"The Pattern for Sinners Saved"
1 Timothy 1:12-17
(Delivered Sunday, July 9, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
This morning's passage is taken from a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to his young ministry associate Timothy. He was exhorting Timothy to be a good and faithful pastor of the church in Ephesus; and to fight hard to faithfully preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul wanted Timothy to be very sure that he preached this same “good news” that had been entrusted to him. And so, Paul said,
And what I ask you to especially notice this morning is what Paul says before this charge was given to Timothy. It is, in my opinion, one of the most wonderful and encouraging passages in all of Paul's letters:
There are so many good things for us in this wonderful passage of Scripture that it's hard for me to know where to begin. I believe that these words were preserved for us by the Holy Spirit in order to be an encouragement to every sinner who sincerely feels the dreadful condemnation of God's law for their sin, but who turns to Jesus Christ for forgiveness. I believe that they were meant to encourage that man or woman with the truth of just how forgiven they are in Christ; and of just how useful they may now be in His service. I believe that it's a passage that teaches us that there is absolutely no sinner that is beyond the reach of God's saving grace through Jesus Christ. It assures us that no one is so bad a sinner that Christ cannot redeem them and put them into His service.
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Many of us here today, who have placed our faith in Jesus Christ, are painfully aware of how sinful we were in the past, and of how desperately we needed to be saved. For many of us, our past life haunts us and shames us continually. We are sometimes so overwhelmed with shame and regret that we have a very hard time believing that God could really have fully forgiven us. We may believe that He 'loves' us—in a sort of obligatory way; but we couldn't dare believe that He 'likes' us very much. We can't dare to believe that He'd be anything but somewhat embarrassed and ashamed of us—given what sinners we have been!
And of course, the devil—whom the Bible describes as as “the accuser of our brethren” (Revelation 12:10)—capitalizes on our shame. When we doubt that God's grace could be sufficient to fully forgive us for the magnitude of our sins, the devil's right there to agree with us and to aggravate our doubts. “That's right”, he says; “God may be able to forgive others. He may have been able to wash away other's sins. But not yours. You weren't just a 'garden-variety' sinner, you know! You were a particularly bad sinner!”
The devil, it seems, is far better at remembering our past than we are. At the times when God would most want us to bask joyfully and confidently in the light of His love and favor, the devil is on the scene to remind us of our past—and to tell us that we should step aside and sit down in the dark.
And then, there may be some here today who have never placed their faith in Jesus Christ—and who feel too ashamed and too sinful to do so. They hear the preaching of God's word, and they hear the invitation of Jesus who says, “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28); and they think to themselves, “I don't dare come to Him! I am too horrible a sinner! He could never accept me! He could never love me! He could never forgive me!”
I believe many people hold back from coming to the Savior—the Savior of sinners— because they believe that they are too sinful to be 'save-able'. They believe that there's just no hope for a sinner who has been as sinful as they have been. And of course, the enemy is right there—agreeing with them, keeping them focused on the dreadfulness of their sins, and blinding them to just how vast and sufficient for their sins God's grace is through Christ.
And still, there may be others here today that have placed their faith in Jesus Christ and have trusted Him as their Savior; and who now hear the gentle call of the Holy Spirit to enter into a place of service or ministry in His church. Perhaps He is calling them to service in some remarkable way. But they hold back. They think to themselves, “I couldn't possibly be in ministry. I couldn't possibly preach or teach or serve. Not with my past! Not when I think of how sinful I have been! God could never use someone like me. Other people may have gifts for ministry; but I couldn't possibly be of any use to God—not with my record!”
I believe that some of God's precious saints—redeemed by the blood of Jesus, washed clean of their sins, precious in His sight, and one-hundred percent accepted by Him and in His favor—still fear to accept His call to some field of ministry He has for them. I believe that, to some degree, the body of Christ fails to experience the blessing of those God has given to serve it; and all because those potential servants hesitate out of the shame they feel over their sinful past.
I wonder; do any of these thoughts sound familiar to you? If so, this morning's passage offers a needed word of encouragement to you. I believe that if you will allow the Holy Spirit to grip your heart with what it says, it will set you free from the crippling shame of the past. It will silence the lies of the devil that rob you of the joy of your salvation. It will release you to bask freely and confidently in God's favor through Christ. It will call you to be finished—once and for all—with the guilt of the past; and to never again let the past drag you down or hinder you from responding to Christ's call on your life.
I believe that, if you allow the Holy Spirit to teach you from this morning's passage, it will empower you to have the victorious attitude that the apostle Paul exhibited when he said,
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Does that sound attractive to you? Then join me as we look deeper into these words.
First, let's consider . . .
1. PAUL’S PAST EXPERIENCE (vv. 12-14).
Paul begins his words to Timothy in this passage by affirming his current situation of ministry. And he does so against the backdrop of his sinful past. Paul was honest about his past. He didn't try to put a positive spin on it. He freely admitted that he was, at one time, an extremely wicked and sinful man.
Now at that time, others would not have seen him that way—certainly not those of his own kinsmen. He appeared to his fellow Jews to be very righteous. He was a Pharisee with an outstanding reputation for piety. He laid claim to the finest education of Judaism available in that day—having been brought up “at the feet of Gamaliel”, who was recognized as the premiere teacher of Judaism. He said he was “taught according to the strictness of our fathers' law, and was zealous toward God” (Acts 22:3). He affirmed that he was circumcised in accordance with the law; born “of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5). And what's more, he could dare to say that, concerning the outward righteousness which is in accord with the strict 'letter' of the Mosaic law, he was “blameless” (v. 6).
But in spite of all those outward things that Paul could point to, he was still a profoundly sinful man. In his zeal for righteousness according to the law of Moses, he actively and aggressively hated the gospel of Jesus Christ and those who believed in it. There never was a man more zealous for his own righteousness according to the flesh than Saul of Tarsus. But there was also never a man who was more at odds with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Bible tells us that Paul “made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women—committing them to prison” (Acts 8:3). He persecuted believers to the point of arresting them and seeking their death; “binding and delivering into prisons both men and women”. He sought and received letters from the Jewish authorities; permitting him to bring Christians—wherever he found them—to Jerusalem to be punished (Acts 22:4-5). He said that he considered it his duty to “do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9).
The first appearance of Saul of Tarsus in the Bible was as the young man who demonstrated his whole-hearted consent to the murder of Stephen—the church's first martyr. He offered to watch the cloaks of those who picked up stones to murder Stephen (Acts 7:58; 8:1). That's how Saul launched his career of brutality and murder against the followers of Jesus. And from there, he wreaked havoc on the followers of Jesus. He published threats against them (9:1). He arrested them and shut them up in prison; and when they were on trial to be put to death, he cast his vote against them (Acts 26:10). He punished them whenever he found them in a synagogue; and he tortured them in an effort to make them blaspheme against the Savior. He himself said, “[A]nd being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities” (Acts 26:11). In other words, he wasn't content to simply persecute the followers of Jesus who were in Jerusalem. He chased them in other cities and persecuted them there! He said, “I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13). It was his wish, if he could do so, to rid the world of all Christians, and to silence the gospel of Jesus Christ once and for all.
In short, Paul—by his own admission—“was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man” (or “violent aggressor”, as it's translated in the New American Standard Version). And here in our passage this morning, as he writes to Timothy, he doesn't hide his sinful past. He fully admits it in all its dreadfulness.
But notice the attitude with which he looked back to that past. You don't find Paul exhibiting a morbid introspection about it. You don't see him shrinking back in shame. You don't see him begin with his face in his hands, saying, “Oh, Timothy. What in the world am I doing in the service of Christ? I'm the last person in the world who should be talking about the gospel message of God's saving grace. I was such a dreadful sinner that I shouldn't even be permitted to enter into churches—let alone to be considered an apostle.”
Instead, you're struck right away with Paul's confident joy and gratitude. He says, “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man . . .” (vv. 12-13a).
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Paul thanked Jesus for enabling him to fulfill this ministry. But given his sinfulness, how could it be that Jesus Christ “counted him faithful”? I believe that it was because Jesus Christ graciously called this dreadful, unworthy, murderous, blasphemous, violent sinner to salvation. After all, Paul didn't present himself for service. “Christ Jesus our Lord” called him! And Jesus counts all those He calls as “faithful” because He is the one who enables those He calls! He doesn't look at His called ones as what they were in the past. He looks at us as He has called us to be—and as what He Himself will enable us to be!
