GRACE FOR THE CHIEF OF SINNERS!
TEXT: 1 Timothy 1:12-17 -- I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and violent; but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant with the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, as a pattern to them which will hereafter believe on Him unto life everlasting. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
In the Name of Jesus, who came into this world to save sinners, whose longsuffering is extravagant, who pursued us all the way to the cross to wipe away our sin, who pursued us from the cross to enter into our hearts through baptism and the Gospel, who takes the chiefs of sinners and turns them into vessels of His glory, and witnesses of His infinite love, dear Christian friends,
When we look carefully at our text for today, several phrases might come to our minds -- phrases such as: "patience is a virtue," or "to err is human, to forgive divine," or "man proposes, but God disposes." But even these phrases, fellow-redeemed, as true as they are, can't fully convey the awesome love and persistence of God that drove God the Son to the cross in the Person of Jesus Christ. Today we're going to come closer, by the Holy Spirit's power and enlightening, to understanding the Lord's love, the Lord's patience, the Lord's grace, the Lord's mercy, and the Lord's salvation, as we dive into God's Word to find His saving wisdom!
Our God is merciful and slow to anger, fellow-redeemed. He loves the lost and wants to bring them to Himself. In Jesus' parable of the lost sheep and in His parable of the lost coin all of heaven's energies are brought into play to find one lost person, and all heaven breaks into songs and shouts of praise over the lost person's return. No cost is spared in finding that one lost soul!
Our Lord Jesus humbles us with the condemnation of the Law, and uplifts us with the Good News of His blood-bought salvation on the cross, in order that He might draw all people unto Himself. That's the way God has always done it. And He does it, even for people that we might think should be judged and punished without a second chance -- He does it even for the chief of sinners. He does it for the worst prodigals.
Look at the Old Testament, first of all, and you'll see the truth of all this. If ever there was a people who tried God's infinite patience, it was His chosen people of Israel. If ever there was a people who deserved to be struck down for their fickle faith and lack of gratefulness according to our human observations, it was Israel. But let's look to see what happened.
The setting is Mt. Sinai, thousands of years before our Lord Jesus was born. Moses was on top of the mountain -- the people of Israel were camped around the base of the mountain. There was fire and smoke and thunder coming from Sinai. But in the midst of all those divine pyrotechnics, dear friends, God had confirmed His gracious covenant with His people. Through Moses, His chosen earthly mediator, God had reaffirmed that the people of Israel were His people. He'd chosen them! He'd called them by name! God had brought them into His covenant of undeserved love pointing to the Promised Savior. He'd proclaimed to them long before through Abraham that the Messiah, the Promised Savior, would come from them and to them -- and that by trusting in this promise, they'd be saved eternally and made heirs of heaven. And now through Moses, His earthly spokesman, God promised once again to save them, to be with His people always, and to provide for all their physical as well as spiritual needs. He called His people to saving faith, fellow-redeemed, and gave them His Holy Spirit so faith could be created.
But what happened to Israel's faith? Israel didn't stand the test at Mt. Sinai, you see. And what was the test? The test for Israel's faith was that they could see fire and smoke on the mountain, but they couldn't see God Himself! They saw God's representative, Moses, but God Himself was revealed only in outward phenomena. Then they couldn't even see Moses! When Moses was on top of Mt. Sinai for days and days and days, receiving all the specifics of how Israel was to live in God's covenant of grace, when he was up there for days on end without coming down, the people's faith began to wane. For you see, they'd put too much faith in what they could behold with their eyes! Their faith was too highly dependent on whether or not Moses was there with them! They put too much of their trust in men and in the things of this earth, and not enough trust in God.
When Moses didn't come down, perhaps the people thought he'd been burned up by the fire of God or something else had happened and he was dead! So they grew fearful and impatient and unbelieving. They wanted someone and something visible that they could follow -- someone and something tangible they could put their trust in. So they recruited a very weak-willed Aaron and asked him to make a physical representation of God for them -- something on the order of the idols they'd seen in Egypt -- a "bull" to be exact.
And just as Eve succumbed to the serpent's temptations and Adam abandoned his spiritual leadership and failed to protect his wife from sin and death, so Aaron gave in to the people and made a "golden calf" for these wayward children of Israel to worship and follow. The calf was really their god now -- they'd sunk into false belief and unbelief. They'd sunk into the worst sin of all -- idolatry. They'd forgotten God and turned their backs on Him. And wrong believing and no believing inevitably leads to fatally wrong priorities and dangerously wrong living. The Israelites rose early to sacrifice offerings before this golden idol -- then the whole thing degenerated into a drunken orgy.
And God, the true God, revealing Himself on Mt. Sinai, was mad! He was burning with anger -- an anger so hot that His justice would have driven Him to wipe out all the Israelites and start over again with Moses had it not been for His grace -- grace that would manifest itself most clearly in the coming Savior. Now God knew He was going to be gracious to His prodigal children. As heinous as Israel's sin was, our God is a longsuffering, patient God, and He was willing to give His people another chance. But He wanted to test Moses. He wanted Moses to be a mediator for these people. So God issued this challenge to Moses. He said, "Leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation."
Now Moses had a choice to make, you see. And humanly speaking, it would have been easy for Moses to pronounce a curse on these people. After all, they'd given him nothing but grief since the day they'd left Egypt. They'd grumbled against his leadership. They'd grumbled against God and rebelled against Him. They were truly a stiff-necked people. And it would have been very tempting for Moses to say, "Kill them, Lord. Kill them all!"
But instead, something remarkable happened. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Moses pleaded for God to be merciful to His chosen people. And the Bible says that God relented and didn't bring on the disaster He'd threatened. Now the Hebrew word that we translate "relent" in our English Bibles doesn't mean that God changed His mind. This Hebrew word means that God had "great pain and grief" at the thought of destroying Israel. Even though God's anger was burning hot, He loved His people. Destroying them would have pained Him. He'd planned on being merciful all along. But He wanted to hear Moses make the appeal! He wanted Moses to be the one to intercede on behalf of his people. And God chose to respond in mercy to Moses' faithful pleas.
Now dear friends, when Moses came down the mountain and saw what was actually going on, he was mad! He threw the two tablets of stone down in a righteous rage. But he was obedient, and he did everything in accordance with God's gracious purpose. He called for repentance and faith, a second chance for God's people, and a large portion of the people did repent and come back to the Lord. And God declared to them that they were still part of the covenant, and they'd still have their part in the coming Savior! However, there were almost three thousand who didn't come back, even after they had this second chance offered to them, and they were killed with the sword.
So what do we make of all this, dear Christian friends? You see, all this shows the truth of God's Word in Ezekiel where God says: "I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from their ways and live." And again in 1 Timothy we're told: "God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." We learn here, dear friends, that God's patience is extraordinary, that His love is infinite, that His purpose is that all should be brought into the life of Christ, and that none be lost. We learn that God's patient longsuffering has a twofold purpose. First of all, it serves the purpose of giving the unrepentant sinner and the unbeliever every chance to repent and believe the Good News of salvation in Jesus. And secondly, it serves the purpose of trying and testing God's faithful people, so that they might learn, by the Holy Spirit's power, to be as patient and gracious as God is Himself. All of this shows us, fellow-redeemed, that God's Law and God's Gospel, patiently and properly applied, will serve God's wonderful saving purpose in the end.
And so what about Paul in our text? Well, dear Christian friends, in Paul we see another very dramatic and powerful demonstration of everything we've just heard -- a powerful demonstration of God's grace and patience at work through Law and Gospel to bring this self-proclaimed "chief of sinners" into Christ's salvation!
You see, as background to our text, Paul had sent young Pastor Timothy to the congregation in Ephesus to combat another case of false teaching which was gutting the message of salvation of its saving power! Paul wanted this false teaching stopped, right away, immediately, because it completely emptied the cross of its saving message, and was leading souls away to hell.
It seems that in a growing number of cities at the time of the Early Church, a false doctrine called Gnosticism, still in its infant form, was starting to crop up. That's what was happening in Ephesus, you see. Gnosticism taught that Jesus didn't really come to die on the cross and offer the ultimate sacrifice to take away the sins of all people. Rather, the Gnostics claimed that Jesus came to give a secret philosophical knowledge to just a few people, people who were "in the know," so they could be freed from the material world. That was their false "gospel," so called. And the Law? Well, the Law didn't really point out that people are sinful and rebellious toward God, and desperately in need of redemption from sin, according to this false teaching. Rather, the Law merely pointed out that all people are entangled in the world of matter and need to be released by the higher knowledge.
And to all this foolish, demonic gobble-dee-gook, Paul says, "No! No! No!" He says in the first letter to Timothy that these false doctrines of men don't create faith -- they have no power to save. In fact, the only thing these teachings can do is destroy faith, and take away salvation! For if the Law doesn't condemn us for our sinful rebellion, and point out the need for a Redeemer from sin, and if the Gospel doesn't point to a Savior who took all the punishment for sin on Himself, then there is no message of salvation, and there is no way to heaven!
And to emphasize just how powerful the patient, persistent, true and proper use of Law and Gospel can be, Paul tells us of his own incredible conversion in our marvelous text for this morning! In Paul, just as in ancient Israel, we have a man who at one point in his life deserved to be struck down dead as a supreme example of God's justice. Paul describes himself as being "a violent man" before he was brought to Christ -- and he wasn't exaggerating! This young Pharisee was so zealous for defending what he thought was God's Law and God's way, that he went about arresting Christians and having them put to death with a demonic glee and enthusiasm! He was a murderer many times over, even though what he was doing was approved by the religious leaders. He presided over thousands of arrests and executions of Christian people.
