learn the words and the music.” Think about that for a moment. If you don’t know the Bible and how to understand it, you’re like someone who doesn’t know the words and the tune of the song you’re supposed to be singing. The song is the Christian life. You’re supposed to sing it! But how can you sing it if you don’t know the words and the tune? You’re like the person in the shower singing a song they heard on the radio and making up words as they go. It’s funny when people get the words to a song wrong—“Hold me closer, Tony Danza”—but it’s not funny when people get words about God wrong.
So, know the tune. Know the words. And then sing the song! Sing it at home. Sing it at work. Sing it when you’re running errands. Sing it when we gather. Behave as if you’re God’s house, God’s building, God’s temple. Because if you are a Christian, that’s what you are.
And if you’re not a Christian, I would urge you to put your trust in Jesus. The true Jesus is the one revealed in the pages of the Bible. He is not the Jesus of our imagination. No one could make up Jesus, because he confronts us all. He challenges each one of us. He calls us out on our sin. He teaches us a new way to live. He tells us to lay down our lives and to love our enemies. No one would invent that. Jesus tells us that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and that the way we respond to him is truly the way we respond to God. When Jesus prayed to the Father on the night before he died, he said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Other hymns in the New Testament include Phil. 2:6–11 and Col. 1:15–20. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; repr. New York: Touchstone, 1996), 176. ↑
- Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 22-23. ↑
- In an episode of the sitcom Friends, one of the characters mistakenly thought that Elton John’s song “Tiny Dancer” featured those words. ↑
The church is God’s household and temple. It is also a guardian of truth. That’s why right theology and right behavior matter in the life of the Christian and the church. Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 3:14-16.
Today, we’ll continue our study of 1 Timothy by looking at an important passage, a beautiful passage, even. But it’s one that confounds many people. That’s because this passage speaks both about God’s grace and the need to protect the church from wrong teaching and sin. It will take a little while to explain why both God’s grace and the need to stand against wrong beliefs and behaviors confound people.
Let’s start with grace. Many people don’t understand the concept of grace. The reason that God forgives people who have done wrong is not because they have atoned for their own sins or righted their wrongs. It’s not because those because those people had more good deeds than bad deeds on their balance sheets. The reason that God forgives people who have done wrong is because of grace: That forgiveness is offered to sinners freely. It’s not something earned, deserved, or merited. It’s something that is given as a gift by a merciful God.
I think true grace is poorly understood because we don’t live in a very gracious society. People are perhaps even more harsh and judgmental today than they were years ago. This is true for probably many reasons. I imagine the fact that we are more isolated from one another and that we have instant communications to vent our fury contributes to our graceless culture. But the real reason we experience less grace in America is probably because so many people haven’t been transformed by God’s grace. So, people just don’t understand grace.
But if you start to tell them the concept of grace, they may assume that those who are forgiven by God either weren’t so bad to begin with, or that they hadn’t done things that were so bad. But Christianity doesn’t teach moral relativism. It says that while not all moral acts are equal, sin—failure to be, desire, and do what is right—is real, and one bit of sin in our lives is enough to earn condemnation. So, we can’t say any sin “wasn’t so bad,” because it’s an affront to a perfect, holy, righteous God, who at the end of history will not tolerate sin corrupting his creation and harming his people. God hates sin, and God’s people should, too.
That’s why anyone who truly understands God’s grace knows that we shouldn’t take advantage of it. The apostle Paul once asked a question he thought people might be asking. After he explained that God’s response to sin is grace, which comes through Jesus, and that God’s grace makes God look great, loving, merciful, generous, patient, and kind, Paul asked, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1). He raised that question because some people might think, “If God can forgive any sin, why does it matter what I do?”, or, “If God can forgive any sin, and his forgiveness makes him look good, then let’s sin even more so his grace can abound even more!”
Paul’s answer is that sin is contrary to righteousness. It’s contrary to God’s ways. If you’ve been forgiven of sin and you’ve come to know who God is, you shouldn’t want to keep sinning. You should realize that certain things aren’t compatible with God’s design for life. You should realize that dispositions of the heart and certain activities can lead us away from God or can diminish the amount of praise and honor that we might give to him.
So, Christianity teaches that God can forgive all wrongs and make all things right and it teaches that there are real rights and real wrongs, and that we should seek to eliminate those wrongs from our lives as we focus more and more on the rights.
And this is where it confounds people, including Christians. Some people think that grace and forgiveness are opposed to upholding moral principles or rules. That’s because in this world, many people see only rules and no forgiveness. And if you have that, you have judgmentalism, legalism, harshness, and, really, no hope. A world like that would be hard to endure. Other people think that everything should be about doing away with rules, or that everything should be forgiven regardless of whether a person ever changes. But if there were no rules and no standing up for what is right and wrong, things would descend into chaos.
Christians need both grace and unchanging moral principles. The church needs both forgiveness and rules. Without both, we will lose our way. And, fortunately for us, the message of Christianity is a message about truth and grace, or objective moral laws and forgiveness. You can’t really have one without the other.
I’ll explain more as we look at today’s passage, which is 1 Timothy 1:12–20. We started to look at this book of the Bible a couple of weeks ago. If you missed the previous two sermons, you might want to listen to them to get caught up. But if you’re joining us for the first time during this series of sermons, I’ll bring you very quickly up to speed. This letter was written by Paul, a special messenger of Jesus, to his younger associate Timothy. Paul was a Jewish man who did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God or Messiah when Jesus was alive. After Jesus was crucified and then resurrected, and after he ascended to heaven, Paul was so opposed to Christianity that he helped arrest and even kill Christians. Yet Jesus appeared to Paul while he was on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, and Paul’s life was changed. He went from being Jesus’ greatest persecutor to Jesus’ greatest spokesman. He traveled around the Roman Empire telling both Jews and Gentiles that the only way to be right with God was to turn from sin—to repent—and to turn to Jesus and trust him and his work on their behalf.
Paul’s preaching was the tool that God used to bring Timothy to faith. Timothy probably became a Christian during Paul’s first visit to his city, Lystra (Acts 14). The second time Paul came to Lystra, Timothy became his associate. He either traveled with Paul or stayed in cities to minister to Christians there when Paul had to travel elsewhere. At the time that Paul wrote 1 Timothy, Timothy was in Ephesus, a significant city in the Roman Empire, in the western part of what is now known as Turkey. Paul told Timothy to stay in that city because there were false teachers who had been affecting the church. They were obsessed with “myths and genealogies,” which they used as foundations for their “speculations” (1 Tim. 1:4). They also misunderstood and misapplied the law that God gave to Israel, which we read in the Old Testament.
Last week, we talked about how those things were contrary to the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. But though Christians are not bound by the Old Testament law, that doesn’t mean they can do whatever they want. The moral principles that are reflected in that law, particularly in the Old Testament, are “contrary to sound doctrine” and “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted” (1 Tim. 1:10–11). In the verses before the passage we’ll read today, Paul lists a number of sins that are against right beliefs and the message of Christianity. And at that point, you may think, “Well, Paul talks about grace and not being a legalist, but he sounds kind of legalistic himself.” But Paul knew what it was like to receive God’s grace, and that’s why he so’s insistent that people cannot be made right with God through their own obedience.
With all that in mind, let’s first read verses 12–17:
12 I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Here, Paul thinks back to when he first became a Christian. He said that God had strengthened him and appointed him to work for him, even though he had once blasphemed, or slandered, Jesus and had persecuted his people. Paul had approved of the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, and had arrested Christians (Acts 7:58–8:3). In the book of Acts, Paul says,
9 I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. 11 And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities (Acts 26:9–11).
This is why Paul says he was “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of Jesus. This is why he calls himself “the foremost” of sinners. He was opposed to Jesus in the strongest way possible, because he thought Christianity was a lie and that Jewish Christians deserved to die.
But Paul’s life changed because he received mercy. Why did Paul receive this mercy? He clearly wasn’t looking for a relationship with Jesus. Did he deserve forgiveness? Was he so good that God chose to change him? If you only read this passage, you might think Paul somehow merited salvation. He says he “had acted ignorantly in unbelief” and that Jesus strengthened him “because he judged me faithful.”
Paul acted “ignorantly in unbelief” because he didn’t believe Jesus was who Christians claimed he was. He didn’t believe that a man could also be God. He didn’t believe that Jesus was the anointed king that the Old Testament promised would come. So, he obviously wasn’t a believer. He didn’t know better. Does that mean he was responsible for doing what was wrong?
I don’t think it does. There are many times when we could be held accountable for illegal actions even if we didn’t know a law existed. The law doesn’t change whether we know it or not. Paul didn’t know that Jesus was the Messiah, but he should have known that. He should have known, from his extensive knowledge of the Old Testament, that Jesus had fulfilled God’s promises. He should have known that Jesus is the key that unlocks all the mysteries and complexities of the Hebrew Bible. So, I don’t think Paul means that somehow his ignorance wasn’t sinful or blameworthy. And I don’t think he means that people who knowingly commit sins are somehow beyond God’s mercy and grace. If that were the case, how many of us could be forgiven for things we did that we knew to be wrong?
Paul may be contrasting himself with these false teachers. They heard the true message of Jesus and they claimed to know him, only to teach false doctrine later. They were willfully teaching a false doctrine even though they claimed to be wise. In his former life, Paul was following his wrong beliefs with what we might call a “good conscience” (verse 5). He really thought he was doing the wrong thing. But perhaps these false teachers were not teaching false doctrine with a good conscience. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t repent and turn to Jesus. It just means that the more they rejected the truth, the more unlikely such repentance would be. The best commentary I read on this truth is by Thomas Lea and Hayne Griffin: “God can bring to salvation willful sinners as well as ‘ignorant’ sinners, but both groups need to come to God in faith and repentance. The more willful the persons, the less likely is their repentance.”
At any rate, Paul calls himself the foremost of sinners, so it’s not like he’s trying to say, “Yeah, I was against Jesus, but I wasn’t as bad as those other guys!”
And Paul says that Jesus called him to his service “because he judged me faithful.” This sounds like Jesus took a good look at Paul and said, “That guy’s faithful, I’ll make him my apostle.” That wouldn’t make sense, since Paul acted in unbelief and is the chief of sinners. What it must mean is that Jesus knew Paul would be a faithful, or trustworthy, minister of the gospel after he came to faith. Jesus knew that Paul had certain strengths: he knew the Scriptures, he was an unusually driven individual, and he had a background in the Gentile world of the Roman Empire since he grew up in the city of Tarsus. But this was all part of God’s plan. All of this was a gift.
And the gift of salvation can only be received by faith, not by willing one’s self to be more obedient, or to try harder. It doesn’t come from being more religious or more self-righteous. It doesn’t come through obedience to the Old Testament law, since no mere human being obeyed perfectly. It can only be received by faith.
That’s why in verses 12–20 there are seven appearances of the Greek word that means “faith” or related words. It’s hard to see in English, but the Greek word that means “faith” can also be translated as “trust.” So, when we read “faithful” (verse 12) and “trustworthy,” we’re looking at two translations of the same Greek word. To have faith, or to believe, is to trust something to be true. More importantly, it’s trusting a person, Jesus. To lack faith, or to be in unbelief, is to fail to trust that something is true. It may be to fail to trust that Jesus can fix your problems and put you in a right relationship with God. Paul used to rely upon his own religious efforts to be righteous (Phil. 3:4–6). But then he came to see that real righteousness only comes through faith in Christ (Phil. 3:7–9). That’s because even the most law-abiding, religious-rule-respecting person fails to obey perfectly. God’s standards for moral purity are so high that we don’t measure up. And more than just obedience, he wants our hearts. He wants our love and trust and worship. We don’t naturally give him those things.
But the amazing thing is that Jesus came into the world to save sinners. As the Son of God, Jesus has always existed. He is the one through whom God the Father created the world. He is the one who sustains he universe by his powerful word (Heb. 1:2–3). But he left heaven to come to Earth to become a man, to experience the pains of being a human being, and to be mistreated, mocked, rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. And this was not because he deserved any of that. No, we do. Yet he came to rescue sinners.
The amazing thing is that Jesus would take Paul, who was cheerfully rounding up Christians and having them killed, and make him his messenger and even his trophy. That’s what Paul says. Look at verses 15 and 16 again: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” Jesus came to rescue the worst sinner and make him a trophy of grace. Paul stands as an example of Jesus’ “perfect patience.” Jesus could have put an end to Paul. He could have destroyed him. And in a way, he did. But he didn’t do that through killing Paul and sending him to hell. No, Jesus just hijacked his life and changed it, giving him faith, repentance, and eternal life.
And that’s why Paul breaks into a bit of praise in verse 17: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” It’s not clear whether he’s referring to Jesus or God the Father here. That’s because in Paul’s mind, you can distinguish between the Father and the Son, but they are so closely associated that you can’t think of one without the other. They, along with the Holy Spirit, are the three Persons of the one God.
Why would Paul praise God so much? I’m sure it has something to do with Paul remembering his past. Here he is, about thirty years after he persecuted Christians, yet he still refers to himself as the chief of sinners—in the present tense! I wonder how often he could see in his mind’s eye that day when Stephen was killed in front of him, while he approved. I wonder if he could hear the cries of Christian he arrested. I wonder if he could see the faces of the Christians against whom he cast votes, sending them to their deaths. I imagine it would be very, very hard to forget those things.
But every time Paul remembered such things, he must have turned his mind to Jesus. How could Paul deal with the fact that he had approved of the killing of innocent Christians? The only way, as far as I can see, was for him to reflect on what Jesus had done for him. Listen to what Paul writes in Galatians 1:13–17:
13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
Again, Paul says he “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.” But he also says something interesting: God “had set me apart before I was born.” God had plans to bring Paul to himself before Paul was born. God had always known what Paul was going to do in his persecutions. God never learns any facts, because he has always known them. But God chose to use Paul, the persecutor, to become his prize.
That must have been a comfort to Paul. He knew that even though he had done wrong, he knew that God had chosen him, had plans for him, and loved him. And God sent his precious Son to come to the world to save Paul, to bear the punishment that he deserved. Though Paul may never have actually killed anyone himself, he was associated with the killing of God’s people. And, in the end, whether someone orders a killing or carries it out, does it matter? Which is worse? Paul knew he was responsible for his role in trying to destroy the church.
Now think of this: What kind of punishment would you want to dish out to someone who killed someone you love? What kind of punishment would you give to someone who ordered the deaths of your children? You can imagine your anger, your desire to punish that person.
But this is what is amazing about God: Though Paul deserved that punishment, he didn’t get it. Instead, his punishment fell upon Jesus. God’s perfect, one-of-a-kind unique Son died to pay for the sins of those who had or would persecute him, those who did or would betray him, those who did or would ignore him and disobey him. He paid for their sins if—and this is a very big if—they turned to him in faith, repenting of their sins. Another way of saying this is that Jesus’ death can cover an infinite number of sins, but it is actually applied only to those who turn to him in faith, regardless of what they have done in the past.
Paul must have thought deeply about these things. I’m sure the pangs of his former sins would rise up in his heart from time to time. He might have felt the occasional wave of grief crash upon the shore of his anxious soul. But it was at those times that he would turn to the truth that God chose him, made plans for him, sent his Son to die for him, and even had his Son appear to him while he was trying to bring more damage to his Son’s church—all so that he could be saved from condemnation and used in God’s kingdom. All of that is grace.
That is something to sing about. That is something that should cause us to praise “the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God.”
Paul never forgot that he was a sinner. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t boldly speak out against sin. Let’s read verses 18–20:
18 This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.
Paul was entrusted with the gospel, the message that Jesus is the Son of God, the crucified Messiah, who came to save sinners. And this same message was entrusted to Timothy, about whom prophecies were made. What those prophecies were exactly isn’t clear. It’s possible someone had prophesied what Timothy would do. It’s also possible that prophesies led Paul to Timothy. Regardless, Paul told Timothy that he should “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience.” Paul knew that Timothy would be involved in spiritual warfare. He wouldn’t wield the weapons of this world, like a sword. No, he would use things like Scripture, prayer, and reliance on God’s power. And he would have to fight to hang on to what is true and right, particularly in the face of opposition.
Paul mentions two people who “made shipwreck of their faith.” Two men Hymenaeus and Alexander, caused problems. Literally, they made “shipwreck of the faith”—Paul probably means they were trying to destroy the Christian faith by what they were saying. So, Paul says he “handed [them] over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” We don’t know who these men were. Hymenaeus is likely the Hymenaeus mentioned in 2 Timothy 2, where Paul says that he and a man named Philetus “have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:18). If that is the case—and we can’t be sure—then Hymenaeus later taught the resurrection of the dead had already occurred, which is strange since Christianity teaches that this resurrection will happen when Jesus returns. It’s something you couldn’t miss. He might have taught that some people had missed out. Alexander was a common name, and though Paul mentions an Alexander in 2 Timothy 4:14, a coppersmith who did him great harm, we can’t be sure if it’s the same man. Regardless, it seems that these men were causing such problems that Paul had to excommunicate them.
Paul uses the language of “handing someone over to Satan” in 1 Corinthians 5, when he tells the church in Corinth that they should remove an immoral man from their church. The idea is that such a person should be treated as an unbeliever, and they should be removed from the protection of the church. When they are outside of the church, they will be treated as though they belong to Satan. It could be that they might be overcome by guilt and run back to the church, seeking forgiveness. It could be that Satan could afflict them with spiritual attacks or even physical ailments. We don’t know. But Paul acknowledges that God can use Satan to discipline wayward people, driving them to despair so that they might learn not to oppose God. We don’t know if these men ever turned to Jesus truly or if they were never Christians to begin with. The point is that there are times when divisions occur in a church and people need to be removed. This is not opposed to the gospel of grace.
Christians should be able to say that certain things are right and others are wrong. When we do that, we are always aware of the fact that we are sinners saved by grace. We should never forget that. But we still must say, “That is right, and this is wrong.” The world has a hard time understanding that. Non-Christians might quickly say, “Yeah, but you’ve done that wrong thing, too!” And we have to say something like, “Yes, I have, but it was wrong then and it’s wrong now. Yes, I was forgiven for it, but it’s against God’s design for our lives; therefore, it’s destructive, and I don’t want you or me to do whatever is destructive.” The fact that we’re sinners saved by grace doesn’t mean we can’t speak out against sin now, even if it causes a bit of internal tension.
Paul knew he wasn’t more deserving of grace than Hymenaeus and Alexander. The difference is that Paul turned away from his unbelief and attacks on the church. Hymenaeus and Alexander hadn’t, so Paul removed them from the church. And he told Timothy to fight the good fight, to guard the gospel, to make sure that no one would bring dishonor to God’s church or distort the message of forgiveness found only in Jesus.
Now that we’ve gone through this passage, what have we learned?
This passage teaches that we can think we’re in the right when we’re not. Paul thought he was right to persecute Christians. I’m sure he read his Bible and prayed to God and felt he was doing the right thing. But we can still be in the wrong. Even the most religious people can be opponents of the gospel. Perhaps the most religious people are often enemies of the gospel. All this means we must be careful about our ideas. We must truly check the Scriptures, consult with other Christians, and continue to pray for God’s guidance and wisdom.
This passage also teaches that God can correct us, even the worst of sinners. Maybe you’re feeling like you’re one of the worst. Maybe you’ve wondered if God could forgive you for that thing you did, whatever it is. Think about the example of Paul. And he’s not alone. The Bible is full of stories of great sinners becoming great saints. If you’re not a Christian, I would love to talk to you about Jesus and answer any questions you might have.
This passage also teaches us that after coming to faith, we have a duty to guard the truth. We have a duty to guard the conduct of the church. There will always be opponents of the gospel. Even the most religious people can get in the way of the mission of the church. That’s why we need to fight the good fight. God has never promised us something that is easy. But he has given us a great task, to hold fast to the gospel. There is no better news than this: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
- All Scripture quotations, unless indicated otherwise, are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 74. ↑
- The Greek word that means “faith,” “belief,” or “trust” is pistis. The Greek word translated as “faithful” or “trustworthy” is pistos. The Greek word translated as “unbelief” is apistia. The Greek word translated as “to believe” is pisteuein. ↑
Christ Jesus came into the world to save the worst of sinners. This is the amazing truth at the core of Christianity. Yet that grace isn’t opposed to standing firm against false teaching and sin. The church needs both grace and truth, as the apostle Paul well knew. This sermon on 1 Timothy 1:12-20 was preached by Brian Watson on May 6, 2018.
Paul tells Timothy to remain in Ephesus and make sure people don’t teach a different message than the gospel. False teachers were obsessed with myths and genealogies, and they used the Old Testament the wrong way. Find out why we need to know the gospel, why we’re not saved by our obedience, but also why the moral law still matters.
If we lose our focus, bad things can happen.
Our youngest son, Simon, started playing tee-ball recently. It’s not a very competitive league, as far as tee-ball goes. It’s mainly an opportunity for the kids to try to hit pitches and use the tee if they fail, and for them to do some very basic fielding. The kids are just getting their feet wet in baseball and most of them lack skills. They tend to lack focus, too. That’s the case with Simon. He’s just happy to be out doing something. When he gets on base, he hops and dances on it. When he’s fielding, he’s talking to his friends. But I try to teach him to focus on the ball the whole time, even when he’s not batting. I figure it’s only a matter of time before a ball is hit at him when he’s not looking. And if he’s not focused on the right thing, he could get hurt.
The same thing is true when it comes to the things of God. We can easily lose our focus. I assume that we are here today because we want to refocus our lives on God, or perhaps get a better sense of who God is and what he requires of us. But if I asked you what the focus of Christianity is, what would you say it is?
If you asked that question to many different people on the street, you’d probably get a variety of answers. Some non-Christians might think Christianity is all about rules, a set of dos and don’ts—particularly the don’ts. Others might say that Christianity’s focus is on helping the poor and oppressed. Some Christians might say that the focus of Christianity should be on theology. In that case, Christianity is reduced to a set of beliefs. Christians must give mental assent to the right statements about God. Others would say that Christianity is focused on endless Bible studies. And still others would say that Christianity isn’t about beliefs as much as it’s about a relationship with Jesus.
There is truth to all these things. Christianity does involve rules. Christians should help the poor and needy. Christians should have right theological beliefs. Christians should read the Bible. And Christianity is about a right relationship with Jesus. But all these things are not equal, and it’s easy to focus on only one of them. Sometimes people focus only on the rules, or they focus only on studying obscure passages in the Bible, or they focus only on certain theological teachings. If we lose our focus on the core of Christianity, which is Jesus Christ himself, bad things will happen. Our faith will be distorted. It won’t be healthy.
That was certainly the apostle Paul’s concern. He wrote the letter of 1 Timothy to a younger associate, warning him that false teachers were trying to teach something different than what Paul taught. Their teaching was unproductive and unhealthy. It was even destructive. So, Paul told Timothy to hold fast to the truth, and to teach it in love.
We’ll see this today as we look at 1 Timothy 1:3–11. Last week, we started to look at 1 Timothy and I gave an introduction to the book. If you missed that message, you can find it online. Today, we’re moving ahead into the body of the letter. Let’s first read verses 3–7:
3 As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, 4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. 5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.
We don’t know where Paul was when he wrote this letter. He was headed to the province of Macedonia, where the city of Thessalonica was located. But he told Timothy to stay in the city of Ephesus. Timothy wasn’t the pastor of the church in Ephesus, but he was an apostolic delegate. He was there to help a relatively new church maintain its health.
Paul told Timothy to tell “certain persons” not to teach a different theology. “Doctrine” simply means teaching. Paul must have had in mind a definite group of false teachers, people who were off track in what they were teaching. They might not have been the pastors of the church, but they were leading others astray.
It’s hard to know exactly what these people were teaching, because Paul doesn’t get very specific, probably because he had already told Timothy these things. When we read letters in the New Testament, sometimes we have to do something called mirror reading. It’s like when you hear someone talking on the phone. You only hear one side of the conversation, but based on what you hear, you can guess what the other person is saying.
The false teachers were focusing on myths and genealogies. We’ll also see that they were using the law that God gave to Israel at Mount Sinai in a wrong way. So, these teachers were likely Jewish Christians.
Some Jewish interpretations of the Old Testament became very fanciful. When I was studying a bit about Islam, I found out that some Jewish myths even made their way into the Qur’an. One fanciful Jewish story, which is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Jewish writings from after the time of Jesus, concerns what happened at Mount Sinai. According to the Bible, after God rescued Israel out of slavery in Egypt, he brought them to Mount Sinai, where he made a covenant with them and gave them the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law. In the Talmud, the story becomes something rather interesting: God had searched the nations for one that would accept his covenant. But only Israel did. And they accepted his covenant because God lifted Mount Sinai over the Israelites, threatening to drop it on them if they did not accept his offer. One rabbi is quoted as saying, “This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, held the mountain over Israel like a cask and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, well and good, and if not, then there is where your grave will be.’”
This is obviously legendary material. It’s a myth. But this myth made its way into a few passages in the Qur’an (2.63, 93; 4.154; 7.171), which shows that the Qur’an has historical errors and is likely based on what Muhammad thought the Jewish Scriptures actually taught.
There was also a tendency in Judaism to fill in the supposed “gaps” of the Old Testament, particularly in genealogies. There’s a document called The Book of Jubilees, probably written in the second century BC, which chronicles the time between the creation of the world and the giving of the law. Among other things, it says that Adam and Eve had many children not mentioned in the Bible, and it gives their names, indicating who married whom.
All of this may seem strange to us, but there is a tendency even in Christianity for people to try search the genealogies of the Old Testament for some hidden wisdom, or to become obsessed with figuring out timelines. This can be seen in the book called The Prayer of Jabez, which builds a whole theology on one verse tucked away in the genealogies at the beginning of 1 Chronicles. First Chronicles 4:10 reports that Jabez prayed, “‘Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!’ And God granted what he asked.”
Now, that is what the Bible says. But what is descriptive in the Bible is not always prescriptive. God does not always promise to “enlarge our borders.” But people who didn’t know the Bible well touted this prayer as the key to God’s blessings.
There is also a tendency in some circles of Christianity to focus almost entirely on certain doctrines, particularly end times issues. Usually these people come up with fanciful and fairly ridiculous readings of the book of Revelation or perhaps Daniel, readings not based on carefully study of history or the original languages. Their readings tend to sound more like science fiction or fantasy.
We’ll learn a bit more about what these false teachers were promoting as we continue to study this book. What matters is that Paul wanted Timothy to make sure that the church didn’t go off the rails.
In verse 5, Paul states his goal: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” He and Timothy had good motives and they wanted the Christians in Ephesus to experience love, pure hearts, good consciences, and a sincere faith. The greatest command is to love God with all our being. The second greatest command is to love our neighbors as ourselves. This love fulfills the law (Matt. 22:34–40; Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14). This love is at the core of Christianity, and it’s likely that the false teachers were missing it.
Paul also says that the false teachers taught in vain. They claimed to be experts in the law, but they didn’t really understand it. Yet they made “confident assertions” about the law. And that leads us to the next paragraph. Let’s read verses 8–11.
8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.
The false teachers were using the law unlawfully. That’s ironic, isn’t it? The law is not for the righteous, but for the lawless. The law has a right and a wrong use.
Paul has in mind the law given to Israel. We know that because his vice list summarizes most of the Ten Commandments. We’ll explore that in just a moment.
In the rest of Paul’s writings, he says that the Old Testament law had a limited use. In the book of Galatians, he said that the law had held people captive until the time of Christ. This is what he says:
23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith (Gal. 3:23–26).
In Romans 3:20, Paul writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” No one ever became acceptable to God through obedience to the law, because no one other than Jesus obeyed it perfectly. Part of the law’s intent was to reveal how sinful we are.
The topic of the law given to Israel at Mount Sinai is complex and it is often misunderstood. I’ll try to make it as simple as I can.
Before we talk about the law given to Israel at Mount Sinai, we should know that there is an objective, universal, eternal moral law. Murder is always wrong, for example. This isn’t said in very explicit terms in the Bible, but it is presupposed. The nations that did not receive the law are still held accountable for their sins, which means there must be some moral or natural law that they transgressed.
But the law in the Old Testament, which we read about in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, was given to Israel, God’s covenant people. This law was given only for a limited period of time, though that period of time was over a thousand years. And the law was given for limited purposes.
One purpose of the law was to give specific descriptions of how the moral law should be employed in that particular, ancient society. So, the law taught general moral principles (particularly the Ten Commandment) and applied them in specific ways to that specific time, place, and culture. We can see that in the many specific laws about paying for damages caused to a neighbor’s property (for example, Exod. 21:33–22:15).
Another purpose of the law was to teach certain principles, such that sin is such a serious crime that it deserves death. Sin is rebellion against God. It’s a failure to love, trust, and obey God. The law also taught that sinners can find atonement through a substitutionary sacrifice. When animals were slaughtered to pay for the penalties of sin, the idea was that the sins of the people were transferred to those animals, who died in place of sinners. Certain laws provided pictures of what separation from idolatrous people would look like. They were pictures of having different practices. That’s why we there are dietary restrictions and laws regarding not wearing garments made of two kinds of fabric, or not sowing two kinds of seeds in one field. Israel was learning how to make distinctions, and to be separate from the nations that surrounded them, because those nations worshiped false gods.
And a third purpose of the law was to reveal how sinful humans are. The law showed Israel that they did not measure up to God’s standards.
But here’s the key thing: we are not saved by obeying the law. No one is. That’s because we don’t obey perfectly. The Israelites failed, time and again, to keep the law. And if we were in ancient Israel, we would have failed, too. So, we do not become right in God’s eyes by first obeying his law. If that were the case, we would never have a right relationship with God.
