1 Tim 1:12-17
Around 33 A.D. a man name Saul led a group of men from Jerusalem north towards Damascus. We don’t know Saul’s exact age, but it seems clear that that he was a little younger than one would have expected of a person who had taken on such a role of leadership. Later in life he wrote about himself, “And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of may own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the tradition of the fathers.”
“Zealous for the tradition of the fathers” summarized Saul’s life. Saul was a Jew. Originally from Tarsus in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, he has been raised in Jerusalem and trained at the feet of the one of the great rabbi’s of his day, Gamaliel.
Saul wasn’t just a Jew. He had chosen to be Pharisee. He had chosen to be part of a group that had created a whole body of oral law that dictated how one was to keep the Torah that God had given to Israel at Mt. Sinai. The Pharisees held this “tradition of the fathers” to be almost on the same level as the Torah itself, and so they were extremely committed to keeping it. Saul was totally confident that he faithfully served Yahweh, the God of Israel in this way. He later wrote that as to the righteousness that came from the law, he was blameless.
Saul was a zealous Pharisee – zealous for the tradition of the fathers. And during the last several years, something had happened that incensed Saul and filled him with an unstoppable fervor. A man named Jesus, from the town of Nazareth in Galilee of all places, had begun a ministry in which he proclaimed that the end time reign of God was about to arrive. He ignored and disparaged the teachings of the Pharisees, and he consorted with all kinds of people who were clearly sinners. He claimed to stand in a relationship to Yahweh that no human being should ever even contemplate. It was as if he thought he was the Son of God – God himself. He performed signs and wonders of healing and casting out demons – things that he was able to do because clearly he was in league with Satan.
Things had ended for this Jesus as they should have. The Romans crucified him in Jerusalem. And in this event the final and correct judgment about Jesus was announced for all to see: he was a false Messiah – a deceiver. Deuteronomy chapter twenty one said: “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.”
Humiliated in death by crucifixion, Jesus had been cursed by God. And that should have been the end of it. Except it wasn’t. His disciples had apparently stolen the body from the tomb, and now they were going around saying that he had risen from the dead. They were declaring that God had vindicated his servant Jesus by the resurrection, and had exalted Jesus when he ascended into heaven. They were proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ. More than that, they were saying that he is Lord, and in the greatest blasphemy, they were applying passages from Scripture that talked about Yahweh to this Jesus.
It was all too much for Saul. He had been there and approved when others had stoned to death that obnoxious blasphemer Stephen. This had been the start of Saul’s personal mission as he persecuted these people who were called Christians. He entered house after house as he dragged off men and women to prison. He later told the Galatians, “I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.”
Saul was so zealous and eager to destroy this blasphemy against God, that he didn’t stop with Jerusalem. Having learned that the followers of Jesus were spreading their message in Damascus, Syria he went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any of them, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Saul set out on the trip of around 140 miles, intent on destroying the church at Damascus. What Saul didn’t know was that God had set him apart before he was even born to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. And so, as you know, on the way to Damascus Saul was blinded by a light from heaven and he fell to the ground. The risen Lord Jesus said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And when Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”, Christ said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
That is the past the Paul reflects upon as he says in our text, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.” Paul never forgot about his past. He told the Corinthians, “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
But Paul’s reflection in our text was not one of guilt. Instead it was focused on the remarkable mercy and grace that God had shown to him. He says in our text, “But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” Paul thought he was doing God’s will. But when the risen Lord Jesus appeared to him he discovered that he had it all wrong. Yes, Jesus had died on the cross. Yes he had been cursed by God. But then on the third day, God had raised Jesus from the dead. He had vindicated Jesus and exalted him as Christ when he was seated at the right hand of God.
This meant that the cross and curse of God had in fact been part of God’s saving work. As he told the Galatians, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us--for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” The cross was actually God working through Jesus Christ to bring forgiveness and salvation to all people. Paul says in the next chapter of this letter, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”
In our text, Paul summarizes this truth when he writes, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” The good news – the Gospel – that we hear this morning is that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. That means that he came to save you, for you are a sinner. You find all sorts of things and activities that you put before God. You spend more time on these than you would ever consider in the reading and study of God’s Word. You lust after bodies that are not your spouse and look at pornography online. You hold grudges and seek to get pay back. You cheerfully share gossip that hurt’s your neighbor’s reputation.
Yet in spite of this, like Paul, you have been shown mercy. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – to give his life as the ransom for you. Not only that, but on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead and defeated death. It was the encounter with the risen Lord that showed Saul he had it all wrong about Jesus. And it was this appearance that allowed Paul to tell the Corinthians, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Paul’s words lead us to rejoice in the mercy that God has shown to us. For us too, the grace of our Lord has overflowed with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The Holy Spirit has worked faith in Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord. We have received Christ’s love, and so we share this love with others in what we do and say.
Yet in Paul’s words this morning we also hear something else – something that gives us encouragement and hope. We all know people who do not believe in Jesus Christ. Perhaps they are family or friends who were baptized as Christians but have now drifted away from the Christ because of the influence of our culture. Perhaps they are people who have never had known life in the Church. We want these people to receive the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Paul says in our text, “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” Paul holds himself up a prime example of Christ’s patience. Paul lived in unbelief. Worse yet, he actively worked to harm Christ’s people – Christ’s Church. And yet Christ was patient with Paul. In his time and in his way he called Paul to faith and showed him that everything he had believed about Jesus was all wrong.
We do not know the timing in which Christ’s Spirit will work. Our calling is to speak the Gospel in each opportunity that we have. We need to be ready to listen to the objections and impediments that these individuals experience in their own minds. There are strong answers that can remove and diffuse many of these objections. Of course to know these answers, we need to be studying God’s Word. We need to be talking about these things with our pastor. There is nothing wrong with hearing a question for which we don’t know the answer. One need only say, “Well that’s a good question. I will have to look into it and get back to you.” Your pastor is there to help you with these kinds of questions, so that you can have a response to give.
As we live as Christians, we can look to the example of Paul as source of hope and encouragement. We see in Paul an example of Christ’s great patience towards those who reject him. And we can take comfort in what Paul says in the next chapter, that God our Savior is the One “who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” God wants to save and he is patient, and in this we have all we need to continue to speak about Jesus with that person and to pray that the Holy Spirit will work faith as the individual abandons the objections and false gods by which they reject the Lord.
In our text this morning, St. Paul talks about his past. Yet he is not burdened with guilt about the terrible sins he committed. Instead he marvels at the mercy God showed to him by calling him to faith in Jesus Christ the risen Lord. He rejoices in the grace that overflowed to him with the faith and love that are in Jesus Christ. We rejoice today that we have shared in the same experience. And in the example of Christ’s patience toward Paul we find hope that others too will yet come to believe in Jesus as the risen Lord.