Of Whom I am Chief

Sermon preached on 1 Timothy 1:12-17 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 8/28/2016 in Novato, CA.

Sermon manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
1 Timothy 1:12-17

Of Whom I am Chief

The third OPC membership question that we ask people when we receive them into membership is this: “Do you confess that because of your sinfulness you abhor and humble yourself before God, that you repent of your sin, and that you trust for salvation not in yourself but in Jesus Christ alone?” I have heard that some people have expressed concern about the first part of that question. The idea of abhorring yourself because of your sinfulness has caused some people to ask the question if the Christian should say something like that about themselves. I mean, come on, aren’t we redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, and beloved by the Lord in Christ? If the Lord looks at us now with such love, why should we ever talk about abhorring ourselves? Well, the answer lies in the qualification. That question speaks of abhorring ourselves with regards to our sinfulness. In terms of our sinfulness, we hate that about ourselves. But of course in terms of our salvation in Jesus Christ, we should love that about ourselves! It should give us great joy and biblical self-esteem for who we are in Jesus Christ. But that doesn’t change the fact of who we are outside of Christ. Outside of Christ, we are sinners. Outside of Christ, we have no hope. Outside of Christ, we can relate to Paul’s words in verse 15, that he says he is the worst of sinners. And notice Paul doesn’t say he was the worst of sinners. He puts it in the present tense. He is the worst of sinners.

And so in light of the ongoing struggle every Christian will have with sin, we are confronted with this healthy tension. On the one hand we’ve been saved from so much. On the other hand, there is still a struggle in this life with sin. But in it all the answer and the continue hope comes down to this faithful saying, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. So then, today let us consider this truth as we study Paul’s conversion and subsequent commissioning as an apostle. Then we’ll think about this in light of our own conversion. Then lastly we’ll see how this should drive us to praise and thanksgiving.

So let’s begin first walking through verses 12-14 and talk about Paul’s conversion and commission. Let’s begin with his past, before he became a Christian. Look at verse 13. He was a blasphemer; a persecutor; insolent. When we read this, we are thankful that we have the book of Acts. The Book of Acts tells us about Paul’s infamous past. We remember his attitude and treatment of Christ and Christians. These three descriptions of his past sum it up well. In terms of being a blasphemer, remember that is the word for being a slanderer. Paul was slandering Jesus particularly. He denied Jesus as Lord and Savior. To Paul, Jesus was a false prophet who was put to death because of it. Paul did not believe that Jesus rose again. He was part of the Jewish religious establishment that denied all these assertions about Jesus. And for Paul to deny them and to speak against these truths was nothing short of blasphemy. He was slandering Jesus Christ and his glorious name. And then in terms of Paul being a persecutor we remember how he stood there approving as the Jews stoned faithful Stephen to death. We remember how in Acts 8 Saul would go from house to house in Jerusalem dragging off both men and women to prison, simply because they confessed the name of Jesus Christ. We remember how that caused Christians to start fleeing Jerusalem, and spreading out in the surrounding region. And so we remember how that didn’t deter Paul. Paul then followed after them in the surrounding region. He would go to the high priest in Jerusalem and get letters that he could take to the local synagogues in other cities so that he could round up all the Christians there and bring them back under arrest to Jerusalem.

And realize that as Paul did this, realize the nature and tone of his persecution. It’s summarized in that last label that he mentions about his past, that he was insolent. To be described as insolent means you are a violent, overbearing person, who is restless and unruly. And that’s what we see of Paul in the book of Acts. That’s a good description of his persecution. Acts 8:3 speaks of how he was ravaging the church. Acts 9:1 describes Paul as breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord. So you get the sense both in Acts and here that Paul had become a madman of sorts in his fury and zeal against the Christians. And as Jesus reminded him on the road to Damascus, his fury was ultimately against Jesus himself. To persecute Christians is to persecute Christ.

And yet for Paul, all of that changed. It was on that road to Damascus where Jesus intervened, not only to save his people from Paul’s continued persecutions, but also to save Paul from himself. Verses 13 and 14 speak of Paul’s conversion. In verse 13, Paul mentions how he needed great mercy from God in light of his ignorance and his unbelief. Verse 14 speaks of the grace that he ended up receiving from Jesus, grace that brought faith and love to Paul’s heart. Because of this grace, Paul began to believe in Jesus and to love Jesus, instead of his rejection and hatred of Jesus. God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ was able to break the hard heartedness of Paul and convert him to a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. And notice how the grace is described in verse 14. It says that the grace of the Lord was exceedingly abundant. That’s some colorful language there, and I think the point is that in light of how greatly Paul had sinned, he needed a great amount of grace. Remember how Jesus taught that those who are forgiven of much will love move. Well, similarly those who need to be forgiven of much will need much grace too. Paul needed a LOT of grace. But he got it in Christ.

And yet Paul’s story doesn’t end here with his conversion. In fact, in this passage his conversion really is just part of the backstory of what Paul is really talking about. We find what he really was talking about in verse 12. Paul’s talking about his commission by Christ to be an apostle. This actually connects us with last week’s passage which ended in verse 11 with Paul talking about how God had committed the gospel to his trust. Paul told about his conversion to emphasize how amazing it is that someone like who Paul had been, could not only be saved, but even be trusted to such an honorable task of preaching the gospel to the nations. But I love what it says in verse 12. Paul says that Jesus has counted him faithful. To clarify, I don’t think that Jesus looked at Paul and said despite the fact that he is an evil horrible persecutor that he is a dependable guy so let’s bring him on board as an apostle. I don’t think that’s what Paul is saying. Notice the word “counted”. I think Paul is saying with almost a bit of surprise, that Jesus counted him faithful, even though he didn’t deserve to be counted faithful. It’s kind of like how someone like Abraham could be counted righteous in light of his faith, even though his works wouldn’t have qualified him to be declared righteous. And so Paul is able to recognize how Jesus counted him worthy for this great task even though Paul actually didn’t deserve any such honor or commission. Yet, Paul had come to know that if Jesus gave him this honorable task, that Jesus would also give him the strength to carry it out. That’s also what verse 12 says. That Jesus is the one who enables Paul in his work as an apostle. That word enable is a word of strengthening. Jesus was giving Paul the strength and ability he needed, as one who was formerly this evil persecutor. He was giving Paul the strength he needed to serve Jesus like this.

So, that’ Paul’s story. That’s his conversion and commissioning. Certainly we should begin to apply this by remembering our own story. Many of us have also had some sort of dramatic turn in your life. Praise the Lord for that again today and I hope you will also share your story with others as well. But I would also note that some of us here today have not had that kind of dramatic change. What I mean is that some have grown up in the church and have always known the Lord and have never walked away from him and his people. Don’t feel bad that your testimony is not going to have some dramatic turning like others. But when I say praise the Lord about how he has brought some dramatic turning for others, frankly I want to say praise the Lord even more for those here today who’ve not had to go through that. Praise the Lord for how he has kept you from infancy. Paul’s story might have been the former, but actually Timothy’s story seems to be more like the ladder according to 2 Timothy 3:15. So that is a wonderful thing and also something to be able to share with others. And in either situation, know that you have in fact personally experienced God’s abundant grace.

So then, that leads us nicely to talk next of our conversion. I want to do that in light of verse 15. There Paul speaks of a faithful saying. He actually writes of five different faithful sayings, spread across his three pastoral epistles. This is indeed a faithful, completely true and reliable, statement. The faithful saying is that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. This pithy statement is also a summary of the gospel. You could put it alongside a verse like John 3:16 as a quick way to introduce people to what Christianity is all about. The gospel tells us that all of us are sinners. The bad news is that sinners deserve damnation. Sin against the eternal, immortal, invisible God deserves to be punished with an eternal punishment. We call that punishment hell. That’s what everyone person deserves. But the good news is that we can be saved by that. That’s why Jesus Christ came into this world. To save sinners from their sins. To save them from the punishment that their sin deserves. He went to the cross to experience hell on the cross in our place. That’s how he can save us. It’s how we can have the eternal life that is mentioned for us in verse 16. And it’s received as a gift through faith.

A common question that can come to us when we really wrestle with our sin, is can all my many sins, all the evils and horrible things I’ve done, can Christ’s death really save me? Will God really forgive me for all that I’ve done. I think on the one hand it is good for us to wrestle with how evil we really have been and how we still so greatly struggle with sin. I suspect some secular pop psychiatry might think such thinking is bad for your self-esteem, and yet we see here that it is a biblical thing to really wrestle over the fact of our wickedness. We see Paul do it here. It’s at the end of that faithful saying. He immediately responds that he is the chief of sinners. And I think that is something that we all need to reckon with. There is something in each of us that as we honestly look at our hearts we should see how great is our sin. It’s what caused John Newton to write in the song Amazing Grace that God saved a “wretch like me.” It’s the attitude Jesus commended in the parable about the tax collector who prayed “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).

