“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. I am the worst of them, but God was merciful to me in order that Christ Jesus might show his full patience in dealing with me, the worst of sinners, as an example for all those who would later believe in him and receive eternal life.” (1Timothy 1:15-16)
I once thought Paul was exaggerating for effect when he called himself the worst of sinners, but now I can relate. Paul was a pharisee, one of the most pious and orthodox men of Israel, but he says in the same passage that he was a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man. That’s what a pharisee is, for the one big thing about God that we pharisees can’t comprehend is his mercy.
We pharisees know well the doctrines of sin and grace, and we know that we need to be saved, since all have sinned. But we don’t really feel all that sinful. We think we are real assets to God’s cause, guides for the blind, lights to those in darkness, instructors of the ignorant. In short, though we know we are sinners, we think we are better than other sinners.
That’s why Paul persecuted the followers of Jesus and blasphemed his precious name. He couldn’t abide the thought of bad people getting off the hook. He couldn’t stomach the 11th hour hires receiving the same wage as those who had worked hard all day for their righteousness. He was especially offended by the way Jesus seemed to insult his fellow pharisees at every opportunity. This Jesus, who claimed to be the son of God, showed no appreciation for the efforts of those who tried the hardest to satisfy God’s requirements, and was downright friendly with those who didn’t try at all.
Paul was ignorant. He didn’t know the merciful Father God that Jesus talked about. He had never experienced that mercy because he never knew he needed it. He didn’t see his need until the day Jesus stopped him along the road and opened his eyes. Well, actually he blinded him that day, but it’s the same thing. It was the eyes of Paul’s heart that were opened. For the first time he saw who God really was, and how completely he had resisted him.
So Paul truly felt himself to be the worst of sinners. He was completely overwhelmed that the one he had opposed so bitterly and so completely misunderstood and misrepresented should show kindness to him and even call him to his service. God made Paul an example of the way he treats his enemies.
I can relate.