The book 1 Timothy was written by Paul the apostle to a young evangelist who often served with him. He is absent at the time and wishes to instruct Timothy on how to run the church. Our passage for today, chapter 1 verses 12-17, is a digression. His mention of his commission to preach the gospel in verse 11 sparks a rant about how he was considered faithful despite his former sins. He picks up his thought again in verse 18 mentioning again the command back in verse 3. In this paragraph Paul give us insight into the gospel and his personal testimony. I want to draw particular attention to his past sin. Paul shatters the notion that people can be too bad to make it to heaven. If you are in that thought process concerning yourself, may Paul’s testimony show you just how merciful Jesus is.
The chief of sinners wasn’t too bad for heaven (1 Timothy 1)
Paul calls himself The Chief of Sinners. He says he is first among sinners (v. 15), and the first among those saved (v. 16). The NASB captures the original when it translates “foremost” in both verses. It is the same Greek word, and although it could refer to being first in time, clearly both instances are talking about primacy in rank. Paul was not the first person to sin, nor was he the first to be shown mercy—but he was the greatest of sinners and therefore the one needing the greatest amount of forgiveness.i
Paul’s attitude in this whole passage is similar to that in 1 Corinthians 15:9 where he says, “I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Or how he calls himself, “the very least of all saints” in Ephesians 3:8. As with 1 Timothy, both of these parallels likewise mention his apostleship. Paul’s sentiment here is summarized well by Litfin, “The ultimate sinner became the ultimate saint; God’s greatest enemy became His finest servant.”iiAs Paul spells out his own badness, he never fails to mention God's contrasting goodness. Click To Tweet
A look at the three sins he lists shows the depth of his depravity.iii Paul was not being overly pessimistic, nor was he overexagerating in any way when he says he was chief. Donald Guthrie says we shouldn’t feel any more weird about the way Paul views himself in verse 15 than we should about John Bunyan in his autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.iv And truly Paul’s attitude is a common sentiment among Christians. When we look into our past and into the most secret parts of our heart we think it impossible that anyone could be more wicked.
Paul says that he was formerly a blasphemer. Blaspheming simply refers to slandering somebody, whether God or man. In this case it is most likely God. As a zealous Jew he may not have cursed the name of Yahweh, but certainly he blasphemed Jesus (which is to dishonor the Father anyways, John 5:23; 15:23). As Paul recounts his former lifestyle to Agrippa, he states that he would try to force Christians to blaspheme (Acts 26:11)—presumably to deny that Jesus is God or Messiah.
He was also a persecutor.v This is probably the aspect of Paul’s life we hear about the most. Just before his conversion he was on his way to find Christians and bring them bound to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-3). He had Christians bound and put in prison (8:3; 22:4; 26:10). He would even have them put to death (26:10) as he did with Stephen (8:1). The extent of his persecution span from verbal to physical assaults. Not only in the narrative of Acts, but also in the Epistles Paul recounts his past violence against the church (i.e. Gal. 1:13; Phil. 3:6).
Paul was also a violent aggressor. The translation here is good, for the word certainly signifies violence, as well as pride. “One who, uplifted with pride, either heaps insulting language upon others or does them some shameful act of wrong” (Thayer). We find this attitude in Paul’s life. He breathed out threats and death against the church (Acts 9:1), and was at times “furiously enraged at them” (26:11).vi
So how does one get to heaven?
Paul’s testimony has proven that bad works don’t keep you from heaven. But we still need to find out what actually does save somebody. If Paul’s Jewish heritage and extreme religious devotion didn’t get him in right standing with God (Philippians 3), what hope do I have? Sure I’m thankful that I still have a chance at making it despite my sin, but what must I do? Let us look again at the passage and see Paul’s answer.
Salvation is all the work of God. As he spells out his badness, he doesn’t fail to mention God’s contrasting goodness. It is based on God’s mercy (vv. 13, 16), grace (v. 14), and perfect patience (v. 16). These gifts are expressed in the work of Jesus Christ (v. 15), and the benefits thereof are to be received by us through faith (v. 16).
How was Paul saved? Because, “The Son of Man [came] to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). He is going to heaven because, “The Son of Man [came]…to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Paul’s phrase in verse 15 is rich in theology from the gospels, particularly John. Some commentators argue that he is quoting an established statement. Either way, the truth remains that Jesus (who existed beforehand) came to earth as a man to save people. His intention was not merely to show us what love truly is, or to leave an example as a martyr, or to show He cares. His main purpose in coming to earth was to die on the cross for the salvation of His people. Christ’s shed blood covers our sins—all of them!—and we are restored to right fellowship with God.
Paul’s conversion was immediate and radically, leaving no room for cleaning up his mess or owing up for his wrongs. Paul was on his way to Damascus to capture and imprison more Christians (Acts 9:2-3; 22:5; 26:12)! That’s when God saved him. Paul was still that same blaspheming, persecuting, insolent man when God forgave him.
Paul was not left there, however. When he was saved he truly became a new creation and started bearing fruit. First, we see that he was put into service (v. 12). Although the word is pretty general, the thought is clearly his apostleship.vii Elsewhere in the Evangelist Epistles we read that God appointed him a preacher, apostle, and teacher (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11). God’s grace in Paul’s life also produced the fruit of faith and love (v. 14).
So it is with you, dear friend. You have not fallen too far for Jesus’ blood to save you! Just as Paul, the chief of sinners, was forgiven, God will forgive you too if you believe in Him. Your life can be transformed from a hater of God to a passionate follower of His.
iI am not accusing other translators of thinking Paul was the first sinner or saint. I simply mean that the NASB has the least potential for confusion among English readers.
iiLitfin, A. Duane “1 Timothy” in eds. John F. Walvoord and Rob B. Zuck The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty New Testament Edition (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983) 733.
iii Many commentators see an ascending scale from bad to worse, but I am not so sure. There isn’t any contextual or logical proof, but if a linguistic argument can be formulated, I would concede.
iv Guthrie, Donald The Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) 66.
v Interesting note: this word isn’t used elsewhere in the Bible or ancient literature.
vi The word in Acts 26:11 is used only there in the NT. It comes from the word for maniac.
vii Clearly the word isn’t just service in general, or a reference to the office of deacon. The same word without the definite article is used elsewhere in contexts that clearly point towards his apostleship (Rom. 11:13; 15:31; 2 Cor. 3:6; 4:1; 5:18; 6:3). Special thanks to eds. D. Guthrie and J. A. Motyer The New Bible Commentary: Revised (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970) 1169.