“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.” 1 Tim 1:15
“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; ..” (Rom. 3:23) All men, with the exception of our Lord Jesus Christ, are sinners according to the Word of God. So, it is interesting to know who among them is chief, and the implications of that.
You must be careful if you plan to go up to someone, call him a sinner and ask him to repent of his sins for the sake of the salvation of his soul. This is because he might be greatly offended and beat you up before you know what has happened. Without the consciousness of God’s presence listening to them at all times, most people “consider not that they do evil.” (Ecc. 5:1) Most people think that they are doing their best and should not be considered a sinner who needs to repent of any sin.
But God’s Word in Rom. 3:23 says that “all have sinned”. To sin is to miss the mark, to miss the target of life. It means to live aimlessly like an arrow flying to anywhere but its target. In a competition, such a shot cannot be awarded with any merit points. Illegally moving the target to be hit by the stray arrow will not help to score points. Such despicable behaviour renders total disqualification from the competition. The target is where it should be by the design of the organiser and not of anybody, or of the participants. A sinner is one who misses the target of life, set by his Creator and not by himself.
God created man after His own image and likeness, and expected him to reflect His glory in all their thoughts, words and actions. All men, including women and children, are by nature so totally ignorant of God (not to say of what constitutes His glory) that they are unable to live sinless lives for God’s glory. They are all become guilty sinners before God, their consciences meanwhile accusing or else excusing them of all their wrong doings.
Sin entered the whole human race when the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve, chose to rebel against God’s Word forbidding them to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Since that dreadful day, all men set up their own targets of life while ignoring the target set by God for them. Everyone is doing what appears right in his own eyes. They care not what God thinks of them. At the final Day of Judgment, it would be a fearful thing to hear the Judge of judges condemning those who are disqualified. It will not be just a “game over”. It will be our eternal destiny.
What does Scripture mean when it speaks of “chief” of sinners? Here in our text, the King James Version of the Bible translates the Greek word, “proton”, as “chief.” This word occurs 100 times in the New Testament. 83 times it was translated as “first” and 10 times as “chief”. The rest as “before”, “former”, “beginning”, “best” and “chiefest.” It’s obvious that the idea of being in the first position of a series is the basic meaning.
So, the chief of sinners means that of all the sinners considered, here is the number one. If we are considering the sinfulness of these sinners, then this one is the number one. In the group, there is none more sinful than him.
Now, who can that chief of sinners be in the text we are considering?
It is clear that 1 Timothy was written by the Apostle Paul to his spiritual son, Timothy. So, naturally we are to take ‘I’ as referring to Paul himself.
But, there are always those who think differently. Whenever ‘I’ is found within quotation marks, it can legitimately refer to someone else other than the one introducing the quotation. If this be indeed the case, then Paul was merely quoting some well-known saying floating around in those days among the people of God, and the ‘I’ can refer to anyone who spread this saying around. The implication is that the messenger is personally involved in the message as well.
Could readers of God’s Word be allowed to choose their own interpretations of It? In transition, for the time being, I suppose this is unavoidable. Faithful dealings with God’s Word require the seeking of the only one meaning of that Word. The application of that one Word of God may have many legitimate outcomes, but to have multiple meanings is confusing.
When we consider the context, we are convinced that Paul was referring to himself as the chief of sinners.
In verse 11, the Apostle wrote of how the Gospel was committed to him by Christ. He was very conscious of his own unworthiness for this divine call to the ministry. He wrote of how he “… was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: …” to the beloved people of God. It was of the Lord’s mercy that he was called to preach the Gospel.
The Gospel, preached so enthusiastically by Paul, is the faithful saying of our text: “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.”
Like many of us today, there were people in Paul’s day who found it hard to believe that the admirable Apostle called himself the chief of sinners in his preaching. Paul wrote to Timothy to confirm that this saying is “faithful” and “worthy of all acceptation.
When we compare our Christian walk with Paul’s, we cannot help but feel very small and impoverished in spiritual things. How can anyone consider the Apostle as “the chief of sinners”? The Holy Spirit Who inspired the Word must have something wonderful to teach us as we consider the Holy Text carefully.
Though, indeed a very great man, the Apostle Paul was indeed a humbled man having being chastened of the Lord when he was struck blind and sent into oblivion for a few years. He must have been shown something of how much he owed the Lord to have become such a man of love.
Here in Paul we see an effective Minister of the Gospel of Christ with passion and feeling of a personal experience of God’s grace and mercy. If aware that his statement was less than absolutely correct, he was certainly not ashamed of it calling it “faithful” and “worthy of all acceptation”.
In passing, we may learn that our imperfect messages to each other, spoken in good faith to edify, may not be as worthless as Satan always makes them out to be. If not for the cleansing, burning coal taken out of the altar to touch his filthy lips, Isaiah could not have ministered the Gospel to the “people of unclean lips”. (Isa. 6)
Paul wanted Pastor Timothy to know that sensing one’s own unworthiness was no excuse for not preaching the Gospel. In fact, therein lay the power of an effective message. Elsewhere he wrote that when he was weak, God’s strength was made perfect in him. Timid Timothy needed that encouragement.
Ministering the Gospel with the hypocritical Jews around was not an easy task for young Timothy, a half-Jew. If the Gospel can give hope to the chief of sinners, no humble preacher of It need be ashamed to declare It loud and clear. All sinners must be called to repentance of sins and to seek salvation in Christ alone.
Our own personal experience of God’s saving grace should motivate us to greater zeal for Christ’s Kingdom and the spread of the Gospel. Gospel-bearers must deal with the sins in their lives faithfully and regularly with thanksgiving if they want to be effective witnesses. In this way they keep the Gospel relevant and exciting to themselves personally. Otherwise, how can the hearers be convicted by a message which is not real to the messengers themselves?
In our text, the personal reference was to the Apostle Paul himself. Our Lord Jesus opened Paul’s eyes to see that he was indeed such a great sinner even though he was proudly imagining that he was serving God. He had missed the mark set by God for him in his life. Can you imagine Paul’s biography without the Gospel of Christ? Maybe it would be like that of his great teacher, Gamaliel. The biblical Paul shines brightly for the glory of God. What will your life story be like?
The faithful preaching of the simple Gospel is never in vain as there is no sinner so great that it cannot save. Preachers are encouraged to preach to any sinner who cares to hear.
The Gospel is to be declared authoritatively by great sinners saved by the Sovereign will of God, in the death of Jesus Christ, for their miserable sins, on the Cross.
Written by: Pastor Lau Chin Kwee | Issue 7