“I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
So often we come to a passage of Scripture and fail to see, or even look for, the connection between one set of verses and the next. We read Scripture like we would read a fortune cookie; one line at a time, completely independent from the previous line or the upcoming line. Yet the Bible is not like that. Every book of the Bible was written by a real human author who was addressing a real human audience in his own day. First Timothy is no different.
Let’s do a bit of review:
Paul is in the middle of giving Timothy very explicit orders for his mission at the church in Ephesus. Beginning in v. 3 Paul gave one specific order: Instruct the false teachers. There are certain men in or around Ephesus who are teaching a different use of Scripture and are guided by myths and genealogies. Instruct them to stop it.
The essence of their unorthodox (a polite term for heretical) teaching was a misappropriation of the Mosaic Law. The law is not a code upon the redeemed to govern their lives, which will become a burden. The law is designed for the reprobate in order to reveal the holiness of God so that the reprobate might repent. These false teachers must stop preaching a message that cannot save and will only frustrate the spiritual vitality of those who are already redeemed.
But ministry is more than putting an end to heresy. After Jesus got done flipping tables and vacating the temple, he filled it and used it as a place of teaching (Matthew 21). What should be the content of Timothy’s teaching? We know what not to do, but what must he do? The short answer is that Timothy is being commanded to instruct these false teachers not only to stop preaching the shortcomings of the law, but also to include the majesty of Christ. The gospel needs Christ. The gospel reveals Christ.
The main difference between the law and the gospel is that of focus. The law states that sinners cannot be righteous because only God is righteous. The gospel declares that those who repent can be righteous because Christ is their righteousness. The law reveals God and exposes sin. The gospel reveals Christ and offers salvation. They are not at odds. They are necessary companions. After establishing the good and proper use of the law (vv. 8-11), these verses reveal Christ in His transforming work in the gospel.
Salvation Made Possible by Christ (vv. 12-14)
“I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus”
There is much to say about these verses, but I will keep my observations brief. We must notice that, even though Paul switches to the first person (me/I), Christ is at the center of these verses.
Notice that it is Christ Jesus to whom Paul directs his personal thanks. Why? Because it is Christ Jesus who has strengthened him. I’m not sure you understand what I mean. Paul, the church planter/evangelist/pastor/theologian/seminary professor/mentor/all around churchman, has a source of strength and it is not himself. It is Christ. The idea is that Christ alone strengthens Paul.
We tend to romanticize or make heroes of the men and women we read about in the Bible. But Paul was a human being who was made of flesh and blood. How could anyone withstand the pressures of ministry, endure the hardships of imprisonment, and withstand the onslaught of physical persecution (not to mention the ongoing fight of personal sin)? Paul was no superhero. Paul was sustained by Christ.
Every true believer is also sustained and strengthened/made strong by Christ. We rest not in our own strength. We run not with our own might. We fight not with our own skill. But we trust and run and fight with full dependency upon Christ who accomplished our salvation and keeps us until He returns for us.
This next line is very interesting.
Because He considered me faithful, putting me into service
Please do not misunderstand Paul. He is not suggesting that Christ saw something special in him and figured–wow, this guy’s pretty neat. I should save him. May it never be! There was nothing special about Paul other than the fact that God chose to save him. Yet God never acts with capricious randomness. He chose Paul with a very specific purpose in mind.
God did not save Paul because he was faithful (how can a rebel be faithful?). God entrusted Paul with his service because it was God who saved him. When God is the one changing hearts, He knows who can be trusted with what.
Even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor.
If you think that there was something special about Paul, perhaps you should go back and read Acts 9. It wasn’t a pretty picture. Paul uses three words to describe himself prior to conversion.
The first is a blasphemer. The term indicates one who slanders, maligns, misrepresents someone’s nature or character for vicious purposes. But the context is not general. Paul was a slanderer of God. How did Paul slander/blaspheme God? By denying that His Son Jesus was the Christ. To suggest that Christ was a mere mortal man who paid the just penalty of His sin through crucifixion on a Roman cross is about as blasphemous as it gets. In reference to the law, Paul is guilty of breaking the first four commandments. To reject Christ is to reject God.
The second word Paul uses is not a common term, but an easy to understand term. He calls himself a persecutor. Again, a review of Acts 9 will shed as much light as needed on this choice of words. Paul made it his business to imprison and/or kill anyone who identified with Christ. He was aggressively hostile to his fellow man. He failed to love his neighbor and thus violated the second half of the Ten Commandments.
On a side note: While we can easily see Paul’s violation of first half of the commandments (the vertical and God focused commandments) and the second half (horizontal and man focused commandments), all of them reflect a relationship (or lack thereof) with God. To love your neighbor is to love God. To persecute the church is to persecute the church’s bridegroom. What did Jesus ask Paul on the road to Damascus? Why are you persecuting ME (Acts 9:4)? To violate God’s will and character is always to spit in the face of God Himself. Paul is as thorough a transgressor as they come.
The third term is translated by the NASB as violent aggressor. The term indicates a person who enjoys violence. Many pagan and warrior cultures thrive on violence. They love to kill and maim. In Paul’s unredeemed heart, he was just such a person. He enjoyed the persecution he heaped upon the church. And yet Christ redeemed this man!
Christ Passes Over
Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus
Paul was a wicked sinner. The like of which the world has never seen before or since. Yet he was acting like any sinner in a state of blind unbelief and punctuated by ignorance. It’s hardly surprising when ignorant and unbelieving reprobates behave like ignorant and unbelieving reprobates. But understand that Paul’s ignorance is not the reason why he was shown mercy, but is simply the explanation of how mercy was able to be extended.
There are those who hear and understand the full gospel of Jesus Christ and utterly reject it. These are sealed in their damnation. Then there are those who play along with the faith for a while, and then turn and openly reject the faith they once claimed (a polite definition for an apostate). These too are sealed in their damnation. But Paul fits into neither of these categories.
He was a horrible bugger for sure. But he was fighting against something that he did not fully understand. That is no excuse, but it is not the same as one who knows full well and still rejects. In this light, even a blasphemous persecutor can receive mercy and grace. Just like the wannabe law-teachers in Ephesus, Paul was an ignoramus. Yet Christ showed him mercy and gave him grace. For his unbelief, Christ gave him faith. For his violence, Christ gave him love.
This is the power of the gospel. This is what the law cannot accomplish by itself.
Salvation Purposed by Christ (vv. 15-16)
“It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.”
Once again I must caution you not to be confused with Paul’s personal language here. In spite of all the first person pronouns, Christ is still the hero.
Christ’s Purpose in Entering Humanity
It is a trustworthy statement
This tells us two things. First, that what we’re about to hear is not a new saying but is common knowledge to the church. This is a specific articulation of theology. Second, this statement is accurate in every sense and should be accepted with the highest authority. In other words, PAY ATTENTION.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners
This statement goes well beyond Christ’s incarnation. This statement does not say came to earth or took on flesh but came into the world. The implications of this statement are huge! Christ came into the world. Where was He before that? It implies that He exists outside our world and before our world. The statement implies a preexistent and eternal Christ!
The term world implies all that is not only the physical globe of planet earth, but also the spiritual and invisible realms as well. Christ Jesus entered into our dimension for a single purpose: To save sinners. Every moment from the miraculous inception to His glorious ascension was for the explicit purpose of saving sinners. Who are these sinners? You should refer back to vv. 9-10 then ask yourself, “Where do I find my name?”
Among whom I am foremost of all.
I think that it would be a gross miscalculation to understand this statement as hyperbole. Paul is not purposefully exaggerating to make a point. He really considers himself to be the chief of all sinners. Not the first sequentially, but the foremost in severity. Neither is this simply a revelation of Paul’s modesty and piety. This is Holy Scripture inspired and guided by God the Holy Spirit. Therefore if the text says that Paul is the foremost of sinners from the beginning of the world to date, I’m inclined to believe him. Yet this is not an example of sanctimonious navel gazing. Paul is proving a point, not wallowing in despair.
Christ’s Purpose in Redeeming Paul
“Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.”
Christ appeared on the Damascus road that day, threw Paul to the ground, and opened his heart and eyes for one purpose: To declare that no one is too wicked to save. There is no one too wicked for salvation. If ANYONE repents upon hearing and understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ, he will be saved from damnation and will enjoy eternal life with Christ.
The gospel can promise this because it is Christ who accomplishes it all. The law reveals a holy God and exposes wretched sinners. The gospel offers Christ’s righteousness in exchange for trust in Christ’s atonement and repentance from rebellion. The law is used to pave the way for the gospel by clearly articulating and revealing the person and character of God. But only the gospel can transform sinner into saint because it is Christ who saves.
Salvation Brings Glory to Christ (v. 17)
“Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
What more can one say after that?
A misapplication of the law tends to place all the emphasis and focus upon man; what he must do and what he must not do. Yet the gospel places all the focus, all the glory, and all the honor upon Christ Jesus our King.