I Timothy 1:12–17
Mercy to Sinners
Laura Miguélez Quay
September 11, 2016
This morning we’re beginning a seven-week series on Paul’s epistles—his letters—to Timothy. As we are continually reminded in Scripture, because of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice of his life on our behalf, all who call themselves disciples of Christ, that is all who accept his sacrifice on their behalf, become not only children of the heavenly Father, but also family to one another. And in the introduction to this letter, after identifying himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s command (1), Paul indicates that he is writing these letters to Timothy, his “true son in the faith” (2). Timothy isn’t Paul’s biological son, but he is Paul’s son by their shared faith in Christ.
In the verses immediately preceding our passage, Paul loses no time in jumping in and charging Timothy to deal with those who are teaching false doctrines in the churches in Ephesus, or modern-day Turkey. These false teachers are misusing God’s law to promote myths, endless genealogies (4), and meaningless talk (6) without the knowledge or authority to do so. To use Paul’s words, “They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” (7). Paul then notes that the purpose of God’s law, essentially, is that we might know our sin. For one of the results of the Fall is the human loss of the ability to know which behaviors are sinful and which behaviors are holy. So Paul provides a list of “ungodly and sinless” behaviors in verses 9 and 10 concluding that the law was made to correct and restrain these sinful behaviors. Since the time of the Fall, humans have been tempted to sin and this is a problem for us for to commit sin makes us less than human—less than God intended—and so we must be taught how to be human as God designed us to be. And for this reason, God has provided us with his law that we might know how we should live.
I provide this brief introduction to this epistle because it helps us appreciate what Paul goes on to say in the verses that are our focus this morning. Though in verses 8–11 he has defended God’s law, noting how its purpose is to teach “lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious” (9) and he then goes on to specify some of these sinful behaviors—the law is “for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine”—what Paul then goes on to do is truly remarkable. Having listed some representative sinful behaviors—behaviors that go contrary to God’s law—Paul then identifies himself as one who, though he himself was a teacher of the law, nonetheless needed a proper understanding of the law just as much as the unrighteous he has just listed.
Paul’s attitude here isn’t one of being “holier than thou” but it’s more an admission that he was no different than those whom he’s now charging Timothy to address and correct. And Paul’s response to God’s kindness to him, despite his previous ungodly behavior, is gratitude. He states in verse 12 “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service.” Sinner though Paul once was, Christ put his faith in Paul. He considered Paul worthy of the trust he was placing in him even to the point of calling him to serve him. And in what follows Paul helps us appreciate how unlikely a candidate, humanly speaking, he was for such a service, for he “was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man” (13).
If we jump ahead for the moment to verse 15, Paul goes on to elaborate upon his previous lack of credentials for being entrusted with the Good News of Christ: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” or literally I am “first” or “foremost.” So why would Paul say this about himself? Well, though we’ve looked at Paul’s conversion before, it’s certainly appropriate to revisit it now since his encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus Road was arguably the most important event of Paul’s life, at least from his own perspective.
Now Paul’s most significant encounter with Jesus Christ took place after Jesus had been crucified, dead, and buried. And the catalyst for the risen Christ’s self-disclosure to Paul—known as Saul at the time—was that he was actively persecuting Jesus’ disciples. In Acts 8 we’re told of a “great persecution” that “broke out against the church in Jerusalem” (1) following Stephen’s martyrdom and burial and whereas godly men “mourned deeply” for Stephen after having buried him (2), “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison” (3). So this context of persecution towards Christ’s church is the general context and three times the New Testament tells us of Saul’s encounter with the risen Christ. In the opening verses of Acts 9, Luke records Saul’s initial meeting:
1Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
Again, this encounter with the risen Christ was decisive for Paul. We hear about this encounter from Paul’s own mouth in Acts 22—and then again in Acts 26. This was literally a life-changing event.
In Acts 22 Paul provides an impressive statement of his credentials as a teacher of the law—again, keep in mind he’s asked Timothy to correct those professing to be teachers of the law. Before the risen Christ appeared to him, Paul tells how he was “3a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in [Jerusalem].” He “studied under Gamaliel”—the most prominent rabbi in Paul’s day—“and was thoroughly trained in the law of [his] ancestors. [He] was…zealous for God…. 4 [He] persecuted the followers of [the] Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison…. 5 [He] even obtained letters from [the high priest and all the Council] to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.”
