We are working our way through the first of Paul’s two letters to Timothy. As part of a wider series looking at the pastoral epistles, Paul’s letters on ministry and maturity to Christian leaders.
In the passage we had read today Paul moves on to contrast his message with that of the false teachers and his authority and authenticity with those who want to be considered ‘teachers of the law’. He does it by challenging their use of the mosaic Law, and by talking of the gospel he has received from God and experienced in his own life. Which in verse 17 leads Paul to praise God. This part of Paul’s letter acts like the thanksgiving prayers in his epistles to Churches. It is a personal letter and Paul gives thanks to God for what has happened in his own life and that all can experience that same good news.
In fact Paul starts this section by acknowledging that the Law is good, he is not writing it off, it is after all from the good God, the only true God who has given the law. Jesus had said he did not come to do away with the law but came to fulfil it. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy Paul says that the scriptures are God breathed and useful for teaching and rebuking and training people up for all good deeds. Often people will talk about a difference between old testament law and new testament grace. But the challenge for us as it was for the Church in Ephesus is not the difference between law and grace, it is the proper use of the law in light of grace.
Paul accuses the so-called teachers of the law, of misusing the law. Kind of like saying cars are good, if they are used properly, not for burn outs. I think we catch something of Paul’s relationship with Timothy as his true son in the gospel here as Paul uses a bit of dad humour: a play on the word law which is lost in the English, he says that the law needs to be used lawly, or lawfully in the proper way. He describes that first by saying what it is not for. It is not for the righteous. Because it is impossible to legislate for love. Law is used as a guideline for loving thy neighbour in terms of stopping the negative elements but as Paul had already told Timothy the goal of God’s activity by faith; the gospel, is love.
In Galatians 5 Paul had talked of the Christian life being a process of walking with the Holy Spirit, which produces fruit, love, joy peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, against which there is no Law. In fact as they paint a picture of being Christlike you could see how they fulfil the law, in loving God and loving others.
We don’t know what the false teachers in Ephesus were doing with the law. We do know elsewhere Paul had battled a circumcision group, who were focusing on the ritual laws of the old testament as the way of people needed to follow to be put right with God, Paul’s focus on salvation by grace here could be seen as a counter to that. We know from history that the church has struggled to walk a tight rope when it comes to the law. We have wavered and fallen off on the side of legalism, we have let the wonderful liberating relationship with God through Jesus Christ become the shackles of dos and don’t and right steps and pit falls. We have over balanced and fallen off on the side of licence and seen our freedom in Christ as having no moral application or substance and found ourselves caught again in the snare of sin and death.
Paul then says law is to be applied to lawbreakers and rebels, the law is to show people where they have gone wrong. To illustrate that Paul uses a list of actions that are contrary to God law. It is a list of actions that were seen as immoral in Greek society but in the way they are grouped together and written is a reflection of the 10 commandments. The first four ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious relate to our relationship with God, then the rest apply to the commandments about our relationship with others. They are to be seen as extreme examples of breaking those laws; killing mothers and fathers is an extreme example of not honouring your mother and father, murderers is the extreme of thou shall not kill, sexually immoral and homosexual behaviour are used as the extremes of do not commit adultery, the slave trade is seen as an extreme of don’t steal; what can be worse than to kidnap and steal a person and rob them of freedom, choice, status and dignity and tern them into a commodity. Liar and perjurers are extremes of bearing false witness. Paul seems to leave no converting out, but finishes his list by adding anything else that is contrary to sound doctrine that confirms to the gospel. The word we translate here sound in the greek has the idea of healthy, healthy in terms of our relationship to God and to each other and this leads Donald Guthrie to sum Pauls teaching on the law here by saying “ law is a sort of medicine , only to be applied where the moral nature is diseased, Christian teaching is a healthy food for healthy people, a means of joy, freedom and larger activity’… By that larger activity I think it is the drawing us beyond ourselves to the kingdom of God. We have our needs meet in Christ and it calls us to put first the kingdom of God.
With our modern sensitivities, the homosexual practises stand out in that list. It speaks to the current debate over homosexuality in our society. It would be easy to focus on this for the whole of this sermon, which I don’t want to do, but I do want to make some comments which I hope will be helpful. The first is context, Paul is wanting to focus on the 10 commandments and in this case the law against adultery and in using sexual immorality and homosexual practises he is wanting to affirm God’s desire for fidelity in marriage… he is covering the whole spectrum of sexual expression outside of marriage to do so. The word Paul uses here is putting together of two words man and lie in bed with, else where another word is used to describe boys or effeminate men who were used for sexual exploitation. It definitely does apply to the activity rather than the orientation. Some have seen this passage as applying to all sexual activity outside of marriage and others see the categories used here as applying to sex with temple prostitutes, male and female, as part of pagan worship, and so not relating to what we would see as homosexuality today. Ephesus was world renowned for the temple of Artemis so there would have been such pagan activity in the city.
I just want to make four quick points on this topic, (click for words) the first is that the word definitely relates to homosexual activity. People try and get round this as they do with other controversial parts of this letter to Timothy, which we are going to be looking at…hold on to your hats… ladies, by saying it is not Pauline, Paul didn’t write them. They reflect a time when the revolution of Jesus was slowly being pulled back into a socially conservative institution. That is matter of some debate. Bible commentator Philip Towner is correct when he says that when it comes to this word and passage the discussion and debate is not exegetically, that means understanding the text, rather is one of hermeneutics, how we interpret and apply the scripture. Here Christians do tend to be split usually by where they stand on the issue of homosexuality, reading that back into scripture. Secondly (click) as this is a passage about the correct application of the law followed by an amazing proclamation of God’s grace, we do need to be careful that we don’t use the law like a sledgehammer to beat people over the head and condemn and write them off as sadly we see some Christians do, we need to remember that Paul’s great good news is that God has come to save sinners the law points to the fact that we all need to know God’s forgiveness in our lives and no one is beyond redemption, even me as I find myself saying with Paul. The law and gospel does challenge us all about our sexuality. (click) I also think in a secular society like the one we live in there do need to be rules and law to protect people from discrimination simply for who they are, and that those in long term relationships should benefit from the protection of the law and protection when such relationships break up. (click) I also affirm statement the PCANZ has made about sex and Christian leaders when it says God’s purpose for sexual expression is within the confines of loving, mutual, marriage between a man and a woman.
Paul’s focus is on the gospel he has been entrusted with. That’s what we will focus on now. He talks of his on going experience of God’s grace. It is God who gives him strength to carry out the service he has been appointed to do, that he has been entrusted with. It is God’s grace in Jesus Christ in the past that has lead him to that place. Paul talks of his life prior to knowing Jesus. He says he was a blasphemer, now elsewhere Paul had talked of being blameless as unto the law, he had kept the ritual law, but as he had encountered Jesus Christ on that Road to Damascus he was aware that he was guilty of blaspheming, denying God by speaking his name carelessly or disrespectfully. Paul now realises that in disregarding Jesus claims to be the messiah he had done that. He was a persecutor, he had persecuted the believers and Christ, he had agreed with the stoning of Stephen and wanted to see others bought to a similar end, he was a violent man… even though he acknowledges he did these thing out of ignorance, while he was an unbeliever… now says Christ, now God’s mercy shown in Jesus Christ has changed all that, his life now is based on faith and love in Jesus Christ. Both gifts from Christ, remember faiths speaks of the invisible vertical relationship with God and love speaks of the horizontal outworking of that relationship in service to others. That is the core of the gospel for Paul because that is what he has experienced and known from God.
Paul then widens that out and applies it generally, he refers to a trustworthy saying, in that he is referring to what someone else has said that is true, in this case it may well be Jesus words themselves. He says this is the gospel ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’. It echoes Jesus summation of his earthly ministry in Luke 19:10 ‘the son of man has come to seek and save the lost”… It echoes his response to the Pharisees and teachers of the Law when he dined at Levi’s house in Mark 2, “ it is not the healthy that need a doctor but the sick. I have come not to call the righteous but the sinners”. It rings with the words from john’s gospel ‘for god so loved the world he send his only begotten son, that who ever believed in him would not perish but have everlasting Life”. The centre of the gospel is that in Jesus the son of god came into this world as a human being, to make a way for you and I to know God, be forgiven and to love one another. Paul repeats his own experience by saying you know God could even do it for me the first amongst sinners. He presents his life as a model for the Christian experience, the former life, changed forgiven and renewed by Jesus Christ, now changed to serve and love others to reflect the great patience of God that we have experienced. The law can show us our need for God’s forgiveness and a new life but it is Jesus Christ that is the mans by which that happens.
I’m reading Eugene Petersen classic book ‘A long obedience is the same direction’, this year as my spiritual health book. A book I read and reread all year as a focus for my devotional life. It looks at the Psalms of ascent as a pattern for the spiritual journey of the Christian. I cheated and read the last chapter on Psalm 134 because I was preaching on it up at Edmund Hillary retirement home and Eugene Petersen says something that sums up this passage of Pauls. He says speaking of the psalms of ascent that the journey which started with repentance, in psalm 120,” and Petersen defines repentance as saying no to the lies of this world and yes to the truth of God, “finishes in a life of praise’. That is what Paul does here, his journey which started in seeing his need for God as the law became alive through Christ, and which was turned around by Jesus Christ now finishes in Praise. In the epistle in verse 17, but also as Paul had finished by talking of eternal life with God through Jesus Christ that that worship and knowing of God face to face would be his destination.
When I found this image behind me it encapsulated all that Paul was saying in this passage. The gospel is not just a spinning wheel going nowhere, rather it is the saving life ring that God has given us through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners- even me. The challenge for us all from this passage is that it is easy to get caught up in the law and miss the wonderful main thing of the gospel… We can get caught up in doing this or that to find our way to God,. Pauls shows the way for Christians is to humbly recognise that it is not about what we would like to be known as, but that we have become known by Christ, we have been forgiven and called and equipped and strengthened by Christ's abiding presence not by a list of dos and don’t, our character and behaviour which is sacrificial love comes from that relationship, and how we see and use the law must be shown through that lens of Christ’s love and grace.