“The Identity of the Church” 1 Timothy 1:12-17


The Household of God

1 Timothy 1:12-17


John Dillinger, Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Lester Joseph Gillis (also known as “Baby Face” Nelson), & Alvin Karpis. 

What do they all have in common? They are the only 4 individuals in history given the designation “Public Enemy No. 1” by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That title was created by the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover and was first applied to John Dillinger in 1934. When Dillinger was killed, the title passed to Floyd. “Baby Face” Nelson inherited the title when Floyd was killed, and so on until Karpis, the last to hold the infamous title, was captured on May 1st, 1936.

Public Enemy Number One was retired when the FBI created their Top 10 Most Wanted List, but to this day, the term is synonymous with the most hardened criminals in American history. It signifies someone who stooped to the lowest rungs of human behavior imaginable, someone virtually irredeemable, worthy of being executed on sight.

Which leads me to ask a question: is there anyone so bad they are beyond of redemption; anyone so degraded, there is no hope for them? And, who in human history holds the title of Public Enemy Number One? The worst of the worst? 

I imagine that, for most of us, Adolf Hitler comes to mind; or perhaps Joseph Stalin. World War II still looms large in our memory. History buffs in the room might name Vlad III, known as The Impaler, or perhaps Timur, the Mongol Emperor who is believed to have killed 5% of the world’s population during his reign.

Well, in the passage we are studying today, the Apostle Paul tells us who the worst of the worst is. He names the Public Enemy Number One. This individual wasn’t a king or emperor. He wasn’t even a warrior. Technically, this person never murdered anyone, though he certainly made threats of murder.

In fact, this person that Paul names was incredibly religious. He kept the 10 Commandments. He memorized great portions of the Hebrew Scriptures. He gave to the poor, prayed constantly, observed the Sabbath, and honored his father and mother.

Who is this person that Paul labels as Public Enemy Number One? It is, himself, of course. 


If you have a copy of the Scriptures begin turning to 1 Timothy 1.

You’ll remember that Paul wrote this letter as he was preparing for his fourth and final missionary journey. He’s heading to Spain, so he assigned Timothy, his disciple, to remain with the church at Ephesus.

The letter began with a charge to Timothy to not allow anyone to teach speculative and distracting doctrines. Later in the letter we’ll see Paul warn Timothy about some specific trouble-makers by name. 

In other words, Timothy was left in Ephesus, not to float down the stream, but to swim against the current. The difficulty of Timothy’s assignment is compounded by the fact that the false teachers are most likely elders within the church, not critics on the outside. When you read Paul’s words in Acts 20 you realize Paul suspected a few elders to go sideways.

So, here’s Timothy. A younger man. He doesn’t have the experience or the resume of Paul, assigned to instruct the church and challenge false teachers in Ephesus—some of which are likely elders who are older than him and have more influence. This won’t be easy. In fact, Timothy will likely doubt whether anything can be done to change these false teachers.

And that’s exactly why Paul stops dead in the center of his charge to Timothy to take a diversion. He reminds Timothy, in these 6 verses of the story of his own conversion—from being a stubborn, hard-hearted man, to loving and even building up the church for the sake of Jesus.

The headline of this passage, is that if Jesus is strong enough to transform a man like Paul, the chief of sinners, then there is hope for Timothy’s assignment as well.

So, let’s read 1 Timothy 1:12-17


12 I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 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. 16 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. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.


Notice that Paul begins and ends this section with praise to God. Verse 12:

12 I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord,

Verse 17:

17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

All of Paul’s testimony is bound be thanksgiving and adoration. Paul knows he was made right with God by God’s grace in Christ. He knows that his commission as an apostle wasn’t earned, it was gifted. So all of his conversion story is wrapped in praise and gratitude.

He tells us in verse 12 that Jesus is the one who put him to service. He says that Christ anointed him. It reminds us of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9. Saul, as he was known among the Jews, was arresting Christians and having some of them stoned to death. 

He was on his way to the city of Damascus to raise a persecution there when he was confronted by the resurrected Christ on the road, blinded, and subsequently healed and was converted to faith in Christ.

Again we’re reminded that this was all of sheer grace. Paul says this took place: 

13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.

  • “Blasphemer” – He had denied the risen Christ.
  • “a persecutor” – Because Paul denied Christ, he persecuted Christ’s church. You can go back to Acts and read about how the young man, Saul, threatened the church and imprisoned Christians.
  • “insolent opponent” it’s a tricky word to translate—but the root word is the word from which we get hubris. In other words, Paul says, “I was filled with self-confidence to the point of insolence.”

Eugene Peterson paraphrases Paul here by saying:

The only credentials I brought to it were invective and witch hunts and arrogance.

Thankfully, God didn’t treat God according to Paul’s sins, but according to the riches of his grace:

But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

Friend’s it’s a reminder those who sin in ignorance are just as guilty as those who sin presumptuously and with a high hand.

When I was being interviewed for the office of Pastor here I remember David Grose who was on the search team meeting with me to discuss the role. At the end of our conversation he mention he’d looked up my traffic record and had seen that one time I was going 60 miles an hour in a 35 zone.

First, I realized that David somehow knows everything about everybody. But second, I explained to him that was coming home from dinner w a college professor on a highway I had never been on. The speed limit going up a hill was 55 MPH and just over the crest it changed to 35 miles an hour. 

I was pulled over, and even though I was ignorant of the speed limit, I was over it. I was guilty, and the officer wrote me a ticket.

Friend, you don’t have to know all of God’s commands to be guilty of breaking them. You won’t be able to plead ignorance on the day of judgment.

Christian, there are plenty of sins you are currently ignorant of. Sin blinds us. Sin doesn’t want to be found out. This is why it’s imperative for us to constantly read God’s Word—so we can tune our heart and behaviors to the notes of his law. The more we read and meditate on the Word of God, the more our eyes are adjusted to see sin for what it truly is.

Thankfully, for Paul and for us, God’s mercy is available to both high handed sinners and ignorant sinners alike. Paul says God’s grace overflowed in Christ. Some translations read “grace was poured out.” The image is that of hot water and soap being thrown on a dirty floor, washing away the grime.

15 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.

This verse is the dead center of the passage, thematically. It’s the focal point. It’s likely that Paul is quoting a common catechism statement the early church used to shape the minds of new Christians.

So, when you converted, you were taught this trustworthy saying: “Christ Jesus came into the word to save sinners.”

And then Paul adds this little clause: of whom I am the foremost.

If you’re reading the KJV Paul says, “I’m the chief of sinners.” Some translations say, “The worst of sinners.” The Greek word there is the word protos, and it means, “the first.” 

So, Paul is saying, when it comes to sinners, I’m the first, or I’m at the head of the line. Of all the sinners in the world, I’m the worst. We’ll come back to that.

16 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.

Why was Paul saved? He was saved to be an example. God saved the worst sinner to prove that he can save anyone. His grace can reach anyone. God saves sinners to show how patient he is.

Finally, in verse 17, Paul offers this declaration of praise:

17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Amen! I love that. He ends with an Amen. It sounds like the end of the letter, then Paul picks back up his charge to Timothy.

I want you to see that Paul sharing his story isn’t a tangent. He wasn’t pulled by accident on to a different track. Paul intentionally inserts the story of his own miraculous, grace-filled, supernatural experience of mercy right here for some very important reasons:


God Can Save Anyone

First, God can save anyone. There is not a single person on the face of the planet that is beyond the reach of God’s grace. When we think we’ve found someone who is too far gone, too lost in their sin to ever find redemption, Paul shouts at us: “Look at me. I’m the chief of sinners, and God rescued me.”

Now, when people hear Paul say this about himself they think one of two things: either Paul’s putting on a religious show, or he really believes this and that’s morbid and unhelpful.

Let me explain: some people hear Paul say, “I’m the worst sinner who ever lived,” and they think, “Ok, I’ve heard this before. This is just religious, pious, showboating. Paul knows he’s not the worst guy out there, but he’s trying to be humble.”

Others hear this about Paul calling himself the worst of sinners and they recoil because it contradicts our modern sensibilities. We live in a culture that says, “People are basically good. What people really need is self-esteem. They need to think better of themselves and embrace themselves, and anyone who tells them they’re wrong is wrong.”