The name of Saul the persecutor was feared by many. And the ironic thing about it is that Paul actually thought he was doing the will of God! In our text he says he acted in ignorance. Now that doesn't mean he wasn't guilty, but it does tell us something! It tells us that even though he had the truth in front of him through the testimony of the apostles and God's Old Testament Word, he didn't realize that Jesus was God and Savior. He didn't recognize it. He thought he was doing God's will, preserving God's way, by persecuting God's people who proclaimed Jesus as Lord!
And we can imagine there were probably a few Christians at that time who might have been praying, "Please, Lord, have mercy on us and strike this man down! Should he not be struck down and made an example of the Lord's justice?" But there was another prayer that prevailed, dear friends -- the prayer that Jesus uttered from the cross for Paul and everyone like him: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!" No doubt many other Christians during Paul's reign of terror were also moved by God the Spirit to pray that prayer of Jesus for Paul. God did not strike him down as he deserved. He was patient, longsuffering. And finally, one day, God zapped Paul with the Law as he was riding to Damascus to round up some more Christian believers. With a blinding light, Paul was knocked off his horse, admonished by Christ Himself for persecuting Him, blinded, and then told where he'd have to go for physical and spiritual healing.
He was sent to the house of Ananias -- and Ananias healed Paul's blinded eyes in the Name of Jesus, and shared the saving Gospel with him. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, God's grace overwhelmed Paul's resistance, and took away his spiritual blindness as well. Faith was created in his heart and he was baptized, he was made a citizen of heaven -- and wonder of wonders, he had a call to be an apostle of all things! The next day he immediately started preaching in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior!
God had been longsuffering and gracious to Paul, and God's Christian people came to see Christ's marvelous grace in the conversion of this once wicked and violent man. When he got back to Jerusalem, Paul spoke boldly of the Lord Jesus at many gatherings of Christians. How strange it must have been at first! As he spoke to his fellow-believers, there in the congregation, perhaps, was a woman who'd lost her husband because Paul had had him killed. There was a family who'd been persecuted and beaten by Paul's men. There was a husband, perhaps, who'd lost his family. And they would all have to draw on the Lord's strength to realize that God had chosen to show mercy and grace to this formerly violent man, instead of wrath and judgment. They would come to see the wonder in the fact that in Jesus Christ, this bitterest enemy had become one of their dearest friends! They would come to stand in awe of the grace and mercy of God that caused Him to chase down this murderer, and bring him into the forgiveness and eternal salvation of Christ -- and not only that, but also make him an apostle and missionary for the Lord Jesus -- and destine him to die a martyr's death to the glory of the Savior!
What a change! What a marvelous, merciful change! In Paul's own incredible life experience we can see that God's Law, properly used, brings the sinner to his knees in humble repentance. And we can see the true Gospel: that Christ Jesus didn't come to give a secret philosophy -- Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners! He came to seek and to save the lost! How thankful you and I can be, dear friends, that God didn't smite Paul as he deserved, but instead overwhelmed Paul with His mercy, enabled him by the power of the Holy Spirit to have faith, and then inspired him to write down most of our New Testament epistles, which have been a saving blessing to millions of Christians, including all of us!
On a personal note, I have a friend now who used to be a fearsome enemy. Back in high school I feared him as the early Christians feared Paul. Suffice it to say here that this young man had a tendency to be somewhat violent at times, and he now admits that Christ had no place in his life back then. He once tried to push me down on the ice in front of some oncoming cars, and he wasn't just playing around! And yet, miraculously, the Lord wouldn't let me fall! But then God took away everything my enemy had come to rely on. God brought him to his knees with the Law. And finally, one glorious evening, as this enemy of mine watched a religious T.V. show late at night, the Holy Spirit spoke to his heart through the Gospel, God's mercy and grace overcame his resistance and pride, and the faith of his baptism, saving faith in Jesus, was restored to him in a powerful way. And now this once-feared enemy of mine is one of my closest friends.
Since his reconversion, he and I have worshiped together, laughed together, and shared the innermost concerns of our souls with each other. We share the same baptism, and the same Christ. God's pursuing grace and mercy in Christ reached him, fellow-redeemed! And this powerful testimony of Christ's mercy, grace, and power in my friend's life has given me strength in some of the deepest valleys in my life! How thankful I am that God didn't smite my friend, as I had once wished, but saved him instead, and made him a blessing to me and many others.
And finally, how grateful you and I can be fellow-redeemed, that God poured out His grace and mercy on us, and continues to do so. For you see, we're just as guilty and rebellious by nature as Paul and the ancient Israelites. But God pursued us all the way to the cross, suffered and died to pay the ransom price for our sins, hunted us down and made us His own in baptism, and gave us saving faith in Jesus and eternal life as a free gift of His extravagant love. We were His enemies, but in Christ and through faith, He's made us His friends!
And who knows? You may have an enemy right now whom God is being patient with. And someday soon, through Law and Gospel, God may cause this enemy who's trying you severely to be your brother or sister in Christ, by showering him or her with the same mercy that you and I have come to know. God can do it for them, and He can keep on doing it for us, through Word and precious Sacrament.
Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen.