The Chief of Sinners…

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.

               1 Timothy 1:12-16

            ‘Sinners – of whom I am the worst’. (The King James Translation records that passage as ‘sinners, of who I am the chief’.)

            When I feel badly about myself – when guilt overwhelms me for my nigh-on three decades of blasphemy, drunkenness, lust and a host of other evils, I think of Paul, who penned those words in his letter to the evangelist Timothy. Paul (originally known as Saul of Tarsus) was an apostle. As such, his words are indisputable. If he calls himself ‘the chief of sinners’, then this is absolutely true, with no possibility of error.

            Basically, no matter what I’ve done, Paul did it first.

            Paul was an add-on as far as the apostles went; we as Christians accept his authority only because he was accepted by the original eleven. The apostles were the Jesus’ closest twelve disciples, less Judas Iscariot – who committed suicide after betraying Christ. They chose Matthias by lot after Judas’ death, at Peter’s suggestion. (Peter suggested Matthias’ appointment based on a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Psalms, which says ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and, ‘May another take his place of leadership’.)

And then Paul was called by Jesus, which made him the thirteenth apostle. Bad-luck Paul, so to speak. 

            Now, an elder in my church thinks that Matthias may have been a mistake, that Judas’ replacement was meant to be Paul all along, and that Matthias was a presumptuous misstep. I am certain that God accepted the apostle’s appointment of Matthias, because Christ had already given them a perfect understanding of scripture, and how to apply it. But my friend the elder could still be right in thinking that Matthias was a goof-up on the apostles’ part. Especially since Peter suggested the idea, and Peter was certainly the most atrociously be-foibled of all the apostles.

            I politely disagree, though. I think Matthias was the intended replacement for Judas. I think Paul was an afterthought, chosen solely because he tested God so with his behavior. I think God simply looked at Paul and said, ‘I can even use you – watch!’

            Paul was a young man when his story begins in the book of Acts. Luke, the author of Acts, first mentions him watching Stephen – the first recorded Christian martyr – being stoned to death. Luke writes that the witnesses to Stephen’s death ‘laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul’. He also writes that Saul was ‘giving approval to his death’.

            Following the murder of Stephen, Saul turned viciously upon the Christian church, attacking it so ferociously in Israel that the Church scattered across the known world in very short order. That’s how Philip stumbled upon his Ethiopian friend; he was running from Saul.

            While it is quite certain that God used Saul of Tarsus for the purpose of spreading the Gospel to the Gentiles, the depth of his depravity was breathtaking. Saul was a Pharisee, a religious man. (Remember that it was the Pharisaic order that was directly responsible for the death of Christ.) Yet his high jinks were certainly illegal; the Jews, under Roman control, had no legal power to mete out capital punishment; this was why the Jews tried to convince the Romans that Jesus had been trying to undermine Caesar, because they could not execute him for supplanting Israel.

            Somehow, I don’t think Saul worried about the legality of his actions.

            Before the post-Jesus New Testament is really even under way, we see a portrait of the Church being crushed under the heel of a rabid Pharisee. But it was God – as it always is – who had the last laugh.

            After He used Saul to scatter the believers all across the known world, so that they were no longer just huddled in Israel, God reached out and grasped Saul in a tangible, inescapable manner.

            As Paul was traveling to Damascus, he was quite literally blinded by a bright light, and Christ spoke to him with those now-legendary words – ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’

            At which point Saul fell prostrate, asking for the name behind the Voice. The reply is just as well known: ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’ Note that the divine Voice did not say ‘God, whom you are persecuting’. The Voice may as well have said ‘God’, for God and Jesus are in a sense one and the same. However, the Pharisees believed in God the Father, but not Jesus. Therefore, God made it a point to say ‘I am Jesus’ – Jesus, whom Paul hated, reviled and regarded as a false prophet.

            When Paul rose, he was blinded. His companions took him to Damascus, to the house of Judas on Straight Street. It was to Judas’ home that the Lord sent His disciple Ananias, who by all appearance was simply Joe-Schmoe Christian. (This example clearly refutes the Catholic-originated heresy that a baptism must be performed by a priest or bishop, for Ananias – who probably baptized Paul – was clearly a nobody, and himself seemed quite surprised that God called him.)

