The Lover’s Whirlwind, William Blake (1827)
“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, pederasts, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” (1 Tim. 1:8-11)
Paul is funnier than the folks who preach him. His first letter to Timothy opens with a pun: “we know, after all, that the Law is good – if you use it lawfully.”
He’s getting at something, here. Depending on the context, says Lawrence Boadt, the term ‘The Law’ can refer to the Decalogue, – that’s the traditional name for the Ten Commandments – or the entire ‘Mosaic Law,’ – that’s shorthand for the whole 613 laws given throughout the Pentateuch – or, even, the Pentateuch itself – which is the traditional name for the first five books of the Old Testament, traditionally attributed to Moses.
It’s not immediately clear which meaning of ‘Law’ he’s alluding to in this passage. It comes from a letter sent to his friend and ministry partner, Timothy, who was struggling to lead a group of churches in Ephesus while a troublesome pack of false teachers sought to lead his congregations astray. To be specific, they were trying to undermine the missionary work of Paul and others by reinterpretting the ‘Law’ to for their own ends. In Paul’s words, they “desire to be teachers of the Law” and were “devoted to endless myths and genealogies.”
Apparently, fetishizing the Law didn’t do much to make them holier. They were as immoral, evidently, as your congressman (1 Tim. 1:13;15;19; 3:1; 4:2; 5:6;11; 6:5-10), and superstitious, too (1:4; 4:7). There were others, in and before Paul’s time, who were fond of ‘myths and endless geneologies.’ To heavily ‘allegorize’ the Old Testament, scholar W.D. Mounce noted, was to tap into a popular – and, probably, profitable – trend among certain groups of second temple Jews. There was a tendency within post-exilic Judaism to imaginatively retell “the pedigrees of the patriarchs,” writes J.N.D. Kelley. But whereas Philo and others taught from genuine love for God and faithfulness to the scriptures to creatively allegorize their content, – a practice soon after adopted by early Christian theologians – the charlatans stirring up trouble in Timothy’s congregations did so in reckless disregard for the holiness of God. Between their obsession with the more extravagant forms of rabbinic Midrash and their flagrant immorality, it’s unlikely that they meant well (1:7).
Their zeal for the Law led them to “wander away into vain discussion” (1:6) but did not prevent them from indulging in greed, sexual immorality, and divisiveness. They saw it, in other words, as a ‘roadmap’ to the ‘secrets’ of the ‘heavenly realm’ – think Left Behind, or Blood Moons. In much the same way that some modern teachers use the Old Testament prophets and the book of Revelation as springboards from which to make dubious predictions about the end times but don’t heed their rather unambiguous ethical imperatives, so also the troublemakers at the churches in Ephesus allegorized the Pentateuch in an effort to uncover the “secret meaning” beneath the text and obtain “higher” knowledge (6:20).
This wasn’t uncommon among post-exilic Jews, especially in Alexandria – but these false teachers went further. They were not just churning out the sort of helpful folklore found in extra-biblical works like Jubilees and Biblical Antiquities. They were indulging unfounded fantasies about the patriarchs with the ‘Law’ as their inspiration, but neglecting – or rejecting – its moral boundaries. In doing so, they side-step its primary function: to be a ‘restraint’ or ‘guardian’ for the people of God (Gal. 3:24-29).
It wasn’t just the the 613 literal ‘laws’ that were meant to serve as a ‘guardian’ over the covenant community of Israel, but the whole Pentateuch. The whole Torah was meant to be their ‘guardian,’ their ‘restraint.’ So Paul’s indictment is against an abuse of the Pentateuch – especially the ‘law’ portions. There is not, after all, much material to allegorize in the Ten Commandments alone, and although it is possible to produce a system of ‘mystical allegorizations’ of the Levitical and Deuteronomical Laws, the product would, almost certainly, be of a distinctly ethical nature. The scumbags heckling Timothy and his churches were scumbags, though, whose allegorizations were little more than “irreverent, silly myths” (1 Tim. 4:7), so that’s unlikely. Since their error consisted in “false knowledge” in the form of mythical stories surrounding the patriarchs but not rigid adherence to an upright lifestyle, their more flamboyant allegorizations probably dealt with the narrative portions of the Pentateuch along with the more pointed “law” sections. In other words, they did damage to the whole of Pentateuch.
But “the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully.” That’s essentially a wise-crack on Paul’s part, but it’s a remarkably rich one: noting the connection between v. 9 and Galatians 5:13-26, J.N.D Kelley suggests that the legal aspect of the Law “applies only to those who are under the influence of the flesh and who in their lives follow its promptings.” That’s why earlier, Paul says:
“Why then the Law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made . . . before faith came, we were held captive under the Law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the Law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God through faith.” (Gal. 3:19-26)
So Paul’s insistence that “the Law is not laid down for the just but the unjust” assumes what he had previously taught in the epistle to the Galatians. There he writes that inclusion into the ‘covenant community’ of Israel precedes binding under the law (Gal. 3:9;17;18-19;21), and that the Law itself was, in fact, a gift to those who belonged to God’s covenant commumity of Israel (3:19-22). The argument would go as such:
‘Human nature is insatiably self-destructive (5:17) and, consequently, people have an inescapable bent toward enslaving themselves to sinful practices (4:3;8). The moral, ceremonial, cultic, etc. stipulations of the Law were intended, specifically, to enslave God’s covenant people instead to an ethical system consistent with God’s character (3:23;5:16;24-25). Communal adherence to the Law would, among other things, prevent God from having to pour His wrath out on the people whom He had rescued from Egypt for Himself. Although the Law was gifted to the covenant people of God for their protection, the redemption brought about in Christ means that the covenant people no longer need to be enslaved to the Law, but set free in Christ (4:1-7).’
So in Paul’s eyes the Law is good and holy, but must be used as it was intended to be used. It cannot be used as a means to enter God’s covenant – that is, following the Mosaic Law can’t save you, because the Law is only for the ‘already-saved,’ so to speak – or as a ‘pathway in to a higher realm of knowledge’ – that is, recklessly allegorizing the Mosaic Law (or the prophets, or Revelation) will not make you wiser, help you predict the future, or give you significant insight about the end-times, but it might turn you into a heretic.
Rather, the Law was given to people who were already in the covenant, it ‘protected the already-saved’ against becoming like the Canaanites again. Gleason Archer Jr. sums it up well: “grace reigned supreme in the Sinaitic covenant just as it truly did in the Abrahamic. The whole body of Law revealed to Moses and his people from this point on was a testament of grace, although mediated through a different economy from that of the gospel.” The legal portions of the Pentateuch, when originally given, were about ‘taking captive’ those who were already captive to sin. To put it another way, it was a glorious bit of divine pragmatism.
Now, though, in the ‘new covenant,’ the time has come to be set free from both ‘Law’ and sin. Don’t misunderstand – the Law is still for ‘new covenant’ people because it reveals the heart of Yahweh. When one has received the Holy Spirit, the Law becomes a tool in His hands to conform them into the image of Jesus.
A proper understanding of the Law was, in Paul’s mind, a non-negotiable component of that process. God gave the Law to Israel immediately after freeing them from slavery in Egypt. They were brought from the bondage of a cruel Pharaoh into the covenant bondage of a gentle Lord- literally, a feudal Lord, a suzerain – so that when the time would come, having been preserved by the grace of God by the boundaries set up in the Law, they could be set free from all bondage in the Spirit, whether to sin or to the Law.
So today, the violent need the Law because they are enslaved to their destructive appetites; the sexually immoral need the Law because they are slaves to their ‘animal urges’ – or, perhaps, their desire for approval or intimacy; enslavers need the Law because they themselves are enslaved to the human propensity to conquer and dominate. On this side of the Christ’s resurrection, the Law is ‘lawful’ when believers allow it to reveal in them what is not consistent with God’s heart for the world so that the Holy Spirit can recreate in them what has been broken.