What do you think is the purpose of the law? The Pauline author of 1 Timothy writes: “But we know that the law is good, if someone uses it lawfully. Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the righteous but for the lawless and disobedient” (1:8–9).
Paul then goes on to give a whole list of “lawless” people in a vice list centered upon the ten commandments (1:9b-11a). It was his version of “don’t be like Hitler or the KKK.” It includes things like “father-killers, mother-killers, and slave-traders.” This list is more of a generalization and a caricature than calling out specific people’s sins. If we stopped reading here, then it would appear that Paul is using the law to stereotype people in order to point out their sin in order to make himself look good. The law is only for bad people.
But this isn’t where Paul stops.
He goes on to admit his own sins—I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and a man of violence (1:13). Later, he says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the premiere” (1:15). In other words, Paul creates a fictional list of the “worst” sinners (maybe today these would be serial killers, pedophiles, racists, etc.), but then, he puts himself at the top! If the law is only for bad people, then Paul needs the law more than anyone else. He creates a caricature of the “sins” of his society in order address the REAL sins in his own life so that he can take responsibility for his own sins.
Paul’s claim of his blasphemy, persecution, and violence, is a reference to his former life as a persecutor of the church. Prior to the Damascus Road, Paul thought he was on God’s side of things. He saw Jesus as a false prophet and Christ-followers as heretics. As a religious leader, he saw it as his duty to protect God’s flock by rooting out false teaching. He was 100% percent convinced that he was doing God’s will.
Then, he met Jesus on the Damascus Road and his entire worldview was upset. White became black and black became white. He discovered that he was not God’s ally; he was God’s opponent. To explain himself, Paul says that he was acting out of ignorance and unbelief (1:13). Paul is not making an excuse for himself. He’s not saying, “Oops, I didn’t know any better.”
Instead, Paul is pointing out the evil of his ignorance and unbelief. He was wrong about his knowledge about Jesus and was wrong to not believe in Jesus. It turns out that ignorance can actively harm people. (For example, if a doctor is ignorant that a patient is allergic to penicillin, they can harm their patient. That’s why we have to fill out those forms at doctor’s offices.) Paul uses the example of his own life—he knew the law inside and out. He knew how to apply the law. He knew how to teach others to follow the law, but he didn’t know Jesus. His entire religious convictions had been harming others. His ignorance caused tremendous harm. His ignorance was worse that being a father-killer.
Today, society and the church are being asked to listen by the African American community. They are a community crying out in anguish and rage. We are being asked to reflect upon how our ignorance has contributed to these problems. It’s not enough to go back to the law and simply point out right from wrong for other people. We have a much greater challenge of finding Christ and asking where we have been ignorant. Our ignorance is hurting others.
The good news is that ignorance is cured by education. In Paul’s case, he had a hard time because he already thought that he had all the right answers. Prior to the Damascus Road, he was convinced that he was on God’s side and on the right side of history.
What would happen if each of us said, “I need to know more?” What would happen if we said, “I am the worst of sinners”? What would happen if we grieved with those who are grieving? What would happen if we simply said, “I don’t know enough, and I’m sorry”?