But listen—Paul really believed this about himself—this isn’t pious showboating—and he wants us to see that instead of harming us, this kind of self-designation—to see yourself as the worst of sinners—is actually the first step to true life and joy.

First, Paul really thought this about himself. He isn’t grandstanding. 

In Ephesians 3:8, another letter by Paul he says that God’s grace was given to him… “those I am the very least of all the saints.”

And in 1 Corinthians 15:9 Paul says that Christ appear to him, as to one untimely born, for I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle.

Now listen… three times in three different letters Paul makes basically the same claim. This isn’t grandstanding, this isn’t pious faux humility. Paul had thought this out and really considered himself the chief of sinners.

Second, even though this strikes against our modern sensibilities, Paul’s showing us the way to true joy and peace. It doesn’t come by telling ourselves how good we are. True joy and peace only come as we own up to our sin and need of God’s mercy.

You say, “Does that mean we should all walk around self-flagellating, and wallowing in our guilt?” No, but it does mean that we’ll never find joy until we’re honest. We’ll never find rest and peace and pardon until we confess.

Albert Camus was a French intellectual and playwright. And after WWII he was invited to lecture at Columbia University. His title of his lecture was The Human Crisis. He was trying to look at all of the evil and bloodshed, all the absence of humanity during the War and figure out, “How did all of this happen?” And he realized that even though there were some particularly evil leaders, men like Hitler, Moussolini & Stalin, you couldn’t assign sole responsibility of all that happened on a few individuals. And here’s what he said:

“It is too easy in this matter to simply accuse Hitler and to say, “Since the beast is dead, it’s venom is gone.” We know perfectly well that the venom is not gone, that each of us carries it in our own hearts.”[1]

Now, did Camus mean that all of us have done what Hitler did? No. He’s saying that given the right circumstances, the potential to be a Hitler lives in us all. He’s saying you can’t explain the evil and suffering of this world by pinning it to one or two people. 

You see, in a sense, we’re all the chief of sinners. And if you say you aren’t… if you say you have no sin, then you are deceiving yourself.

Friend, have you been honest with yourself? Have you owned up to your own faults, your own failures, your own sins? If you will humble yourself and uncover all your sins to God, in his mercy, he will cover all your sins in Christ.

Paul was a blasphemer, a persecutor of the church, and he received mercy—overflowing! There is no one beyond God’s reach. 

Christian—is there a family member who doesn’t know Christ? Who doesn’t walk with him in love and obedience? Have you begun to lose hope for their salvation? 

They are not too far gone for Jesus to bring them back. Though their sins are red as crimson—Jesus can wash them white as snow.

Do not grow weary in praying for them. Do not grow weary in doing good to them, in being patient with them. Endure! Pray! Wait on the Lord. 

Pray that holy conviction will fall on them. Pray God will make them restless until they rest in the arms of the risen Christ. 

God can save anyone! Paul is exhibit A.

This passage also teaches us that:

We Must Learn Patience With One Another

In verse 16 Paul writes:

16 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.

Jesus shows his patience to the world by saving sinners. When God saved Paul, people stopped and stared. Their jaws hit the floor. The man who held the coats of those who stoned the martyr Stephen was now preaching and planting churches. 

And now Timothy is faced with some difficult personalities. And as much as Timothy, in his flesh, would love to run over those who present opposition—the truth is that God desired to redeem some of them—and Timothy would need to wait patiently. He would stand firm on his principles, he wouldn’t alter his teaching—but he could not lead the church as an over-bearing ham-fisted boss. 

Friend—how patient our God is. How longsuffering he was to Paul. He constantly threatened the church. God had a thousand reasons to pour down judgement—but instead he overflowed with grace.

And the same is true with you and me. As we live together as members of LWBC, we’ll find plenty of reasons to judge, criticize, and even condemn. And while there are sins that must be confronted—confessed—and corrected—along the way we’ll find a thousand ways to show the same patience to one another that Jesus showed to us.

I wonder how patient you are with your brothers and sisters here? When someone says something that rubs you the wrong way—do you choose to believe the best about them or the worst? Are you quick to overlook small offenses, or do you fan small sparks into large flames?

