In his first letter to Timothy, Apostle Paul testified that he was the most unlikely person to get saved. He was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and injurious to Christians” (1Tim1:13). Luke’s account in the Book of Acts confirms this: “Saul (aka Paul) made havoc of the church, entering into every house and haling men and women, committed them to prison” (Acts8:3). The term havoc means “to treat outrageously with personal injury” and haling means “to forcibly drag.” In Acts 9:1: Paul was “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.” Paul himself wrote in Galatians 1:13: “For you have heard of my conversation in time past… How that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God and wasted it.”
But in his letter to Timothy he said that he had “obtained mercy because he done so ignorantly in unbelief.” On his way to Damascus with letters from the high priest to hunt down Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem to be imprisoned and killed, Paul was accosted by Jesus Christ Himself. He was struck by a blinding light and heard a voice from heaven ask, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Not knowing who the speaker was, Paul replied, “Who are you, Lord?” (“Lord here does not refer to Christ, but is a term of respect such as “Sir.”) The answer he received was shocking and revelatory: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” (Acts9:1-5). The revelation was, in persecuting Christians, he was actually persecuting Jesus, whom he came to realize is the Son of God. This weighed heavily on his heart all his days, because he told Timothy: “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”(v15).
In other words: Jesus came to save ALL sinners: respectful and disreputable sinners, proud sinners and lowly sinners, high-class and low class, educated and uneducated, rich, middle-class, poor and homeless, drunks, addicts, murderers, thieves, fornicators, adulterers, homosexuals. “For the Son of Man has come to seek and save that which is lost” (Luke19:10). Regardless of the actions taken or the manifestation — all have sinned! (See Romans 3:23, 11:32, Galatians 3:22, Proverbs 20:9, Ecclesiastes 7:20).
When Paul said “I am the chief of sinners”, he was saying, “I am Public Sinner Number One!” The term chief means first, whether in quantity or order, and can mean “the greatest.” Note that he said “I am”—not “I was.” He did not mean that he was still living in sin, but that he saw himself as a forgiven sinner saved by grace. The purpose of this is to keep us cognizant of our daily need of God’s exceeding abundant grace. In 1Cor. 15:10 Paul said “But by the grace of God I am what I :and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.”
Imagine that! The worst sinner became the greatest apostle! Paul claimed to be the worst of all sinners — above murderers — which he was an accomplice to, giving authority to put Christians to death.
“Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (v16). The terminology “for this cause” means “to point out, to demonstrate.” Picture Paul taking his pointer finger and pointing to himself, saying, “If God could save me- a blasphemer, persecutor, murderer, self-righteous, vindictive, vengeful Christ hater — He can save anyone!”
This proves the extent of God’s mercy and longsuffering. Paul’s meaning is: “I am living proof to you that the mercies of God are higher than the heavens, deeper than the oceans, wider than the seas, and can reach anyone, no matter how vile and unclean. I am the pattern for every sinner who will ever believe on Christ.” God has one pattern for all sinners: Mercy! Put it in a modern way, Paul would have said: “I am the poster child for God’s mercy.”
Romans 5:20: “But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” This means: The greater the sinner — the greater God’s grace is to save! And it would seem: The worst sinners often make the best Christians! Like Paul, they are deeply aware of the mercy of God it took to open their eyes and set them free. They, like the sinful woman who came to the Pharisee’s house where Jesus was invited to eat, and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and anointed them with expensive, fragrant oil, “love more.” When Simon his host objected to Jesus’ allowing this sinful woman to touch Him, Jesus responded with a parable:
There was a creditor who had two debtors, one who owed a very large amount and the other a small, but neither could pay his debt. The generous creditor forgave them both their debts. Jesus asked Simon, “Which of these will love his benefactor most?” Simon answered: “I suppose the one whom he forgave most.” Jesus replied: “You have rightly judged,” and turning to the woman He said: “See this woman? I entered into your house and you gave me no water for my feet, but she has washed my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but this woman since the time I came has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but this woman has anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say onto you, Her sins which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little” (Luke7:36-48).
Jesus did not gloss over her sins, but He “mercified” them! Perhaps you also have many sins in your past, such as those Paul listed in 1Cor. 6:9-10, but Jesus forgave you, and now you too love much!