Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.
In his first letter to his beloved disciple Timothy, whom he loved like his own son – his true son in the faith [1 Tim 1:2], Paul specially encourages and instruct the younger man, who was likely very much a young leader, highly inexperienced in leading and building a church. Paul spends some time dwelling on the Lord’s grace to him before going on to instruct Timothy on more specific matters, and a keen eye would notice Paul’s astonishing self-evaluation of himself as a sinner – the very worst. A very defeatist statement isn’t it? If you heard somebody saying this today, surely alarm bells will be ringing in your head. And to think it was Paul the Apostle who said this! What was he thinking when he said this? What was his intention behind this? Was there any defeatist sentiments in it? In this study, we will examine this seemingly self-depreciating declaration from Paul and find out why it is so important for us to have humility in grace, but not mock modesty.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance – Why the special emphasis, why the clarification? In those days, this might be a largely unheard of saying, that may sound strange to the people, and difficult for them to accept. Paul challenges them to accept it fully – not out of humanly logic or understanding, but by faith in Christ Jesus himself. Paul again repeats this line later on in the chapter – when he talks about a similarly difficult subject – the life that is to come [1 Tim 4:9].
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – Oh, this we know well. Jesus himself said it, and Mark recorded it – “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” [Mark 2:17] We can talk at length about this indeed – but for the sake of the focus of today’s study, we shall leave this as it is.
of whom I am the worst – Before Damascus, Paul was a persecutor of the Church. We know how bad it was – he stood and stared as Stephen was stoned to death – And Saul approved of their killing him [Acts 8:1]; and he himself shed light to the extent of his sins against the Church. Was he a sinner? Yes, definitely, just as we all were. Was he the worst? Now that’s debatable, but he was certainly a big, big mortal enemy of the Church. His pre-believing deeds were frankly confessed by Paul himself earlier in other letters – For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it [Gal 1:13]. This is something everybody knows – this is something people even praised God for – that a huge persecutor of the Church had turned into an important apostle for Christ. It was something that apparently mattered to Paul too – he knew who he was, what he did, and was very frank with his nothingness and sinful past – For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God [1 Cor 15:9]. Indeed, these confessions corresponds to what was recorded in the scriptures about him – But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison [Acts 8:3]. He was described to be breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples [Acts 9:1]. In fact, while he had his epiphany on the road to Damascus, his original intention was to go there, armed with letters from the high priests, and to throw followers of Christ into prison.
He knew who he was. Oh, before anyone could ever point at him and accuse him of his sinful past, he was always the first to admit it. Yes, he was a man like that. But even though he knew who he was, and never fooled himself with faux righteousness and excuses, he also knew that God has already forgiven him. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief [1 Tim 1:13]. Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ [Eph 3:8]. This is not mock modesty. He was not modest merely for the sake of it, he was not putting on a show of humility. It is probably a case of, God has forgiven him, but he never quite could forgive himself, and forever reminds himself of his past to keep himself humble and standing on his toes. It is really not self-condemnation too, indeed, he is fully assured of his authority as an apostle even though he recognises that he is the worst of them – I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the “super-apostles,” even though I am nothing [2 Cor 12:11].
This is confusing, isn’t it? So if Paul isn’t mirred in self-condemnation, isn’t putting up a show of humility, then what does it mean? I would like to think that when he said this, Paul was putting the emphasis and the focus on Jesus, instead of thinking that much about himself. He has experienced it personally, how Christ revealed himself to him, even though he was nowhere near worthy at all. Instead of it being an exclamation of the extent of how bad Paul is, it should be an exclamation on how great Jesus is. Yet let us not misunderstand – Paul accepted his past self for what he was – a sinner, who persecuted the Church in ignorance and in unbelief. He knows he has been forgiven. And now, he is using his past experience as a testimony to encourage others – even a person like me could have been saved by the Lord, surely you can be too! Indeed, majority of the people probably never persecuted the Church to the extent that a young and zealous Paul did. Even while using his past as a testimony to encourage others, he also protects the authority of apostleship that was given him – something constantly challenged by others throughout his ministry, mostly because he never walked with Jesus like the disciples did (thus, the least of them all, and that he was nothing), and that he once persecuted the Church (thus, the worst of them all).
There is a great balance there that Paul achieves, something that we often fail to. Often we either end up on one extreme – we either put up a show of mock modesty, when in fact we have forgotten that we too are sinners; or we dwell too much in our past sins and condemn ourselves – which is unnecessary, for who are we to condemn ourselves when our Lord has already forgiven us? Or, we content ourselves with the forgiveness of God and forget about our past sins completely, neither using it as a testimony to encourage others, nor using it as a warning for ourselves. Paul achieves a great balance, one that is not easy in the everyday Christian life.
Not everybody will agree with me, for sure, but I strongly believe that we need to remind ourselves that we are sinners – not were. Paul was a sinner, is a sinner, and is still the worst. There was no emphasis that it was in the past. His deeds were past, but his identity as a sinner, as the least and the worst – is still present. I would like to suggest that Paul is able to wield the great humility needed to admit that he is a sinner on one hand, and wield the faith of his forgiveness in Christ on the other out of his pure and simple focus on Christ. When Christ is the centre of it all, there is no need for self-condemnation or over defensiveness or mock modesty. When Christ is in the centre of it all, it no longer matters if you are the worst or the best, the least or the greatest.