It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. – 1 Tim 1:15-17 (NASB)
In this series, we are looking at Paul’s first letter to Timothy, and how this epistle can help us be more effective in sharing the gospel. In particular, we are exploring what we can learn from this letter about how our speech and conduct affects our witness and the church’s overall mission.
St. Augustine has been quoted as saying “it was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.” The famous bishop of Hippo was clearly on to something. But he wasn’t the first to observe the power of humility. The apostle Paul was all over this. And he was careful to remind Timothy of it in his first letter to the young pastor of the church in Ephesus.
What Paul observes through his inspired writing is that humility is positional. It is not about how we act, but rather about where we stand. It puts us in a place where we are able to comprehend the saving grace of God. And it puts us in a place where we are empowered to demonstrate the saving grace of God to others.
In our verse for today, Paul begins by putting great emphasis on this truth: “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” He calls this a “trustworthy statement, deserving of full acceptance.” In other words, it is both beyond question and of great import to the believer. If we don’t get this, we won’t get Jesus.
We Are Broken Sinners
So the first thing Paul calls us to remember is that Christ came for sinners, a truth Jesus Himself testified to. Mark 2:17, Luke 5:23. In this Paul reminds us that it is our position as sinners, our position that is in opposition to the holiness of God, which serves as the basis for saving grace. If we were not sinners, Jesus wouldn’t have had to come. If we deny, or even just fail to comprehend, our sinful state, the grace of God is meaningless to us.
Moreover, even if we see our sins, we may run the risk of believing we can fix them ourselves. Here again, we render the grace of God meaningless and the death of Christ pointless to us. As Paul told the Galatians, who were under the influence of Judaizers insisting that salvation comes from the Law, “if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” Gal. 2:21. Likewise, if we believe we hold the solution to our sin problem, if we believe righteousness comes through anything or anyone other than Jesus, His death would not have mattered.
If you are a Christian, this certainly isn’t news to you. But to much of the rest of the world, it still is news. And that is why it is so important to our witness. People need to be lovingly, gracefully and gently led to the truth of their sin and their brokenness. But in our self-affirming culture today, this is can be hard for people to accept. It seems judgmental to say “you have a sin problem.” It seems mean. And this is why the rest of Paul’s statement is so important.
Our Testimony of Brokenness
“…among whom I am foremost of all.” Note that Paul doesn’t point to other people’s sin problem. He points to his own. And he describes his example as the most extreme case, making a claim to be the worst sinner out there. Was he really? I think we all might have told him, “Paul, give yourself a break man. History is littered with worse examples than you, my friend. You’ve heard of a guy named Judas, right?”
But whether Paul actually was foremost is not the point. The point is that he believed himself foremost – his sin, his severe persecution of Christians, was seared in his conscience. And rather than deny or therapize it (yes that is a word), Paul lays hold of the depth of his sin as his witness.
He goes on to write: “Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.” Paul makes an amazing statement here. It was by reason of the depth of his sinful state that Jesus chose to have mercy on him. And Jesus did so to display for all to see the absolute completeness and far-reaching nature of His patience. (The word translated “perfect” literally means “whole” or “all” in Greek.)
But here is the remarkable thing from the standpoint of our witness and evangelism. Jesus uses Paul as an “example.” Looking again at the Greek, the word used (hypotyposin) refers here to a “prototype” or “model.” If we lack any certainty in the availability of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice to us, Paul says “look no further than me, I am the model of a sinner saved by grace.”
Moreover, not only was Jesus willing to save Paul, He was eager to use Paul to further His ministry. And it wasn’t because of Paul’s intellect, his knowledge, or his way with words that Jesus chose him. It was because of Paul’s sin. Paul in essence is saying to Timothy “if Jesus can save me, He can save anybody, and in that is the power of my witness.”
The Courage To Be Humble
So now we come to the one thing I hope we all take away from this; that there can be power in humility. Paul was not a man lacking in courage, as his life attested to time and again. But it was his courage to be humble that, for me, is among the most helpful examples he gives us.
What do I mean by that?
For Christians, and most certainly for those of us who are pastors or leaders, it can be difficult to highlight our weaknesses. In fact, as much of the rest of this epistle shows us, there is real danger in our sins undermining our witness. This is why we must take extreme care in how we lead our lives. And yet Paul shows us another side of the story in that the dark sides of our testimony – the reality of our struggles – can provide the best evidence of the breadth of Christ’s love and the extent of His saving grace and power to transform.
But it takes courage. Why? Again, because it’s humiliating. After all, how many of us would be comfortable publicly proclaiming ourselves foremost among sinners? How many of us are willing to give people a glimpse into the dark sides of our past? How many of us are more interested in people being impressed with us rather than drawn to Jesus?
Through his model, Paul has given us a real gift. In following his example, we have a real opportunity. The question is, will we take it? Paul was humble enough to proclaim his sinful state, and whatever humility and ridicule that came with it. And he did so likely because he worships a God who endured the greatest public humiliation possible by dying on a cross for him. May we be so aware. And may we have the courage Paul had to be humble.
Father in heaven, we praise and thank You that by Your Son, who died for us, we have been given freedom from our sinful state. Help us to never forget the state we were in, separated from You and the promise of eternity. And help us – like Paul – to bear witness in humility of what You have done for us. And just as he prayed, now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.