Nobody would dispute that the Apostle Paul was one of the greatest preachers ever known. So why did he refer to himself as the chief of sinners?
Well, the answer is both surprising and encouraging. Today on Truth for Life, Alistair Begg is teaching from chapter 1 of 1 Timothy, or beginning with verse 12. Inasmuch as I think what we have before us in these verses is the opening of an individual—namely, the apostle Paul's—soul to God, I want to try and gather our thoughts around three main headings. First of all, to pay attention to the basis of Paul's position, and then to consider the impact of Paul's conversion, and then, as time allows, to say just a word about the substance of Paul's instruction, which you'll find there in verse 18 and following. First of all, then, the basis of Paul's position. What is his position?
Well, his position is clearly stated at the end of verse 12. He has been appointed to service. Speaking in the personal aspect of it, he says this is the wonder that he has considered me faithful and has appointed me to his service.
It's interesting that he says it is to service, it is not to leadership, it's not to honor—although there was honor in the service and there was leadership in fulfilling his responsibilities—but he doesn't identify what has happened to him in that way. He says the wonder is not that I have received honor, nor that I have been made a leader, but the real wonder is that God has appointed me to his service. And the word that he uses is diaconia, from which we get our word diakonos, which is translated deacon, and it is clear that he is not referring here to the duties of diaconal responsibility within the framework of the church, which he addresses later on in his letter, but he is making express reference to the fact that his service is largely threefold. He is a servant of Christ, he is a servant of the gospel, and he is a servant of the church.
And the wonder of it grips his soul. I thank Christ Jesus, he says, our Lord, that he has appointed me to his service. Now, on what basis was he appointed to this unique position? As an apostle, as a foundational element in the whole superstructure of the church.
What in his background had set him up, if you like, for this appointment? Look at what he says in verse 13. I was a blasphemer, I was a persecutor, and I was a violent man.
Look at Acts chapter 26 in his statement before Agrippa. He explains to Agrippa in verse 11, Many a time, he says, I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished. And I tried to force them to blaspheme in my obsession against them.
I even went to foreign cities to persecute them. This isn't some Sunday-school kid who wanted to grow up and be an apostle. This is somebody who was vehemently committed to monotheism and therefore passionately committed to do away once and for all with these Christian professors. And he says, my blasphemy and my persecution were exercised within the framework of violence. If you have a King James version in front of you, I think it says, I was an insolent man. The word that is used here is a word for an individual who was capable of the most insulting, violent, and humiliating treatment of those with whom they disagreed. Now, that is the kind of violence that Paul is paying testimony to here, and he is not proud of it. And when we think about the basis for his appointment here, we say to ourselves, there is no basis. Well, then what then is the basis of his appointment?
How do you take a man like this and use him in this way? How do you take such an individual—how does a guy like that become the foremost preacher of the gospel in the then-known world? Well, the answer is right in front of you there, as Paul refers to it. In verse 14, he says, I'll tell you what the basis is. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly.
The word in Greek is the prefix huper, which is a statement of sort of unquenchable outpouring. And he says, although I was a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man, God in his grace poured it out over me. He just overwhelmed me with his grace.
He just met me along the journey of my life. And if you want to know how it worked out, he says, he has shown me mercy. Shown me mercy.
He says this a couple of times. In verse 13, I was shown mercy. In verse 16, I was shown mercy. What is mercy? It is the capacity by which God does not give to an individual what they deserve. What is grace?
It's the flip side. It is the capacity whereby God gives to an individual what they do not deserve. And Saul says, I was committed to persecuting Christ and all who followed Christ, and the very Christ that I was persecuting woke me up on the Damascus Road and poured out in abundance his grace upon me. And when he found me, I should have deserved what others did not deserve to receive in my hands. But instead of that, he showed his mercy upon me. And he did this, although I was acting in ignorance and in unbelief. He thought he was upholding God's cause. Jesus says, they will do such things because they have not known the Father or me.
I remember the event on the Damascus Road. And a light shone from heaven that was brighter than the noonday sun, and a voice from heaven said, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? What was his answer?
Who are you? Lord? Is this really Jesus?
See? So he says, I was a persecutor, I was a blasphemer, I was a violent man. God showed his grace abundantly on me, because I acted in my ignorance and in my unbelief. In other words, what you have here is a wonderful fulfillment of the prayer of Jesus from the cross.
When Jesus is on the cross and he makes the various statements from there, there is none more telling than as the crowd gathers around him and as people abuse him and spit on him and mock him, what does he say from the cross? Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing. I didn't remove the guilt. They were culpable.
But it was not unpardonable. And the response of Jesus to his murderers was a prayer for mercy, and it was that very prayer for mercy fulfilled on the Damascus Road that took this guy called Saul of Tarsus and brought him to his knees. He had a zeal for God, but it was without knowledge. That's what he's saying to Agrita. And he's not pleading in his innocence.
He's explaining. Acts chapter 26, again, and verse 9, I was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth, and that is just what I did in Jerusalem. Small wonder, then, that when Paul writes his theological treatise in Romans and gets to the section where his heart breaks for his own Jewish people, he says in Romans chapter 10, Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.
