“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:15-16)
I’m frequently amazed by the extent of God’s patience. By how graciously he bears with me in a time of weakness, failure or outright rebellion. How slow he is to anger, how rich in mercy, how much he abounds in love and faithfulness. At times, though, I wonder if I’ve pushed him to the limit and gone too far. Particularly when I’m trapped in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of ungodly behaviour, feeling like the very worst of sinners. Why would God persevere with me?
Paul describes himself as “the foremost” of sinners. Not without reason. He was, after all, “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” in his life before Christ. Surely, then, God only showed him mercy because he “had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (verse 13). But if a Christian continues to sin, after receiving the light of the gospel, won’t God’s patience wear thin?
Well, the writer of Hebrews has strong warnings for anyone tempted to think that we can “go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth” (Hebrews 10:26). But notice that Paul doesn’t say he was the foremost of sinners. No, he writes “I am the foremost.” He has turned away, of course, from his very obvious sins of blatantly blaspheming God, persecuting his people and opposing the gospel. Yet he still considers himself the foremost of sinners, in need of the ongoing patience and mercy of God.
In the same way, every believer today needs a continuing experience of God’s perfect patience. You may not wish to compete with Paul for the dishonorable title “foremost of sinners.” But the Apostle John warns that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). In reality, every Christian does sin. We sin every day. Whether through weakness, neglect, omission, hidden faults, or by willful disobedience.
Somewhat surprisingly, Paul says it’s because of his status as the foremost of sinners – “for this reason” – that he received mercy and experienced Christ’s perfect patience. Say again Paul; don’t you mean ‘in spite of me being the foremost of sinners…?’ Well, no. The Greek is very clear; a more literal translation might be “through (or because of) this I was mercied.” God’s mercy and patience are shown because of, not in spite of, Paul’s sinfulness.
We may wonder why God would want to lavish mercy and patience on the worst of sinners. Surely it would make more sense to show mercy to the ‘not quite so bad’ kind of sinners, or even to the best of sinners, i.e. to the most deserving – the people who’ve messed up the least. After all, ask someone on the street to define what a Christian is and amongst the most popular answers is likely to be “a good person” or “a person who tries their best.”
The gospel, however, turns that way of thinking on its head, by revealing to us the full extent of our personal sinfulness and showing us that not even the very best of us is deserving of God’s mercy. Indeed, his mercy is reserved for those who recognise how far away from God they really are. And God so often chooses the very worst, the weakest, the most unlovely and unattractive vessels to be recipients of his mercy.
But why? Because he wants to turn us into living display cabinets to show off his unlimited patience to the world. He wants us to serve “as an example for those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” The goal is that other ‘foremost’ sinners will witness God’s mercy and perfect patience in our lives and be so bowled over by what God has been able to achieve in us – yes even us – that they’re drawn to believe in Christ for themselves and receive eternal life. Seems almost incredible really! But that’s one key reason why God bears with us so patiently.