A Living Picture of Grace
Robert Wurtz II
This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. (1 Timothy 1:16-17)
It has been said that Paul was God’s representative of His long-suffering to a high-handed transgressor. Not that he had committed more sins than any other, but his sins were of a degree that placed him atop the list. If there had ever been a man who provoked God to wrath, it was Saul of Tarsus. In Galatians 1:13, Paul acknowledged God’s estimate of him in Acts 9:23 saying, “I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and wasted it.”
This man was making a career out of persecuting the Church. Our verb tense shows continuous action; that is, He was relentlessly having people killed and compelling them to blaspheme Christ. Our word for “beyond measure” in Greek is huperbole, from which we get our word hyperbole. In other words, Saul moved in an exaggerated form of persecution. While in its infancy, he mercilessly attacked the Church and did everything in his power to snuff it out. This is a faithful account of the facts — worthy of all acceptance.
Our Greek word makrothumia, translated as “long suffering” is very strong. In fact, the word thumos is an emotion stronger than anger.
“Thumos is a tumultuous welling up of the whole spirit, a mighty emotion which seizes and moves the whole inner man. The restraint implied in makrothumia is more correctly expressed by long-suffering. It is a patient holding out under trial, a long-protracted restraint of the soul from yielding to passion, especially that of anger.” (Weust)
God’s mercy towards Saul was not only a demonstration of His mercy in terms of forgiving a person of their sins, but of the restraining force He was moving in that was more powerful than Saul’s zeal to destroy the Church. In other words, God was moving in an exaggerated form of long-suffering as He looked over Saul acting out. Where sin was abounding — grace was super abounding.
Given “Time” To Repent
Some might say, “Well, if God is righteous and just, why did He not strike Saul dead?” This question has a two-part answer. First, there are two primary Greek words for our English word forgiveness; aphesis and paresis. R.C. Trench gives this comment:
“These two words aphesis and paresis agree in that whether the one or the other occurs to you, no reckoning of your sins is made; they differ in that when the former is given, you never pay the penalty for your deeds, but when the latter is granted, you suffer no punishment for your deeds as long as he who has the right of chastising your transgressions decides to leave them unpunished.”
If God were to judge people for their sins the moment they sinned, there would be no one left to save. Paul deals with this in Romans 3:25. It’s not that God is not just; it’s that His forbearance (long suffering) is giving people time to repent. This is what Paul told the people at Mar’s Hill:
These times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead. (Acts 17:30–31 NKJV)
Notice the word ignorance in our passage. It denotes people who simply do not know better. They were blinded because of their love of darkness (John 3:1ff); by the god of this present evil world (2 Corinthians 4:4); and by God Himself (John 12:40). Theologians refer to this technically as the noetic effects of sin.
Paul was moving in ignorance as well. He explained this in 1 Timothy 1:13 when he wrote, “Although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.” This verse implies that Saul simply did not believe the claims of the Saints. This is not necessarily an obstinance in the face of the facts, but a genuine ignorance of who Christ truly is. This problem was solved on the road to Demascus. Had Saul continued to persecute after that event, his sin would no longer have been in ignorance, but would have been willfull. How we respond to Christ when He reveals Himself to us is the key.
An End To His Blindness
Paul was a living example of how the veil of blindness that is over the heart of many Jews is removed. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. (2 Corinthians 3:15–16 NKJV) When Saul finally “turned” to the Lord, as a consequence of the revelation of Jesus Christ on the road to Demascus, he fulfilled the requirements of Acts 3:19. He was also given the commission of duplicating that experience in the lives of others.
For I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee,To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me. (Acts 26:16–18 KJV)
Paul (Saul) was to testify of his experience at Damascus as well as other experiences he would eventually have. This was to bring about the same effect in the people who heard the testimony as it did in him when he experienced it. A witness is a person who has seen something they can testify about. When the Holy Spirit anointed him to tell his experience, the people had Christ set forth before their eyes. If the people respond rightly their eyes will be opened and they will turn in repentance and faith. If not, they will be hardened all the more. Paul gives the progression in Acts 28:27:
For the heart of this people is grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should turn and I should heal them.
1. Harden the heart (towards God)
2. Refuse to hear (the witness)
3. Close the eyes (to the revelation)
5. Be healed
God’s Long Suffering
There are people in the world who hear the Gospel and struggle to believe that God could ever forgive their sins. God set forth Paul as an example of His willingness to save even the vilest of people. He has tolerated and overlooked a lot of sin as proof that He is, in fact, a loving and long suffering God. He sets on a throne of mercy — with rainbow round about. However, the day will come when the colors merge into a searching brilliant white, and the throne will be one of justice and judgment. If every transgression and disobedience are given a just repayment, how will we escape if we neglect so great of salvation? (Hebrews 2:1)
Paul could have easily said, “while I was yet the Chief of sinners, Christ died for me.” He turned from his former life and received eternal life. This is the force of Calvary. Nevertheless, everyone who hears Paul’s testimony must likewise “see; hear; understand; turn; and he healed.” God has demonstrated His long suffering, but it will not go on forever.
These times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. (Acts 17:30)