READ : 1 Timothy 1:12-14
I thank him who has given me strength for this, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful by appointing me to his service, though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; 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.
1 Timothy 1:12-14 rsv
The great apostle lays bare his heart. Paul is writing to his young friend Timothy, a beloved son in the faith. His letters abound in practical counsel for a maturing servant of the Lord like Timothy. But they are full also of moving personal witness. Paul is reflecting on his own life and ministry, celebrating what the Lord has done for him. Listen: “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord who has strengthened me because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. 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.”
THE MAN SAUL WAS
This is one of the most striking descriptions of the apostle’s pre-Christian experience, what he was like before the living Lord appeared to him. He says, “I was formerly a blasphemer.” That’s quite an admission for a man like Saul of Tarsus, a teacher in Israel, a member of the Sanhedrin, the religious leadership of his nation. This man had been devout from his youth, a worshiper of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It’s doubtful that he had ever taken the holy name of God in vain consciously, ever spoken profanely, ever railed against the Holy One. He knew the commandments of God. He doubtless had memorized the third commandment in Hebrew, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” He lived to honor that name, or so he had believed. How could he say now in the ripening years of his Christian experience, “I was formerly a blasphemer”? Surely you’re exaggerating, Paul. Like other famous converts, you’re painting your past life in much too dark and lurid tones. You weren’t really that bad!
Paul sees himself as having been a blasphemer because of what he had said about Jesus. Before King Agrippa, Paul had acknowledged, “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9). He had denied the Christian claims about Jesus. He had been infuriated when believers had given worship to Jesus. He had not only spoken against the Nazarene himself but had tried to force Christians to blaspheme, to deny and renounce the Lord who had loved and saved them. Paul saw now that all his bitter words against Jesus had been blasphemy against God. He says it with shame and brokenness, “I was formerly a blasphemer.”
But more, he says, “Further, I was formerly a persecutor.” Not content with speaking against Jesus, denying and dishonoring His name, Saul of Tarsus had been an active antagonist of the Christian cause. Hear his own words, “And that is what I did in Jerusalem with authority received from the chief priests. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme and since I was so furiously enraged at them I pursued them even to foreign cities” (Acts 26:10,11). Again, “I persecuted this way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison.” Saul is described by others in the book of Acts as “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (9:1).
Again, this was far from the way in which Saul of Tarsus had seen himself at the time. He was convinced that he was a defender of the true faith, zealous for the cause of God in the world. He was bringing down righteous judgment, he thought, on the heads of those who were enemies both of God and of mankind. He was doing his duty, he felt, as a loyal servant of God. But now, he says, “I was formerly a persecutor. I was out to destroy the Lord’s work, to wound and slay His people. I was driving them to dungeons and damning denials. I was actually hurting and destroying what I professed to love. Persecutor – that was my name.”
He uses one more term to describe himself: “man of violence.” The word can also be translated “proud man,” “insolent man,” “insulting person.” His furious opposition against the church had been done in heartlessness and pride. He had scorned these Christians, despised them, trampled them down in brutal arrogance.
Here again, this is a backward look. Paul is seeing himself now in retrospect. He surely did not feel at the time that he was acting proudly or cruelly. He saw himself then as a zealous champion of the truth, protecting the people of God from destructive errors, from wicked deceivers. What a reversal had come in his thinking, that he could now describe himself as a vicious insulter of other persons!
Paul describes all that activity in this phrase: “I did it ignorantly in unbelief.” At that time he had not known who Jesus is. He had not believed God’s faithful promise of salvation in Christ. He had not trusted in the risen Lord. Because of that, his eyes, he says, had been blinded. He had gone on murderously, not knowing what he was doing, thinking all the while that he did God’s service. He had laid waste the Lord’s own church.
HIS NEW PERSPECTIVE
Then came that shattering moment on the Damascus road, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? . . . Who are you, Lord? . . . I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” In the blinding light of that encounter, Saul’s world turned upside down. He saw everything from a new perspective. As he remembers that now, years later, he marvels at what was done for him. “I received mercy,” he says. In spite of what he had done, the risen Jesus still cared for him, forgave him, accepted him. All the crimes of his unbelieving rampage against Christians were blotted out. Saul knew what he deserved for having savaged the people of God, but that was all blotted out in God’s kindness. Paul sings it, “I received mercy.” He could well have joined in that great hymn, “Depth of mercy can there be, mercy still reserved for me? Can my God his wrath forbear, me the chief of sinners spare?”