By God’s grace our church has a mixture of Christians who have followed Christ for decades, and others for weeks. Those of you who came to Christ years ago—are you walking patiently with those who are new to the faith? Are you praying for them, considering how difficult it is to follow Christ in this world today?

How patient are you with your family members? Oftentimes we show greater patience with people we don’t know than we do our own spouses, children, or even friends. 

Spurgeon once said we’ll never grow weary of waiting on God if we remember how long and how graciously he once waited on us.

And as God has been to us, so we ought to be with one another. Friend—the pathway of patience is remembering the patience of your heavenly Father.

What patience would wait as we constantly roam?

What Father so tender is calling us home?

He welcomes the weakest, the vilest the poor.

Our sins they are many his mercy is more.

Finally… this passage teaches us to:


Look back at verse 15:

15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners

Friends—don’t over complicate your explanation of the Gospel. Paul was able to whittle it down to 9 words. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Yes… there’s a lot to learn in the Bible. Yes there are plenty of doctrines into which you can dive deep.

But the gospel itself is quite simple. God is holy. We are sinful. Christ Jesus came to save sinners by living obediently and dying as our substitute. We receive God’s pardon by confessing our sin and putting our faith in Christ.

When John and Charles Wesley began the Weslyan movement at Oxford they were scholars—professors of the university. They had all kinds of knowledge. They formed groups of people to study the Bible and pray. They were going deep—but one by one they realized that they didn’t have a true relationship with the risen Christ.

William Holland, one of their friends, was converted as Charles Wesley was reading from Luther’s commentary on Galatians to the group. Here’s how he records his own conversion:

“Mr. Charles Wesley read the Preface aloud. At the words, ‘What, have we then nothing to do? No! nothing but only accept of Him, “Who of God is made unto us wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption”‘, there came such a power over me as I cannot well describe; my great burden fell off in an instant; my heart was so filled with peace and love that I burst into tears. I almost thought I saw our Savior! My companions, perceiving me so affected, fell on their knees and prayed. When I afterwards went into the street, I could scarcely feel the ground I trod upon.”

Do you see how simple this was? I realized that the only thing I needed was to accept Christ who God had given to me as wisdom righteousness and redemption. No works could save me—only receiving the offer of Christ.

Phil Thompson, one of my best friends and a man who served this church for years used to say to me all the time: Jonathan—it’s simple… And it is. It’s simple.

Parents & Sunday School Teachers—teach the gospel to your children in 9 words: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

Explain the gospel to your classes simply. And teachers—tell kids they need to confess their sin and trust Jesus—but don’t pressure them. Tell children that our sins can be forgiven when we confess and believe in Jesus. Then watch—wait patiently—let the Holy Spirit draw them in his time. Listen—if they belong to Jesus—they can’t get away from him!!!

When your neighbor asks you about your faith—don’t over complicate the basic message of Christ—“I believe that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, and that without him I’d never find God.” Then let them ask questions. Ask them what they think about that. They don’t need a master class on Leviticus to trust in Jesus.

Somehow, when the Father sent the Son into the world, the infinite Son of God was able to become a finite human. And in the same way—the message of all that God is doing to redeem fallen creation can be summed up in 9 words: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

Friend—we are not born in a state of probation. We don’t get a 70-year trial with God to prove our worthiness. If you are saved, you are saved, and if you are not then you are lost. You are forgiven, or else you are condemned already. 

If you would know whether Christ came to save you, you only need one qualification—are you a sinner? The text does not say that Jesus came to save those who are trying hard. The text does not say that God helps those who help themselves. The text gives one qualification—that you be a sinner. And if you will confess tha1       t you are a sinner in need of a savior, then you are a candidate for saving grace.

The only way to be saved is to be disconnected from all your self-hope and self-confidence and to throw yourself completely upon Christ. And if you do—grace will overflow from the King of the ages.

A guilty, weak, and helpless worm,

On Christ’s kind arms I fall.

Be thou my strength and righteousness,

My Jesus and my all.

Pray with me.

[1] Albert Camus, “The Human Crisis” (Columbia U 1946)

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