When we think of the apostle Paul, most would think of a great man of faith. He was someone who put God first in his life and tried his best to live the life he called on others to live, a life worthy of the calling we have in Jesus. But as he begins his first letter to Timothy we get a different view of Paul, one which is his view of himself.
“’I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:12-17 NIV)
Did you catch that? He considered himself “the worst of sinners.” If he were talking to us we would probably try to persuade him differently and tell him that it wasn’t all that bad. But in reality, it was bad. And Paul knew it.
Notice why he had this assessment of himself: “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.” Before he was a Christian he spoke against those who were following Jesus as the Messiah. But it wasn’t just talk – he put what he believed into practice and hunted down those who were Jesus-followers. We know of what he was doing when Jesus stopped him on the road to Damascus: he was going “so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2).
But it wasn’t just arresting them, he wanted them dead. “On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them” (Acts 26:10). Can you imagine what went through his mind those three days he was blind after seeing Jesus? He had discovered that what he had built his life on wasn’t true and the very one he spoke against turned out to be the Messiah! He had all these deaths on his hands. No wonder he didn’t eat or drink anything!
Because of what he had done, he was thankful that God had shown him mercy – because he acted in ignorance and unbelief – and had poured grace on him abundantly. He had been a sinner yet God showed him mercy and gave him grace, forgiving him of his past sins. To him the reason God allowed him to serve Jesus was to show that God could save anyone – there was nothing anyone could do that God could not forgive. After all, he was “the worst of sinners”!
Sometimes we may feel that our sins are worse than the sins of anyone else. Of course, to us they are because we did them. But Paul shows us that forgiveness is available to anyone. We know what we have done. We try to live each day for Jesus but are acutely aware of our failings. But God extends to us the same mercy and grace that he gave to Paul.
That God forgives us should cause us to join with Paul in praising God: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen!”
Readings for next week: 1 Timothy 1-5