Even after salvation, we are not bound by the law given to Israel. We are bound by the “law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2). Jesus came to fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17–18). We must understand the law through the lens of Jesus’ fulfillment of the law. That’s why we don’t offer up animal sacrifices—Jesus is the only sacrifice for sin ever needed. That’s why we don’t have to worry about which animals we eat, or whether we’re wearing a poly-cotton blend. The moral principles of the law are still in place, because they are part of God’s unchanging, universal, eternal moral law. But we can’t simply read a law in the Old Testament and apply it to our lives without first thinking about how it is understood in the light of Christ.
Does that mean we can do whatever we please? No. Certain things are always wrong and continue to be wrong for Christians. Look again at that vice list in verses 9 and 10. This vice list shows us some things that are still wrong. It is always wrong to be “lawless and disobedient, . . . ungodly and sinners, . . . unholy and profane, . . . those who strike their fathers and mothers, . . . murderers, . . . sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and [to do] whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.”
Why are these things wrong?
Some people might conclude that God gives us arbitrary rules. Think again of sports. A lot of rules in sports are fairly arbitrary. Why must a football team advance ten yards to get a first down? Why not nine or eleven? Why do they only get four downs to get those ten yards, instead of just three or perhaps five? There’s no great reason. Them’s just the rules. Why three strikes and four balls? There’s really no great reason. It’s just that there needed to be some number that wouldn’t make the game too easy or too hard. Are God’s rules arbitrary? No. There are reasons for them.
Some people assume that if there is some eternal moral law, then that law is greater than God, because even he is bound by it. That’s something captured in a philosophical dilemma called the “Euthyphro dilemma.” The idea is that some things are morally right either because God says them, or because the moral law exists outside of God. If the first option is right, then God could say that murder was morally good. If the second option is right, then the moral law is greater than God.
But there’s a third option. God’s moral law is a reflection of who he is. God says, “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16). God’s laws can also be viewed as something like an instruction manual. God is the creator of life. He designed things to function in certain ways. He knows how his creation works best. He doesn’t give laws to oppress us or rob us of joy. His laws are for our good. And if we love God, we will obey his commandments. That’s why the apostle John writes, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:2–3).
We were made to know, love, trust, worship, and represent God. The first four of the Ten Commandments tell us something about how to relate to God: We should have no other Gods, we shouldn’t have any false gods, or idols, in our lives, we should take God’s name seriously, and we should find our rest in Jesus, his Son (Exod. 20:3–11, interpreted in the light of Christ). So, to be “disobedient, . . . ungodly and sinners” is always wrong. When we rebel against God, we are rejecting the very best “thing” there is, God himself. It’s like trying to fight gravity. It’s foolish and harmful.
The fifth commandment is to honor father and mother (Exod. 20:12). Striking parents or disobeying them is wrong because God designed the family as the basic building block of society and parents are the authorities in the family. Families precede cities and governments and businesses. That’s why Christians care so much about the structure of the family.
Parents were also designed to point us toward a greater Father. Strange as it may seem, God could have designed life so that people reproduced asexually, so that only one parent was needed, or he could have created a world in which no reproduction was necessary. He could have created one generation of a billion people at once, who each lived for thousands of years. Or he could create people out of nothing every once in a while. But he created parents who could create children. And this is a shadow of the Father-Son relationship in the Trinity, and of the Father-children relationship of God and his people. Those who dishonor their parents are more likely to dishonor God.
The sixth commandment is against murder (Exod. 20:13). Murder is wrong because it’s killing someone made in the image of God (Gen. 9:5–6). To kill an innocent person is a great insult to God, because human beings are the height of his creation.
The seventh commandment is against adultery (Exod. 20:14). Strictly speaking, that prohibits a man from having sex with another man’s wife. But it was interpreted more broadly to prohibit any sex outside of marriage, which is the union of one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5; Mark 10:7; Eph. 5:31). Jesus even interprets lust as a violation of this commandment (Matt. 5:27–28).
Why is any form of sexual immorality, including homosexual activity, wrong? Are these just arbitrary commandments designed to take away fun? No. God created sex, and he created it to be enjoyed only in the context of marriage. God’s design for marriage is found in Genesis 2, before sin entered into the world and caused all kinds of disordered sexual desires. The definition of marriage in Genesis 2 is also affirmed by Jesus (Matt. 19:5; Mark 10:7). The reason why God’s laws regarding sex and marriage are so serious is because God designed both to be a shadow of the exclusive, faithful, relationship of God and his people (Eph. 5:31–32). In a marriage two parties who are different come together. In the marriage of God and his people, it’s two different parties. It’s not God and God, or humans and humans. It’s God and human beings. Or, if you like, it’s the God-man, Jesus Christ, and his people. But what matters is that Jesus is God, and he is united to mere human beings. That is best reflected in a heterosexual relationship.
Of course, I realize that what the Bible teaches about homosexuality is rejected by most Americans today. But just because a majority of people hold an opinion doesn’t mean that opinion is right. It’s often the case that what is right is rejected by many people.
The passages in the Bible regarding homosexuality are rather clear. Revisionist scholars try to say that those passages are really about something other than committed, consensual homosexual unions that we find today. They say they are about men dominating teenage boys, which certainly was common in the Roman Empire in the time of Jesus and Paul. They say those passages really are about some strange sexual rites performed at pagan temples. They say these passages really prohibit excessive lust. But the passages don’t discuss these issues. Most of the passages are rooted in God’s design for men and women, and they often echo Genesis 1 and 2. (The language of Rom. 1:18–23, which precedes descriptions of homosexual activity in Rom. 1:24–27, echoes Genesis 1:26–28; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, which also includes homosexuality in a vice list, comes before a quotation of Gen. 2:24 in 1 Cor. 6:16.)
If the biblical prohibitions in the Bible are regarded as arbitrary, it’s hard to provide a reason why there can’t be three people in a relationship instead of two, or why two brothers or two sisters couldn’t be in a sexual relationship. Yet most reasonable people realize there are boundaries to sexual relationships. So, why not trust that the boundaries that God has drawn are the right ones?
The fact is that most of us are sexual sinners. Even if we have never had sex, or have only had sex with our spouses, we have likely sinned or coveted another person’s husband or wife. The Bible focuses a lot more on heterosexual sin than homosexual sin. And there is hope for heterosexual and homosexual sinners. In another one of Paul’s letters, 1 Corinthians, Paul writes:
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9–11).
Any sinner can be made right with God. The question is whether that person will turn to God and away from sin. Not one of us will be perfect in this life. We will struggle with sin even after becoming Christians. Remember, we’re not saved from condemnation because of our perfect obedience. But salvation comes to those who trust in Jesus, and that requires repentance, a turning away from our old ways.
Getting back to Paul’s vice list in 1 Timothy, he makes reference to the eighth commandment, which is against stealing (Exod. 20:15). But he does that by mentioning “enslavers,” those who kidnap people and make them slaves or sell them as slaves. Stealing someone else’s property is wrong, because it harms that person. It elevates things above people. But this goes further: stealing a person is wrong because it treats a person as a thing. Philo, a Jewish writer of the first century, said, “A kidnapper also is a thief; but he is, moreover, a thief who steals the very most excellent thing that exists upon the earth.”
Some people have claimed that the Bible doesn’t say anything against slavery. But that’s not true. This verse says otherwise. So does the book of Philemon. But we’ll talk more about slavery when we get to 1 Timothy 6:1–2.
