1 Timothy

Introduction

The Circumstances

From the letter itself we learn that Paul had left Timothy in charge at Ephesus while he himself travelled on to Macedonia (1:3). Timothy was instructed by Paul to oppose a group of false teachers who were troubling the Ephesian congregation, and to bring things back to normal. For this reason 1 Timothy could be described as a little book of church order, the first of its kind in Christian history. In Paul's own words he is writing to Timothy so that he may know how to conduct matters in the church of God (3:14f.).

Paul takes into account the kind of person Timothy is, and matches his writing to the man, by words of personal advice and encouragement throughout the letter. In this way Paul the older statesman holds out pastoral oversight to young Timothy, as he faces up to difficult decisions and awkward people.

The letter is addressed in the first place to Timothy, but apparently its contents were meant to be read out to the church as well (6:21, "you" is plural). With the hindsight of experience Paul saw how important it was for the congregation to respect Timothy by learning what Paul had appointed him to do among them. So 1 Timothy is a letter that combines a great deal of professional advice to a young leader of the church with teaching for the congregation to absorb and practise.

The Destination

1 Timothy is written to the church at Ephesus, the capital city of the Roman province of Asia. It was a natural seaport, a business and entertainment centre famous for its theatres, baths and libraries. Most of all it boasted one of the wonders of the ancient world, the huge temple of Artemis, a fertility goddess whose image filled the temple and it was claimed had fallen from heaven (perhaps as a meteorite, Acts 19:35).

The church appears to have been founded by Paul during a brief stopover there about 52 ad while he was travelling with Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:18f.). He built on this foundation during his third missionary journey, when he made Ephesus the centre for reaching out with the gospel to the whole of Asia (Acts 19:1-20:38). This visit lasted three years, marked a high point in his Gentile work, and established Ephesus along with Antioch as one of the mother churches of the Mediterranean mission field.

The spiritual history of the Ephesian church can be traced through the New Testament. It began zealously in love but degenerated later into formalism (Rev. 2:1-7). It suffered from outside interference by travelling preachers peddling alternative doctrines to the Christian faith, as well as being disturbed by internal disputes due to local faction fighting (Acts 2O:29f.). At the time of writing 1 Timothy, Paul has left the Ephesian church in the charge of Timothy who was to contend against the seditious and corrupting influences of gnostic-Jewish groups who were perverting the gospel and the faith of some of the church members and their families.

The Themes

From the point of view of systematic theology, 1 Timothy comes under the topic of the church (ecclesiology), because it has so much to say about the church as the household of God and the pillar of the truth (3:14f.). Its treatment of the church differs, however, from say 1 Corinthians where the church is seen in its members, their group dynamics, problems of discipline, gifts of the Spirit and their control, and misunderstandings of Christian doctrines such as holiness and the resurrection. In 1 Timothy the institutional nature of the church is to the fore, the qualifications for holding office are discussed, the different social groups are addressed, and issues in corporate worship are dealt with. The approach in 1 Timothy is structural, practical, liturgical and behavioural.

So while a book like 1 Corinthians sees the church dynamically and in a very human way, and Ephesians places the church in the overall plan of God within history, 1 Timothy looks at the church from the standpoint of order and standards of belief and practice. All three approaches are necessary for a balanced understanding and response. In this way 1 Timothy fits into the total perspective of the New Testament concerning the church of Jesus Christ.

Three themes run through the letter, and around them the main message is developed.

Paul's paradigm of the church in 1 Timothy is constructed largely around these three recurring aspects. Like a skeleton they provide the infracture of principles onto which Paul attaches all the practical details of his church doctrine. All three are essential for a working model of the church in the modern world. Without sound teaching the church will lose its saltiness and cease to function in society. Without sound leaders the church will lose its integrity and become like any other social institution. Without sound structures the church will break up into factions and lose its unity and effectiveness. A threefold cord is not easily broken (Eccles. 4:12).

The Modern Message

The religious climate and the social scene at the close of Paul's life in the middle sixties of the first century was one of transition. The Roman empire was beginning to show the first real signs of its eventual collapse due to the personal excesses of its emperors, the restiveness of segments of the population like the slaves, the infiltration of new ideas and religions from the East, and the pressure being exerted inwards by the newly-conquered peoples on its peripheries. Inside this melting pot the Christian movement and the Christian churches were facing the future with uncertainty as they battled against the pluralistic viewpoints in philosophy, popular religion and the immorality of the times.

At the end of the second millenium Christian churches, in the western world most noticeably but globally as well, face an uncertain future in which futurologists have written them out of the score. The pressures being exerted on the Christian faith and the churches are immense, through the rise of a new paganism rooted in secular humanism, hedonistic morality, and the rejection of all absolutes and objective norms in the post-modern movement and mind-set. The temptation to compromise and to accommodate the spirit of the age is great.

