From Law to Gospel: Seeing the Literary Structure of 1 Timothy 1

bibleIn his chapter “Cohesion and Structure in the Pastoral Epistles,” Ray Van Neste argues for literary cohesion in 1 Timothy (in Entrusted with the Gospel: Paul’s Theology in the Pastoral Epistles, 84–104). While many critical scholars have denied this unity and declared 1 Timothy is a patchwork letter (not written by Paul), Van Neste shows how the letter demonstrates internal cohesion. From a careful reading of the letter, he shows how thematic and linguistic connections unity the first and last chapter (98–104).

Most impressive in his argument is his treatment of 1 Timothy 1 and 6, where he shows multiple ways the letter shows cohesion and structure. For instance, developing a number of “hook words,” Van Neste observes,

  • The use of “teachers of the law” (v. 7), law (v. 8), and lawfully (v. 8) link verses 3–7 with verses 8–11.
  • Pisteuō (“entrusted”) ends verse 11 and serves as the keyword for verses 12–17: “faithful” (v. 12), “unbelief” (v. 13), “faith” (v. 14), “trustworthy” (v. 15), “believe” (v. 16). In each case, the Greek word has pist- as its root.
  • Faith and a good conscience also mark the beginning and end of the chapter (v. 5 and v. 19).

With these various “hook words,” we see how the chapter holds together and unfolds. This strengthens our commitment to Paul’s authorship of 1 Timothy, and it shows us how to read the chapter as a whole. Yet, the unity is more than just linguistic. There also appears to be a literary structure in 1 Timothy 1.

First, there is mirroring of verses 3–7 and 18–20. In both instances, Paul charges Timothy to fulfill his ministry. He also urges him to confront certain people, false teachers, whom he names in verses 19–20. In this way, we can see how Paul opens and closes this chapter on the same note. As Fig. 1 indicates, there are thematic and linguistic connections between verses 3–7 and verses 18–20.

Fig. 1: Paul’s Double Charge to Timothy to Confront False Teachers

1:3–7 1:18–20
Paul ‘Charges’ to Timothy


As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge (parangelleis) certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, 4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. 5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.


Paul ‘Charges’ to Timothy


18 This charge (parangelian) I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience.


Paul Confronts False Teacher


6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.


Paul Confronts False Teacher


By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.

From this reading of 1 Timothy 1, we learn that false teachers and false teaching will be a primary focus in this letter. This seems to be the impetus for his writing, and all that Paul says about the gospel in 1 Timothy is meant to correct this problem / these problem people.

In verses 8–17 there is a second appearance of literary structure. In fact, there are three subsections (vv. 8–11, 12–14, 15–17) that follow the same conceptual pattern in the middle of this chapter. Highlighting the second two sections, Andreas Köstenberger graphically displays the relationship between verses 12–14 and verses 15–17 in his commentary on 1 Timothy (1–2 Timothy and Titus, 84). He states, “In each subsection Paul moves from a reference to Christ’s work (1:12, 15a), to his own sin (1:13a, 15c), to his reception of mercy (“but . . . I have received”; 1:13b, 16a); the subsections culminate contrastively with a look back (1:13b–14) and a look forward (1:16b)” (84n88).

Building on Köstenberger’s structure, I believe we can see the pattern he describes in verses 8–11 also. Therefore, as Fig. 2 outlines, there is a pattern that repeats three times in verses 8–17.

Fig. 2: From Grace to Glory, an Outline of Paul’s Gospel in 1 Timothy 1

1:8–11 1:12–14 1:15–17
The Word of the Law


8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just

The Word of Christ


12 I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service,

The Word of the Gospel


15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,


Sin Exposed


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, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine,


Sin Exposed


13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.

Sin Exposed


of whom I am the foremost

The Gospel of Mercy


11 in accordance with the gospel (cf. Rom 12:1)

The Mercy of the Gospel


But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief

The Mercy of the Gospel


16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.




of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted



14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.



17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.


Interestingly, each section here begins with a different “word” and ends with various testimonies to God’s glory and grace. From Paul’s earlier letter to the church in Ephesus, we know that Paul links grace and glory together (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). Moreover, we can see in the logic of 1 Timothy how he is correcting the false “words” of false teachers with the true words of the gospel carried through the ministry of Timothy.

In order, we can even see how each of these subsections develops this theme of gospel correction. First, Paul shows how the law leads to the gospel (vv. 8–11)—a problem the false teachers were promoting (see vv. 3–7). Second, Paul recalls Christ’s direct word to himself on the Damascus, which brought him from death to life, and rebellion to faith. Third, Paul speaks of the trustworthiness of the gospel; these words give life and bring salvation to man and glory to God. Indeed, from these three outlines we can see how the “hook words” fit into the flow of Paul’s introductory chapter and prepare the way for the rest of his gospel-saturated instructions to the church.

All in all, this reading of 1 Timothy stands against anyone who says the letter lacks literary unity. In contrast, it sees in Paul’s first letter to Timothy a focus on confronting false teachers by repeatedly proclaiming the gospel. And rather than just giving lip service to that idea, Paul demonstrates how  (1) God’s word (variously delivered), (2) confronts (his) sin, (3) leads to saving mercy, and (4) brings glory to God and grace to men. Indeed, this the purpose of the law (vv. 8–11), the nature of Paul’s experience (vv. 12–14), and the centerpiece of the glorious gospel (vv. 15–17).

Let the reader understand, this approach to 1 Timothy 1 may make too many connections. It may see too much cohesion. But if so, these connections are rooted in the text itself. They take seriously the unity of the letter, the authorship of Paul, and the way the law prepares the way for Christ and the gospel.

In fact, this movement from law (v. 8) to Christ (v. 12) to gospel (as a trustworthy saying that brings salvation, v. 15) may be exactly the point Paul is trying to make against the false teachers. It certainly fits the argument of his letter. And if we can deduce a literary structure in these verses, it helps us ascertain the shape of Paul’s argument. This has immediate impact for Timothy, but also incredible application for us.

To those confused about the law, a right understanding of the gospel is the answer. And by following the repeated emphasis of Paul who shows how the Law, his life, and the gospel lead us to Christ, then we have confidence to continue to proclaim Christ to all who stand against the truth—those false teachers within the church and those without.

To that end let us keep reading the Scriptures, that the gospel might continue to renew our minds and revitalize God’s church.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds