with Tony W. Cartledge
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Teachers: Scroll down for teaching materials.
Bad Starts Can Be Redeemed
Picture Sally, a professional food critic who tried a newly opened restaurant, but was not impressed. In a blistering review, she critiqued its mushy spring rolls, uninspired salads, overdone salmon, and use of commercial frozen pies for the dessert menu.
A few weeks later, a friend introduced Sally to Edward, who turned out to be both charming and attractive. The two hit it off immediately, but in time their conversation turned to the inevitable question: “What kind of work do you do?”
Imagine Sally’s chagrin in learning that Edward was head chef at the restaurant she had skewered, and his discomfort in learning that his promising date had publicly disparaged his food.
Talk about getting off to a bad start: Could that budding relationship be salvaged? Could sharp-tongued Sally find a way to smooth things over? We’ll have to wait for the movie to find out.
We do know the ending of another story of bad beginnings, however. It’s the story of Paul, a driven man who had persecuted the followers of Christ with violence before a radical conversion experience made him not only a follower of Jesus, but also a leader of the church.
A message for an apprentice?
Our text is found in 1 Timothy, which purports to be a letter from the Apostle Paul to Timothy, his faithful friend and disciple. The letters of 1-2 Timothy and Titus are frequently referred to as Paul’s “Pastoral Epistles.” For a variety of reasons, many scholars doubt that the letters (especially 1 Timothy and Titus) are original to Paul. It is possible that one or more later admirers of Paul wrote the letters to address emerging questions in the church, attempting to answer them as he believed Paul would have (see “The Hardest Question” online for more on this).
While our interpretation of the letters could be influenced by whether Paul or a later writer is responsible for authorship, we must acknowledge that the early church adopted these letters as authoritative scripture. Whether they come from Paul’s hand or that of a later disciple, they can be instructive for believers of all ages. The letter is shaped as a personal message to Timothy, but was clearly intended as a message to the larger church.
The immediate context of 1 Timothy portrays Paul as writing to Timothy at some point after he had traveled to Macedonia, leaving Timothy to provide direction to the church in Ephesus.
Timothy’s task, according to 1 Tim. 1:3-7, was to remain in Ephesus so he could refute false teachers known “to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies,” promoting “speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith” (v. 4). In contrast, Timothy was to teach sound doctrine with the goal of promoting “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith” (v. 5)
Mercy for the ignorant(vv. 12-14)
Paul generally began his letters with thanksgiving for God’s work among his readers, but here his gratitude focuses on what God had done for him. “He has strengthened me,” he said. Christ had empowered Paul, we read, because “he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service” (v. 12). “Service” (diakonian) is the root of our word “deacon,” often used to describe ministry or service in God’s behalf.
Paul was particularly grateful that Christ had chosen him despite his past record as “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (v. 13a). “Blasphemer” usually refers to someone who speaks directly against God or who wrongly presumes to have divine authority. Here, Paul uses it in the sense that he had persecuted the followers of Christ with violence.
Opposing Christ’s followers meant he had opposed Christ, too: when Paul experienced his life-changing vision on the road to Damascus, he heard a voice asking “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). When Paul asked who was speaking, the voice said “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). To persecute the church was to persecute Christ, and thus equivalent to blasphemy.
Paul considered his former rebellion to be forgivable because he “had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (v. 13b). The Old Testament law distinguished between sins committed in ignorance, which could be forgiven, and “high-handed” sins that one knew to be wrong, for which the penalty was banishment from the community (Num. 15:22-29). Like many other levitical commands, it would have been rarely enforced, though the prophets promised destruction or exile as a divine response to Israel’s conscious refusal to follow the law.
Paul had not been ignorant of Christian teachings: he could hardly prosecute people for heresy if he did not know what they taught. His primary fault was unbelief: he knew that Christians believed Jesus to be the Messiah, but had not accepted it prior to the vision described in Acts 9, when “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (v. 14). Note that Paul attributes his change of heart and relationship entirely to the grace of Christ, and that he returns to the core elements of faith and love as evidence of one’s relationship with Christ.
Before we move on, consider Paul’s assertion that his blasphemy was forgivable because it was done in ignorance. Do we often sin out of ignorance, or is it more likely that we know our actions are wrong, but do them anyway? Does this mean they are unforgivable (that is, still governed by the levitical laws), or does Christ offer forgiveness to all who come with a penitent spirit? Have you known what it is like to receive “overflowing” grace?
A model for the masses(vv. 15-17)
The writer — whether Paul or a later admirer writing in his name — was so impressed by the grace shown to the church’s former arch-enemy that he carried the theme into the next three verses. “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance,” he wrote, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the foremost” (v. 15).
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” is the essence of the “worthy saying,” and it has the marks of an early confession that would have been familiar to believers. Christ entered a world of people living at cross-purposes with God in order to save them from themselves. The pastoral epistles often use the verb “to save” with reference to God’s work of salvation (see 1:1, 2:3, 4:10; 2 Tim 1:9; Titus 3:5), and it is instructive that Paul attributes salvation both to God and to Christ Jesus.
Did Paul really consider himself to be the chief of sinners? On other occasions, Paul spoke of his extreme piety, claiming to have been “blameless” regarding “righteousness under the law,” even as he persecuted the church (Phil. 3:6). Paul also spoke of having been “crucified with Christ” so that his very life was subsumed by Christ (Gal. 2:19, Phil. 1:21), enabling him to say “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).
In this context, the author is mainly concerned with Paul’s pre-conversion persecution of the church, as if to say that if God could save an anti-church zealot such as Paul, then God could save anyone. This is the focus of the next verse: “But for that very reason I received mercy, 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” (v. 16). Paul’s dramatic conversion made him a remarkable example of how far God’s grace will go.
When I was young, evangelistic events often featured preachers such as Nicky Cruz, a former gang leader, along with testimonies by others who sometimes described in lurid detail their lives of crime, drinking, drug use, or womanizing before they come to know Christ. Those of us who had grown up as “good boys and girls” worried that our testimonies could never be as powerful as if we had sown wild oats before walking the aisle.
The dynamic “before and after” contrast in Paul’s life was powerful, but not intended to suggest that we should all plumb the depths of depravity before trusting in Christ. Paul’s main concern was not the believers’ past, but their present and future lives. He wanted them to experience the overflowing grace of Christ and to grow in the kind of faithfulness that expresses itself in love.
That kind of life recognizes that we may be weak and sinful humans, but we are loved by and live before “the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (v. 17a). First and second century Christians lived in a world where visible images of the Greek and Roman gods were ever apparent. They knew the improbable myths of how the various gods were born, and the stories of their often-capricious and competitive behavior.
Christians did not worship gods like these, gods who suffered all the human peccadilloes, only in larger ways. They served a Lord who could not be seen, but who had always existed as the only true God, the only one who deserved “honor and glory forever and ever” (v. 17b). NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for September 11, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Our youth won’t be perfect. Shocker, right?! But what happens after they mess up may have more of an impact of when and how they mess up again. This isn’t to say that there aren’t consequences for the actions of your youth, but more of how you impart those consequences than what they actually are. Do you have your youth be part of the process in giving out a consequence? Do you praise your student when they have done things you expect them to do? Do you extend grace? Transformation doesn’t occur without grace. If you continue to punish, instead of giving room to grow, they will continue to revert back their old ways.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Rule Change” from The Hunger Games via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: 1 Timothy 1:12-17