Commentary on 1 Timothy 1:12-17
First Timothy provides guidance for church life; hence, this letter is counted among the Pastoral Epistles.
Central to its message is the grace of God and the salvation through Jesus Christ. Much, of course, can be said about the two concepts of grace and salvation that permeate both parts of the Christian Bible.
In the context of Old Testament covenant loyalty, God is known as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6); God expects Israel’s faithfulness and obedience in return. In the New Testament, Paul’s doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-26; Galatians 2:16) combines both concepts to epitomize the apostle’s gospel message. Therefore, the church and the academy have theorized about these topics at great length throughout the centuries.
However, what the author of First Timothy wrote in the first century CE about grace and salvation is no theoretical treatise. Instead, he evokes the way in which God has changed a human life, and his example is the life of Paul.
(At this point, the preacher might need to make a decision as to the whether First Timothy is an authentic Pauline or Deutero-Pauline writing; modern scholars have provided support for either option. If First Timothy is considered Pauline, then the example is taken from the author’s own life and experience. If First Timothy is considered pseudonymous, then it reflects on the life and experience of an important apostle of the early Church who lived a few decades earlier.)
Specifically Paul’s conversion experience becomes the focus of the argument. Even if the event on the road to Damascus is well known, the preacher is advised (1) to remind the church audience of it and (2) to be aware of possible misapprehension on their part.
Originally from Tarsus in Asia Minor (Acts 21:39), Paul received some of his education “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3), a highly respected rabbi in Jerusalem (Acts 5:34). Joining the Pharisaic movement, Paul vigorously set out to defend his ancestral traditions, thus persecuting the early church (Galatians 1:13, 23; Philippians 3:6). On the way to Damascus where he wanted to arrest those “who belonged to the Way” (Acts 9:2), he had a vision of Jesus Christ that changed his life and turned him into the apostle to the gentiles (Romans 1:5; 1 Corinthians 9:1). This experience is interpreted in 1 Timothy 1:12-14 as an act of God’s mercy.
The possible misunderstanding when recounting this “conversion” event lies in the fact that today, this term typically refers to an act of turning away from one religion in order to adhere to a different one. This is, however, not what happened in Paul’s life, nor is this what 1 Timothy 1:12-14 really describes.
Most importantly, for the sake of historical accuracy, we need to bear in mind that Judaism and Christianity were not yet distinct religions at that time. In fact, Christianity did not exist in the first half of the first century CE. The “conversion” of Paul, then, occurred within Judaism, namely from the Pharisaic to the Messianic-Christian movement. Furthermore, a close reading of our text yields the insight that Paul’s “conversion” pertained in particular to the question of how to live out one’s faith in God.
The Saul before this experience was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Timothy 1:13) who had even assisted in, and approved of, the execution of Stephen (Acts 7:57-8:1). The post-conversion Paul, by contrast, is depicted as somebody who rejected not only violence but also impressive rhetoric, trusting instead to be empowered and strengthened by Christ for his ministry (1 Timothy 1:12; see also 2 Corinthians 10:1-6; 12:8-10). These two considerations are important to avoid the usage of this passage to denigrate Judaism.
For the author of First Timothy, personal experience trumps doctrine and theory, especially when it comes to grace and salvation. This is the core of what the example of Paul’s conversion conveys to the audience. Similar statements have already appeared prior to our passage, for instance in 1:3-4: “ … instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith.”
Such “endless genealogies” might be a reference to ancestor lists like those in Matthew 1:1-17 or Luke 3:23-38 (which are not identical at all). The Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written in 80 – 90 CE, a few years before First Timothy if we assume that the letter is deutero-Pauline.
Our passage in First Timothy displays a strong belief in the activity of God. “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the foremost” (1:15). This statement summarizes important aspects of the mission of Jesus who demonstrated that God cares specifically about those whom many considered sinners. Christian preaching focuses on salvation in Jesus Christ, which became visible in the story of his life. No human will ever be without sin; therefore all are in need of God’s salvation, which God chose to give freely (Romans 3:21-26).
The experience of having encountered Jesus Christ and of being saved by him leads to thankfulness (1 Timothy 1:12). The word for thankfulnessis derived from Greek charis which also means “grace.” The author even states that “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1:14).
Moreover, it is no surprise that charis occurs in prominent places in this letter, for instance in the initial salutation “Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (1:2) as well as in the short final benediction “Grace be with you” (6:21). God’s grace is always “Amazing Grace.” John Newton’s famous hymn composed in 1772 would summarize well some of the important aspects of our passage.