For a matchless example of moral perfection and love, surely no one compares to the life of Jesus. Conformity to Him is the goal of our sanctification (Gal. 4:9; 1 Jn. 2:6). Yet what of the doctrine of the Christian life? Do we also look to the gracious words falling from the lips of the Man from Nazareth (Lk. 4:22) or do we skip ahead to Romans for this? At the close of his first letter to the beloved Timothy, Paul says the following:
“If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness…” (1 Timothy 6:3, NASB95)
Paul goes on to describe the vices of such an advocate, but from this three things are clear: 1) there is something rightly called sound doctrine/sound words which Timothy was to advocate 2) this doctrine causes conformity to godliness 3) this doctrine is grounded in the teaching of the Lord Jesus Himself. What words of Jesus does Paul have in mind here? All of them. Peter and the twelve were eyewitnesses of the events in the public ministry of Jesus and it is their authoritative witness that forms the substance of the gospels. Before it was written, however, this tradition was delivered orally to Paul and he faithfully made it known to all the churches which he established.
Throughout 1 & 2 Timothy Paul frequently refers to the importance of maintaining “my doctrine”, “sound teaching”, or similar variants (cf. 2 Tim 1:13). What the passage above demonstrates is what we would expect from one who saw himself as a bondservant of Jesus who sought to do all for His sake. Paul viewed his own teaching merely an extension of the words uttered by the God-man before He ascended on high. For instance, in 1 Tim. 6:17-19 Paul makes several explicit allusions to language from the Sermon on the Mount in his commands to Timothy concerning those with wealth. Just fourteen verses after articulating the foundation of sound doctrine, Paul offers a clear example of just how formative the words of Jesus were in his own instruction.
What conclusions can be drawn from seeing this relationship? Far too many to enumerate here. Yet they can be summarized by noting that any dissonance we might perceive (as 21st century readers) between the teaching of Jesus and the words of Paul must be attributed to a deficiency in our understanding and not an actual disparity. There is no tension whatsoever between Paul’s doctrine of grace and the severe demands Jesus places on those who would seek to follow Him. Proper exegesis of Paul’s epistles leads to this conclusion, but there is also another witness. Whatever understanding we reach from Paul’s letters must find symmetry with Paul’s life.
We look through the windows Scripture offers into the ministry of the apostle and behold frequent fasting, ardent prayer, radiant holiness, tireless labor, intense suffering, and extravagant sacrifice. Perhaps more than any other figure in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit sets Paul forth precisely as a premier picture of the way love answers the severity of the call Jesus gives those who would seek to be His disciple (Lk. 9:23-26). Paul’s revelation of grace was not the means by which he could evade the narrow (lit. afflicted, crushed) path prescribed by Jesus (Mt. 7:14) but the means by which he could run on it with joy. Paul’s revelation of “freedom” was not the absence of restraints but the power to not be mastered by anything (including lawful things) so that he might be mastered by Jesus alone (1 Cor. 6:11). Paul’s liberty caused him to beat his body and make it his slave for righteousness (1 Cor. 9:27).
It should not be surprising to find echoes of this cruciform anthem of love as he speaks to Titus, another beloved disciple, on how to respond to the grace of God:
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” (Titus 2:11–15, NASB95)