You can see this in the way Paul himself described his call. He spoke once of how he was on his way to arrest Christians; and he said,
While he was still a sinner, Jesus Christ called Paul by grace, saved Paul by grace, and put him into the ministry by grace. He made Paul an apostle—even though Paul had only shortly before been a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and an insolent man. And Paul attributes it all to grace; saying, “but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (vv. 13b-14).
Remember that, in Christ Jesus, you are never a prisoner of your past. His blood is sufficient to cover your past completely. We can whole-heartedly believe what Paul said to the Corinthian believers: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
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So; by grace, the Lord converted Saul of Tarsus (His greatest antagonist) into Paul the Apostle (His greatest evangelist)! How Paul thanked Him for this!
But as we read on, we discover that this wasn’t done just for Paul’s sake alone. Christ redeemed Paul and put him into service as an “example” to the rest of us of the unlimited power of His saving grace. Paul was intended to forever serve as a pattern to all sinners everywhere who would believe on Christ for eternal life.
This leads us, then, to next consider . . .
2. PAUL’S PURPOSEFUL EXAMPLE (vv. 15-16).
Paul says, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners . . .”
Let me pause and ask: Do you agree with what Paul said? Do you believe that this is a faithful saying that is worthy of all acceptance—that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners? Of course you do. That's the message of the gospel itself.
But let me ask another question: Do you believe that the next thing Paul says is equally “a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance”—that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, “of whom I am chief” (v. 15)? Do you take Paul literally in his assessment of himself? Do you believe that Paul truly is being held up to us as “the chief of sinners”—that is, “the first”, or “the most important”? You absolutely should; because he goes on to say, “However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life” (v. 16).
Someone might say, “How could Paul have been 'the chief of sinners'? He was pretty bad. He perhaps would even have made the list of the 'top 100 of all time'. But 'chief'? I can think of dictators and emperors and kings and murderers who were far more evil and murderous—even in our own time! Some of them have murdered thousands of people in an effort to stamp out Christianity completely. How could Paul be considered worse than them? How could he be 'the worst of the worst'?”
Well; I think it helps to remember that it doesn't say Paul was the “worst”. It says that he was the “chief” or “the first”—and particularly the “chief” of those who are held up as an example of God's saving grace. Others may have been worse; but God has held him up as the chief example to us.
And perhaps it helps to remember that, while other famous villains fought in an outstanding way against Christianity, Saul of Tarsus fought in an outstanding way against Christ Himself. Paul, it seemed, had been persecuting Christians; but when our Lord confronted him on the road to Damascus, He said to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4). He told him, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (v. 5).
“Goads” were sharp, pointed sticks that were fitted to plows. When a farmer used a plow, there was always the danger of the ox kicking backwards and causing damage to the plow; and the goads were fitted on the plow in order to prevent the ox from kicking. To “kick against the goads” was a figure of speech that described Paul's resistance to Christ. Paul wasn't fighting Christians—he was fighting against Christ; and in doing so, he was harming himself.
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So, God's word holds Paul up to us as “the chief of sinners”. I believe we are meant to take that quite literally. And there is a very good and wonderful reason why we are being called to do so.
I don't know what your past is like. Perhaps you have been a thief. Perhaps you have been violent and have physically hurt someone in your family. Perhaps you have been sexually promiscuous; or perhaps you have broken your marriage vows. Perhaps you have been a liar. Perhaps you have had a filthy mouth; or have used your tongue to cut other people down and slander them. And perhaps these things fill you with shame and regret; and cause you to wonder how it could ever be that God could forgive you. Perhaps you doubt that it could ever be that God could use you.
Well; here's one thing God wants you to know: whatever you did in your life of sin, you could not possibly have been worse of a sinner than Saul of Tarsus. You certainly didn't make a religious career out of blaspheming the Savior. You didn't do all that you could do to oppose the spread of the name of Christ. You didn't torture other Christians and try to force them to blaspheme God. You didn't seek Christians out in various cities and regions, raid their homes or gathering places, drag them to courts, vote for their executions, and then hold the coats of those who stoned them to death. And even if you did do such things; then it just makes you as bad a sinner as Paul had once been. But you were not worse than Saul of Tarsus—the chief of sinners. And Jesus Christ saved him and put him into ministry. He can save anyone. He can most certainly save you and put you into His service too.