Paul also references the ninth commandment, which is against bearing false witness against one’s neighbor (Exod. 20:16). Paul says “liars, perjurers,” which deals both with legal false witness as well as a broader category of deceit. God is a God of truth and Jesus himself is the truth (John 14:6). So, lies are contrary to God and his ways.
Paul doesn’t mention the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting (Exod. 20:17), but he does give a blanket statement that sinners are those who practice “whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”
The word “sound” means “healthy.” Sins aren’t healthy. Right theology leads to health. Bad theology leads to disaster.
We can be unhealthy by believing false things about God. We can be unhealthy when we focus too much on true things. When we get obsessed with minor doctrines and make those ultimate priorities, we can quickly become unhealthy. We shouldn’t major on minors and minor on majors.
The center of Christianity is the gospel, the good news that God saves sinners through the work of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God who also became a human being. The gospel is healthy, because it restores us to spiritual health. And it glorifies God because God gets all the credit for saving sinful wretches like you and me. If we were saved by our own obedience, we would be glorified. But the gospel says that all have sinned (Rom. 3:23). The gospel says that only Jesus lived the perfect life (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22), yet he died to pay for our sins. He is the true substitutionary, atoning sacrifice. We must never forget that we are not saved by our knowledge, our obedience, our goodness, or our strength. No, Jesus “became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).
Today, I urge us to know and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only Jesus brings true, eternal health. Christianity involves knowing right things about God, but it’s more than that. It is about a relationship with Jesus. If we truly know Jesus, we will know facts about him, and we will live a life that is pleasing to him. That means turning from sin and embracing God’s moral law, not as a means of earning God’s favor or maintaining a relationship with him. No, our standing with God is based on whether we trust Jesus or not. But if you love Jesus, you will keep his commandments, and you will find that they are not burdensome, but they are intended for your good.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- This is quoted in James R. White, What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2013), 233. It apparently comes from section BB of Jacob Neusner, The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011). ↑
- Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2000). ↑
- “In line with Pauline thought elsewhere, but not expressed here, the law functions to reveal sin (Rom 3:20; 5:13; 7:7–12; 1 Cor 15:56; Gal 3:19). The law is good (Rom 7:7, 12, 14; 3:31), but human sin has made it ineffectual (Rom 7:13–25; 8:3) because it could not empower a person to follow the law. The righteous have outgrown the law (Rom 7:1–4; Gal 3:19, 23–4:7), have died to it (Rom 7:6; Gal 2:19), and are now captive to the law of Christ (Rom 7:4–6, 22, 25; 8:2, 7), slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:18) and of God (Rom 6:22; Gal 2:19), not under the law but under grace (Rom 6:14).” William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2000), 34. ↑
- Charles Duke Yonge with Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 617. ↑
- MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell made that claim in 2013. See Clare Kim, “Pastor Is under Fire for Views That Are in the Bible, NBCNews.com, January 11, 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/50433217/t/pastor-under-fire-views-are-bible; Billy Hallowell, “MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell Mocks the Bible and Urges Obama to Exclude It from the Inauguration,” The Blaze, January 11, 2013, https://www.theblaze.com/news/2013/01/11/msnbcs-lawrence-odonnell-mocks-the-bible-urges-obama-to-exclude-it-from-the-inauguration. ↑
Does anyone here receive letters anymore? It seems like most of our correspondence is done through emails, texts, and phone calls. When we go to check our mail, we usually don’t expect letters. We’re prepared to deal with junk mail, advertisements, bills, and perhaps a package. But occasionally we’ll still receive an important letter in the mail.
Last Tuesday was Tax Day, and whether you had filed your taxes in February or at the last minute, you know it’s an important thing to do. And whether you owed the IRS money or received a refund, you hope not to hear back from them. But sometimes we do receive a letter from the IRS, and that will surely get your attention. Last year, I received a letter from the IRS in May which said I owed money. I had received a small refund in April, but my tax preparer neglected to include a form that dealt with the tax credit I received to help pay for health care. I had received too large of an advanced credit and had to pay pack the difference to the government. You can be sure that letter got my attention.
Now, that’s a letter concerning tax obligations to the government. That’s an important thing. We usually pay attention to issues regarding money and possibly getting into trouble with the government. But what if we received an even more important letter?
What if we received a letter from God, telling us how “to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15)? Shouldn’t we pay more attention to that letter? If we are God’s people, shouldn’t we want to know how to behave in his house, the church? Shouldn’t we want to know how God expects his church to operate?
I think the answers to those questions should be, “Yes.” And today we’re going to start to look at such a letter, the book of 1 Timothy.
Today is going to be an introduction to the book. Since we’re going to spend about four months in this book and some related passages in the New Testament, I thought it would be good to help us understand its background. Today may feel more like a lecture than a sermon, though I hope what I say today will inspire us to worship God and to be confident that what we read in the Bible is truly God’s word.
There are three things that I want to address today. First, I want us to know who wrote this letter. Second, I want us to know to whom the letter was written. And then, third, I want us to get a glimpse of what this letter is about.
So, without further ado, let’s start by reading the first two verses of this book. Here is 1 Timothy 1:1–2:
1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope,
2 To Timothy, my true child in the faith:
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
These verses clearly state that the letter is from the apostle Paul. So, let’s discuss who Paul was.
A lot of us know something about Paul, but I don’t want to take that knowledge for granted. So, here’s a quick background. Paul was a Jewish man, born sometime around or shortly after Jesus was born. He was born in the city of Tarsus (Acts 9:11; 21:39; 22:3), one of the more significant cities in the Roman Empire and now part of Turkey. He had two names, one Hebrew and the other Latin, so he is sometimes referred to as Saul, and then mostly later as Paul. (His name didn’t change at the time of his conversion.) He was educated in Jerusalem under a rabbi named Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Later, he became a Pharisee (Acts 23:6; 26:5; Phil. 3:5), one of the prominent sects of Judaism. Pharisees weren’t the official religious leaders—those were the priests—but they were lay leaders who were experts in the Torah, the law of the Old Testament.
That was Paul’s position at the time when Jesus died and then rose from the grave. And as the Christian movement started to spread in Jerusalem, a man named Stephen was killed. The Jewish people thought that he was blaspheming, speaking against the temple, so they killed him. He was the first Christian martyr. And when that happened, we read this in Acts: “Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58). When Stephen died, we read, “And Saul approved of his execution” (Acts 8:1).
After Stephen’s death, Saul persecuted other Christians, arresting them and bringing them to prison (Acts 8:3). Paul apparently approved of the deaths of other Christians, casting a vote against them (Acts 26:10–11).
Saul was so against Christianity, surely thinking that this new religious movement was blasphemous, that he even traveled from Jerusalem to Damascus to try to round up Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem, where they would surely die. We read this in Acts 9:1–5:
1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
From that time on, Paul’s life was changed. He would then become the greatest of Jesus’ special messengers, his apostles. He traveled throughout the Roman Empire, going to major cities to declare that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the long-awaited King that God promised would come. He declared that Jesus is Lord, the one who lived a perfect life and died on the cross in place of sinners and then rose from the grave.
Paul went from being a zealous persecutor of the church to a zealous church planter. He was so convinced that his message was true that he endured great hardships, including beatings and imprisonments. And he would later die in Rome. The church historian Eusebius says that Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero, who died in the year 68. It is even claimed that Paul and Peter died on the same day. Paul probably wrote 1 Timothy a few years before his death, but after he was released from his first imprisonment in Rome, which is described in the book of Acts.
So, that is a brief biography of Paul, the man to whom thirteen letters in the New Testament are credited.
