Getting Past Your Past
Robert Wurtz II
And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. 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. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting. (1 Timothy 1:12-16)
The Foremost Sinner
Early on in Paul’s writings to young Timothy he acknowledges a terrible truth, 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. For those that know Paul’s past they can understand why he would make such a statement. He was a feared man. Only after he could raise his shirt and declare, From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus (Galatians 6:17) could the people trust that Paul’s violent days were in the past. He was scarred up from persecutions and beatings (2 Corinthians 11:23). It was probably a terrible sight.* Yet Paul calls himself the chief (prōtos) of sinners. Notice he did not say ‘ēn’ (I was), but ‘eimi’ (I am) the chief. His statement is in the first person present. In 1 Corinthians 15:9 he had called himself “the least of the apostles” (elachistos tōn apostolōn). In Ephesians 3:8 he refers to himself as “the less than the least of all saints” (tōi elachistoterōi pantōn hagiōn). This did not mean that he was ‘less’ in the sense of education, revelation, authority, spirituality, etc., but that he was the least worthy to be called. (compare Galatians 2:6-10, 2 Corinthians 11:5.; 2 Corinthians 12:11). He made havoc of the churches of God, even compelling people to blaspheme (Acts 8:3, Galatians 1:13), of men and even women (Acts 7:58, Acts 22:4; Acts 26:11). This sin was exceedingly serious and yet God saw fit to install Paul into his service. The question would become, how will men respond to Paul? Will they forgive as did God? Will they allow him to rise above the past to answer the call?
But For Grace
But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. (1 Cor. 15:10) Grace is more than unmerited favor, it is God’s divine enabling. The grace of God is what Paul ascribes the credit to for making the chief of sinners into a chief apostle. This is more than just a great success story. This is God demonstrating His longsuffering and mercy coupled with His willingness to completely change a sinner’s identity. No man would have called Paul. He was the least likely candidate for the job. Understand that Paul’s repentance was as notorious as his crime and even though he knew God had forgiven him of such terrible sins, he still acknowledged that he had done them before the people. He wanted the people to know how full of grace God is. He did not boast of his sins. He viewed his sin with repulsion and sorrow. He said, grace has been given to me who am less than the least of all saints. (Ephesians 3:8) This is not a false humility. He really had a handle on what God had done by grace, and he wants us to understand it. Why? That in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting. (1 Timothy 1:16) Paul throughout the centuries has proven to be ‘the pattern’ of how God’s grace can radically change a person and install them in their destiny. This is not man’s domain. It is God’s. Sometimes it is necessary to return to God’s word to regain an appreciation for just how low God will reach.
From the Womb
God’s plan for Paul was not an afterthought. He writes, But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood. (Galatians 1:15-16b) The concept is common in the Old Testament that God’s call is from before we were born. This is an amazing fact. God calls men and women to service and equips them in the work. This is God’s divine prerogative. Those that are the heirs to the righteousness of God that is by faith are moving in justification by faith. This is a tough thing to consider, but we have to decide if we are going to believe God or not. If God called Paul from the womb there was no point in all of his blasphemous acts did He change His mind. He was called and that was that. His actions had a lot of serious consequences, but his life prior to his true conversion had no bearing on the calling whatsoever. Grace made it possible. Man may not have been able to get past Paul’s past, but God knew what He would do all along. Thanks be to God it was His decision alone.
The Reactions of Men
And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.
Our passage is one that we ought to really allow to sink down into our ears. Why? There is something about many people that they cannot let go of their’s and other people’s past. Peter was one of these people. They have biases and prejudices and they simply cannot get past them. It is no light thing that Peter actually argued with God about His ability to cleanse something that was once considered common or unclean. God’s response? And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. (Acts 10:15) The AV does not rightly capture the seriousness of what God said. The thought goes deeper than merely “styling something as common.” It means literally, do not thou defile. That is to say, do not profane it by regarding and calling it common. Rev., “make not thou common.” (Vincent)
Peter was profaning that which God had made holy by calling it common and unclean. The word profane means to treat something as ordinary and commonplace that God has separated for a special purpose. God regarded the Gentiles as having been cleansed and made Holy by grace through faith, but Peter was used to looking down on them as second-class citizens. He had done it all his life. Everyone did it. Non-Jews expected to be treated as dogs by the Jews. Gentiles were not allowed beyond a certain point on the Temple mount. This constant treatment gave the non-Jews a complex (as it were). This means they had a stigma in the own minds that tried to strip them of what God had done. Something marvelous had changed the status of all believing non-Jews and believing sinners alike. Peter still struggled though as we learn in the Galatian letter. Old prejudices die hard. They died hard for Peter, but Paul understood. Why? Perhaps it was because he understood the depth from which God had cleansed him.
I have sometimes wondered why Peter would not take hold of what God had told him and simply obey what God had said. He was a man that had denied Christ before men and was worthy of being denied before the Heavenly Father. That was serious business. I don’t know. We will never really know perhaps. I think men sometimes tend to show mercy in areas where they have failed and non-mercy in areas where they have not failed. Some show no mercy because they simply did not get caught. They have forgotten that getting caught did not make the person more guilty, the act of sinning made them guilty long before they were caught. Getting caught just means that now there are additional consequences. To those that did not get caught be not high-minded but walk mercifully and reverently even as God has not seen fit to expose your sins, but has likewise forgiven you. To behave otherwise is sin.
Called to Service
Paul writes, And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into His service. This is God’s doings. The basis on which it happened was that God counted Paul faithful, that is, trustworthy. God knew that Paul would be faithful to carry out his divine commission and that he would be faithful to the truth of the Gospel. This is an important consideration. We can easily get hung up on what qualifies or disqualifies a person from serving the Lord, but the question above all is faithfulness.
We have this pattern in the Revelation, These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful. (Revelation 17:4) God is looking for individuals that will answer the call and be faithful to Him and the thing that He places in their trust. What is your past? You cannot possibly be the chief of sinners as Paul already has that title. Do you believe that if Paul could be saved and used of God that He can likewise use you? Not because of your own strength, but because of His grace. The Bible is loaded with individuals that were the most unlikely candidates and yet God used them. You say, “But I’m not worthy.” The question is, “Who is worthy?” We are made worthy because it pleased God, to by cleansing elevate even the chiefest of sinners from the common and unclean to His divine service.
*footnote The marks of Jesus (ta stigmata tou Iēsou). Old word from stizō, to prick, to stick, to sting. Slaves had the names or stamp of their owners on their bodies. It was sometimes done for soldiers also. There were devotees also who stamped upon their bodies the names of the gods whom they worshipped. Today in a round-up cattle are given the owner’s mark. Paul gloried in being the slave of Jesus Christ. This is probably the image in Paul’s mind since he bore in his body brandmarks of suffering for Christ received in many places (2 Cor. 6:4-6; 11:23ff.), probably actual scars from the scourgings (thirty-nine lashes at a time). (A.T. Robertson)