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Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth (2 Timothy 2:15)
Established November 2008 Published: April 16, 2021
“For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4).
I want welcome back all those who consistently show up to study God’s Word with us and then greet all those who recently discovered HBS and are with us now. I haven’t mentioned this in a long while, so I do so now. Unlike many websites I visit regularly here you’re not going to find pop-up ads asking for donations to support this ministry or for the purpose of promoting consumer products. I’ve avoided these things and other nuisances for one reason. I want the Main thing to remain the Main thing, so I block any and all distractions so that you can study God’s Word unhindered.Please open your Bible at 1 Timothy 1:12-17.
I closed last week’s lesson talking about the uniqueness of Paul’s apostleship to the gentiles and the message the risen and ascended Lord entrusted to him, i.e., the “revelation of the mystery” (Romans 16:25-27; Ephesians 3) and other related spin-off mysteries linked to this glorious truth. This week we take a look back; we turn our attention to the significance of Saul of Tarsus’ conversion for many are ignorant (uneducated) either by choice or by what I call “denominationalism,” i.e., “the teachings of men” vs what God has revealed to humanity, dispensationally speaking.
God’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners
“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 (what?) 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 (now read carefully) that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a (what?) pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (1:12-17).
There’s a lot going on in that passage of Scripture and we’ll certainly try to cover it all starting with this. Not once, while attending a denominational church services, did I hear a sermon on the conversion of our Apostle Paul in spite of the fact that in the Word of God the conversion of Saul of Tarsus holds a prominent place. By that I mean to say it is more fully described in the Scriptures than any other conversion on record, and that includes the twelve, or more than any personal experience outside of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul’s conversion, for example, is the major part of three separate chapters in Acts and it forms the main subject of two out of Paul’s five recorded discourses (Acts 22-26). So mindful was Paul of the importance of his conversion in connection with the gospel of the grace of God, that he refers to it over and over again in his writings.
What’s more, there is no testimony to “the riches of God’s grace,” nor “the power of the cross,” nor the reality of personal salvation which equals that of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Little wonder that, for even a casual examination of the written record of his bitter rebellion against Christ’s earthly ministry explains why. Please consider the following examples taken from Luke’s record in the book of Acts:
“And Saul was consenting unto his (Stephen’s – see Acts 7) death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church (ekklesia) which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered (running for their very lives) abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria except (who?) the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling (to draw or drag) men and women committed them to prison” (Acts 8:1-3).
“And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples (followers) of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2).
“But all that heard him were amazed, and said; Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name (Jesus) in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests?” (Acts 9:21).
“And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women” (Acts 22:4).
“And I said, Lord, they know that I imprisoned and beat in every synagogue them that believed on thee: And when the blood of thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him. And he (the risen Lord) said unto me, Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles” (Acts 22:19-21).
“I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities” (Acts 26:9-11).
As though that weren’t enough to go on, we have Paul’s own testimony written to the house churches at Galatia and Corinth:
“For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it:” (Galatians 1:13).
“…For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet (agreeable, fit, proper) to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am…” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).
All this sufficiently explains why Paul wrote: “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” (1 Timothy 1:12-13).
The Greek word “counted” here is the same word “imputation” which Paul used in his letter to the saints in Rome. “Imputation,” in Scripture signifies an attributing of something to a person, or a charging of one with anything, or a setting of something to one’s account. In this case, “faithfulness” was charged to Saul’s account. But here’s the thing, Saul of Tarsus had been anything but “faithful” to God, the Messiah, or his Jewish brethren for that matter. But God had saved him by grace (alone) and now “counted” him worthy, appointing him to fulfill a sacred trust and along with this trust went the divine enabling. Paul, now fully realizing his own weakness and wickedness, found the grace and help he needed in Christ the Man he once loathed. I don’t think Paul ever ceased to wonder at God’s grace and mercy in saving him. I say this because he refers to this again and again in his writings, including the passage we are now studying.
