Last week we talked about the importance of a pure heart, a clean conscience, and a genuine faith that comes from sound doctrine. We also noted there are those who wander from this, who bring arguments and confusion rather than welcoming in the Kingdom of God as expressed by the presence of the church on earth. Paul continues by showing a contrast between a life that rejects the reign of Christ and a life that embraces it, and why embracing Jesus brings life.
You and I know the law is good (if used in the right way), and we also know the law was not designed for law-abiding people but for lawbreakers and criminals, the ungodly and sin-filled, the unholy and worldly, the father killers and mother killers, the murderers, the sexually immoral and homosexuals, slave dealers, liars, perjurers, and anyone else who acts against the sound doctrine (“teaching as it extends to a necessary lifestyle”) laid out in the glorious, holy, and pure good news of the blessed God that has been entrusted to me. (8-11)
First, Paul establishes the standard: God’s law reveals God’s will for the world. We want our hearts to align with God’s so that we love what God loves; we want our consciences to be clear by then doing what God wants us to do. There is a ‘necessary lifestyle’ that is supposed to follow if we commit ourselves to Jesus – not because it saves us, but because it expresses our commitment to the one who has saved us.
We talked last week about how part of the problem in Timothy’s church was that the Judaizers were teaching that keeping the Law would save people. But that’s not the way the law was meant to be used. It was meant to be a schoolmaster, a teacher, showing the way that pleases God. God has revealed His will so that we know if our actions are pleasing to Him, and if what we are doing is promoting or undermining life in the Kingdom of God.
But even the best lawkeeping cannot save us, so Paul immediately moves into the necessity of the intervention of Jesus in our life.
I thank our Lord Jesus the Anointed who empowers me, because He saw me as faithful and appointed me to this ministry despite the fact that at one time I was slandering the things of God, persecuting and attacking His people. (12-13)
The verb means to "treat or use others despitefully," "to outrage and insult" them. The full phrase says he sinned against God, himself and others – and, ironically, he did it while keeping the Law (at least as it was understood by the Pharisees). Those in the Jewish community would have seen him as the ultimate law keeper, and yet he was one of the worst. Keeping the Law is not enough, especially if it's a flawed human understanding of what God’s Law really says.
He was still merciful to me because I acted in ignorance apart from faith. But He poured His grace over me, and I was flooded in an abundance of the grace and faith and love that can only be found in Jesus the Anointed. Here’s a statement worthy of trust: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, and I am the worst of them all. (14-15)
There were a number of hymns of catechetical teaching in the early Church. This appears to be one: "Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners." But then Paul adds to it: “I am the worst of them all.”
He talks about his new life in other places (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:20), but nothing can alter the fact that Paul was the man that did all these things and is capable of doing them again without the presence of God in his life.
You’ve heard the phrase, “That’s gonna leave a mark?” Sin leaves a mark. I will bear the scar of my shoulder surgery. No matter how healthy I get, I am the man with a repaired shoulder. It doesn’t define me, but it is a part of me. Paul bore the scars of his sin even as those scars revealed the kind of healing only God can give.
The apostle Paul never forgot his former sins and the grace of God that transformed him. The story of Paul’s conversion is repeated multiple times in the New Testament (Acts 9, 22, 26; Gal. 1 & 2; Phil. 3; 1 Tim. 1). And as Paul himself tells it, his awareness of his sinfulness actually escalates:
- 1 Corinthians 15:9 - “I am the least of the apostles.”
- Ephesians 3:8, written later – “I am the very least of all saints.”
- 1 Timothy 1:15, written later still, and after probably about 25 years of walking with God - “I am the chief of all sinners.”
He does not say, “I was the chief of sinners.” He says, “I am the chief.” He does not single out the sins that previously defined him. He does not say, “I am the chief of persecutors.” He is not wallowing in a past that haunts him. This is more of a general realization.
“The sign of growing perfection is the growing consciousness of imperfection.... The more you become like Christ the more you will find out your unlikeness to Him.” – Alexander Maclaren
“When a man is getting better, he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less.” C.S. Lewis
Paul doesn't kill Christians anymore, but he is more aware than ever of his constant need for God’s mercy. The closer people walk with God, the more they are aware of the depths of their sinful nature, which in turn drives them to a deeper appreciation of the grace of God.
But it is for this reason I was given mercy: by displaying His perfect patience in me, the very worst of all sinners, Jesus could show that patience to all who would believe in Him and gain eternal life. (16)
Notice: the main reason Paul was given mercy was not so that he could be awesome. It was so he would have a testimony for the Kingdom of God. Christians can see in Christ's dealings with Paul the pattern which they can expect for themselves. (The word translated “who would believe” is literally “who are about to believe.”)
Any testimony that points to the saved instead of the Savior misses the point. Paul didn’t want Timothy to think about Paul; Paul wanted Timothy to think about Jesus.
God saves us not because we are awesome, but because he is awesome. We give our testimony so that others gain hope: if God is patient and loving with them, God will be patient and loving with me. No case is too hard for God. He delights in hard cases. If Paul can be saved, you can be saved. 
Every testimony counts as a story of how God has shown patience and love to a sinner in desperate need of salvation. ALL have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. While WE were sinners, Christ died for us.
We have a tendency in Christian circles to put certain kinds of testimonies on a pedestal. I know why we do that – it is meant to find a “chief of sinners” whose life gives us hope (if God can save them, He can save me). I wonder if, at times, we kind of slip down in our chairs and think, “I will never give my testimony. I am just too ordinary…my sins are not that exciting…no one will be in awe when I am done talking.”
Don’t ever think that God can’t use your life to show the glory of his patience and love. Every testimony counts as a story of how God has shown patience and love to a sinner in desperate need of salvation.
May the King eternal, immortal, and invisible—the one and only God—now be honored and glorified forever and ever. Amen. (17)
Paul’s acknowledgment of who he is does not push him into a dark corner of shame and despair. It brings out worship, as if the only way we can appreciate the beauty and grace of God’s forgiveness is by continuously seeing the ugliness of who we are without God.
The “gospel” we hear preached in our day is often a positive message that will help you achieve your full potential or feel good about yourself, succeed financially, or solve your problems.
That’s not the heart of the gospel. Biblical principles will help you in practical ways, but that’s not the good news. The Gospel is that Christ came to save sinners. If you think you’re a basically good person, you are not going to fully understand why Christ came to save you. If you think you have few faults and shortcomings, you will not understand what it means that Christ came to save you.
In Luke 7 we read a story about the connection between honest acknowledgment of who we are and deep response to Christ. Jesus contrasts the casual and even disrespectful way that one of the Pharisees treats him and the way a local prostitute responds to him. She knew she was in desperate need of Christ and needed an ocean of forgiveness. The Pharisee thought he was tight with God and barely needed any. What does Jesus say? “Those who are forgiven little love little. Those who have been forgiven much love much.”
In other words, grace flows from us to the degree that we recognize the grace that has flowed into us.
Do you ever find yourself in a place where you don’t care about other people, or you lack empathy or kindness, or you feel lukewarm in your faith? If so, you may not need to work on feeling kinder or more passionate. You probably are forgetting how much you have been forgiven, how much God loves you, how much he has given you grace when you were a mess.
To remember how much we have been forgiven is the surest way to fill our hearts with gratitude. Paul says, “May the King eternal, immortal, and invisible—the one and only God—now be honored and glorified forever and ever.”
Look at the God he praises: eternal, not limited like us; immortal, not mortal like us; Spirit, not bound in flesh like us. In other words, only a God can save me – more specifically, only this God, revealed in Christ, can take the disaster of a man and make something beautiful.
I often hear the longing expressed that it’s hard to have a heart of worship. A heart of worship cannot be taught. It cannot be forced or orchestrated. You can go to the biggest conference with the biggest band and the most emotional preacher and the coolest arts and have a great emotional response to all that’s going on around you. That’s an experience of a particular kind of worship, but I don’t think that’s the heart of worship.
We see hear in Paul’s letter to Timothy where the heart of worship begins: a recognition the wretched, broken life that we bring to the table – followed by an awareness of an indescribably powerful and holy God who loves us anyway, who offers us enough grace and forgiveness to cover any amount of sin and damage we have accumulated. That’s when the overflow of our hearts becomes the worship of our lives as we humbly take the grace we have been offered and pass it on to those around us.
That’s a statement about life in the Kingdom of God that is worthy of our faith and trust.
Questions to Consider
- I suspect we tend to gravitate toward either seeing ourselves as either “chief of sinners” or “saints in Christ.” How do we balance these two realities in a spiritually healthy way?
- Is Paul suggesting we need a past full of really obvious, significant sin in order to understand God’s grace? What is a part of your life that can show others the tremendous depth and power of God’s forgiveness?
- Check out the entire story of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7. Do you see a connection in your own life between your expressions of empathy and grace for others and how aware you are of your need for forgiveness?
“Unless you have been down into the depths of your own heart, and seen the evil that is there, you will not care for the redeeming Christ, nor will you grasp Him as a do those who know that there is nothing between them and ruin except God’s strong hand… Unless we feel the common evil, and estimate by the intensity of its working in ourselves how sad are its ravages in others, our kindness to others will be as half-hearted as our love to God…. Those who know the plague in their own heart, and how Christ has redeemed them, will go, with the pity of Christ in their heart, to help to redeem others.” - Alexander Macleran
We may say, “I am a thief,” or, “I am a liar,” meaning that I have committed these sins, they weigh upon my shoulders, they are the splinters of my self-hewn cross... We say so in shame. But we do not thereby express an ultimate or God-ordained identity. Quite the contrary. We mean, “This is what I am in a disordered sense, because of what I have done, and because of the evil that I am still fearfully tempted to do.” Or we might put it this way: “This is the fashion in which the image of God has been deformed in me, so that I am not myself, and my face, my very identity, is sludged up with sin.” - Hutchens and Esolen, “Identity Thievery,” Touchstone
 A side note about testimonies: Paul is writing this to Timothy, who knew Paul’s story. Paul is trying to show Timothy the proper kind of humility he needs to have. I think Timothy is supposed to take up this mantra: “I, Timothy, am the chief of sinners. If anyone is in desperate need of God’s grace, it’s me.” Yet Timothy did none of the obviously bad things Paul did.