Summary of the text:
Our lectionary text comes early in the pastoral letter of 1 Timothy, right after a brief welcome to the letter’s recipient and an exhortation to fight against the false teachers who have presumably been wreaking havoc on the this Christian community, presumably in Ephesus.
As one of the pastoral letters, 1 Timothy has often not received the same level of attention as some of the other Pauline letters, this in large part due to Protestant scholarship over the last 150 years questioning Paul’s authorship of the letter, or if it was written later and then merely attributed to him as a way of gaining legitimacy for the letter.
As one definitely unequipped to form any significant judgment on the matter, my only suggestion would be to question the underlying motivations and perhaps even the over-stated pronouncements of those who are “sure” that Paul didn’t write the pastoral letters. Are there some differences among the word choices than presumably earlier Pauline letters? Sure. Does my writing style and word-usage change from year to year? Absolutely.
We also ought to remember that the nascent church was just developing as Paul was writing to the early churches. Would it be so strange that his language might change as he continued to proclaim the gospel and try to make sense of the amazing work of God that is at the heart of his ministry? I don’t think so. So I’ll leave it at that, and now we can take some time to consider the words of Paul (I will use “Paul” as a shorthand for the author of 1 Timothy, recognizing the limitations of definitive knowledge of the letter’s authorship)
As I mentioned a short time ago, 1 Timothy opens with a strong exhortation to fight against false teaching. We get a few clues throughout the letter as to what the doctrines are of these teachers in chapter 4:
They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.
They also taught that the resurrection had already taken place. These clues don’t necessarily give us a complete picture of who they were, but nevertheless, they were certainly trying to lead people astray from the pure gospel of Jesus Christ, where we are made right with God not by what we eat or drink but by the atoning sacrifice of Christ alone.
To articulate this, Paul then dives into our selected text, speaking words of deep gratitude that God would save him, the “worst of sinners.” (1 Tim.1:15)
And in this paean to God’s great love and patience, he articulates the gospel in a short, memorable saying:
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.
Why does Paul give attention, if not amplify, his own sinfulness in this passage? The answer can only be to articulate a truth he made in Romans: there is nothing that can separate us from Christ’s love. We could certainly argue whether Paul was in fact the greatest (or worst) of sinners, but the point he is trying to make is that If God can forgive him, God can certainly forgive us.
I was reminded of the significance of this belief recently when I became acquainted with a man who had been a sniper during the Vietnam War. Even though he had been raised in the church, even though he was following orders, he felt as though God could never forgive him for what he had done those many years ago. Since returning from war, he had barely darkened the door of the church, until he finally accepted this fundamental truth, that nothing, not even taking the life of another, can keep our gracious God from accepting us with open arms were we to choose to accept that forgiveness.
This man’s life has since been transformed significantly, developing an active prayer life as well as participating in his local church and a number of ministries, including ministry to the homeless population around him. None of this would have been possible had he not come to believe, as Paul did, that his sins were forgiven, and the only appropriate response is to give God the glory and to live a life of thanksgiving.
The preacher may want to share this or a similar story of a person struggling to accept God’s forgiveness. Who might we know that needs to hear this radical story of God’s grace and forgiveness?
Paul’s radical conversion is, as Duane Litfin argues, “a testimony concerning the purpose of the Incarnation of Christ. Jesus came not merely to set an example or to show that He cared. He came to salvage sinners from their spiritual destitution—and Paul said he was the worst of that lot.”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.
Key Sermon Illustration
Living a Grace-Filled Life
According to Dallas Willard, grace is “God doing in us and for us what we could not do ourselves.” We are meant to be forgiven by grace; we are also meant to live by grace.
We often believe that only “sinners” need grace or that the only times we need grace are times of guilt. But as Dallas used to say, “Saints burn far more grace than sinners ever could. They burn it the way a jet burns rocket fuel.”
Salvation means that not only am I forgiven by grace, but I am also learning to live by grace. This is part of what makes boasting for any good that comes out of me as unthinkable as boasting for any sin forgiven in me—in either case, it is a gift of grace.
Eternity Is Now In Session: A Radical Rediscovery of What Jesus Really Taught About Salvation, Eternity, and Getting to the Good Place (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2018), Kindle Electronic Version.