Paul’s purpose in writing his first epistle to Timothy is for Timothy to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3). One of the things these “certain persons” were doing was misinterpreting the Law of Moses. Paul says they are “desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.” (v7). Paul was very well qualified to advise Timothy on this matter because he had been one of those false teachers before his conversion. The Pharisees, which was the sect he belonged to, missed the point of the law, but now in Christ Paul understood it. For the Pharisees the Law was everything and their religion revolved around it. What they didn’t understand is what Paul says in verse 9 – “the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient”. The Law was designed to keep the children of Israel on the right path because of their tendency, as is common to all people, to wander off the path. We know from other parts of the New Testament, for instance in Galatians 3-4, that the Law was given for the spiritually immature, but God’s intention was never to create a law-based religion. You’ll notice in the list of sinful ways in verses 9-10 that you can match them up with the ten commandments. For example, “those who strike their fathers and mothers” equates with the 5th commandment – honor your father and mother – and “for murderers” with the 6th – do not kill.
After the children of Israel received the ten commandments, recorded in Exodus 20, the old covenant was inaugurated in chapter 24. Then Moses ascended the mountain again to receive the pattern of the tabernacle, but when he came back down, he found the people breaking several of the ten commandments already by worshiping a golden calf. He climbed the mountain again and that’s when God revealed to Moses his glory in chapters 33-34. What Moses learned is that God’s purpose is centered on his glory – his character: “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exo. 34:6).
Paul used to be like the children of Israel in the valley below. But when he saw the risen Lord on the road to Damascus it was like he climbed the mountain and saw the glory of God, just like Moses. He describes his experience later in chapter 1 – “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, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 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.” (1 Tim. 1:12-16). Paul himself went from a teacher of the law without understanding it, to truly experiencing the light of the glory of God. If you look at the verses above, you’ll notice each of the characteristics God declared to Moses in Exodus. Let’s go through them again:
God is merciful and Paul “received mercy”
God is gracious and “the grace of our Lord overflowed” towards Paul
God is slow to anger and the “perfect patience” of God’s son was seen in choosing Paul
God is abounding in steadfast love and Paul experienced “love… in Christ Jesus”
God is faithful and Paul also experienced “the faith… which is in Christ Jesus”
We can’t fulfill the purpose of God through law, even though our natural inclination is to think, if only we can keep a list of rules and commandments, we will become righteous. What we need instead is to both experience and develop the character of God in our lives. It’s those invisible qualities, rather than our ability to follow rules ritualistically, which will produce in us the kind of obedience God is looking for.
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