But 1 Timothy points us in a different direction. It reminds and assures the modern Christian reader of the certainty of the Christian faith that has come down to us through the apostolic tradition enshrined in the holy Scriptures. It assures us of the emptiness of much so-called knowledge, particularly in the religious and spiritual realms. It teaches us the right way to live: we are to order our lives corporately in our local churches, and individually in the world, by following the path of godliness, righteousness and good works. It forewarns us of the escalation of wickedness and irreligion in the world in the last days, and forearms us in doing so. It finally reaffirms our faith in the supremacy of God who alone is the Ruler of the world throughout history and controls everything for his eternal glory and the completion of his saving purposes.

As the Christian churches turn the corner into the third millenium of Christian history, 1 Timothy speaks to our situation with remarkable relevance and foresight. As a book written in troubled times, when the first eyewitnesses of the Christian faith were passing away and the apostles were transmitting the gospel for a new generation, 1 Timothy helps the modern churches to navigate the uncharted waters that lie before them. It opens up some safe harbours, clear landmarks and wide horizons for Christian leaders and their people to aim for, and rest in.

1 Timothy: Chapter 1

In this opening chapter, after the normal greeting (1-2), Paul immediately addresses the local problems of the Ephesian church (3-7). This in turn leads Paul into two short discussions, one about the Law and the gospel (8-11), the other about his own relationship to the gospel (12-16). This digression ends with the first of two doxologies (verse 17, cf. 6:15f.). Finally Paul comes back to the local situation and Timothy's work in it (18-20). The contents and argument of this chapter are therefore highly diversified, although there is a logical link between each of the sections in sequence.

Greetings - (1:1-2)

Letters in the ancient world began with the name of the sender. This letter is from Paul, who became the most famous of all Christian missionaries. He was a Jew born in Tarsus, a cosmopolitan city in the Roman province of Cilicia, a fact that made him conscious of pagan culture from birth, and helped him as a missionary to it in later life. He may possibly have been brought up in Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jewish world, and trained there as a rabbi or religious teacher (Acts 22:3; 26:4). Since Paul was a Roman citizen, a status that was his by birth, he possessed three Latin names of which Paul was probably the family one. Paul was sometimes able to use his Roman citizenship in his own defence in the service of the Christian faith (Acts 13:9; 22:25ff.).

He belonged to the strict order of the Pharisees, who tried to live by the laws of Moses in the Old Testament, along with the unwritten sacred traditions that had been handed down in the religious schools for centuries (Acts 21:39; 22:3). All this gave him an intimate acquaintance with the legalist ethos of the Jewish system, which he broke with and wrote against when he became a Christian, as in his letters to the Galatians, the Romans and the Philippians.

In spite of attempts to disprove Paul's authorship of this letter, no Greek manuscript evidence exists to support these efforts. The manuscripts all contain Paul's name in the greeting.

Paul writes as an apostle of Christ Jesus, which means that he belonged to a group of men, unique in the Christian church, since each of them had been called in person by Jesus Christ and seen him alive from the dead (Acts 9:4ff.; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:7f.). Because they were chosen to receive, transmit and explain the message of God's saving plan, which centres in Jesus Christ, his eternal Son, they hold a position that makes them authoritative teachers and pastors of the whole Christian church in history (Eph. 3:2ff.; 4:11ff.). They exercise this authority and teaching office through their inspired writings, which make up the New Testament Scriptures (1 Cor. 2:9ff.; 14:37; Eph. 3:2ff.).

If we think of the whole Christian church as a magnificent temple that is currently being built by the Spirit of God as he adds believers from all nations into its construction, then we can think of the apostles, along with Jesus Christ, the sole Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5), as forming the single foundation of the whole building, once for all laid down (Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14).

Paul was entrusted with this position (1 Cor. 4:1f.; 9:16f.; 1 Thess. 2:4) through a divine command which had changed his life in an unforgettable way, when he was dramatically and unexpectedly converted from the service of the Law to the service of Jesus Christ (Acts 26:12ff.; Gal. 1:15f.). This command came from God our Saviour, who has shown himself to be a Saviour God by intervening personally, and acting savingly, in human history in the person of Jesus Christ. All those throughout the ages, who like Paul have come to place their entire confidence in this God and to serve him alone, can speak of him as our God and Saviour, meaning that he is committed to them in love and faithfulness as his own people and possession (1 Pet. 2:9f.).