Paul is holding himself up to us, then, as an example—a pattern—of how deep the saving grace of Christ is. When I think of what Paul is telling us here, I think of how my father used to teach me to swim when I was a very little boy. He would take me to the swimming pool and play with me in the wading area until I felt safe. But he would also try to coax me out of the wading area and into the deeper water. And here's how he'd do it. He would stand in the deeper part, outside the wading area, so I could see him. And then he'd say, “Look at me, Greg. See where I'm standing? See that my feet are touching the bottom? See how high the water is on my legs? Well, you're taller than that. That means that you can stand up here too; and the water wont be over your head. So come on out to the deeper part. You can stand here and be safe.”
I think Paul was, in effect, saying, “Dear sinner; come with me into the grace of Christ. I was a horrible sinner—a far worse sinner than you could ever be. In fact, I'm the chief of sinners. And yet, look where I'm standing! Jesus not only saved me, but even made me an apostle! The grace of Jesus Christ was more than sufficient to save me. So don't hold back. Give yourself fully to Jesus. Trust Him; and respond to His call on your life. His grace is more than sufficient to save you too, and to put you into His service.”
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So then; we've seen Paul's past experience in God's forgiving grace, and his purposeful example as the chief of sinners. But there's one more great lesson for us in this passage; and it's found in . . .
3. PAUL’S PRESENT EXALTATION (v. 17).
At the end of it all, Paul could scarcely restrain himself. He burst forth in a glorious doxology of praise to the gracious God who has saved him: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (v. 17).
I wish we had more time to examine this word of praise in detail. But the thing that I ask you to notice in it is that it shows us why Paul didn't look back into his past in a morbid and unhealthy way. It shows us why he was able to be honest about his past; but why he wasn't filled with so much shame and sorrow and self-pity over his past that he was frozen in it. It shows why it was that, even though he had been the chief of sinners, he wasn't held back from serving the Lord.
The wonderful principle that his example teaches us is something, dear brother or sister in Christ, that could literally change your life. Let this principle sink into your heart, and it will set you free in Christ from the burden of your past. It will mark the turning point in your walk with Christ. It is this—and it's an amazingly simple thing: Your sins are now covered by the blood of Christ and are forgiven. So stop looking so much at your sins, and look instead at the One who saved you from them! Get your eyes off yourself, and get them on Jesus Christ where they belong. Stop being so self-focused and self-absorbed; and be Christ-focused and Christ-absorbed instead.
Go back and re-examine this passage. You'll find that there are lots of times in it that Paul talks about himself. He even talks about how sinful he was. But he never talks about himself in any way but in the context of what Christ did for him. Whatever he says about himself is meant to say something about Christ. That was the secret to Paul's joy and confidence—even when thinking back upon his sins of the past. He looked to the Savior who loved him infinitely, and who died for all of those sins. Elsewhere, he says, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Let me put it to you this way; and I speak here to those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ: To the degree that you keep focusing on yourself, you will to that degree be a prisoner of the past. You'll never escape the shame of the past by continually focusing on yourself. Remain self-absorbed, and you will be playing right into the hands of the devil. You will be robbing yourself of joy and usefulness in the Lord's call on your life; and you will spiral down further and further into despair. But to the degree that you get your eyes off yourself, entrust the sins of the past to Christ and the sacrifice He made for them on the cross, and keep your eyes fixed on Him and the payment He has made for those sins; then you will to that degree be set free from them. Remain Christ-focused, and you will soon find that you are confident about your relationship with Him and His call on your life, and will be characterized by peace and joy. It's really as simple as that.
And let me suggest to you how to get your eyes off yourself and on to the Lord. Paul demonstrates it for us in this very verse. It is through praise. Paul bursts forth in a doxology of praise to God for his salvation.
Did you know that one reason why we have been saved is so that you would respond by praising God? The apostle Peter said, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).
Paul exemplifies this for us. At the very beginning of this passage, he thanks Christ Jesus for His saving grace. And at the very end, he worships Him for it. He praises God for salvation from his sins. And if you will praise Him; then you will be getting your eyes off yourself and on to Him.
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Paul was a horrible sinner. He was the chief of sinners. But he was confident and joyful in the service of Christ; because Jesus Christ saved him completely. Paul was a living example of the fact that there is absolutely no one who is beyond the reach of God's saving grace through Jesus Christ.
Dear fellow sinner; let's follow Paul's example; and we too will experience his confidence and joy and usefulness in Christ.
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