And that’s Paul’s point here too. After quoting this faithful saying, and after remarking how he is the chief of sinners, he then goes back to why God has made him, of all people, an apostle. Paul, the foremost of sinners, becomes the foremost example, of how God can save sinners. Whenever you look at how bad your sin is, and wonder if God’s grace can be big enough for such sin, we are to remember Paul. If you ever wonder if you’ve committed some unforgivable sin, just remember Paul. Paul blasphemed Christ. Paul insolently persecuted Christ. But God’s grace was sufficient for him. And it is sufficient for you too. And for all and any who would turn and believe in him. And so that’s what Paul’s saying. He’s an example or a pattern of how God has patience towards sinners, that they might come in faith and repentance to be saved. When Paul talks of him being this pattern, I think of how a company today might advertise it services through a case study. They promise their ability to provide some wonderful service, and they say let me give you a case study. Let me show you how we used our services in this case study and see how it worked out so well for this customer who used our services. You too can experience what this customer experienced. Well, Paul’s a case study of the grace of God. If even the chief of sinners can be saved, then each of us can be saved.

This all leads then to our third and final point for today. At this point, Paul interrupts the content of his letter with verse 17. He breaks into great praise for God – we call this a doxology. Actually Paul already started down that path in verse 12. In verse 12 as he got going talking about his conversion and commission he started by thanking Jesus. And so this whole passage about what the gospel did in Paul’s life and what it can do in our lives leaves Paul thanking and praising God. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. The point is that Paul couldn’t help himself here. What’s in this passage is so wonderful, so marvelous, so amazing, that he needs to praise and thank God. By the way, I love that we have songs that include in their titles about the “Wonderful Grace” and the “Marvelous Grace” and the “Amazing Grace”. God’s grace is so wonderful and marvelous and amazing that we should stop what we are doing when talking about this and start praising God.

And I think that’s why he ends verse 17 with an amen. I think he wants whoever is hearing that part of his letter to immediately stop and say amen with him. That’s what we need to do be doing again today. That’s an application then that should be driving itself home to us again today. Praise and thank God for your salvation. You really are as bad of a sinner as you feared. Actually, I’m sure you are worse that you have feared. But his grace is greater than all our sins; his grace does exceed our sin and our guilt. His grace does pardon and cleanse within. His grace does relieve our fears; his grace has brought us safe this far and his grace will lead us home.

In closing, brothers and sisters, I remind you that Paul’s words here spoke more than just about his conversion. He spoke more than just about his salvation. But he also spoke about his commissioning. After saving him, God put him into his service. God put him to work! God made Paul useful for his kingdom. And so the pattern of Paul’s life serves not just to reminds us of how God can save wretched sinners like us. But Paul’s example goes on to show how God saves us in order to then use them. We will not be surprised next week then when we see that Paul immediately turns in his letter to then call Timothy to be about similar gospel work that Paul has been doing. Paul’s commissioning should serve as a pattern for how God is calling Timothy to serve him as a pastor.

And so you too are called to serve Christ. Yes, this will look differently for each of us. Most of us are not called to be pastors. But each of us is called to serve the Lord. That’s true no matter what your past history is. Don’t believe the lie that your sinful past would stop you from serving now. Instead, remind yourself, “Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners.” Don’t believe the lie that the current reality of your sin would keep you from be able to serve Christ now. Instead, remind yourself “Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners.” And so don’t believe the lie that your sins are too big for God’s grace. Rather, relate with Paul and his example as the “chief of sinners.” Relate that label to yourself, the “chief of sinners.” Own your great sinfulness. But receive in faith his abundant grace. Grace that will even then call you to wholeheartedly serve Christ. That in reliance on the grace of God, you will serve him with all that is in you, forsake the world, resist the devil, put to death your sinful deeds and desires, and lead a godly life.

Thank you Lord for your grace. We praise you oh God for sending Christ into this world to save sinners. Amen.

Copyright © 2016 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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