Paul: The Chief of Sinners? (Pt 2)

Daily Devotional | Day 346

“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” (1 Timothy 1:15, NKJV).

At what point was Paul the chief of sinners? Before he met Jesus, after he met Jesus or both? These are the questions before us in this series. They are not trivial questions. As we pointed out yesterday, a lot has been said and done in the name of Paul, for good or for harm. Because of his influential status in the Bible, it is natural for people to appeal to Paul’s authority to justify their teachings or practices. In view of this, it is important that we find out what Paul said and did not say. What is at stake is the integrity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Today we will look closely at Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 1:15.

Paul says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” No Christian would dispute that. In the Gospels, we are often reminded about Jesus’ mission to save sinners. Even before His birth, an angel spoke to Joseph about it, “And she [Mary] shall bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Paul did not end with the affirmation that Jesus came to save sinners. He added, “of whom I am chief.” When people read the present tense, “I am chief,” they hastily conclude that Paul was admitting he was a chief sinner at the time he was writing to Timothy. But this is most unfortunate. Neither the grammar nor the context supports such a conclusion.

Let us look at the grammar. Paul starts by saying, “Christ Jesus came to save . . .” Obviously, he is describing a past action of how Jesus saved him. He could have used the past tense, “of whom I was chief;” but he did not. Instead, he chose another grammatical alternative, the historical present tense. This tense is used in situations where one wishes to produce a rhetorical or dramatic effect while describing a past event. When Paul said, “of whom I am chief,” he wanted to highlight the uniqueness of his status as the worst of the sinners Jesus came to save. What he said is grammatically equivalent to: “Jesus came to save sinners. Of the sinners Jesus saved, I was the chief.” As we will later find out, this is not the first time Paul makes use of the historical present. Many people use this tense to describe past events, but some are not aware that they use it.

Now let us look at the context within which Paul spoke. He was aware that his past record disqualified him from being an ambassador for Christ. Therefore, writing to Timothy, he gave thanks to Christ for counting him worthy of the apostolic ministry (1 Timothy 1:12). He explained why he was thankful, “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief” (v. 13). Notice that Paul is describing his former life as a sinner. The key word in v. 13 is “formerly.” It is within this context (of his former life) that he made the statement in v. 15 (“Christ Jesus came to save sinners, of whom I am chief).

Formerly Paul persecuted Christians, but he no longer did that. He was formerly a blasphemer, but he no longer blasphemed. He was formerly an insolent man, but he no longer continued to be insolent. Jesus had saved him from these and other sins, for which he was grateful. This is his testimony. If Paul continued to be a sinner or the chief of sinners, he would be on his way to the lake of fire. But we know from the Scriptures that this was not the case. When Paul said, “Christ came to save sinners, of whom I am chief,” he was giving glory to God for the change that had occurred in his life. He was describing the difference between his former life and his current life.

The Paul who wrote to Timothy was a former sinner, not an ongoing sinner. Like him, all Christians may testify that they are former sinners, not ongoing sinners. Heaven is for former sinners, not current sinners. If we wish to draw inspiration from Paul, the best way is for us to align with his life of holiness after he met Christ. Fishing for weaknesses in Paul’s former life to justify our own weaknesses is not the way to go.

To be continued tomorrow, God willing. May peace and grace abound for you, in the Name of Jesus. Amen.

For further studyActs 26:1-32

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