1 Timothy 1:12-17: Grace to the Chief of Sinners
“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, 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. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:12-17, NKJV.
To say that the apostle Paul had an adventurous life is an understatement. When he was called into the ministry through a direct contact with the risen Lord Jesus Christ, he was promised a life of suffering for the cause of the Gospel (Acts 9:1-6; 15-16). As his ministry progressed, he came into much difficulty and hardship that would have broken a weaker man (2 Corinthians 11:23-28). That didn’t stop him from having a laser-focused goal of telling as many people as he could about the saving grace of his LORD (Acts 22:1-21; 26:12-18). Now, Paul is in his last years. He had been under house arrest but was now free. He did more evangelistic work and heard that his young associate Timothy was starting to have problems at Ephesus, promoting him to write this letter to encourage and comfort the fledgling pastor.
Paul always stood in amazement of how the Lord Jesus used him, considering that at one time he had been an enemy of everything for which Jesus stood. The aged apostle referred to himself in this letter as the “chief of sinners,” and he had valid grounds for this honest assessment.
Looking back at his life before Christ, we see undeserved mercy on the part of our LORD on display where He could have taken Paul’s life as retaliation for his vicious acts of persecution and cruelty against the early church. Paul is a portrait of undeserved mercy and grace. Without a sovereign act of intervention by the Lord Jesus upon Paul, he would have gone on to live a life grounded in fanaticism and empty religious zealotry, blind to the new covenant given to the people by the finished work of redemption on the cross for our sins by the Lord Jesus. Without the electing grace of God, Paul would have been religious but lost and doomed to hell when his life came to an end.
Look at Paul’s life before the Damascus Road. He was totally ignorant of the plan of salvation established by Jesus Christ. Paul was a Pharisee in heart, profession, and life.
He had no idea that he was just as much a sinner as anyone, religious or not. He had no consciousness of divine mercy and no idea of contrition. He believed that adherence to the Law of Moses and the traditions of the elders was sufficient for a relationship with God. He trusted in his zealousness, his self-righteousness, and the apparent goodness of his heart for his salvation. After his encounter with the Lord Jesus, this viewpoint has dramatically changed. He sees Christ alone for salvation and the mercy that Jesus has bestowed upon him. His relationship with Christ is personal and based on love for his Lord, not on ritual and tradition.
Before the events on the Damascus Road, Paul was an unbeliever, blind to the events brought about by the act of God at the right time in history. The Holy Spirit had been poured down from on high as promised by the Lord Jesus (John 16:5-15; Acts 1:4-8; 2:4). The events of the crucifixion, resurrection, and apostolic declaration that were presented by the prophets of old and the work of the Lord Jesus, should have opened his eyes to the fact that not only was prophecy coming to pass, but the promise of redemption by the Servant of Isaiah 53 had been fulfilled. Yet, like the majority of his countrymen, he deliberately closed his eyes against the Light, his ears against the truth, and his heart against the influence of the gospel. This blindness was mentioned by Paul in his letter to the Romans in addressing the destiny of Israel in the redemptive plan of God (Romans 9-11).
By Paul’s initial rejection of Christ in the beginning, he denied Christ’s divine nature and mission, which was an act of blasphemy on his part. All religions, no matter how sincere, are blasphemous in that they all reject the claims and nature of Jesus Christ as God in the flesh and the only begotten Son of God, a claim He affirmed throughout the Gospels and in the testimony of the apostles (Isaiah 9:6; Luke 22:69, 70; John 10:30, 37, 38; 12:45; 14:6-10; 16:15; Matthew 16:16; John 1:1, 2; Romans 1:4; 9:5; Colossians 1:15; 2:9; 1 Timothy 3:16; 6:15; Hebrews 1:3; Revelation 19:16). To say that Jesus was merely a good teacher, or an exemplary man, or did not exist is to deny the truth of who He is and essentially call Him a liar or insane for what He said about Himself. Anyone who denies or mocks Jesus’ divinity is committing blasphemy and will be held accountable by God the Father on Judgment Day (Revelation 20:11-15).
Paul was also, by admission, a persecutor. His soul burned with unhallowed zeal against Christ and His cause. He breathed threats against the followers of Christ (Acts 9:1). He was burning with hellish hate for everything they represented (Acts 22:4) and was present at the martyrdom of Stephen, approving of what was going on (Acts 7:57-59). He blasted the reputation of the saints, vilified their names, and injured the friends of Christ. If the terrorist group ISIS were around then, Paul would have been a ringleader.
Yet, even Paul, in his blind, fanatical hatred of Christ and all He stood for before the encounter on the Damascus Road, obtained what we don’t deserve from God, and that is mercy. Mercy is the exercise of favor to the guilty and unworthy.
Paul, through the generous act of redemption given to him by the risen, glorified Jesus Christ, was a sparing mercy and a pardoning mercy for sins and transgressions in order for the former Pharisee to receive a new heart, new mission, and a real love for God based on a relationship and desire to please Him by obeying the call given to him. Paul never got over that act of mercy and was forever grateful for what Jesus had done for him. This is an attitude and characteristic we need to imitate. God’s mercy is always available to the heart that turns to Him in sorrow and repentance and trusts Him for salvation, but only while we have life here on Earth, and that not for long. Mercy ends at our last breath; and after that, it’s too late.
Consider the fact that we are the enemies of God prior to His work of redemption upon us (Romans 5:6-11). The hard fact is that He did not have to save us after we rebelled against Him in Eden. He could have let us continue in our sins and go to hell, which would have been our just punishment with no one but ourselves to blame. The Lord Jesus could have taken Paul out at any time for the crimes he committed against Him and His followers. Not just him, but us as well. His love and compassion for us in spite of our wickedness is a clear demonstration of divine intervention on our behalf.
Paul knew this as he ministered and wrote, which is why we never read of complaints, regrets, second thoughts, gripes, or doubts in his letters. He was an example of a heart set free and saw no reason to question or second- guess God’s plans and directions for his life and work, no matter what the circumstances. If the Lord Jesus could bestow unearned grace and mercy upon him, then who was he to deny this opportunity to anyone with whom he came into contact?
While I do believe that there are some people who have pushed God away to the point where He gives them up to their own ways, I do not have the ability or power to see or determine that factor. Nor do I possess the gift to see who are the elect of God and preach to them exclusively. We are commanded by the Lord Jesus to present the Gospel to all people in the power of the Holy Spirit. We are recipients of a love, mercy, and grace that we in no way deserve or can achieve in our own strength, and it is our calling as the body of Christ to see that the Good News of salvation in Christ be given to as many people as possible.
Considering where you were and what you did before Jesus got a hold of you, the opportunity is now given to you to be that someone who gives the GPS to the next traveler on the Damascus Road.
Glory to the Risen King.