Monday 28 November 2011

The worst of sinners? (1 Timothy 1:15)

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.
1 Timothy 1:15

How could the apostle Paul describe himself as the worst of sinners? Was he using exaggeration? Or was Paul being subjective - he just felt as if he was the worst person on the planet?

     Paul himself recounts his past as “a blasphemer, persecutor and a violent man” (1 Timothy 1:13). In other words, calling himself “chief of sinners” was not hyperbole nor was it exaggeration. Paul had previously persecuted the church. He even had a hand in the death of Stephen, the first recorded martyr in the book of Acts (Acts 8:1).

     Yet Paul says, he was “shown mercy because (he) acted in ignorance and unbelief.” Mercy is not receiving what we do deserve. Paul was guilty but God was merciful in withholding judgement and not punishing Paul as he rightly deserved. Yet Paul received something even greater than mercy: he received grace.

     Grace is receiving what we do not deserve. Paul received abundant grace - overflowing grace - in the form of forgiveness, love and faith in Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 1:14)

     This was true of Paul and this is true of us as well. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”. And he seems to begin verse 15 by saying, “You can trust this. You can bet your life on this!”

     Still, what are we to make of his declaration as the “worst” of sinners. Notice how the same word occurs in the very next verse: “But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:16)

     The Greek “protos” literally means “first”, or as some translations have it, “foremost”. The English Standard Version reads, “That in me, as the foremost, (the word 'sinner' doesn’t occur in the original) Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience”.

     Paul is therefore describing himself as a sinner on display. He is the foremost sinner. He is a sinner in the limelight. Notice that he doesn’t just say, in verse 15, “of whom I was the first” - referring to his past sins; but that Paul says quite emphatically, “of whom I am the first”. It is in the present tense. Meaning: Every single day he lives is given Paul to display the overflowing generosity of God through Jesus Christ, that others might recall his actions in the past, that many might behold his changed life in the present, and that all might marvel at his hope for the future, and know that all this has been poured out on Paul, a sinner purely by the grace of God.

     Finally, this grace is given Paul for our benefit. He stands merely as “an example” (1 Timothy 1:16) that we might similarly trust in Jesus Christ and receive eternal life.

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