READ : 1 Timothy 1:15
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners.
1 Timothy 1:15 rsv
“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance.” When the apostle Paul writes that, we get ourselves ready for something special. The next words are going to be weighty indeed. It’s something like Jesus’ use of “Verily, verily,” or “Truly truly, I say to you.” The sure saying, the faithful word, is one that rests on God’s authority. It goes back to the teaching of the risen Lord. Here, says the apostle, is bedrock truth. It’s something on which you can confidently rest all your hopes.
About this saying there was a clear consensus among the early believers. You might have heard it proclaimed in a house church at Antioch or argued in the Athenian marketplace or whispered on the streets of Rome. Wherever you found Christians, they would rejoice in it. Here is the sure saying, worthy of full acceptance. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” That’s from the apostle Paul’s letter to Timothy, chapter 1, verse 15.
Notice how believers affirm that Christ came into the world. In that they simply echo their master’s teaching. In all of the recorded words of Jesus, there is only one sentence in which he speaks of His being “born.” On the other hand, He describes His earthly life over and over again in these terms: “I came.” There’s more to that expression than first meets the eye. Jesus indeed was born, but His birth was unique. That uniqueness lay not only in its miraculous character as a virgin birth but also in what had preceded it.
For us, of course, nothing precedes our conception. But Jesus became a man. That is, He passed from one state of existence into another. After being elsewhere, He came to earth. Jesus Christ claims an existence that goes back before time, from which at a specific point He entered the stream of history.
That is the deep, thrilling conviction behind the Christmas gospel. The birth of Jesus was a divine entry into space and time, God’s personal coming to this earth. And as a coming, it represented a choice. You and I have nothing whatever to say, do we, about when and where and to whom we will be born? But here was one who decided to be born, to share our humanity. And that decision was an amazing adventure of love. Paul writes about it elsewhere in words that almost numb the mind: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor” (2 Cor. 8:9). Born to a peasant girl, bundled in rags, lying in a feed trough – this is the advent the eternal God chose on that matchless, memorable night in Bethlehem. Christ Jesus came into the world.
HE CAME FOR SINNERS
The question that bubbles up irresistibly is “Why?” Why this divine descent, this inconceivable stooping down to us? The answer, if possible, is even more astonishing: the sure saying, the faithful word is that He came out of concern for sinners. Sinners, quite evidently, are people who sin. Not once or twice, or fairly often, but repeatedly. You might say, habitually. They are those for whom selfishness, ingratitude and waywardness are not merely surface flaws, but almost second nature. Sin is not merely a word that describes one feature about them. It can stand quite appropriately for their lives taken as a whole. You may describe their behavior by many other names and attribute it to various secondary causes, but when you come to the heart of it, to their hearts, they are just sinners.
Now the fact that God should care about such people is not easy to comprehend. It goes against all our common-sense notions. We can perhaps imagine a noble king leaving his palace and traveling incognito to the far reaches of his domain in order to show kindness to his faithful subjects. But to go on a mission of mercy to those who care nothing for him, who forget his gifts, reject his messengers and rebel against his rule, that hardly seems credible, does it? And wasn’t that the scandal of Jesus’ whole ministry? He seemed to seek out the most unsavory, disreputable people. Everyone knew what sort they were. Most respectable persons wouldn’t go near them. But He sat down at their tables. Can you imagine that? They even called Him “friend.”
That oddity, of course, is the genius of the gospel. God is not the God of the prim and the proper. He’s not the patron of those who consider themselves somewhat better than the common herd. The children sing “Jesus loves me when I’m good, when I do the things I should.” That makes sense to us. We can see the truth of that. But listen to the next line, the heart of the good news: “Jesus loves me when I’m bad, though it makes Him very sad.” If Jesus didn’t love us that way, He would never have come at all.
Maybe you have trouble placing yourself in this category: sinner. It’s quite evident to you (and some comfort, perhaps) that you don’t indulge in many of the activities that usually call forth that description. You are no prodigal in the far country, “wasting your substance in riotous living.” You haven’t gone to the depths of shame.
But remember, the sins of excess and of passion are not the only ones. There was another son in Jesus’ story. He kept himself from the wild follies of the prodigal. He stayed at home and worked hard. Yet He viewed his brother, remember, with cold, bitter contempt. He had no joy when the prodigal came back home.