But some people don’t believe that Paul wrote all those letters, including 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. Now, I want you to know this not because I believe it. I believe that Paul wrote the letters that bear his name. But it’s common to hear doubts about Paul’s authorship in some prominent places. When you hear a story about the Bible on NPR or read about it in Time magazine, it’s often a story that casts doubt on the truth and authority of the Bible. If you go into a secular bookstore and make your way to the religion section, you might see books by a scholar named Bart Ehrman, who wrote a booked called Forged. Ehrman claims that many of the books in the New Testament were not written by the people we think they were written by.
Now, this is quite a serious claim. Think about what would happen if you got a letter from the IRS claiming that you owed them money. You would want to know if the IRS actually wrote and mailed you that letter, wouldn’t you? Otherwise, it would be a scam. If the books of the Bible were not written by apostles or people who had access to eyewitness testimony, then how could we trust that what they said was true? How could we believe that such letters were God’s word?
Well, Ehrman doesn’t believe the Bible is from God. His whole project is to get people to doubt the claims of Christianity.
But there are some people who are Christians who believe that such books of the Bible like 2 Thessalonians, the so-called “Pastoral Letters” (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), and 2 Peter weren’t written by Paul and Peter. Sometimes other books (Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter) are often on that list. These Christian scholars believe that there was a known practice at the time of some people writing in the name of others. They say that students of a more famous person wrote in the name of their deceased teacher. They say that as long as the content was generally the thoughts of the one whose name is used, and if people understood this practice of writing in another’s name, then it wasn’t deceptive.
What are we to make of these claims? Can we trust that this letter of 1 Timothy was actually written by Paul?
Well, when we hear claims like this, we have to think about evidence. Whenever you hear a claim made about the Bible, such as that it contains contradictions or false statements, you have to ask for the evidence behind these claims. So, what is the evidence that Paul did or didn’t write this letter?
There are two types of evidence that scholars consider. One is called external evidence. That’s the kind of evidence that is outside the actual text of the book. External evidence concerns things like what the earliest writers outside the Bible said about this book. It also deals with what kind of manuscript evidence we have.
The fact is that we don’t have the original copies of any ancient documents. We don’t have video of people writing them. So, we lack the kind of “proof” that many modern people would like to have. But that doesn’t mean we have no evidence. We have copies of the original text and we have the writings of early Christian theologians who make references to the books of the Bible.
As far as 1 Timothy goes, we don’t have anyone in church history doubting that Paul wrote this book until the nineteenth century. Think about that. For almost eighteen hundred years, everyone assumed that Paul wrote this letter. For someone to change their mind about this issue and fly in the face of eighteen hundred years of church history, there should be some pretty strong evidence that Paul didn’t write this book. But there’s no evidence that anyone else wrote this letter, no early document that claims something like, “There’s this letter going around addressed to Timothy, but we all know Paul didn’t write it.” As early as the beginning of the second century, we have Christians quoting from 1 Timothy. Polycarp (69–155) wrote his own Letter to the Philippians at the beginning of the second century. And in one section he seems to quote from 1 Timothy and Ephesians:
“But the love of money is the root of all evils.” Knowing, therefore, that “as we brought nothing into the world, so we can carry nothing out,” let us arm ourselves with the armour of righteousness; and let us teach, first of all, ourselves to walk in the commandments of the Lord.
So, all the external evidence seems to point to the fact that Paul wrote this letter.
The other type of evidence that scholars consider is internal evidence. This refers to the actual text of the document. Some scholars notice that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus use different vocabulary than Paul’s other letters. In addition to different words, there are differences in grammar, syntax, and ways of making an argument (rhetoric). So, these scholars can’t believe that one man would right, say, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans, and also 1 Timothy.
But there may be good reasons why Paul used a different writing style in the Pastoral Letters. One reason may be that he was addressing different concerns. The issues he was dealing with in 1 Timothy were different than the issues in Galatians. Also, Paul was writing to a specific individual (though in a public way, as we’ll see), not to a whole church. Additionally, Paul’s vocabulary might have been affected by learning the Latin language. “Paul could have learned Latin during his first imprisonment in Rome in order to extend his ministry westward” to Spain. Finally, Paul might have used a different secretary to write the letter.
It was common for writers to use an amanuensis, or a secretary. If I asked you who wrote the book of Romans, you would probably say Paul. And you’re not wrong (Rom. 1:1–7). But take a look at Romans 16:22: “I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord.” Tertius was the man who actually put pen to paper (or stylus to papyrus, technically). Paul probably dictated the content of the letter. It was possible for secretaries to have some input into the actual wording of the letter. This still happens today. Letters from various authorities are often written by their assistants. The content of the letter and the final format of the letter are approved by their bosses, but the one doing the writing was someone else. That might have been the case in Paul’s last letters, though no person is specifically mentioned. Some think Luke might have been the actual writer of the letters, while Paul was the author, the one dictating the basic content.
At any rate, the point is that there is no good reason to believe the author is anyone but Paul. If it wasn’t Paul, it was someone trying to deceive. Paul says that Timothy is his “true child in the faith.” Paul wasn’t Timothy’s biological or even adoptive father, but his spiritual mentor. And if someone other than Paul were writing this, it would be false.
A scholar named Lewis Donelson wrote a book on the issue of falsely attributed letters in ancient Greece and Rome. I don’t think he’s a Christian and he believed that there are pseudonymous letters in the New Testament. But he said this, “No one ever seems to have accepted a document as religiously and philosophically prescriptive which was known to be forged. I do not know a single example.” He later adds, “We are forced to admit that in Christian circles pseudonymity was considered a dishonorable device and, if discovered, the document was rejected and the author, if known, was excoriated.”
So, if this letter wasn’t written by Paul, it’s a forgery, and it should be rejected. But since we don’t have good reasons to believe anyone other than Paul wrote it, we should go along with the vast majority of Christians and accept that it comes from the apostle himself.
And I take time to say all of this because we should be confident that the Bible is the word of God. It’s not something that some deceptive or misguided people concocted. It’s not a fabrication or a forgery. Yet we often hear that the Bible wasn’t written by the people who allegedly wrote it, or that it’s full of errors or contradictions. Don’t buy into those claims. Ask people who make those claims, “What is the evidence? Can you prove that to me?”
The letter was written by Paul to Timothy. And that brings us to the second issue, the letter’s initial audience. Who was Timothy? Timothy was Paul’s younger associate. We first meet Timothy in the Bible in Acts 16. He had a Gentile father and a Jewish-Christian mother. In Acts, we’re told that Timothy was already a disciple, a Christian, when Paul took him on his second missionary journey. It’s likely that he became a Christian because of Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 14). From the time of his second missionary journey onward, Timothy was either with Paul or represented Paul in places where Paul couldn’t be. Paul said of Timothy, “I have no one like him” (Phil. 2:20). In fact, six of Paul’s letter are said to be from Timothy as well as Paul, though they are obviously authored by Paul (see 2 Cor. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; Philem. 1).
So, Timothy was Paul’s coworker. We might say he was an apostolic delegate. And at this time, he was in the city of Ephesus, where Paul had preached years earlier. Paul had spent about two-and-a-half in that city (Acts 19), and even after he left, he met with the elders of the church in Ephesus (Acts 20). Paul obviously had a lot invested in that city. It was a significant one in that part of the Roman Empire, in a province called Asia Minor, in the western part of what is now known as Turkey.