Similarly in Acts 26, Paul states how “4The Jewish people all [knew] the way [he had] lived ever since [he] was a child, from the beginning of [his] life in [his] own country [Turkey], and also in Jerusalem. 5 They [knew him] for a long time and [could] testify…that [he] conformed to the strictest sect of [the Jewish] religion, living as a Pharisee…. [He]… 9 was convinced that [he] ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is just what [he] did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests [he] put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, [he] cast [his] vote against them. 11 Many a time [he] went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and…tried to force them to blaspheme. [He] was so obsessed with persecuting them that [he] even hunted them down in foreign cities.”” Can you begin to see why Paul confesses to Timothy that he who had been trained to teach the law was “once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man” (12)? Let’s summarize what we learn about him from both Luke and his own testimony:
He persecuted and attempted to destroy the church;
He dragged off Christian women and men to prison;
He made murderous threats against Christians;
He not only put Christians in prison but did so that they might be put to death;
He punished followers of Christ and tried to force them to blaspheme—again, an offense punishable by death;
He persecuted Christians to the point of death;
He even hunted down Christians who were in foreign cities;
In sum—and in his own words—Saul did all he could do to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.
And an important part of what Saul learned when the risen Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus Road is, as we’ve also noted before but which also bears repeating in this context, that Jesus Christ loves and identifies with those who are his so much that for anyone to hurt or attack or bring harm to a Christian is the same, at least in Jesus’ eyes, as hurting or attacking or bringing harm to him. This is what it means for us to be united with Christ by his life, death, and resurrection. Whatever goodness or cruelty we or anyone else does to one who belongs to Christ is a goodness or cruelty we do to him, as indicated by Jesus’ question to Saul the foremost persecutor of Christians: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And this revelation—this communication—from Jesus Christ, Paul’s now Savior and Lord, helps us to begin to see why Paul also saw himself as the worst of sinners. Because in so vigorously attacking and seeking to destroy the church of Christ—the followers of Christ—Saul was attacking and seeking to destroy Jesus Christ himself. So when Paul tells Timothy to confront those involved in sin, for him it isn’t a matter of “us” vs. “them”—the godly vs. the ungodly for Paul knows that he himself was once numbered among the ungodly—among those who broke God’s law even though he had been trying to be a devoted Jewish religious leader.
Yet despite this past history, God in Christ showed him mercy. He showed Paul kindness and love irrespective of what he deserved, for Paul had “acted in ignorance and unbelief” (13). Though at that time Paul knew a level of truth about the Scriptures since he was a teacher of the law, he didn’t understand that the law was an expression of God’s love; that the law teaches us what loving behavior looks like; namely, that the law teaches us how we are to love God and how we are to live with one another in a loving manner; the law teaches us how we are to act towards and treat one another in a way that honors the God in whose image we are all made.
And upon giving his life over to God in Christ, Paul bears witness to how the “grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, [along] with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” What Paul learned after he came to a saving faith and knowledge of Christ that he didn’t know before—what he had acted ignorantly about in unbelief—was that Jesus Christ was indeed God in the flesh, who came in the flesh that we might not receive the penalty for our sins— that we might not receive the penalty for our ignorance and unbelief. For Saul, admitting his sinfulness and turning from his sinful ways—his persecution of Christ’s church and therefore his persecution of Christ—and consequently giving his life over to Christ was all due to God’s grace, to God’s mercy and favor being poured out on him. By his life and actions, he had identified himself as God’s enemy; by God’s grace, God in Christ had identified Paul as one for whom he died. And notice how in verse 14 Paul states that not only was the grace of our Lord poured out on him, but also his faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Even the ability to believe that Jesus Christ is God was a gift from God for faith, too, was “poured out” on Paul “abundantly” and so, too, was the ability to love God in Christ.
Now if you have ever been asked why God in Christ came to earth, came into the world in human form, you’d be hard pressed to answer better than Paul does in verse 15: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. As such Jesus’ mission, his whole purpose in life, was vastly different from the purpose of your life or my life or the life of anyone who ever has lived, is living now, or ever will live. God in Christ came into the world to die that you and I might live. The only way that you and I can live as God intended is by knowing the living God. And the only way we’re able to know the living God is by accepting the work that his Son, Jesus Christ, did on our behalf. He was flogged and humiliated for us. He took on our penalty for us. He became a curse for us. He died for us. He rose from death for us. He ascended to heaven for us and even now is ruling this world both at the macro level—the sun, moon, and stars—and the micro level—your life and mine. And to those who have acknowledged him as their Savior and Lord, he has sent his own Holy Spirit, his royal seal and promise that he will never leave or abandon us for this indwelling Spirit will carry us from earthly life to eternal life when our days on earth are over.
Paul now knows all of this and he sees himself as the most prominent or the first in rank so far as sinners go. After stating that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, he adds parenthetically and tellingly, “of whom I am the worst.” It’s an odd thing to say about yourself, isn’t it? Paul is doing the opposite of what last week I suggested we often do. Whereas we tend to put forth our best selves to the world—whether on Facebook or a Christmas newsletter or on a date or a job resume—Paul is owning his greatest shame of having once been a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man. Yet Paul sees the method in our Lord’s madness. After owning that in his estimation he is the worst of sinners, he adds in verse 16: “But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” In Paul’s mind, the primary reason God has shown him mercy—has showered him with undeserved compassion and forgiveness despite his former violent life—is that all who hear Paul’s testimony and see his changed life might know the immense or complete patience of our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ and “would believe in him and receive eternal life” themselves.
