Why Me, Lord?

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Timothy 1:16

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; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Timothy 1:15-17 rsv

We thought last week about the heart of the gospel, why Jesus came. Here was the faithful saying, worthy of full acceptance. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Today I want to focus on the apostle Paul’s personal response to that. Listen. “And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” Those words are from Paul’s first letter to Timothy, chapter 1, verses 15-17.

MERCY FOR THE WORST

Whatever can the apostle Paul mean when he calls himself “the foremost of sinners”? He was not an immoral man, not a notorious lawbreaker, surely not irreligious. If anyone could have boasted in his uprightness and godliness, it would have been this young man, Saul of Tarsus. Hear his own testimony, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I more. Circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, as to the law, a Pharisee.” (The strictest of all the Jewish groups in adherence to the law.) “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:4-6). Think of that – he refers to himself in relation to God’s law as blameless. But now this same man can call himself “the foremost of sinners.”

The word translated foremost here means literally “first.” It’s used in the gospels to describe Peter’s role in the band of the disciples. He is the spokesman, the leader. He is pr?tos. He is first. Well, if Peter is premier among the disciples, Paul calls himself first among the sinners.

Again, this represents an astonishing reversal. In his early days, Paul, then Saul, had seen himself and been viewed by others as excelling in quite different ways. Paul writes, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Gal. 1:14). Paul outstripped all his contemporaries, both in fidelity to the Old Testament tradition and in religious zeal. From that standpoint, he seemed to be first among the faithful, pre-eminent among the champions of God’s cause. Now it’s chief of sinners, leader of the pack in transgression against God. What a change!

We saw last time how the Copernican revolution in Paul’s thinking came about through his conversion, when he was claimed by the risen Christ on the Damascus road. He saw everything now, everything, in a new light. Hear him as he talks about it: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:7-8).

It was as though his religious heritage, his life as a Pharisee, his works of law-keeping, his religious zeal, had seemed to him before like so many valuable assets, so much to his credit on heaven’s ledger. Now he counts them all as loss, debits instead of credits. He renounces all trust in them, no longer considers them as worthy of God’s approval. All of this so that he may gain Christ and be found in Him, that he may have a righteousness not of his own achieving but of God’s gift in Jesus Christ.

In his case, you see, all of these supposed assets, all of this morality and religiousness, had led him to be a violent, red-handed persecutor of the church of Jesus Christ. The stunning reality that overwhelmed him on the Damascus road was that in all of his furious onslaughts against Christians, he had actually been opposing God, attacking His cause on earth, wounding and tormenting those whom God loved. That revelation pierced his heart. It showed him that all his own righteousness had been, as the prophet Isaiah had described it, “like filthy rags.”

It’s obvious that in calling himself a sinner, Paul has come to a profound new understanding of sin. Sin in Old Testament terms means missing the mark, falling short of a standard. It means iniquity, crookedness, deviation from a norm. Sin means transgression, the breaking of a law. But most deeply, it means rebellion against God, a turning away from Him, a grieving of His heart. Paul realized now that in his anti-Christian career he had done this in a more determined and damaging way than anyone else he had known. Hence his language: “foremost of sinners.”

EXHIBIT A

The apostle must have asked himself many, many times in his subsequent Christian experience, “Why me, Lord?” He has already come to some understanding of that. He says, “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim. 1:13). That is, his unbelief had blinded him. He hadn’t realized that in reviling the name of Jesus and opposing those who believed in Him, He was turning murderous hatred against God.

He had spoken also of the Lord’s overflowing grace, God’s unspeakable kindness in pardoning all his offenses, in giving him gifts and privileges he had not begun to deserve. Now he sees a further meaning in it all. “I received mercy for this reason: that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience” (1 Tim. 1:16).

All of this had significance beyond Paul’s personal benefit, beyond even his ministry. God’s treatment of him, Christ’s dealings with him, provided a kind of demonstration. In Paul’s conversion, through the dramatic turn-around in his experience, the risen Jesus was displaying “all longsuffering.”

Can you see how that is so? Here is Jesus risen from the dead, exalted to the Father’s right hand, reigning on the throne of the universe. He sends His Spirit to dwell in the hearts of His people. He rules over and defends them. He is with them all the days, sharing their struggles, feeling their pain. In the world to which they are sent, His followers encounter opposition, persecution. His faithful servant Stephen is stoned to death. His flock is scattered and menaced.

In all this conflict, one figure stands out as the Church’s worst enemy, its most hate-filled persecutor. He is breathing out threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. He’s persecuting them to the death, binding both men and women and putting them in prison. He’s trying to make them blaspheme. He’s voting for their execution. He’s pursuing them with relentless cruelty, even to distant cities. Yet Jesus says (the sovereign, suffering Lord), “Saul, that’s the man I’ll save.” And He does it.

How patient can the Lord be? How much abuse and rebellion can He put up with and still show mercy? How far will His forgiving love go to reach a bloodthirsty enemy? There, look at Saul of Tarsus. There, consider the man He stopped on the Damascus road, the one He accepted, cleansed, and made into one of His chief witnesses. Behold, in Saul the longsuffering love of the Lord!

This demonstration would be for the benefit of all coming generations. Paul says “so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in Him for eternal life.” Note that: making me an example. Paul is Exhibit A. Look at him and see how gracious and patient the Lord is.

Paul is not the only one. I heard Chuck Colson speak not long ago about a death row prisoner whose life had been transformed. The man had been accustomed to lying on the floor of his cell in a fetal position, totally unresponsive to anything around him, insects crawling over his body. A Christian who visited in the prison walked by many times, speaking to him, trying to get his attention, but always without success. One day the believer secured permission to visit this prisoner in his cell. He sat there talking to the man who lay motionless on the floor. “Rusty,” he said, “just say the name Jesus.” No answer. “Try to do it. Just say Jesus.” This went on for quite a while. Finally the man on the floor brought himself to respond. His lips formed the one word, “Jesus.”

When the Christian visitor returned some time later, he was astonished to see this cell neat and clean. Rusty was sitting inside smiling. “Jesus Christ lives with me in this cell now, so I had to clean it up.” Since then, fellow prisoners, guards, and even prison officials have been touched by Rusty’s testimony. Here was a death row prisoner, a man guilty of terrible crimes. Society had given up on him. He had given up on himself. But when he breathed the word Jesus, God made him a new person. A witness to amazing grace, Rusty became an example to others who would believe in Jesus for eternal life.

Do you know what these examples are saying? No one is hopeless. You can’t have too bad a record. You can’t be too furiously opposed to Christ and the gospel. Look at Paul, look at Rusty, and believe in the Lord’s great patience toward you. Christ can save the worst of us, the most wicked of us and save us to the uttermost. Men like Paul and Rusty, trophies of grace, are the tokens of that. So don’t despair.

ALL TO GOD’S GLORY

The apostle moves now to a great doxology: “To the king of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.” This isn’t just tacked on. It’s what everything else moves toward.

We’ve talked about Paul’s language in calling himself “the foremost of sinners.” He says other things like that. He tells the Corinthians, “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle” (1 Cor. 15:9). He writes to the Ephesians, “I am the very least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8). What is he doing here, running himself down? Are these the morbid whinings of a man devoid of self esteem? No. Paul hasn’t the slightest interest in demeaning himself, denigrating his own personhood. His aim is to magnify God’s grace. After talking about being the least of the apostles, he says, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace given to me was not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:10). Though he’s the very least of all the saints, God gives him the grace to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ. And though he’s the chief of sinners, it’s all to make grace appear truly wonderful in the saving of such a person.

A friend of mine once heard a minister being praised for his extraordinary talent in a number of fields. The man’s virtues were extolled, his capabilities magnified. Listeners began to get the distinct impression that this minister was a great find for God, as though the Lord was lucky to find someone so multi-talented! My friend wondered, “How is God praised in all that? Who ends up getting the glory?”

Paul chooses to come at it in quite a different way. He writes to the Corinthians, “Consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth, but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:26-29). Later on he quotes the verse, “Let him who boasts boast of the Lord” (v. 31).

That’s the apostle’s style. After he talks about his own sinfulness, the mercy that has redeemed him, the patience of the Lord that comes to expression in his life, the possible witness this can be to others, he can only lift his heart and voice in praise to God: “to the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever.” Everything flows with the apostle toward soli deo gloria, “to God alone be glory.”

Why me, Lord? That’s the mark of grace in every believer. We can’t get over the fact that He should be so merciful to us. “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain? For me, who him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” Why me? There’s only one answer: out of His great love and for the praise of His glory forever.