Timothy had the responsibility of making sure the church in Ephesus was in good order. But Paul didn’t write to Timothy only. At the very end of the letter, Paul writes, “Grace be with you” (1 Tim. 6:21). In the original Greek language, the “you” is in the plural. We might say “you all” in English. So, the letter isn’t written to just Timothy. It is written for the whole of the church in Ephesus. The whole church should know what Paul has written.
And that brings us to the final issue we’ll look at today. What is this letter about? Let’s look at 1 Timothy 3:14–16:
14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
First, notice that Paul gives the reason why he is writing. He hopes to visit Timothy in Ephesus soon, but he’s writing this letter so that if he can’t get there soon, Timothy will know how people ought to behave in the household of God. The church is the living God’s home. It is a pillar and buttress of truth. If we care about God and about the truth, we’re going to pay careful attention to how the church should operate, and how we should behave in God’s house. (God’s house isn’t this building, it’s a people!) That’s why studying this letter is so important.
Second, notice that Paul presents a short confession of faith. This is probably some kind of statement—whether it was a hymn or a creed—about Jesus that Paul was quoting. Jesus is the God who took on flesh, he is the God-man. His identity and his ministry were vindicated by the Holy Spirit, particularly when he rose from the grave after dying on the cross. Paul doesn’t give us a clear message of Jesus’ death here, but the reason why Jesus died was not because of his sin. He didn’t have any. He was the only perfect person, the only one who ever walked this earth and lived a perfect life. Yet he was treated like a criminal, dying on an instrument of torture and death, so that the penalty for our sin could be paid.
Yet Jesus was vindicated by his resurrection. He had been sealed in a tomb on the first day, the day of his death. But on the third day, he rose from the grave in a body that is immortal and indestructible. His resurrected body is the first installment of something that will come later, the new creation. This old creation has been tainted by sin, our rebellion against God. Everything that we think is wrong with this world, whether fighting between people, natural disasters, our own feelings of depression and anxiety, and even death itself, can be traced back to sin. Worst of all, our sense of being distant from God is the result of human rebellion against him. Jesus’ perfect life and his sacrifice on the cross remove that distance for all who trust in him. We can truly be reconciled to God. Yet we still live a hard life in the old creation. But when Jesus returns to Earth, he will renew it. It will be a day of judgment for those who reject Jesus, but it will be a day of glory for those who trust in him. The best part of Jesus’ return is the resurrection of his people. We who believe in Jesus will have resurrected bodies. And the universe will have its own resurrection. There will be no more famine and flooding, no more weeping and sadness, and no more death.
This confession of faith also says that Jesus was seen by angels, presumably after his resurrection. And he was seen by many human witnesses, too. They proclaimed Jesus throughout the Roman Empire. Paul had a large role to play in that mission. Many Jews and Gentiles came to believe in Jesus. And Jesus was taken up into glory. He ascended to heaven, where he is right now with God the Father. He serves as the high priest of his people, pleading his sacrifice on their behalf, so that their sins are covered. He intercedes for us, praying for us, just as the Holy Spirit intercedes for those who don’t know how to pray.
This is the core of the Christian faith. That is why Paul says in the very first verse of this letter that Jesus is “our hope.”
Part of the reason why Paul wrote this letter to Timothy is because there were false teachers in Ephesus, people who were teaching something contrary to the message that Paul taught. From the beginning, there were false teachers who invaded churches, just as there are false teachers today who pervert and corrupt the message of Christianity. Part of Paul’s concerns in this letter is to make sure that sound doctrine is taught. As we go through this letter, we’ll see that.
I suppose that is why Paul begins this letter by stating that he is “an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus.” An apostle is a special envoy or messenger. The apostles were the ones who were commissioned by Jesus to be his messengers, the ones who saw Jesus in the flesh, particularly after his resurrection. These false teachers weren’t apostles, certainly not by the command of God the Father and Christ Jesus, God the Son.
And Paul mentions that Timothy is his “true child in the faith.” The false teachers were not brought up in the faith the way that Timothy was. Timothy was Paul’s true spiritual heir, his true representative. Not everyone who claims to speak for God is God’s messenger or mouthpiece. But Paul was, and so was Timothy.
Finally, this letter is also about the grace, mercy, and peace that come from God. Notice that these things come from both “God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” This shows that Jesus is God. The very word “Lord” indicates that, but the fact that God the Father and Jesus are both the givers of grace, mercy, and peace indicates that they act as one.
The word “grace” refers to the fact that salvation is a gift from God. We are not in the right with God because we are good people, because we’ve earned his favor, or because we’ve followed all the rules. Christianity teaches that it is impossible for us to earn something from God and that it’s impossible for us to be perfect, which is what God’s perfect standards require. But God is generous. He gives us what we don’t deserve. God doesn’t forget our sin, though. He doesn’t just shrug it off or sweep it under the rug. No, God is a perfect judge, and judges don’t ignore the evidence in front of them. But God sent his Son, who came willingly to take on the punishment that our crimes deserve. All of this is a gift.
The word “mercy” can refer to acts of pity. If grace is a gift, something we don’t deserve, mercy is not giving us over to what we do deserve. But the Greek word translated as “mercy” was used to translate a Hebrew word in the Old Testament that is often translated as “steadfast love” in English. The idea is that God is faithful to the covenant he has made with his people, and his love for his people endures even in spite of their sin.
And the word “peace” doesn’t refer to a feeling, but an objective reality. We can be at peace with God because of the work of Jesus on our behalf. This implies that before coming to Jesus, we’re at war with God. We start out life as God’s enemies, ignoring the King of the Universe, and even rebelling against him, acting as though we are little kings and queens. But once we come to Jesus, that war against God is over. We submit to his loving rule, and he does not treat us according to our rebellion.
Even in these three words, we get a sense of the core of Christianity. Yet Christianity doesn’t do away with all rules. God has designed our lives. He is, after all, the Creator of everything, including the church. He knows best how the church should operate. In order to be a church that accurately reflects the God of order, we need to conduct the church according to God’s rules.
To be the church of Christ, we must maintain this confession of faith. We must hang on to the truth that God has revealed to us.
In order to be a church of grace and mercy, we must know the gospel and act according to it.
That’s why this letter matters so much.
If you don’t know what Christianity is about, I invite you to come back. The rest of the sermons in this series won’t be like this one. But we’re going through this letter because it’s important for the church. And you really can’t separate a right relationship with God from a right relationship with a local church. If you want to know more about Jesus and the Bible, I would love to talk to you personally.
For the rest of us, there will be plenty for us to consider, for as we move through 1 Timothy, we’ll find that all of us will be challenged. God’s word has a way of doing that. But it leads us to truth, and when we follow God’s instructions, we find that his commands are not burdensome. Instead, we find grace, mercy, and peace in the household of the living God.
- Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.25. ↑
- Bart Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011). ↑
- 1 Tim. 6:10. ↑
- 1 Tim. 6:7. ↑
- Eph. 6:11. ↑
- Polycarp of Smryna, “The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians” 4, in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 34. ↑
- William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, vol. 46, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2000), c. ↑
- This is also why, at the end of some of his letters, Paul personally writes a greeting, to verify that the letter is actually his. See 1 Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11. ↑
- Lewis R. Donelson, Pseudepigraphy and Ethical Argument in the Pastoral Epistles, Hermeneutische Untersuchungen zur Theologie 22 (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1986), 10. ↑
- Ibid., 16. ↑
- The Greek word is ἔλεος (eleos) and the Hebrew word is חסד (ḥesed). ↑
Pastor Brian Watson presents an introduction to the book of 1 Timothy. Who wrote 1 Timothy? To whom was it written? What’s it about? Find out and learn more about the Bible.