Do you see the logic here? If God in Christ so lovingly and kindly and mercifully turned around the life of one who was seeking to destroy all that Christ represented along with all who followed him, then there is nothing—and I mean nothing that he isn’t able to forgive. There is no one—and I mean no one whom he isn’t willing to love and restore to the fellowship with him and others for which we’ve been created. But turning to God requires that we, as did Paul, first see and acknowledge our sin—that we see and acknowledge that we would rather live according to our ideas of what is good and right than according to God’s ideas; that we would rather love and serve our purposes than love and serve God and his purposes along with those whom he’s placed in our lives.
Brothers and sisters, this is a hard—and important truth. There is a sense in which we may be unable to grasp fully just how much our Maker and Redeemer loves unless we also know just how much in need we are of him. Do you remember the account in Luke of the sinful woman who fell at Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her tears and her hair and kissing his feet and then pouring perfume on them? When Simon the Pharisee, who had invited Jesus to dinner at his home, saw her behavior he thought to himself—he didn’t even say it for all to hear—“If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” Well, we know what follows. Jesus, being not only fully human but also fully God, knew Simon’s thoughts and responded by telling of two men who were in debt to a money lender. One owed five hundred denarii or 500 days’ wages; the other owed fifty denarii or 50 days wages. Both debts were forgiven by the money lender and Jesus then asked Simon: “Now which of [the men whose debts were forgiven] will love him more?” And Simon rightly answered “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” With that Jesus turned to the woman who had fallen at his feet and said to Simon: “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
But oh, how difficult it is for us to own our sin, even before God who already knows every sin we’ve ever thought, considered, or done. I’ve been thinking this past week about how willing we would be to be known by our worst sin. Terrifying thought, isn’t it? I was only able to come up with a few examples from Scripture of those whose sins will ever be attached to them: Rahab the Harlot. Doubting Thomas. The unnamed Sinful Woman Luke tells of in the passage I just highlighted. And Paul, the worst of sinners. Is this how you would like to be remembered—by your worst sin? For my part, I far prefer the positive epithets or descriptors we find in Scripture: John, the disciple whom Jesus loved; righteous Job; Abraham, God’s friend; David, a man after God’s own heart.
And yet the more we know and are aware of our own sin, the more able we will be to know Christ’s love. Why would we or anyone follow Jesus Christ and his teachings unless we believed that he is God’s Son, who has come in the flesh, and died on behalf of our sins, and risen to provide us eternal life with him? And though we should be careful not to place sins in a hierarchy as a means of feeling good about our “small” sin or sins when compared to the “large” sins of others, what Paul is seeking to communicate in this morning’s passage is: What sin could be worse than murdering the Son of God—than murdering one who never, not once, disobeyed God? And though in Paul’s case he actively sought to murder Jesus Christ’s followers—and by extension murdered Christ himself—even a seemingly “small” sin would have required that Christ die for us.
Brothers and sisters, if Paul could be forgiven for killing Christians, then we can certainly be forgiven for lying—or sexual indiscretions—or stealing—or cheating—or hating—or not seeing the needs of others—or, seeing the needs of others, not doing anything to try and care for them. In the eyes of God, all sin results in Christ dying and rising for us. And so our testimony, like Paul’s, should be one of gratitude at Christ Jesus’s immense patience towards us, that we might be enabled, by his love, by his grace, by his mercy, by his kindness to believe in him and receive eternal life. And so, with Paul, we can proclaim and bear witness about our Savior, our Lord, Our King Jesus Christ: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (17).
Let us pray.
Use again as Benediction: 1 Timothy 1:17: 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
 Acts 22:3–7: 3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. 4 I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 5 as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished. 6 “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’
 Acts 26:4–18: 4 “The Jewish people all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. 5 They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee. 6 And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today. 7 This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. King Agrippa, it is because of this hope that these Jews are accusing me. 8 Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead? 9 “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11 Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities. 12 “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ “ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
 Acts 22:5; Acts 28:3. See also Galatians 1:13: For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.
 Acts 9:1, 2; 22:5; 26:10.
 Acts 9:1.
 Acts 26:10.
 Acts 26:11.
 Acts 22:4; Galatians 1:16.
 Acts 26:11.
 Acts 26:9.
 Acts 9:4; Acts 22:7; Acts 26:14.
 Or ignorantly in unbelief; Mounce: since being ignorant I acted in unbelief. Greek: ὅτι ἀγνοῶν ἐποίησα ἐν ἀπιστίᾳ
 τὴν ἅπασαν μακροθυμίαν. Immense, complete, perfect patience; longsuffering in other translations.
 Luke 7:36–50: 36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. 39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. 41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii,[denarius = a day’s wage] and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. 44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” 48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8.
 Acts 13:22.