Before we move on permit me to say all things considered and if measured by true values, the Apostle Paul was the greatest N.T. personality who ever lived on this earth, with the exception of the Lord Jesus Christ who was in a class all by Himself. For the record we have the Lord Jesus Christ saying, “I must finish” (John 4:34) and “I have finished” (John 17:4), and then Paul also saying, “I must finish” (Acts 20:24) and “I have finished” (2 Timothy 4:7). Then, consider this while we’re here God honored Moses by directing him to write five books in the Bible (the Pentateuch). John wrote five books and Peter wrote two. But the Lord directed Paul to write 13 books or most of the N.T., and that’s more than the twelve books written by these three other servants of the Lord. Sadly, this information has gone missing in a great many churches which explains why Christendom is ignorant of these things and speaks of the dangers of fundamental teaching. As for the naysayers who consistently claim I make too much of Paul, carefully consider these declarations from Paul to the Believers in Corinth, Greece:
“Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
“If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord”(1 Corinthians 14:37).
The Lost Significance of Saul/Paul’s Conversion
In verse 1:15 Paul reminded Timothy (and us) of the purpose of our Lord’s coming into this world, “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.”
A “saying,” of course, is a statement or expression significant enough to bear repetition. We might say, “So and so said…,” or “the Scriptures say…” something that bears repeating often. Furthermore, a “faithful saying” implies that which we, in turn, may safely rely on and act upon because it has consistently proved dependable.
Thus, in verse 1:15, Paul is calling Timothy’s attention to a statement of sufficient significance to the extent that it bears repeating over and over again in his preaching and his personal witness for Christ. This “saying” is as “faithful” today as it was in Paul’s day so it should still be repeatedly called to the attention of all those people who need to hear it, that is, the unsaved (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Along with this “faithful saying… that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” we note Paul added: “…of whom I am chief” which begs the question, “Is Paul saying he’s the wickedest person that ever lived? Most people think that’s what he meant to say. But when we think of sinners, in general, we think of those carnal, fleshly people who participate in sexual immorality, commit murder, robbery and theft, etc. But the Bible speaks of another kind of sin, namely, religious pride and hypocritical self-righteousness. One would think God would hate fleshly sins more, but during the Lord’s earthly ministry, He was kind and patient with sinners of that sort. But he reserved His blistering denunciations for the scribes and Pharisees of His day for their religious pride and self-righteousness and their persecution of Him their Messiah and King (Matthew 12:14; see chapter 23).
But when you get right down to the “nitty-gritty,” as we used to say, it doesn’t matter which sort of sin is worse in the context of this question, for before he was saved, Paul was guilty of both varieties. Murder is the worst sort of fleshly sins, and he was guilty of murdering God’s people, a.k.a., “the little flock.” (Luke 12:32-34). But he persecuted them in religious self-righteousness, for “touching the righteousness which is in the law” he was “blameless” (Philippians 3:6). This sinful combination, in Paul’s assessment, made him the chief of sinners or the most prominent sinner. I say this because the Bible word “chief” can mean most prominent, as it does when it speaks of “the chief singer” (Habakkuk 3:19) and the “chief priests” (Ezra 10:5). The word can also invoke the idea of leadership. “The chief man” on the island where Paul was shipwrecked (Acts 28:7) was probably the leader of those people, and “Beelzebub the chief of devils” (Luke 11:15) is a reference to Satan who is the leader of his evil horde.
So in saying he is the chief of sinners, Paul was also saying that he was the most prominent leader of the world’s sinful rebellion against God (Acts 8:3, 9:1). That’s why God saved him, to prominently show His grace in him (1 Timothy 1:16), just as He judged Pharaoh, the world’s most prominent and powerful leader of his day, to show His power in him (Exodus 9:16). This might be why Paul used the present tense to say he was still the chief of sinners, even now that he was saved. He was still the world’s most prominent example of the worst kinds of sinner saved by God’s grace.
