Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 10/01/2000
We have seen that in Paul's efforts to equip his friend and disciple Timothy to be able to carry on the Gospel Ministry after Paul is removed from the scene, he has emphasized sound teaching, which in vs. 11 is to be "according to the Gospel of he glory of the blessed God." This mention of the Gospel turns Paul's mind to his own conversion, so he pauses to give Timothy a brief testimony. I would like us to see in it three realities which should find analogies in our testimonies as well.
This has two facets.
HE WAS SHOWN MERCY (v. 13): He says it was because he had acted in ignorance. What does this mean? Not that ignorance was any excuse or extenuation of his guilt; it did not make him somehow worthy of mercy. Even in human law, the maxim is "ignorantia legis non excusat," "Ignorance of the law is no excuse." And the same principle holds in divine law (Lev. 5:17-19): the sin of ignorance incurs guilt and requires atonement. Besides, Paul is always trying to magnify the Grace of God, and exonerating himself would be self-defeating for that purpose--especially since he calls himself the foremost of sinners in v. 16. Rather, he means that his acting in ignorance--or sincerity, which is the flip side of this ignorance--meant that he was reachable. Without the intervention of God's Grace, he would have remained a Pharisee of the Pharisees and a persecutor of the Church until his dying day. But when he was knocked off his horse by a Light that shone brighter than the sun, when that Light had unmasked his error, he accepted it, he obeyed it, and he proclaimed it. He did not harden his heart against it once he knew what (or Who) it was. So he illustrates the ocntrast between Deut. 4:29 (those who seek God with all their hearts will find Him) and Num. 15:30 (the one who acts defiantly shall be cut off from the people). The most dangerous and suicidal thing you can do is to resist the Truth consciously and deliberately once it has been revealed to you. This Paul did not do, so he was able to accept God's mercy--which was evidence that Grace had already been at work in his heart.
Secondly, Paul experienced God's Grace by being PUT INTO SERVICE (vv. 12-13). This is Grace beyond all expectation. It is one thing to forgive your worst enemy. It is quite another to make him your best friend, your bosom confidante, your most trusted helper, and keep him by your side. But that is exactly what God did for Paul, the former arch-persecutor of his Church. God is not stingy and Grace is not cheap. He is not satisfied to pay for your sins with his Son's blood, to forgive you, to grant you adoption and eternal life; He wants to give you what may be the most neglected yet most wonderful gift of all: to put you into service. If you are satisfied to be a closet Christian, then you are satisfied to be a fool, for you are missing out on what Paul considered to be the apex of God's unmerited favor to him.
In this service, Paul was strengthened (v. 12). The message to Timothy is, "If the job I'm giving you seems impossible--to be pastor at Ephesus where they look down on your youth, to teach them not to teach strange doctrines, etc.--then remember that when the Lord put me into service he gave me the atrength to perform it." Do you think this a small thing? I do not mean being the Church's greatest theologian and missionary of all time; Paul had to do something harder than that in Christ's service. Look at Acts 9:21. When Paul started to proclaim Christ, he had to ear the largest, toughest, and rawest helping of Crow in the entire history of dining and the culinary arts. If you think that is an easy job, you've never had to do it. But Christ gave Paul strength for that; so he can strengthen you for whatever your task is as well.
Paul not only experienced God's Grace, he also was a living example of it. We must take his language when he calls himself the chief of sinners as sincerely and sensibly felt--it was not just rhetorical flourish or hyperbole. Paul had been a zealous kidnapper, torturer, and murderer of those on whom Christ had set his sacrificial love. There is nothing worse than that. And two lessons for Timothy emerge from this fact: First, NO ONE IS TOO SINFUL TO BE SAVED. But second, and more directly relevant for Timothy's case, NO ONE IS TOO UNWORTHY TO BE USED. Paul was used more greatly by Christ than any man who has ever lived. After two millennia he is still the greatest theologian the Church has ever had. All others are great only by eludicating his writings. And after two millennia he is still the greatest missionary the Church has ever had, opening more new fields, planting more churches where Christ had not yet been named. And the point is that he did not deserve to be used this way. It was a mercy that he was; it was Grace. God used him so mightlily not because he was worthy but so that God could show how much patience He could have with the ornery cuss, as an example to us.
This is not in the text directly, but becomes apparent once we ask, "What is the purpose served by this section in the overall scheme of the Letter?" Implied in these words from that perspective is another message to Timothy: "You are overwhelmed with the responsibilities you have at Ephesus. You feel unworthy and unprepared. But YOU CAN DO IT! Just look at what God has done with me. You were raised in a Christian home; I was a Pharisee of the Pharisees. You had the best seminary training possible; I went to a secular university and studies under liberal Jewish professors. You have never been in trouble; I was a persecutor of the Church. And look what God did with me! You can do what He asks of you, too. You can do all things throught Christ, who strengthens you."
After that, what can you say? Here's what Paul said: "Now to the King eternal, immoral, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen."
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams