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1 Timothy 1:12-17

This is the 42nd Sunday of Year C and the first time we have a reading from the Pastoral Letters. These often overlooked epistles provide a fascinating glimpse into the relationship of Paul to two young pastors, Timothy and Titus, and the troubled churches they serve. Paul addresses each man as a “loyal child” or “true son” in the faith. And, though there are urgent concerns to be addressed, Paul is also careful to express his fatherly affection for these faithful coworkers. Our study of the letters to Timothy and Titus should bear in mind that these are not theological treatises or general instructions to the churches. Rather, they are letters to particular pastors in particular contexts, dealing with real life challenges to the integrity and purity of the Gospel message. If you’re a pastor today, called to be faithful in the post-Christian environment in which many of us find ourselves, the Pastoral Letters can be a source of great encouragement. It’s helpful to be reminded that, already, in the first century, the church was a beautiful mess.

Professor Thomas G. Long has this to say about the Pastorals:

     The fact that congregations sometimes get into trouble, occasionally escalating into nasty church fights, and require remedial intervention, is nothing new, of course, but it rarely makes for stirring and inspirational reading. As one accomplished preacher said of the Pastoral Epistles, “Frankly, they’re not my go-to books.” That’s understandable. We would rather read accounts of the church cruising down the highway of faith, proclaiming the gospel faithfully, compassionately showing the love of Christ, standing tall for social justice. In the Pastoral Epistles, though, we see the church on the mechanic’s lift, in the garage, and we are given guidance for performing an ecclesial engine overhaul. Ironically, though, the very traits that have caused the Pastorals to be overlooked by earlier readers may, in fact, make them urgently important for readers today. [1]

In verses 12-17 of chapter 1, Paul offers a capsule spiritual autobiography. Though Timothy was certainly already familiar with the Apostle’s story, the recounting of Paul’s grace transformation serves one of the purposes of this letter—to reaffirm the nature of Christ’s saving mission in the world. Though Paul had been “a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence,” he received mercy from the Lord because he “acted ignorantly in unbelief.” (v. 13) With a heart full of thanksgiving, Paul says, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me.” (v. 14)

Did Paul receive mercy only because he acted in ignorance and unbelief? When he stood as an approving witness to the stoning of Stephen, when he dragged believers out of their homes to face imprisonment, when he made it his sole purpose in life to crush the young movement of Christ-followers—were all these hateful actions forgiven because Paul mistakenly thought he was serving God at the time? Is there not also mercy for those who act out of deliberate rebellion against God, with full knowledge of their sins? Of course, there is. So, we know Paul is not claiming that God’s forgiving grace is only for those who don’t know what they’re doing when they sin against the Lord. We’re reminded of Christ’s own words from the cross, when he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

In Paul’s case, the mercy of God came not only in the form of forgiveness for the terrible acts he had committed against Christ and the church, but also in the form of enlightenment—as a removal of the scales that had blinded Paul’s eyes and heart to the truth of Christ’s resurrection and Lordship. God’s grace in Paul’s life meant not only a fresh start, with sins forgiven, but also a call to redirect his gifts and energies toward the evangelistic mission to the Gentile world. He never ceased to be amazed that “Christ Jesus our Lord . . . judged me faithful and appointed me to his service.” (v. 12)

But we should not take this text as a basis for the claim that God only forgives sins committed out of ignorance. We know that grace is also extended to those who commit willful sins, in full knowledge that they are breaking both God’s law and God’s heart. The “trustworthy saying”—”Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” includes every kind of sinner who turns to the Lord in true repentance and faith.

The “trustworthy saying” formula of verse 15 appears five times in the Pastorals. “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance. . .” (See 1 Timothy 3:1, 4:9, 2 Timothy 2:11 and Titus 3:8.) These sayings were, evidently, familiar affirmations at use in the churches. Philip Towner says, “In each community Paul’s gospel had come under heavy fire. The ‘trustworthy saying’ formula is a technique by which Paul, in one motion, rearticulates his gospel, . . . asserts its authenticity and apostolic authority, and alienates the opposing teaching that . . . does not belong to the category denoted by the term πιστός (“trustworthy”).”[2] In v. 15, the trustworthy saying is, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” This simple gospel affirmation is followed by an addendum that applies the saying to Paul’s own life: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.”  

When Paul considered his former life of misguided zeal that had inflicted so much harm against the cause of Christ, he was ashamed and full of regret. But he realized that his destiny was to be put on display as a trophy of God’s grace. “I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.” (v. 16)

Our reaction to Paul’s claim to the “the foremost sinner” might be to say, “Come on, Paul, I know people who are far worse sinners than you!” Even though Paul had the distinction of being the lead persecutor of the early church, his claim to stand at the front of the line of all sinners must be hyperbole, right? What the Apostle is expressing here is the common experience of redeemed people, when we consider our lives in the light of God’s limitless and overwhelming grace. We feel shock and revulsion at the depths of our selfishness and want to separate ourselves as far as possible from the life that was empty of God’s love. We don’t like “worm theology,” but we understand first-hand the conviction enshrined in familiar hymns:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. Alas! And did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die? Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?

John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, titled his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, using language taken directly from Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 1:15. Was Bunyan disputing Paul’s claim to be the foremost sinner? No, he was simply confessing his sense of awe that the grace of God was sufficient to forgive and transform even a sinner like him.

This is the testimony of every redeemed child of God, and our gratitude issues forth in doxology. There are no words to adequately express our thanks to Jesus for what he has done in our lives. But the soaring lines of verse 17 are a beautiful outburst of praise to the King: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” [1] Thomas G. Long, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, Westminster John Knox Press, 2016, p. 1. [2] Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006, pp. 144-45.