God has revealed his saving plan, not as a philosophical set of ideas, nor as a system of morality, but essentially as a person - Christ Jesus. "Christ" is a Greek-based word, the equivalent of the Hebrew-based word Messiah which means "anointed". In Israelite practice kings, prophets and priests were anointed with oil as a symbol of their sacred position and of the spiritual gift of the Spirit of the Lord to assist them in their work (Exod. 29:7; 1 Sam. 16:13; 1 Kings 19:15f.). At his baptism Jesus received the anointing of God's Holy Spirit because he was the true and final prophet, priest and king of God's appointing (Acts 2:25-32; 3:22-26; Heb. 7). To carry out such a unique task Christ needed to receive the Holy Spirit without measure (John 3:34; Heb. 9:14). Since his ascension Christ has been given a new access to the Spirit for the sake of his church on earth (Acts 2:33, 36; Rev. 3:1).

"Jesus' was the human, historical name of Christ. He was known as Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:22), the town where he grew up and learned the skill of carpentry, and where his family was known (Mark 6:3). He lived during the time of the Roman empire, from the period around the beginning of the first century, when Augustus was emperor, and the years around 30 ad, when Tiberius was emperor (Luke 2:1ff.; 3:1). He died under the governorship of Pontius Pilate in Palestine. He was identical with other men and women in every human trait, with the exception of their innate and actual sinfulness (Heb. 4:15).

By lining up the name of Christ Jesus with that of God our Saviour, Paul is indicating that God and Christ were working together in the plan of salvation, Jesus being the human agent of God's sovereign will. Jesus Christ is our hope because the confidence of Christians for the future rests in all that Jesus Christ is personally and has done historically on behalf of sinful men and women who trust in him (Col. 1:27; 1 Pet. 1:20f.). Because of this Christians hope to share in all the glories of the resurrection and the splendours of heavenly existence when Jesus returns. Essentially they hope to see Jesus as he is, to be like him and to be with him (1 John 3:2f.).

The letter is written in the first place to Timothy my true son in the faith Timothy was already a Christian disciple when Paul first met him (Acts 16:1) and took him to be his helper in the service of the gospel (Acts 19:22). The relationship so deepened that they became like a father and son, full of mutual affection and trust ("my true son", Phil. 2:22; 1 Tim. 1:18). In spite of Timothy's youth and his recurring ill-health (1 Tim. 4:12; 5:23; 2 Tim. 1:6f.), Paul respected and recommended him before all his other helpers because of his selfless motives (Phil. 2:19ff.). As a result Paul sent him on some difficult assignments (1 Thess. 3:2; 1 Cor. 16:10f.). This close working relationship between the two men grew out of their shared faith in the Lord Jesus Christ in spite of their age difference. This shows that there need be no generation gap in the Christian church, and that the one thing needful is a common commitment to the same Lord and his message of truth.

As part of his greeting Paul wishes Timothy grace, mercy and peace. "Grace" and "mercy" are God's special qualities that he so richly displays and communicates to us in the person of Jesus Christ and his saving work for us. They are a constant reminder to Christians that they have been eternally saved from their sinful and lost existence, not by anything in themselves, but by the free kindness and actions of God alone (Eph. 2:4ff.; 2 Tim. 1:9f.; Tit. 3:4ff.). "Peace" is the special gift of God's grace and mercy in Jesus Christ, and stands for that total state of wellbeing that comes to those who are reconciled to God through the blood sacrifice of Christ's cross (Col. 1:19f.).

These three gifts together point to the favourable, privileged and perfectly secure position that Christians have in the Lord Jesus Christ in relation to God.

All these privileges and blessings come from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. Paul frequently singles out the Father as the original source of the plan and gifts of salvation (Eph. 1:3ff.), although he always works through the Son and the Holy Spirit (Gal. 4:4-6). In describing God as Father the apostle is using metaphorical language which is non-literal, but conveys a real truth about him in his relationship to Christians. Like a father he loves, is patient with, forgives, provides for, protects and seeks the very best for believers, who are his spiritual children in Jesus Christ his Son. Having God as our Father is the closest that we can possibly come to him, and is the defining relationship of the kingdom of God according to Jesus (Matt. 6:5-15). God's Fatherhood was already known in the Old Testament (Isa. 63:16) but never on an individual basis as it is in the New Testament.

Some have objected to the name Father on sexist grounds and want to substitute titles for God that are above gender distinctions. But the biblical titles for God are themselves God-given and therefore binding on Christians throughout all ages and cultures. Changing these names changes the truth about him because names are bearers of truth in Scripture (Matt. 1:21, 23). To change God's given names is actually to change the truth about him, and to exchange the truth about God for a lie and to end up worshipping the creature rather than the Creator who is to be blessed forever (Rom. 1:25).

Although Paul follows the usual structure of the Greek letter in its general introduction, body and ending, he adapts it freely to his own needs as these two introductory verses show (e.g. "grace" instead of "joy", which was the traditional Greek greeting). By adapting it in this and other ways, Paul illustrates the creative freedom that was allowed to the human writers of Scripture, even while being inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Tim. 3:16).

Study questions

Verse 1: Can there be apostles of Christ Jesus in the churches today? (Mark 3:13-19; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:7f.; Eph. 2:19f.).

What is the place of hope in the Christian life? (Rom. 5:1-5; 8:22-25; Gal. 5:5; 1 Thess. 1:3; Heb. 11:1; 1 Pet. 1:3f).

Verse 2: What is the relation between the Father and the Son in the work of salvation? (John 5:19-23; Rom. 8:32ff.; 1 Cor. 15:24-28; Gal. 4:4f.; Eph. 1:3-7; Heb. 1:1-6.; Rev. 1:4-6).

A Warning About Pseudo Religion (1:3-7)

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus. The letter properly begins here with Paul reminding Timothy of his urgent request to him to stay on in Ephesus, the capital city of the Roman province of Asia, to sort out certain problems that had arisen in the church there. Paul himself had gone on to Macedonia in the north of Greece, perhaps in fulfilment of his promise to the church at Philippi (Phil. 2:24). These movements do not fit in with any of the information of Paul's travels given in Acts. As a result it may be concluded that they belong to a period after Acts (Acts 28:16-31), when Paul was active again in the Mediterranean area (see Introduction).

Paul's commission to Timothy was that you command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer. One of the major concerns of the Pastorals is that of true and false teaching. This is the first of several passages treating this concern. False teachings conceal the truth about God and corrupt people morally. Timothy had the right and authority to confront and correct those individuals who were propagating false teachings. God's revealed Word is the measure of truth and falsehood in doctrine. There are not several ways to truth so that all religious points of view are relatively correct and helpful. There is only one way, and the servant of Christ must defend it jealously (Gal. 1:8f.).

No one can be perfectly clear about who these false teachers were, where they had come from, or what precisely they believed. However, when Paul goes on to say nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, it is fair to say that they were of Jewish background, perhaps in the light of further references to them in the Pastorals, claiming to possess and to offer special and advanced spiritual knowledge. They built their speculative ideas on the basis of their fanciful interpretations of Old Testament genealogies, as for example in Genesis 5 and 11 (2 Tim. 3:8f.; Tit. 1:14; 3:9).

Because their interpretations are not based on a sound understanding of the Scriptures these promote controversies rather than God's work—which is by faith (verse 4). That these interpretations and teachings lead to argument and controversy points to the fact that they are alien to God's written Word, and are rooted instead in the unenlightened human mind. Jesus said that false prophets are always known by the practical fruits they produce (Matt. 7:15-20). The real truth produces a reconciling trust in God, and leads to spiritual healing for men and women. The apostle will return to this theme of the bankruptcy of false religious ideas frequently (1 Tim. 4:7; 6:20f.; 2 Tim. 2:16ff., 23; Tit. 3:9).

Instead of division the goal of this command is love, which is proof of the fact that the ethical teaching of Paul can be traced back to that of Jesus. Christ taught love as a new command that in practice would distinguish his disciples (John 13:34f.). Paul makes the same point in others of his letters (Rom. 13:8ff.; 1 Cor. 13; Gal. 5:13; Col. 3:14) by focusing on love as the supreme goal of Christian behaviour. This love is an extract of God's own love, demonstrated so remarkably by Jesus' death for his enemies, and now poured out in the depths of human hearts through the working of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5ff.). Love is therefore the measure of our knowledge of God and of the quality of our Christian service and relationships. Even to do the right thing without love as the motive is to fail in our actions (1 Cor. 8:1ff.; 13:1-3; 1 John 4:7ff.). Love is also the measure and goal of Christian preaching as Paul sets it before Timothy here.

But this love is not self-generated, it comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith (verse 5). In this anatomy of the inner workings of love Paul traces love back to faith as its source (Gal. 5:6). This is because faith is a personal trust in the God of salvation which puts us right with God on the basis of Christ's life and death of obedience for us (Rom. 3:21-28; Gal. 2:16). At the same time faith in Christ touches the conscience, that inborn moral mechanism which registers favourable and unfavourable verdicts on our conduct in accordance with the law of God written on our heart (Rom. 2:14f.). The conscience is released from the burden of guilt through Christ's sacrificial blood and the inner working of the Holy Spirit, and begins to function properly with a new-found vigour (Heb. 9:13f.; 10:19ff.). Finally the heart, the deep centre of the human person, is washed clean by faith in Christ and made a fit place for God the Holy Spirit to live in (Acts 15:8f.; Gal. 4:6). In each case Paul attaches a qualifier ("pure", "good", "sincere") to show that he is talking about a genuine work of God which results in definite and permanent changes in character and life. For further on a pure heart, a good conscience and genuine faith, see 1 Timothy 1:19; 3:9 and 2 Timothy 1:3, 5; 2:22.

Paul insists on these traits of Christian character because some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk (verse 6). By deliberately rejecting the right path (the same verb is used in 1 Timothy 6:21 and 2 Timothy 2:18), the false teachers have demonstrated that their religious claims to knowledge are spurious. In the same way the apostle John declares that people who forsake the assemblies of God's people make it plain that they have never been true disciples of Christ (1 John 2:19). Apostasy is the proof of terminal unbelief. In the same way these religious gurus at Ephesus preferred the innovations of their own path of enlightenment, and the empty chatter that was part of it.

Apparently they want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm (verse 7). Their ambition is way ahead of their actual ability and knowledge. They covet the teacher's role but they are totally unsuited to the position. Their vain boasting and loud claims are a cover-up for profound ignorance and a total absence of authority. Their public display of spirituality is a balloon, filled with the hot-air of their own vanity and vaulting ambition. They are hollow people lacking all spiritual substance.

Study questions

Verse 3: What is meant by "false doctrines"? Are all disagreements among Christians due to "false doctrines"? (Mt. 16:5-12; Rom. 14:1-13; 1 Cor. 10:23-33; Gal. 1:6-9; 2:11-16).

Verse 5: What is the place of love in the Christian life? (Mt. 22:35-40; John 13:34f.; Rom. 13:8-10; 1 Cor. 13; 1 John 4:7-11).

What is a "good conscience" and how does one get it and preserve it? (Acts 24:14ff.; Rom. 9:1; 1 Cor. 8:10ff.; 10:24-29; Heb. 9:13f.; 10:19-22).

The Law and the Gospel - (1:8-11)

Mention of God's law in verse 7 leads Paul into a short discourse about its true character and purpose. Law basically means teaching, and includes all the written instructions of the Old Testament which God gave to his ancient people in covenant relationship. The law covers the writings of Moses, the prophets and the wise men of Israel. The ten words or commandments (Exod. 20:1-17; Deut. 5:1-21) formed the core of this body of literature, as the following verses will show.

This law, in the narrower sense, was being mishandled by the religious teachers in Ephesus, with the result that quite wrong ideas were being spread about it. So Paul is engaging in a simple and direct piece of apologetics when he says we know that the law is good. The law is good because it reflects the goodness of the God whose Author it is, and because it does people good when they live by it (Psa. 119:68; Mic. 2:7). But the law will only yield its blessing if a man uses it properly. This means that people must understand the true intention of the law, and recognise its limitations too. It was never meant to provide a means by which people can justify or ingratiate themselves with God. Its standards are far too high and pure for sinful human beings even to begin to accomplish that (Rom. 3:19f.; Gal. 2:16).

Paul spells out a major function of the law when he says we also know that law is made not for good men but lawbreakers and rebels (Verse 9). The NIV translates this reference as being to law generically, including human civil law, but Paul still has in mind the moral law of the ten commandments.

When Paul denies that the law is appointed for good (literally, righteous) people, he is not denying that the law has any positive uses, otherwise his teaching on the law elsewhere would be in conflict with what he says here. He is stating that people have nothing to fear from God's law so long as they live by it. He is focusing attention rather on one particular use the law has, that is, to identify human disobedience and to convince people that they are lawbreakers (Rom. 3:20; 5:20; 7:7; Gal. 3:19). The law has a convicting and restraining function in human life. Yet at other times Paul incorporates the law within his teaching on the Christian life, where it functions as one of the moral authorities that shows the Christian the way to live (Rom. 8:3f.; 13:8ff.; 1 Cor. 7:19; 9:21). But it still operates as a cautionary restraint on the Christian by warning him against sin (Rom. 7:13-25).

When the apostle speaks of "lawbreakers and rebels' he is using two very general terms which are meant to include all violators of God's law, no matter how they break it. These two categories are meant to introduce his little discourse on the law.

The law is for the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, those people who sin against the first four commandments of the law, which describe in principle our obligations to God (Exod. 20:1-11; Deut. 5:5-15). Such people sin in a religious way by worshipping gods of their own making in place of the true God, by following their own imagination in religious worship, by blaspheming God's name, and by using the Sabbath day for their own pleasure.

But God's law is also addressed to those who commit social sins in relation to their fellow human beings (Ex. 20:12-17; Deut. 5:16-21):

Paul leaves out examples of violations of the tenth commandment (You shall not covet) in spite of the fact that it had played a powerful role in his own spiritual pilgrimage (Rom. 7:7f.). His interest here is in public behaviour rather than the hidden sins of the heart.