This second son was estranged from his father’s loving heart. His were the more subtle, but equally damning, sins of disposition. The sinners, friends, are not all in the prisons, in the taverns, in the brothels. You can find them in the shops, in the classrooms, in the churches too. It was for all of these that Jesus came.
HE CAME TO SAVE
Let’s not misunderstand. He came for us not because He found us congenial or approved of our lifestyle. The faithful saying is, He came to save us. How does that word sound to you? I’m afraid it has become hackneyed, threadbare, less than exciting, for many people. The question, “Are you saved?” often elicits only a weary “Don’t bother me” from many of our contemporaries. They aren’t interested.
Perhaps it’s because we Christians have talked about salvation too mechanically, too narrowly. Or perhaps it’s because we’ve exhibited too little of what it really means. Let’s look at it again. What does it mean that Jesus saves people? The word has in it first of all the idea of rescue. Someone is trapped in a wretched plight or in grave danger. Say they’re in a burning building. To save them means to deliver them out of that distress, to snatch them from their misery and peril, to bring them to safety. Jesus Christ does that for people. By bearing our sins, suffering in our place, He spares us, delivers us from the judgment we deserve. He frees us from condemnation. He rescues us from death and hell. That in itself is a priceless benefit.
But let’s not stop at that, as though all God wanted to do in His gracious purpose was to make us safe instead of sorry. No, He wants to save us. The word means also a kind of restoration. God wants to renew the marred image of Himself in us, to restore to us our genuine humanness. He comes to transform us, to make us free, creative, loving human beings. It’s one thing to save us from dying; it’s another thing – even greater – to fit us for life.
But there’s yet another dimension. You can talk about being saved in terms of rescue and restoration and still miss its personal character. Salvation means being reconciled to God. We were made for God, created to know Him, love Him, and respond to His gracious rule. But we have turned to Him our backs instead of our faces. We’ve gone our own way. Now we find ourselves estranged and distant. The fellowship has been broken, the friendship torn asunder. But He, the One whom we have offended, comes in Christ to make things right. He breaks all the barriers down and sends out the gracious invitation, “Come home.”
A story about that never fails to move me. A young man had quarreled bitterly with his father and had said in a rage, “You’ll never see me again.” He ran away from home. Three hard years later he wrote to his mother and told her he would soon be on a train passing through the little town where the family lived. He said that he wanted to visit home just once. If that was all right, his mother was to hang something white outside the house so that he would know that his father had agreed to let him stop for a visit.
Now the time had almost arrived. The young man was on the train, speeding through the valley toward his home town. He was restless and anxious, palms sweating. He could hardly bear to look. “Sir,” he said to the passenger beside him, “my house is just around the bend beyond the hill. Will you look that way as we go by and see if you see anything white?” The man agreed. Soon the train was leaning into the curve. Suddenly the man at the window cried, “Look, son!” There stood the farm house under the trees, but they could hardly see it. Everywhere there was something white. That father and mother had taken every bed sheet, table cloth, pillow case, and handkerchief in the house and had hung them on the clothes lines and in the branches of the trees. Every waving patch of white said with matchless eloquence, “Welcome home, son!”
Salvation at its deepest level means something like that. Through the gift of Jesus Christ, His dying and rising for us, we are brought back from our wandering, freely accepted and given a place in our heavenly Father’s house.
I’m wondering today what meaning all this has for you, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. That depends in great measure, I suppose, on how you view yourself. Some seem to think very slightly if at all of their sin and spiritual need. They have little interest in a Savior. Maybe they scoff at the idea. Here is their song, “I fight alone and win or sink, I need no one to make me free. I want no Jesus Christ to think that He could ever die for me.”
How different was the outlook of the apostle Paul. After voicing this faithful saying, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” the apostle adds, “And I am the foremost of sinners.” I am the first or the chief.
This with Paul was no empty rhetoric. He wasn’t pretending to some great humility. He meant it deeply. It grieved him still that he had been an enemy of the Lord’s cause, a persecutor of His people, a hater of the gospel. The revelation of the Lord’s glory and grace on the Damascus Road had totally transformed his outlook about himself. Paul knew more about his own sinfulness than he would ever know about anyone else’s. And the closer he came to Christ the more he realized the depth of his need. No wonder he loved the Savior so much and served Him so gladly! Paul knew, you see, that Christ Jesus had come into the world to save sinners, to save him. Why not take your place with him and with a grateful host of others, sinners saved by His marvelous grace? Oh, count on it, celebrate it, live in the light of it, Christ came into the world, Christ died, Christ rose again, for you!