Now, listen to this. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. They have a zeal for God, but they don't understand grace. They don't understand that grace is God's riches transferred to our paltry account at the express of his Son Jesus. And when the lights go on in Judaism for individuals and they begin to grab hold of that, then the transformation will be akin to the change that was brought about in Saul of Tarsus himself.
It is a wonderful story. He's given me strength, says Paul, and so he did give him strength. What a picture he must have been to those who were his traveling companions when, on the Damascus road, he found himself flattened out on the dust and suddenly unable to see. You see, suddenly he's hopeless. He's helpless.
He's going nowhere unless someone comes and takes him by the hand. And God sends Ananias, and in all of his weakness and in his blindness and with the dust on his front of his clothes and under his fingernails, he finds himself in the home of Ananias, and Ananias says, Listen, I'm as freaked out by this as you are. That's a loose translation. But the Word of God, the Word of God to you is—and believe me, men, I don't understand this at all, and I'm only saying it because I'm trying to be obedient—but the Word of God is that you are the chosen instrument of God. Can you imagine him trying to get that out of his mouth? You are the chosen instrument of God to bear his name before the Gentiles.
You've got to be crazy! He was standing there going, Put your coats here! when they threw the stones into the bonny face of Stephen. He had the letters and the stuff, and he was on his way.
Stamp this out! And now he says, You're my chosen instrument to bear my name before the Gentiles. I love this story! I love this story! Bearing the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, is the greatest single argument in the New Testament for the veracity of all of the gospel—this most unlikely character.
We're not supposed to be trying to find people just like us. Go for the unlikely. How odd of God! Not just to forgive him, but to appoint him. It'd be one thing for him to say, Saul of Tarsus, you've been a bad guy, and I'm forgiving you, and I want you to live under a tree for the rest of your life. And just keep quiet. That'll be enough! And when you finally die, you'll remember that I forgave you.
That would have been okay. He says, I'm not just gonna forgive you. I'm gonna make you the greatest preacher that the world has ever seen.
And I'm gonna make all of your fearfulness and all your diffidence and all your awareness of the fact that you're small, you have a thorn in the flesh, whatever that means, and all these different things. I'm gonna take all of that, Saul, and I'm going to use it so that men and women will be unmistakably confronted by the fact that when we think about the basis of your appointment to Christian ministry, there is no explanation save the amazing grace of God. For the grace of the Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with faith, verse 14, which would replace his ignorant unbelief and love, which would replace his violent aggression. Without grace, love and faith would be impossible.
Without love and faith, there is no evidence of a work of grace. Let me go to verse 15, and from the basis of his appointment to the impact of his conversion. What we have here in verse 15 is the first of five trustworthy statements that are found in the pastoral epistles. We'll come to them in turn. But what the wonderful thing to note is this—that by this point in the development of the church, certain credo statements were already going around which were apt summaries of the truth.
And here is one of them. He says, listen, let me just mention at this point, it is a trustworthy saying and is worthy of full acceptance. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Now, you see, for those of us who are familiar with that kind of terminology, it doesn't really strike us. But remember whose lips it was coming from. It was coming from the lips of a Pharisee, of a Hebrew of the Hebrews, Philippians chapter 3, who had been circumcised on the eighth day, was a member of the tribe of Benjamin, had been under the tutelage of Gamaliel, went to all the right schools, did all the right stuff, kept all the right things, kept kosher, did the whole business, and as a Pharisee, knew that there was one thing that a Pharisee didn't do, and that was ever talk to sinners. Just read the Gospels, and you'll find that out. Pharisees knew that it was scandalous to eat with sinners. You can find that in Luke 5.30. Pharisees knew that a prophet was not supposed to have any dealings with a sinner.
Look 7.39. When the Pharisees wanted to insult Jesus, what did they call him? They called him a friend of sinners. And it was therefore obvious to them that he could not be the Messiah, because they figured that the Messiah would be just like them, and therefore would stay away from all these bad, ugly, horrible people—blessed femurs and persecutors and violent men and women.
And so the very fact that this man was hanging around with tax collectors, going for tea in places like Zacchaeus's house, getting caught at the well with a lady who had five husbands and had a live-in lover—they said, There is no possible way that this guy is anything other than a fraud! Because they missed the point. Pharisees always miss the point.
And we will always miss the point until God's grace is poured out on us in abundance. He says, Listen, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and I am the chief of sinners. I'm the worst one of them all. When I went through that list in verses 9 and 10, he says, You could put my name right at the top of that.
You can put… If you look up that list, you'll find a picture of me on the internet right beside it. Lawbreaker, rebel, ungodly, sinful, irreligious, killfathers, murderers, adulterers, perverts, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and everything else. Paul says, You maybe were taking offense at that, but let me tell you, when I wrote that list, I was describing Saul of Tarsus. I am the chief of sinners. Jesus did not come to help people to save themselves, nor did he come to induce people to save themselves. He came to save them. And it was the dawning awareness of this as it gripped the heart of Saul, now Paul, as he became more and more aware of the wonder of God's redeeming love, that he became more and more aware of his own naturally sinful state.
And that's why it's in the present tense, not the past tense. He doesn't say Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I was the worst. He says, of whom I am the worst.
What is this? Morbid introspection? False humility?
Absolutely not. It is Saul recognizing the facts of the matter. He doesn't think of himself more highly than he ought. He says, As I know my own heart, I've got to be right at the top of the list when it comes to sin. That's why, incidentally, in Romans chapter 7, he says, The good I want to do I don't do, and the bad I don't want to do I do. And every so often people come to me and tell me, Ah, but you've got to understand, that was before Paul became a Christian. Because after you become a Christian, that doesn't happen.
Pardon? After you became a Christian, there was never good things you wanted to do that you didn't do, and bad things that you didn't want to do that you did. Oh Lord, said the man in prayer, so far today it has been very good.
I have not been jealous, spiteful, resentful, critical, but I am about to get out of my bed. Small wonder that Paul would gush with this. I thank Christ Jesus our Lord. The grace was poured out on me abundantly.
This is a trustworthy saying. Jesus came to save sinners. I'm not pointing fingers at anyone.
I'm the worst of the whole gang. Why did he do this? Well, he did this in order that he might provide in me a kind of architectural sketch.
That's the word here for display. Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience. In other words, he might just take a pencil and draw in outline form the amazing transformation in my life, so that that then in turn may be used for others and say, since God was able to do this in the life of Saul of Tarsus, don't you think that he can make you into something beautiful for his glory? In contemporary terms, it would be that God had chosen to put up a big display on 480 or in 271, and there on a big, big board it just said, Remember the change in Saul of Tarsus.
And in the bottom corner it said, And you may be changed too. So that those who knew themselves to be sinners and felt that they had blotted their copybooks so badly that God could never look upon them, felt that their sins were of such a deep dye that they could never be eradicated, felt that if they wended the church the roof would fall on their heads, felt that they couldn't get amongst those people so that those people might look at the life of a blaspheming, persecuting, violent man and say, If God would do that for Saul, surely I can know his grace. And that, you see, is the message. Because his conversion was to have that kind of impact on others. If Saul of Tarsus can be saved, then surely there is hope for anyone. And it is, loved ones, the awareness of our sin that will keep us humble and keep our hearts aflame with gratitude. I was struck this week in reading along these lines the words of Thomas Goodwin, one of the Puritan writers, to his son.
And Goodwin was a minister, a pastor, and he wrote these words to his son. He said, When I was threatening to become cold in my ministry, and when I felt the Sabbath morning coming around and my heart was not filled with amazement at the grace of God, I used to take a turn up and down among the sins of my past. And I always came down again with a broken and a contrite heart, ready to preach as it was preached in the beginning—the forgiveness of sins.
It's interesting. You see, when I found my heart was cold, you know, I had a group of singers come in or played a harp to me or something like that. You see, when I found my heart was cold and dead, I walked back up the avenue of my sins. And that, in turn, causes us to magnify the grace of God, who takes us just as we are, without any plea in our defense, and bids us come in that messed-up condition so that he may make us brand-new from the inside out.
It's a really wonderful story. I like to stand up on the roof of the terminal tower and shout it to the whole city. Meanwhile, people are told, well, you just need a little more education. That's why you're sleeping with your girlfriend. You just need a little more education. That's why you're not, you know, playing the game.
You just need to pull your socks up, get a little religion, try seven years into bed, tune into Buddhism, whatever else it is. I don't question the zeal, but it's without knowledge. I think we'll stop here, right? The next section kind of takes us off the point, because it's about throwing a couple of guys out of the church, and kind of takes the edge off it, you know?
Let me just finish here and just say this. The real issues of life and the real issues of time and eternity are these issues. If you've been getting the impression that the message is, just try and do a little better, if you would just pick it up a little, I'm sure you can make it and you'll be fine, then I and others have really made a hash of articulating what the Bible says. The message is, all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
We're all in the same predicament. And the grace of God reaches to the furthest extent to those who are prepared to acknowledge their need. So I say to you again, if God would make you aware of your need of a Savior, then come just as you are. It is as we become more aware of the reality of our sin that we begin to see the glory of God's grace and His mercy.
You're listening to Truth for Life with Alistair Begg. It is easy for us to take things like God's grace for granted. It becomes like the air around us.
We don't even stop to think about how marvelous it is, how great it is, because it's just always there. Well, we have been recommending in recent days a book called The Air We Breathe. This is a book that takes seven contemporary values, things that most societies think are important, things like equality, freedom, the right to education. And most of us assume that these values are just somehow universal, something all humans embrace. But as you read the book The Air We Breathe, you'll see how these values can be traced back ultimately to the influence of Christianity. Ask for your copy of the book The Air We Breathe when you give a donation, either through our mobile app or online at truthforlife.org slash donate. I'm Bob Lapine. Ever noticed that nearly everyone seems to have something to say about people in authority and usually it's not positive? On Monday we'll see how the Bible gives us clear and often uncomfortable commands concerning how we are to respond to leadership. And let me say on behalf of everyone here at Truth for Life, we want to wish all of the mothers listening a very blessed and happy Mother's Day weekend. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
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