Some folks have excused Paul for his past life, on the ground that he persecuted our Lord’s followers “ignorantly in unbelief.” But this ignorance was no excuse (Romans 1:18-20). Saul was well-versed in the O.T. Scriptures, therefore, he, of all men, could have and should have known that Jesus was the promised Messiah, but he did not desire to know, and that’s the thing, Saul had convinced himself otherwise, and he acted upon that conviction with murderous zeal (Galatians 1:13).
Why did God Save Saul of Tarsus?
The answer to this question becomes clear as we continue reading: “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me 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” (1:16).
Although I think it’s obvious, it should be noted Saul was not a repentant sinner when he was converted. I mention this here because many churches today believe and teach the sinner must repent, that is, turn from sin before they can be saved, and furthermore, if one continues to commit sin then they are not truly saved. Regretting sin and turning from it is related to repentance, but it’s not the precise meaning of the term. In the Bible, the word repent means to change one’s mind or attitude about God. Change our mind about what? God won’t tolerate sin, so we’re to view sin, any sin, the same way He does (Proverbs 6:16-19; Psalm 5:5; Romans 6:23, 12:1-2). The Bible also tells us that true repentance will result in a change of actions for our Apostle Paul, in summarizing his ministry, declared: “But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance” (Acts 26:20). The full definition of repentance therefore is a change of mind that results in a change of action.
So, for the record, Saul was unrepentant for he was, “yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the followers of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). Thus, we conclude, God saved him on the spot, He didn’t wait for him to repent, no sinner’s prayer was recited, nor was there an altar call or water baptism. Saul’s salvation, then, was an exhibition, i.e., a display, of the “…exceeding abundant” grace of God and this upon His unrepentant enemy.
The word “first” (protos) in 1:16 is related to the word “hereafter” in the same verse and, indeed, Saul called his conversion, “a pattern to them which hereafter should believe on (Christ) to life everlasting.”
It should also be noted in using the word “pattern” he does not refer to the events leading up to his conversion but to the conversion itself by “grace… exceeding abundant,” to the “mercy” and “longsuffering” God had shown to him. In this, he was indeed, “a pattern,” for the words “exceeding abundant” in verse 1:14, appear also in his letter to the church at Rome: “…where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Romans 5:20). These Koine Greek terms are identical.
1 Timothy 1:15 and its immediate context, then, confirm the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ “came into the world to save sinners,” even Saul, the most prominent of all sinners; so Saul was the “first” living demonstration of this highly significant fact.
But there’s more, for while the Greek word protos, rendered “first” in 1:16, is the same as that rendered “chief” in verse 1:15, and thus bears the idea of foremost, or leading, it is also the common word for first in order, and indeed, Saul/Paul was the “first” person to whom the risen Lord had showed His “exceeding abundant” amazing grace.
This is one more highly significant fact for it provides irrefutable evidence that the present dispensation of the grace of God, and the Body of Christ, began with Saul/Paul’s conversion. Our Lord had a full complement of twelve apostles with the naming of Mattias as Judas’ replacement (Acts 1:15-26), and they all had been “filled with the Holy Spirit” on Pentecost (John 14:16-30; Acts 2:1-4). But here’s the thing, the message of the twelve had been rejected by Israel and the straw that broke the camel’s back, as some say, was the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7). Thus, the nation of Israel sent a clear and defiant message to God, in saying by their evil deeds, “We will not have this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14). It was then, at this point in time, that God raised up another apostle, namely, Saul/Paul, an act which in itself indicated He was ushering in a new dispensation.
I say again, this was the beginning of the dispensation of grace, and of the Body of Christ, for the program of the body of Christ, like that of Israel of old, was only gradually made known through the Apostle Paul by divine revelation (Acts 26:16; 2 Corinthians 12:1).
Saul/Paul was a fitting representative for both the Jews and the Gentiles, “reconciled… unto God in one body by the cross” (Ephesians 2:16). Paul was both a Hebrew and a Roman citizen by birth, and he of all men was a former enemy of God, now reconciled by His amazing grace, totally apart from adherence to the Mosaic Law.
How appropriate, then, in light of all the above, is his doxology that follows: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17).
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