The theme of the first of the pastoral letters (1 Timothy) might be summarized as an urgent charge to hold fast to God’s truth in the midst of the whirlwind of man’s falsehood. The entire letter serves as a deeply personal and pastoral commission from the apostle to his young pupil while he journeyed onward for Macedonia. Paul writes out of concern for Timothy because he knows firsthand the environment in which Timothy is ministering at Ephesus. “As I urged you before,” the apostle seems to say, “so I urge you now again.” (1 Tm 1:3) Timothy’s ministerial resolve was undoubtedly enduring severe testing as a cocktail of deplorable philosophies the likes of asceticism, intellectualism, and gnosticism were growing and seeping into the church’s traditions. Such is why Paul writes, aiming to affirm the resolute truth of God’s gospel. And he begins this resolve by contrasting the divergent doctrines being propagated — those of the true church and those of the false teachers.
Contrasting words: speculation vs. sincerity.
Paul begins by reminding Timothy what falsehood sounds like. The climate of the first century church in which Timothy was ministering was one that was inundated with an influx of false teachers who gave more attention to “myths and endless genealogies” and “fruitless discussion” (1 Tm 1:4, 6) than the sound words of the gospel. “Desiring to be teachers of the law” (1 Tm 1:7), they sought to distinguish themselves as the true religious experts and authorities by impressing men with fanciful allegories and frivolous stories. But these messages served only to ignite pride and “minister questions.” The words of the false teachers produced nothing but “empty speculations rather than God’s plan, which operates by faith.” (1 Tm 1:4)
Timothy’s charge, therefore, was to protect and preserve the truth from the unfounded, distracting messages which manufacture nothing but a cacophony theories and complexities as to how God works. “Teach no other doctrine,” Paul urges. (1 Tm 1:3–4) “Resist the urge,” he says, “to inundate yourself with the gnostic philosophies of the day and preach nothing but God’s economy, which, rather than ministering questions, ministers faith.” The doubts and questions aroused by these mythical, fruitless debates are antithetical to God’s truth, which creates faith and calmness and assurance and soundness of mind, heart, and soul. Rather than speculation, the ends to which the gospel tends always result in sincerity. “Now the goal of our instruction,” writes the apostle, “is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.” (1 Tm 1:5) The ministry of the truth of the gospel breeds love, not chaos. Faith, not fickleness. Sincerity, not speculation. Its means and its ends are divergent.
Contrasting ways: wandering vs. steadfastness.
Such is what the apostle speaks to as he juxtaposes where falsehood finishes as opposed to where God’s truth finishes. The speculation which blossomed from these erroneous teachings led not only to an array of uncertainties, but also to the departure from the faith entirely. The questioning caused some to “turn aside” and quit the faith completely. It bred wanderers. (1 Tm 1:6) These dissenting teachers were so inundated with their “empty speculations,” their “vain jangling” (as the King James has it), that they provided no rock on which their hearers could recline. No foundation on which to build belief. Their doctrine was entirely unprofitable, exposing their affinity for soaring idealisms and matters “contrary to sound teaching” (1 Tm 1:10), which served only to please imagination and intellect, doing nothing for the soul.
Timothy’s charge — the church’s charge — therefore, is to speak to men’s souls. Myths and fables do nothing for the health of the soul. What would keep Timothy, and ultimately his church too, from wandering is a resolve for the gospel of God. “Teach nothing else but this,” Paul seems to say. “Don’t sway from sound doctrine. Stay steadfast in teaching what I’ve entrusted to you.” Timothy’s ministry was to be encapsulated by love, purity, and faith. (1 Tm 1:5) Such is what would keep him (and his church) grounded, deeply rooted against the tide of falsehood and fancy.
Contrasting wisdom: grandstanding vs. glory.
Paul’s charge to Timothy is a reminder of why falsehood is so flimsy in comparison to God’s glory. The apostle is not quarreling with the law itself but with the self-proclaimed experts of it, who neither understood what they were teaching nor what they were insisting on. (1 Tm 1:7) These apostates were using the law for their own gain. As a ladder to elevate their position and prestige. They saw themselves as advanced and enlightened advocates of true spirituality, desiring the acclaim and accolades that stemmed from their expertise in the law (1 Tm 1:7) and their deciphering of prophecy. (1 Tm 1:4) As such, they were not using the law “lawfully,” according to its design. And so it is that Paul relays a pointed reminder of the law’s intended purpose.
We know that the law is not meant for a righteous person,” the apostle writes, “but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and irreverent, for those who kill their fathers and mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral and homosexuals, for slave traders, liars, perjurers, and for whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching. (1 Tm 1:9–10)
Which is to say, the law is for sinners because sinners are all that there are.
A disingenuous and dangerous use of the law sees it employed in order to attain higher degrees of purity and spirituality. To achieve better “levels of Christianity,” so to speak. Such is what the false teachers were doing in Timothy’s day. They were affixing mystery, minutiae, and moralism onto the church’s message, seeking to soar above the simplicity of “sound doctrine.” But, as Paul says, in so doing, they were merely revealing their own ignorance, “understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm.” (1 Tm 1:7) That is not what the law is for. “There is no way of attaining to real purity of heart and a purged conscience but through faith in Christ,” writes Patrick Fairbairn.1
Timothy’s mandate, then, was to preach that which “conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God.” (1 Tm 1:11) In contrast to the sickly, infectious words of the gnostics, he was to cling to the healthy, wholesome words of life. (1 Tm 6:3) In the midst of the noise from the self-sufficient, delusional, and disparaging speeches of the false teachers, he was to hold fast to “sound doctrine.” The dissenting doctrines of the false teachers put men’s hope of salvation in their own hands. This spelled their doom. And such is why Paul was adamant that Timothy preach both the law and the gospel.
The “glorious gospel of the blessed God” is that which informs us about the lawful use of the law (1 Tm 1:8), the mission of which is not to exalt but to expose. The law is not a crutch to prop up the “righteous.” Neither is it a ladder for us to climb to higher spiritual heights. Rather, the law is a mirror in which we are given a stark image of our deficiencies. It shows us how much we do not measure up, cannot measure up, and never will, causing us to cry out for One who does. The “sound,” healthy words of the gospel flow into the ears of those who’ve been broken by the law, pointing their souls to the Christ who stands for them.
Patrick Fairbairn, The Pastoral Epistles: The Greek Text and Translation with Introduction, Expository Notes, and Dissertations (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1874), 81.