But that was only the beginning. Paul writes to Timothy, “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord who has strengthened me,” that is, who has inwardly empowered me. The apostle looks back over a career in which the risen Jesus has been the strength of his life. The Holy Spirit has come to Paul’s heart, giving him an inner power to face all the hardships and persecutions he has endured, resources to carry on his work, divine power in the midst of his human weakness. The Lord who had forgiven him did not leave him as he was. He made a new man out of him, transforming him on the inside, empowering him to be the person he was meant to be.
“He appointed me to his service,” the apostle continues. This sense of divine appointment had been with Paul since the moment of his conversion. Jesus had said to him while he lay in the dust, overwhelmed, “Get up and go to Damascus, there you will be told everything that has been appointed for you to do.” Paul knew himself to be chosen, conscripted, commandeered. There were works for him to accomplish, sufferings for him to endure, witness for him to bear before commoners and kings. From that day forward, he knew that he had a race to run, a course to finish. And that never ceased to astonish him, that the Lord whose work he had madly sought to destroy had given him an assignment to preach the very faith he had once reviled. It was as though a beaten soldier expecting torture or death at the hands of his conqueror had been given instead a strategic assignment to serve his new king.
Here’s the most touching phrase of all. Paul confides to Timothy, “He [that is, Jesus Christ] judged me faithful.” Can you imagine that? Christ looked on me, the apostle muses, in the midst of my raging violence against His church. He saw me as the hate-filled enemy that I was and knew what His mercy could effect in my life. He turned my life around, gave me a work to do. And can you believe this – He trusted me to do it!
What an experience that is, for any of us – to be trusted. Yes, after we’ve failed badly, after we’ve deserved the worst, after we’ve forfeited all right to be considered, that someone should trust us. To most observers, Saul of Tarsus wouldn’t have seemed like very good material for the Master’s use. His whole life had been headed in the wrong direction. To the hosts of heaven, Saul had been public enemy No. 1. And now Jesus says to him, “Saul, that’s all forgotten. That’s all forgiven. You, be My faithful servant for the rest of your life.” And all the apostle’s subsequent ministry is testimony that the Lord knew what He was doing when He judged Paul to be faithful.
Now do you know what Paul calls all of this? Overflowing grace. Listen: “The grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” If mercy means God’s not giving us what we deserve, grace means His bestowing on us what we don’t deserve. And Paul was overcome with the awareness that precisely that had happened to him.
The Lord had given him faith. When fuming Saul of Tarsus had been making his way to Damascus, there was no faith in his heart, no trust in Jesus, no regard for His cause. But in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, that had been created in him. Jesus called his name. And when the stricken Saul cried, “Who are you, Lord?” the answer came, “I am Jesus.” That self-disclosure of the living Christ caused faith to flame up in the apostle’s heart. Henceforth he was a believer, captivated by Christ, the Lord’s trusting servant forever.
And, added to that, He says, the Lord gave me love. He had begun that fateful day filled with murderous hatred, out to humiliate, harm, harry to death the servants of God. But in Damascus, he was to hear a man named Ananias say to him, “Brother Saul.” He was to know God’s forgiving kindness and the acceptance of those very Christians he had come to destroy. In the gift of His Spirit, Christ breathed love into Saul’s heart so that he could say for the rest of his life, “The love of Christ constrains me.” All his service was out of devotion to Christ. The music that played within his soul was always henceforth, “He loved me and gave Himself for me.” And how Paul loved Christians now, praying for them night and day, spending himself for their good! What a miracle this man’s life became! That was overflowing grace.
The Lord to Paul had been like the father of the prodigal son. Here comes that wastrel of a boy, trudging down the road toward home. He has spent his father’s money, despised his father’s values, dragged his name through the mire, broken his heart. Now he’s coming back, penniless, miserable, broken, not worthy to be called a son. But here comes that father of his, running out to meet him, coattails flying. He throws his arms around that son, kisses him, puts a ring on his finger, shoes on his feet, throws around his shoulders a gorgeous robe. It’s time for a feast, he says. Dazzled, dazed, the son can’t take it in. Overflowing grace.
Has anything like that happened to you? Maybe you still see yourself as Saul of Tarsus once did. You consider yourself perhaps a worshiper of God, a champion of the truth, a pretty fine person, but you have had no use for Jesus Christ. I pray that in the preaching of the Word, in this witness of the apostle, He will make Himself so real to you, this Jesus, that you will see yourself in a new light and rejoice this very day, as the apostle did, in the overflowing grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Prayer: Lord, You made Yourself marvelously real to Saul of Tarsus, turning his life completely around. May that happen today for all who share this program. In the name of Jesus. Amen.