The Worst of Sinners
Scripture: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Last week, we began a study of 1 Timothy. If you haven’t already, I would encourage you to go back and listen to it or read the manuscript on our website. It is very important to understand the purpose of Paul’s letter.
It’s also a very important prelude to our text for today, words that are rich with good news. But the good news is only good when held up against the bad news of our sin. What we are about to read is powerful and compelling, but it only makes sense if you first believe that humans are law breakers by birth and that we are responsible for the pain and suffering of this world.
I saw a quote this week that helps explain why this is so difficult for us to understand. The writer says, “The Gospel sounds very strange to a generation that has been told they are perfect, that loving themselves is virtuous, that their heart is always right, and that nothing is more important than being happy.”
The doctrine of sin has no place in a culture like that. We don’t really know what to think of sin. But it is impossible to understand the Gospel without knowledge of sin. I want to convince you of that this morning, because Jesus cannot bring meaning to your life unless you first believe that you have committed treason against the God of the universe and that you deserve a traitor’s death. If you don’t believe that, then you don’t believe the Christian Gospel.
We are only looking at 6 verses today and we’re taking it slow. Paul says:
12 I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord,
The root word of “strength” in Greek is the same root word as dynamite. This is immense power. But when Paul says Jesus has given him this strength – it’s less like Superman and more like Iron Man. Superman is powerful. Iron Man is just a normal guy in a powerful suit.
Paul claims the strength of Christ, but it isn’t Paul’s strength. He’s being empowered by someone else. Why? Why is Jesus giving Paul strength?
because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service,
There are two ways to read this line, depending on where you place the emphasis. If you put the emphasis on “faithful” and “service” it sounds like this:
Because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service… that makes it sound like Paul earned his place, right? It sounds like he’s praising himself. But there’s another way to read it.
Because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service… and that can be heard two ways. It can be arrogance, or it can be sarcasm. The context proves this is sarcasm. It implies a question – why would Christ Jesus judge someone like ME faithful? Why would He appoint someone like ME to his service?
We know this is Paul’s point because of what he says next:
13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.
This is a brief version of Paul’s testimony. But if you read the book of Acts, you will discover that Paul was always brutally honest about his past. He hated and persecuted Christians. He rejected Jesus as the Messiah. He held the coats of the men who stoned the first deacon to death!
This clarifies his intent in verse 12. Paul wasn’t bragging on himself. He’s bragging on Jesus.
Paul’s testimony has nothing to do with his own good works. Instead, he shares his rap sheet… his criminal record. He tells us what kind of person Jesus saved.
And he continues:
But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief,
I was ignorant. I was blinded by lies, but Jesus showed me mercy. Mercy means “I didn’t get what I deserved”.
14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Grace means “I got the opposite of what I deserved.” Instead of punishment, I was rewarded. Jesus rewarded me with faith and love. These were given to me – gifted to me. And now we come to the key verse.
15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
That first part is a way of saying, “If you hear nothing else, please hear me say this.” Jesus came to save sinners and I am the worst one I know.
This is a simple, powerful argument. If God can save me, then he can save anyone.
Paul offers himself as an example – not of a saint – but of a forgiven sinner, and in his mind, the worst sinner he knows!
I want to pause here and remind you that last week, Paul explained the Law by listing some of the worst sins he could think of – beating your parents, murder, adultery, homosexuality, enslaving people…
And now, just a few verses later, Paul says he’s the worst. Worse than those people!
And it’s important to notice he says “I am” the worst, not “I was” the worst. That’s significant humility coming from the most important apostle, missionary, and church planter in the history of the Church. And we know it’s not false humility, because Paul quickly points us to the real hero.
16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.
Why did Jesus save me, the worst sinner? He did it to make me an example. Again, if Jesus can save me – He can save anybody.
What is Jesus showing us by saving the worst sinner? His perfect patience. And I think that word “patience” is a key word in this text.
Remember Paul’s purpose for writing Timothy. There’s some false teaching going on in the church concerning the Law. It is very likely that some people in the church are not being patient with the sinfulness of new believers. This may be what Paul meant when he said they were using the law unlawfully – not to patiently guide one another to repentance, but to condemn or shame people in their struggles.
There’s actually a progression in Paul’s life that can be tracked by his letters. In one of his first letters, to the Corinthians, Paul calls himself the least of the apostles. Years later in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul calls himself the least of all the saints. Paul wrote Timothy near the end of his life – and He now calls himself the chief of sinners.
Do you see what’s happening to Paul? He was becoming more aware of his own sinfulness over time. And I think that’s a perfect picture of real sanctification – how we grow as Christians. More repentance, more faith. Less pride and self-righteousness. More dependence on Christ.
I’m reminded of the parable Jesus tells his disciples in Luke 18 – the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This is the point of Paul’s message. Be careful of using the Law as a way to justify yourself. It only leads to arrogance and contempt for others. The people who are closer to God are the ones that know their sinfulness and need of a Savior.
What this means is that we need to be patient with people. We need to be patient with unbelievers. It should not surprise us to see unbelievers doing things that lost people do. We need the eyes of Jesus to see people with compassion and pray for their deliverance.
We also need to be patient with our brothers and sisters in Christ. The Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. We want to help each other finish the race well, but we understand that growth takes time.
Finally, we need to be patient with ourselves. Typically, when we get frustrated about our lack of progress it’s our pride talking, not a desire to be more like Christ. Be patient with yourself. If God began the work, He will finish it.
But to some of you, that may sound like an excuse to claim Jesus and do whatever you want. And that raises a very important question: How do you know if God is really at work in your life or if you’re just using the Gospel as an excuse to do what you want? The answer is worship. If your desire to worship isn’t growing, then you aren’t growing.
The most important result of the Gospel working itself out in the life of a Christian is that they want to worship God! Look at how Paul ends:
17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
That’s what we call a Doxology. Paul is so moved by his own words, thinking about what Jesus has done for him, that he breaks into spontaneous worship.
And this is how God works. He patiently teaches us two things at the same time and by teaching us these two things, He makes us more like Jesus, more dependent on Jesus, and more grateful for Jesus. It’s very simple:
I’m worse than I think I am, but God is better than I think He is.
Last week’s sermon and today’s sermon are almost like those two lessons, those two movements – side by side. We don’t get to decide what’s right and what’s wrong. God created us. God defines us. And we are all worse than we think we are.
But thankfully, God is also much better than we think He is. How was God able to show mercy and grace to even the worst of sinners? By sending His only Son to die in the place of that worst of sinners. To Him be glory and honor forever and ever, Amen.