            Paul’s conversion also refutes with absolute certainty the modern Evangelical claim that baptism is not necessary for salvation. For when Paul fell to the ground, belief, repentance, and confession were immediate and absolute. He believed the Voice, and confessed his belief (‘Lord’, he asked.). He immediately changed his ways, by obeying immediately God’s command to ‘go into the city, where he would be told what he must do’.

            Yet he was not counted as converted until he was baptized, presumably by Ananias.

            Saul – now called ‘Paul’ – proved to be an immediate, dynamic force in the ministry of Christ. Right away, he began preaching in Damascus and Jerusalem, until… well, until the Jews ran him out. Ironic, isn’t it?

            Paul was indisputably the most persecuted of the apostles. God, in fact, told Ananias that He would ‘show (Saul) how much he must suffer for my name.’ Paul was scourged, beaten, punched, and chained more times than any thief in the Roman Empire. He also spent more time in the pokey than any rogue of his day. Paul could’ve told you which prisons served the best hardtack, which ones had the friendliest rats, and which ones had the nicest guards. Paul even wrote a great deal of our Bible from his various prison cells.

            Paul’s writings are often stern, and very scholarly in nature. Peter wrote, regarding his writings, that ‘our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.’ Paul seemed to be a walking amalgam of all the characteristics that defined the other apostles. He had a bit of John’s empathy, some of Peter’s temper, a bit of Matthew’s precise attention to detail – but all these traits seemed to be fairly well balanced in Paul, while each of the aforementioned apostles seemed governed by their defining traits.

            Paul was almost certainly married once, as this was a requirement for the Pharisees. He may have been widowed but I doubt it, as he was fairly young, and childless. (Childbirth was the leading cause of death for women in those days.) I suspect that his wife was a devout Jewess, as befitted a Pharisee’s wife, and I bet she left him when he became a disciple.

            Yet Paul later writes, (regarding himself and Barnabas) ‘Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?’ Which means he clearly understood his own right to marry if he wished, in Christ at least, although he never did. I think he was, for himself, pointing out that he had the right to invoke what the Catholics refer to as ‘the Pauline Privilege’ – to wit:But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.’

            Paul lived his whole life for the Gospel, and in the end – surprise, surprise – he died for it. Yet he faced his end without a trace of fear, for he wrote to Timothy: ‘For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.’

            Paul, by the most reliable accounts, was beheaded (or killed ‘by the sword’) between 62 and 67 A.D. This seems to be one of the darker times for the Church, as Peter also died around that era (between 64-68 A.D.) This period ended the era of the apostles; shortly thereafter began a frightening wave of various heretical teachings, teachings that led to the rise of the mass Catholic blasphemy.

            While Paul’s death was certainly less painful and humiliating than his contemporary Peter’s, I suspect that he suffered far more in life. Yet I think that he was ever grateful for his sufferings. I suspect that Paul often felt great guilt for his crimes against God – and God, who both loved and valued Paul, took great pains to reassure him that He still counted him worthy of suffering for the Gospel. In a perverse way, I think Paul’s almost ceaseless beating and incarceration was God’s way of telling him, ‘I really don’t care what you’ve done, Paul; I still love you. See, look at what a crown of righteousness I am helping you to earn.’ And we see that Paul constantly rejoiced in his sufferings, too, praising God that he was counted worthy to bear such shame – just as Christ Himself suffered shame for the Truth.

            Sometimes I am tempted to look back across my old life, even though scripture makes it abundantly clear that I should not. I am tempted to dwell upon the fact that although I always paid lip service to the idea of God, by my choice of lifestyle I repeatedly shamed Him, crucifying His Son again and again with my actions. I am tempted to bewail the blasphemies that I once typed out with my own hand. I am tempted to examine every filthy thing I’ve ever said, done, or thought – and through such weak-minded self-examination, I inevitably end up fearing the damnation which God has certainly promised not to impose upon me, as I now belong to His Son.

            But when the guilt comes and I start to doubt God’s love for me, I think of Paul. Paul who was used so mightily by God, Paul who wrote much of the Bible before dying for his faith. But when I think of Paul in such a context, I think not so much of his virtue as his sin – and, much as Paul took perverse comfort in his suffering, I take perverse comfort in his horrendous past.

            Because no matter what sin I could possibly ever have committed, no matter what blasphemy… Paul did it first. He was the ‘chief of sinners’, not I, although I worked hard at claiming the title.

            But the Lord, the sovereign judge of all souls, has forgiven us both.

There is no greater honor on this earth, nor any greater love.

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