Published: 18 April 2022

Paul Is Hard To Understand

…our dear brother Paul has written to you according to the wisdom given to him. He speaks about these things in all his letters. There are some things hard to understand in them…  (2 Pet. 3:15–16 CSB17)

As we noted in the overview of 1 Timothy, we have to read between the lines when studying this letter. We are, after all, reading someone else’s mail. When we have access to only one side of a conversation, we have to attempt to fill in the gaps. 

Some of these gaps come in the form of following Paul’s flow of thought from one paragraph to the next. There are a couple of times in the first chapter of 1 Timothy where it appears that Paul abruptly changes subjects. At first glance, it is not always obvious how the paragraphs relate to each other. 

Breaking it down

It is important to understand how a paragraph relates to the ones that come before and after. Understanding the flow of thought is essential to understanding the context. If we don’t understand the overall context we cannot correctly understand the individual statements. Let’s outline chapter one and see if this helps understand Paul’s flow of thought.

  1. Greeting (vv. 1-2).
  2. Timothy’s job (vv. 3-5).
  3. Reason for the job: false teachers (vv. 6-7).
    • Law was being misused (v. 8).
    • Law was good, but was made for bad people  (v. 9-11).
    • Paul was a bad person but found grace (vv. 12-17).
  4. Cling to faith and a good conscience (vv. 18-19).
    • Rejection of these is grounds for discipline (vv. 19-20).

How chapter 1 fits together

It’s easy to see how items 1-3 in the outline fit together. There is Paul’s greeting, followed by the job Timothy has been assigned. Next, Paul gives the reason for his job: false teachers. It is in v. 8 where Paul appears to go off on a tangent.

Paul’s message in vv. 8-11 seems parenthetical, but it is directly related to his concerns that his opponents are using the law in ways which God never intended. 

“In the first subsection, Paul presents the basic facts of the problem and instructs Timothy to stop the heresy (vv 3–7). He then discusses the actual problem in vv 8–11: his Ephesian opponents are misusing the law, apparently applying it to everyone and seeing it as the way to salvation and a virtuous life.”1

“The opponents were apparently applying the restrictive function of law—interpreted by them to include, e.g., marriage and certain foods (1 Tim 4:3)—to all people. But, Paul says, the restrictive function of the law is not for everyone. Then…, Paul lists the types of people for whom the law was intended. To use the law lawfully is to recognize its necessary limitations. The law is only for sins and sinners who stand opposed to the healthy teaching of the gospel that reveals the glory of God, the gospel that God gave Paul to proclaim.”2

Reading between the lines

This transition beginning in v. 8 is one place we have to make some assumptions. Paul didn’t write precisely how the false teachers in Ephesus were misusing the law. In the quotes above, Mounce reasonably assumes that Paul’s opponents were teaching that salvation required keeping the law. This is reminiscent of the arguments made at the Jerusalem council. Certain people claimed that Gentiles could not be saved unless they kept the law of Moses (Acts 15:1-5). In fact there are clues in 1 Tim 2 that the Ephesian false teachers didn’t believe salvation was for everyone. 

Therefore, Paul mentions the law because in some form or fashion, the law was being misused in Ephesus. Paul is hinting that the law was never meant to save anyone (Gal 3:11). Instead it was to teach us what sin is and therefore the law wasn’t for the righteous, but for sinners. Paul goes on to list the character traits of the people who the law was intended for. Not a nice list to be on. Paul is not necessarily saying the false teachers in Ephesus were guilty of all of these sins. These are just examples of the kinds of people the law was made for.

But I received mercy

In vv. 12-17 it appears that, once again, Paul is getting a little off subject. However, this is not the case. He is actually contrasting his own experience with grace to that of law which he spoke of in vv. 8-11.

“In contrast, Paul uses his personal testimony in vv 12–17 to argue that salvation is through mercy and grace, and not (implied) through adherence to Jewish myths based on the law. Paul, as the ultimate example (v 16), stands in contrast to the false teachers in vv 8–11.”3

Paul is saying that God gave the law for people like him. He was such a person! However, he obtained mercy. Through Paul, the worst of sinners, Jesus was able to show His patience. Because Paul obtained mercy, he became the poster boy of how God can save the worst of the worst. In other words, “if God’s mercy can extend to someone as sinful as Paul, surely it can reach anyone.”4

Encouragement for Timothy

Finally, Paul returns his focus to Timothy encouraging him to fight the good fight. He reminds him of the prophecies made about him. Whatever these prophecies were, they were evidently related to the task at hand. Paul expected Timothy to find courage in this. Paul also admonishes him to hold to his faith and a good conscience. Rejecting either of these will lead to spiritual shipwreck.

Hard to understand ≠ ignore it

Failure to grasp the context leads to proof-texting. That is, reading a verse in isolation and applying it to situations that the original author never intended. Christians have all sorts of doctrinal misconceptions because we too often ignore context. Understanding the context requires being able to follow the biblical author’s thinking. 

The big picture is just as important and being able to define words and understand the meanings of sentences. Context is the overriding consideration when determining what a word or phrase actually means. It is a simple fact that we cannot correctly understand a verse if we divorce it from its context. As someone once said, “a text without a context is a pretext.”


  1. Mounce, William D. Pastoral Epistles, Vol 46, Nelson, 2000, 281.
  2. Ibid., 279.
  3. Ibid., 281.
  4. Ibid., 295.