That this is not meant to be an exhaustive catalogue of the ways people can break God's law becomes clear when Paul adds - and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine (verse 11) that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God. Sound doctrine literally means teaching that brings spiritual health (Mic. 2:7; 2 Tim. 3:16f.). This idea occurs throughout the Pastorals (1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Tit. 1:9; 2:1, 8). What Paul says here also indicates that the law and the gospel are not at odds with each other but actually harmonise. They are one in their opposition to all forms of human disobedience and malpractice (Rom. 5:20-6:2; 7:24f.; Gal. 3:21f.).

The gospel is glorious because it is the brilliant shining revelation of the very being of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:3-6). It is also glorious because it has the power to transform believers into the glorious moral and spiritual likeness of Jesus Christ (Rom 8:29f.; 2 Cor 3:18).

God is blessed, or perfectly joyful, because he rejoices in his own being in the delightful knowledge of his own Persons and perfections. Because he is blessed in himself he deserves, and expects, to be blessed or praised by all his creatures, especially by his people redeemed in Jesus Christ (Rom. 9:5; Rev. 5:13; 7:11f.).

Always aware of his stewardship as Christ's missionary (1 Cor. 4:1f.; 1 Thess. 2:4) Paul is quick to refer to the gospel as the God-given message of the truth which he entrusted to me. This might sound like egoistical boasting, but Paul's intention is quite different. He wants to assure Timothy and the Ephesian church that he has received a special dispensation in the service of the gospel. This is a personal remark which he now develops in an extended piece of autobiographical recollection which becomes the theme of the next section. Afterwards (verses 18ff), Paul comes back to his starting-point at verse 3 and the subject of the troublesome teachers at Ephesus.

Study questions

Verse 8: What are the different meanings of the word "law" in Scripture? (Psa. 19:7; 119:97f.; Luke 24:44; Rom. 7:7; Gal. 4:4f., 21f.).

Verses 10 and 11: What is the relation of the law to the gospel / the Christian's relation to the law? (Rom. 6:14; 7:4-8:4; 10:4-8; 1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 3:10-12, 17-21; 4:21-26).

What makes the gospel glorious? (Rom. 8:16-21; 2 Cor. 3:7-11; 4:3-6).

Paul's Autobiography - (1:12-17)

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord is how Paul begins this section of personal recollections (see further Phil. 3:7ff.). He could never forget all that he owed to the Lord Jesus Christ, because he was the one who died for him and saved him. As a result, Paul's misguided existence had been turned around and changed into something meaningful and useful. Christ is the one who has given me strength says Paul, speaking in the first person. His strength enabled Paul to respond favourably to the Lord's commission, and to fulfil his apostolic service and suffering for the sake of Christ's people (2 Tim. 2:10). Paul had learned well the fundamental principle of Christian living and service, that one's own strength is weakness, but that this weakness can become strength in Christ's hands (2 Cor. 12:9). Where the Lord Jesus appoints individual believers for special tasks, he can be relied on to give the strength needed to fulfil them (2 Cor. 3:5f.).

That he considered me faithful is how Paul explains Christ's thinking about him. Just as he had learned the secret of relying on Christ's faithfulness, so Christ had counted on Paul being trustworthy in his service. The Lord had entrusted Paul with a high degree of privilege and suffering (Acts 9:15f.) and he expected Paul to be faithful in all circumstances. The Lord had shown him mercy that he might be trustworthy, not the reverse (1 Cor. 7:25). Divine enabling is always the principal cause of responsible effort in the work of Christ (1 Cor. 15:9f.).

When the risen Christ called Paul he was appointing [him] to his service. The word Paul uses for service is the most basic term "diaconia" which in this context expresses Paul's humility. Actual events were to prove it to be a ministry of courageous leadership, public witness and personal suffering for Christ's sake in a variety of settings (Acts 9:6, 15; 26:15ff.). This service was to carry Paul to the borders of the Roman empire and beyond, and through a host of dangers and privations without parallel (2 Cor. 11:23ff). But through them all the Lord was with him, to sustain, refresh and deliver him as his humble and loyal servant (2 Tim. 4:17f.).

The greatest wonder for Paul was the fact that Jesus Christ had appointed him to his service even though [he] was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man (verse 13). When the heavenly Christ called Paul on the Damascus road, Paul was Christ's most bitter enemy. He blasphemed Christ by denying his credentials as the true Messiah and the Son of God; he persecuted Christ by hunting down his people like prey (Acts 26:9ff.; Gal. 1:13ff.); he showed himself a violent man by his rough handling of the first disciples of Jesus, and by handing them over to trial, imprisonment and even death (Acts 26:10f.).

It was while he was engaged in one of these shameful pogroms against the Christians that the Lord confronted Paul by appearing to him in his heavenly glory (Acts 9:3f.). I was shown mercy is how Paul sums up this life-changing experience, which transformed the self-righteous Pharisee into a humble and grateful follower of the crucified Saviour and Lord (Phil. 3:8f.). Mercy is undeserved pardon. Paul's conversion was an historic display of the overflowing kindness of the Father of mercies (2 Cor. 1:3). Only such mercy from such a God could rescue proud Paul, locked up in a prison of his own making, the walls of which were his ignorance, hate and unbelief. As a result God's mercy is very prominent in Paul's writing about salvation (Rom. 9:16, 18; 11:30ff.; 12:1f.; 2 Cor. 1:3; Eph. 2:4; Tit. 3:4f.).

The Lord's mercy was shown to Paul because [he] acted in ignorance and unbelief. In speaking this way Paul does not mean to lessen his guilt, but rather to emphasise the extent of his lost condition and to magnify the saving mercy of Christ to him. Because he did not know God truly, he acted out of ignorance when he reacted against the Lord's disciples and persecuted them (Acts 8:3; 9:1). He lived in unbelief, having convinced himself that Jesus could never be the Christ his followers claimed that he was. Yet Paul's ignorance was one reason for the mercy of Jesus Christ to him. Like others of his nation he genuinely believed that he was rendering service to God by opposing the Christian sect (John 16:2f.), while all the time he was ignorant of the truth. The Lord pitied him in his ignorance, which did not wholly excuse him, but left him amenable to mercy. For the same reason Jesus had prayed for his executioners' pardon (Luke 23:34).

So the grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly (Verse 14). Paul now uses another word "grace" which is the undeserved love and favour of God. Grace by definition is rich, a fact Paul was deeply conscious of and loved to mention in his writings (Rom. 5:15, 17, 20f.). Believers are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, because, in his amazing grace, he freely chose to come to earth to live and to die for his people. The Lord does not love them in half measures but lavishly, and causes his great love to become known to them in profusion through the generous ministry of the Holy Spirit in their hearts (Rom. 5:5). As a result, Paul saw his ministry vividly as one of proclaiming the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ (Eph. 3:8).

But Christ's grace did not appear alone for it came along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Christ's intervention in Paul's life not only changed his career, it changed his heart. The controlling passions of prejudice and hate gave way to faith and love. Faith is trust in Jesus Christ as Lord, and love is an attitude of goodwill for all his people (Eph. 1:15; Col. 1:4). Faith and love are the sure evidences that lives have been transformed from within and are not simply passing through a religious phase (2 Tim. 1:13). Out of Christ's fulness Paul, along with all other Christians, received grace to believe and love. Although these fundamental attitudes are expected by God to be present in his people, they are also provided in Christ's grace.

Before he draws out some lessons from his own life story Paul appeals to a piece of early Church tradition. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (verse 15). There are five of these faithful sayings in the Pastoral letters (1 Tim. 1:15; 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Tit. 3:4-8). They are pieces of early Christian wisdom, extracted from sayings apparently well known among the early churches. They vary considerably in their content but each one deserves to be fully accepted.

This one claims that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners and so announces the very heart of the gospel. It states the purpose of Christ's mission in coming into our world. His very name foretold it (Matt. 1:21), he himself taught it (Mark 10:44f.), and his life on earth bore it out. The words of this saying tell nothing of how Christ was to save, only that he came to save. The rest of the New Testament tells us how through his unsinning life and sin-bearing death (Rom. 3:24f.; 5:18f.; 2 Cor. 5:18ff; Gal. 3:13; 1 Tim. 2:5f.; Heb. 9:13f.; 1 Pet. 1:18f.). This wonderfully simple statement of faith carries two strong implications.

First, Christ "came into the world" thereby implying that he already existed on the other side of time and space. He was the eternal Word of God who was with God, and was God from eternity, and created personally the world of matter into which he came (John 1:1f., 10).

Secondly, Christ came to save sinners, thereby implying that he did not come simply to make them salvable or to help them to save themselves. He came to save them actually and finally by his own presence and actions on their behalf. This is the gospel (Gal. 2:20).

Paul adds to this statement of faith the words—of whom I am the worst. This may sound like an exaggerated case of false modesty, but Paul means what he says (1 Cor. 15:9; Eph. 3:8), for the simple reason that he can remember vividly the kind of person he was and the life he once lived. At the same time he includes the person he now is as a Christian ("I am") because he is conscious of his continuing sinfulness and his need of the pardoning and renewing grace of God (Rom. 7:22-25; Phil. 3:12ff.). No doubt there are special provocations in the case of Paul's sin, yet every Christian can identify with his confession because each in their own way has transgressed seriously and persistently against God's law and stands in need of the same grace of Christ as Paul did.

But for that very reason I was shown mercy (verse 16). There was more to Paul's conversion than the dramatic change brought about through the display of God's mercy to a particular individual. Paul's was a test case in the strategy of heaven. His change came about so that in [him], the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience. In Paul, Christ deliberately chose the worst case scenario, so as to demonstrate what his patience and grace can do. Paul's conversion is therefore the classic example of the text that says that the Lord is slow to anger and of great patience (Psa. 145:8f.). For years Paul had openly and vigorously persecuted the disciples of the Lord, and in doing so was found to be harassing Jesus Christ himself (Acts 9:4f.). Well might Jesus Christ have been affronted by Paul's behaviour and cut him off. Instead the Lord spared him, even revealing himself to Paul as his personal Lord and Saviour. Clearly Christ's patience is virtually unlimited.

Paul's life-story serves as an example for those who would believe on him in all time to come. At the beginning of the Christian era Paul's grand conversion stands out as a sure indicator that the Lord is gracious and will pardon the worst offenders. No one should ever think, in the light of Paul's reception of mercy from Christ, "I am too bad for Christ to pardon and receive." Rather they should reason like this, "If Christ can receive and pardon Paul then there must be hope for me.' Doubt and discouragement often come with the dawning consciousness of sin in the first stages of conversion. It is then that Paul's acceptance with Christ can act like a powerful reinforcement to persuade the doubting individual to persist in seeking Christ and his mercy. "Believing on" Christ aptly describes the inner attitude of acquiescence and personal reliance on Christ himself which is the essence of the faith that saves.

People are called to believe on Christ and receive eternal life. The connection between reliance on Christ and the gift of eternal life is natural. By his obedience right through his life to the death of the cross (Phil. 2:8), Christ has personally secured the right to give eternal life to all who come to him in genuine trust. Eternal life is the life of the age to come, but those who believe on Christ receive eternal life the moment they believe (John 6:47). The person who has the Son has life, but the one who does not have the Son does not have life, for this life is in God's Son Jesus Christ (1 John 5:11f.).

In the light of these wonders of God's grace Paul closes this section with a doxology, which is a short prayer of praise to God. It consists of four descriptions of the being of God, followed by the desire that God be duly honoured, and then concluded by an Amen.

God is King. Now to the King eternal means literally "Now to the king of the ages", including all the ages of history, past, present and future. God is Lord of all from beginning to end. By contrast the kings and rulers of earth are of a moment's duration (Isa. 40:23f.). The day of Jesus Christ will finally remove every challenge to the Kingship of God (Dan. 2:44; 4:34f.; 1 Cor. 15:24ff.; Rev. 11:17f.).

God is immortal which means literally that he is free from the changes death brings. He cannot die, nor ever cease to exist as he is now and always has been. By contrast human beings receive their immortal existence from God as a gift. Only God has life and being in and of himself alone (John 5:26).

God is invisible which means that he is not confined to any place or time as we are. He exists outside the limitations of our human existence. He is the eternal Spirit, a pure Being. It is impossible for him to become the fixed object of our scientific investigation. Only in Jesus Christ has God made himself visible, and only then through the medium of a human life. Christ is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).

God is the only God who actually exists, although human beings have throughout their fallen history invented many gods and worshipped them. But for Christians there is only one God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Creator and Sustainer of all things (1 Cor. 8:5f.). Only the only God is worthy of human worship and trust.

To the one, true God be honour and glory for ever and ever. This is the express wish of the prayer, that the only God who is immortal, invisible and the eternal King would be duly praised. This will happen when all creation ascribes honour and glory to him in an everlasting liturgy of worship (Rev. 4:9ff.; 5:13f.). Honour and glory are his by right of creation and salvation. Amen is a solemn expression of approval at the end of the prayer and is equivalent to "let it be so" (see also 1 Timothy 6:16).

Study questions

Verse 12: What else does the Bible say about the principles that should guide us in Christian leadership and service? (1 Cor. 8; 9:19-27; 2 Cor. 4:7-15; 11:30-12:10).

Verse 16: What other examples of notorious sinners saved by God's grace do the Scriptures give us? (2 Ch. 33:1-13; Dan. 4; Jonah 3; Luke 15:11-24; 23:39-43; Acts 19:17-20).

Verse 17: What other perfections of God can you think of? (Ex. 34:6f.; Neh. 9:17; Isa. 40:13f., 21ff.; Hab. 1:12f.; Tit. 1:2; Jas. 1:17f.; Rev. 4:8f.).