I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. 1 Tim. 1:12-17
A little less than a year before his death, Pablo Picasso completed a series of self-portraits. The most well-known of those portraits is his Self Portrait Facing Death. While some see a look of anguish, others see a look of courage (see PICASSO, THE FINAL MASK (2003): Into the void). Regardless of how we understand these paintings, it's apparent that Picasso was reflecting on his life and the realization that death would eventually come, just as it comes for every one of us. Like Picasso, we all have some perception of our self and occasionally give expression to it.
At several points in his letters, the apostle Paul paints his own self-portrait. Here in 1 Timothy he pictures himself as the foremost of sinners. These would seem to be weighty words coming from the apostle who wrote more of the New Testament than any other person and they drive us to inquire what Paul means when he considers himself to be the foremost of sinners. Did Paul think his sins were worse than the sins of others? Did he think they were somehow more significant? More destructive to the church? Certainly he was aware of the evils perpetrated against Israel in the past (Ex. 1:15-16) and even of the Roman rulers' corruption of his own day (Mt. 2:16). Fortunately, Paul aids us in our investigation by giving a similar self-portrait elsewhere:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. 1 Cor. 15:3-10
Notice the parallels between 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Timothy 1. "Blasphemer, persecutor, insolent...grace overflowed for me...foremost of sinners...example for those who would believe." "Persecuted the church...by the grace of God I am what I am...unworthy to be called an apostle...his grace toward me was not in vain." Paul had an ugly past and he realizes it doesn't naturally fit with his calling as an apostle. But Paul also realizes that in light of his past, his calling as an apostle magnifies the grace of God for those who know his story. When Paul says God's grace toward him was "not in vain", he recognizes that his conversion is a powerful and effective testimony that draws others to Christ - it's an "example for those who would believe."
So, how does this relate to Paul referring to himself as the foremost of sinners? Certainly, Paul realizes his sin against the church was terrible. He's amazed that God would ever be gracious to him (Eph. 3:8). In this vein, the New International Version reads, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners -- of whom I am the worst." However, while it's a well-known reading of this verse, it may not be the best translation given the immediate context. The Greek behind the term "worst" or "foremost" is protos, which carries the sense of being first in rank or first in place - it's not inherently a negative term. This is how other translations end up with the terms "foremost" (ESV, NASB) and "chief" (KJV), which don't carry the same connotations as "worst". "Worst" is a plausible translation, but it's misleading. When we hear "worst sinner," we think, "really bad sinner, big-time sinner, unimaginable sinner." However, Paul is not thinking of his sin strictly in terms of its severity (i.e. worst possible sins committed) or its extent (i.e. most sins committed against the most people) or even its permanence (i.e. most "undoable" sins). He's thinking in terms of its publicity (i.e. most well-known sinner). The Message translation gives the sense of this by paraphrasing Paul's meaning as "Public Sinner Number One." As Paul writes to Timothy and the Ephesian church, he reminds them of his former reputation among the churches just as he does when writing to the Galatian church:
For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. Gal. 1:13
They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” Gal. 1:23
Paul didn't try to hide his former way of life; rather, he proclaimed it plainly (Acts 22:4; 26:11). Paul had become the poster-boy for sin among early believers prior to his conversion. Now that he had become a follower of Christ, knowledge of his former life continued to grow among churches even outside Judea. But rather than seeing this as a negative that might harm his reputation, Paul embraced it as a positive that promoted God's reputation as patient and merciful toward sinners. While Paul was the foremost (most well-known) of sinners, he also became the foremost (most well-known) recipient of God's mercy.
But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 1 Tim. 1:16
If God was willing to show mercy to the man who had made a practice of spitting in His face and persecuting His children, certainly He would be willing to show mercy to others. It is as though God was saying to Paul, "I'm going to make a public display of your sin, so that I might make an even greater public display of my mercy and draw more people to myself."
Strictly considering the degree and extent of Paul's sin as a persecutor of the church, we might find far worse sinners throughout history. Along with Herod and Pharaoh mentioned above, Judas certainly comes to mind (Mt. 26:24). Other men have put to death far more Christians and destroyed far more churches, but we would be hard-pressed to find any sinner who is more visible among Christians. Wherever the New Testament is read, Paul's biography and God's mercy is proclaimed with it. While others might be able to challenge Paul as the "worst" of sinners, they would be hard-pressed to become the "foremost" of sinners - Paul's prominence in Scripture and his 2,000 year head start is just too much to overcome.
Understanding "foremost" in relation to the public awareness of Paul's sin and conversion, we can see why he speaks in the present tense saying, "I am the foremost." If he were referencing the vileness of his sin, we would expect him to say, "I was the worst," since he had clearly left those sins in the past (Acts 20:18-19; Phil. 4:9; 1 Th. 1:5, 2:7, 10). But the present tense makes much more sense when we understand Paul is considering the publicity of his past life and the amazing grace given to him.
It might be tempting to understand Paul as saying he's the "worst" of sinners by connecting these verses with Romans 7 where Paul writes, "For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" Or we could consider his words in Galatians 5, "For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do." Didn't Paul teach that we will struggle with sin throughout our life? Certainly, Paul held this view, but when we are trying to understand his meaning in 1 Timothy, we need to stick closely to the text at hand. When we compare the overall contexts of Romans 7 and Galatians 5 with the contexts of 1 Timothy 1, 1 Corinthians 15, and Galatians 1, we see the general themes are very different. In the former passages, Paul clearly addresses the presence of sin in a believer's life. In the latter, he directs our attention to the grace of God that brings the most notable of sinners to Jesus despite their unworthiness - "Jesus came into the world to save sinners." In these passages Paul is not thinking about his day-to-day inner battle against sin, or even the depths of sin's imprint upon him; he's marveling at God's grace in his transformation from persecutor to apostle before a watching world.
Looking back at Picasso's self-portrait, he seems to be facing death with his eyes wide open, perhaps looking over his life and taking it all in. But while considering the events of his life, his expression seems hollow and flat, showing neither sorrow nor joy. While Picasso's self-portrait leaves us uncertain that life offers any meaning or purpose, Paul's self-portrait gives us hope. We can look over the events of our own life and know that, regardless of our sin, God abounds in grace and mercy. We do not need to live with despair or regret when facing death. Though our sin might lead us in that direction, God's mercy calls us to rejoice. If we're overwhelmed by our sin, we know that "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Rom. 5:20-21) There is no sin so vile, no act so heinous, that God's grace in Christ cannot wash it away.
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Cor. 6:9-11
To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.