In 1 Tim 1:8 Paul says that the “law” is good if one uses it “lawfully”. He goes on to explain that the law is not for the righteous, but for sinners, and gives a list of examples of sinful lifestyles (1 Tim 1:9-11). These verses raise the interesting and controversial question of what use the “law” is to Christians. If we are the “righteous” in Christ, does that make the law completely irrelevant for us? Are any commands still binding on us in the New Covenant? Is it only to be mined for prophetic references to Christ?
I thought it would be interesting to look and see how Paul uses the law in the rest of 1 Timothy, since that would constitute a good example of what he considers “lawful” use of the law. The first difficulty is in deciding what exactly he includes in “the law”. Is this a reference to the 623 commands found in the Pentateuch (i.e. those things which are specifically ‘laws’)? Or does it refer more generally to the first five books of the Bible? Or even to the whole Old Testament? It is hard to say for sure. The false teachers in Ephesus that Paul wants Timothy to deal with consider themselves to be teachers of the law (1 Tim 1:7), and since their speciality included “genealogies” I opt for at least the whole five books of Moses being in view.
- The first clear allusion to the “law” comes in the most confusing and contentious part of the letter. 1 Tim 2:13-14 refers to Adam and Eve. Some would say Paul uses this text to illustrate a “principle” from creation, although others argue this is merely an “example” of a woman being deceived.
- The qualifications listed for overseers and deacons in 1 Tim 3:1-13 include several virtues that the Old Testament praises, but there doesn’t seem to be any clear link to the law.
- 1 Tim 4:3-5 seems to allude to both the creation story, and possibly to various food restrictions in the law. Here Paul emphasises the primacy of the creation story – what God calls good is good, and no one should introduce laws against those things.
- In 1 Tim 4:13 Timothy is urged to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture. With the New Testament not yet written, this clearly is a reference to the Old Testament. Paul firmly believes it has on-going benefit for Christians to read and meditate on.
- 1 Tim 5:3 speaks about the church’s ministry to widows. Where did they get this idea from? Almost certainly it flows from the Old Testament’s repeated concern for the plight of widows and orphans (e.g. Ex 22:22, Deut 14:29). This is a good example of a principle from the OT law being practically applied into the life of the church.
- Showing “honour” is a recurring theme in the latter part of 1 Timothy, so 1 Tim 5:4,8 quite possibly are intended to invoke the command to “honour” your father and mother.
- The first unambiguous citation of an Old Testament law is in 1 Tim 5:18. Paul quotes Deut 25:4 which is a command not to muzzle an ox while it treads the grain, and then applies it to providing financial support for elders.
- In the next verse (1 Tim 5:19), he appears to take another principle from the OT law, this time Deut 19:15, which requires two or three witnesses to establish a matter. Again, these are principles reapplied into the new context of the church.
- The final reference I noticed was in 1 Tim 6:7, which is a possible allusion to various passages from the wisdom literature (Job 1:21; Ps 49:17; Ecc 5:15). Whether this falls under the category of “law” is debatable, but it again shows Paul drawing on the OT to back up his teaching.
Overall then, the pattern that emerges is that Paul has an intimate knowledge of the OT and draws on it regularly as a source of principles for Christian living. He doesn’t however seem to cite commands directly and demand that we keep them. When he does issue commands they tend to come from his apostolic authority instead. His position with regards to the OT “law” can probably be best summed up in his words in 2 Tim 3:16-17:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Taken with the preceding verse (2 Tim 3:15), we could say that Paul sees the OT as having two great purposes. First it makes us “wise to salvation” by telling us the story of God’s plan of redemption, throughout which we see Christ prophesied and prefigured. But second, it is intensely practical. That is why Paul has no difficulty in seeing the commands as a rich store of principles, even if he doesn’t necessarily see them as having an on-going binding force on us in the New Covenant. Yes, we are under a new law, written on our hearts by the Spirit, but as we look at the law of the Old Covenant, there is much in there that points us to the unchanging character of God, and as such it is quite appropriate to use it to shape the way we live and do church.