The word of the day is “law.” In our reading of 1 Timothy 1:8-14, St. Paul corrects the false understanding of the Law of the false teachers in Timothy’s flock. The Apostle writes, “But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully” (vs. 8).
Paul warns about false teachers who do not know what they are talking about. To counteract the threat, Paul clarifies his teaching of the Law. Some might have gotten the impression that Paul is against the Law or it is no longer valid for believers in Christ. But here Paul says that the Law, that is, the Mosaic Law, is still beneficial. The Orthodox Study Bible says that “the Law is good, but it cannot be kept. It is a revelation from God, but it is not an end in itself” (OSB, “The Law,” 486).
The Law as Good and Bad
St. John Chrysostom notes the seeming contradiction that the law is “good” and “not good.” He explains that when it is used “lawfully,” that is, as God intended, it is “good.” But when false teaches use it in ways that God did not intend, it is “not good.” For example, if someone teaches the Law but does not practice it, he uses it “unlawfully,” that is, he is not using it legitimately (Strong’s #3545, 172). Or, Chrysostom says, if one uses the Law to justify himself, that too is improper. One is bound to fail in the attempt to earn God’s favor by keeping the Law because of the “weakness of the flesh” (Romans 8:3-5).
Conversely, Chrysostom identifies a correct use of the Law. It is proper, Chrysostom says if it “sends thee to Christ.” He explains that since we cannot fulfill it, the Law refers us to the One who can—and who meets its requirements for us (NfPf1:13, 413). But of all the uses of the Law that the Orthodox Study Bible mentions, Paul concentrates on the “law of sin” (OSB “The Law,” 486). In our reading. Paul writes, “The law is not made for a righteous person (vs. 9). Chrysostom comments that a just person does not need the law “because he is exempted from its punishment.” Moreover, he does not need to learn his duty from it, “since he has the grace of the Spirit within to direct him” (NfPf1: 13, 413.)
The Prohibition of Evil, the Punishment of Transgression
In contrast, Chrysostom says that the Law is for the “prohibition of evil” and the “punishment of transgression.” God, Chrysostom says, gave the law that “men might be chastened by fear of its threatening.” In respect to the unrighteous, the proper use of the law is dread, the fear of the threats of the divine penalties for their disobedience (NfPf1: 13, 414).
Paul describes those who must fear the Law: the “lawless and insubordinate,” the “ungodly and sinner,” the “unholy and profane” (vs. 9). He does not hesitate to list examples of anything that is “contrary to sound doctrine,” that is, the blatant sins of those who disobey the law without repentance (10).
Paul’s Former Life
Yet lest Paul seems like a proud Pharisee who judges others while excusing himself, he confesses that he was “formerly a blasphemer, and persecutor of the Church” (vs. 13). He admits that he was also “insolent” (vs. 13). But the Greek word is more specific than this English word. Referring to his role as a persecutor, Paul says that he was “insolent” because he oppressed the believers for no other reason than to inflict pain on them (Strong’s #5197, 255).
Is Paul excusing himself when he says, “I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief” (vs. 13)? No, Chrysostom observes that Paul states he “obtained mercy” (13). God’s mercy is not for the righteous but sinners (NfPf1: 13, 417-18). Therefore, in receiving mercy, Paul admitted that he was a sinner. It was that sin of unbelief made him ignorant and blind to the truth of the Gospel (vs. 13).
Grace Exceedingly Abundant
Furthermore, Chrysostom says that while Paul recounts his own part, he acknowledges the greater and more gracious part of God in his call to the ministry. vs. 12). In summary, in his change from a persecutor to the promoter of the faith, Paul says, “the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant” (vs. 14). What, then, is the difference between the flagrant sinners that Paul lists and Paul, who calls himself the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 11:15)? In terms of the Law, there is no difference. In itself, without grace, all disobedience stands condemned before God. But in terms of grace, there is all the difference. The former must face God’s judgment. The latter is forgiven by the blood of Christ.
In our reading, therefore, we find that the Law is not given for the righteous. The primary function of the Law is to expose and identify sin. In this vein, Paul teaches, “…by the Law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20):
But this knowledge can cuts two ways. On the one hand, it can “send the sinner to Christ” (NfPf1:13, 413). Law can induce us to acknowledge our sin. And it can open the way of repentance to the reception of God’s forgiving grace. On the other hand, the Law can restrain sin. Though the convicted sinner may not turn to Christ, at least he may turn from wickedness for fear of just punishment. In this Nativity Fast, let us pray, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach my Thy statues.” Let us learn the Lord’s commandments that they would teach us to flee from sin and run to the mercy of Christ whose coming is near.