Paul, the Chief of Sinners
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15).
We have all heard it and perhaps we have even said it ourselves. “I am the worst cook…” “I am the worst organizer…” “I am the worst preacher…” “I am the worst teacher…” “I am the worst gardener…” “I am the worst mother/father/daughter/son-in-law…,” etc.
Why do we say such things? We don’t believe these things when we say them. So, why do we say them? I would like to suggest a few reasons. Sometimes, we just don’t want people’s expectations to be too high. We don’t want them to be disappointed if we fail to deliver the goods. Or perhaps we say such things simply to elicit sympathy. We want people to feel sorry for us. We want them to pat us on the back and tell us that we are really not the worst, but someone else is. Often, people say things like these out of a false sense of humility. We are subtly fishing for compliments. We want people to tell us that far from being the worst, we are actually the best they know. Sometimes we say these things due to a very poor self-image. Life has been so hard for us. We have been battered for so long. We are tired and sick of everything and we feel that we owe it to ourselves and the world to say such things. Self-depreciation has perhaps become a lifestyle. Sometimes we say such things because we have unhealthy and unrealistic expectations of ourselves. We are perfectionists and we judge anything less than perfect to be the absolute worst. But perhaps we say these things simply because we don’t really know what else to say! We each have our own favorite, well-rehearsed, self-inflicting put-downs which we like to repeat to ourselves and others from time to time. But if truth be told, we don’t really believe them. We don’t really know why we keep saying them but we do.
In 1 Timothy 1:15, we have a statement from the Apostle Paul which sounds very similar to the statements we have looked at above. Paul addresses himself as the “chief” of sinners. Why would Paul say this about himself?
Why Does Paul Call Himself the “Chief” of Sinners? Why does he do that? We need to be clear right here at the outset. Paul doesn’t address himself as the “chief” of sinners because he wants to limit people’s expectations of him. Far from it! He doesn’t make this statement because he wants to elicit sympathy. He doesn’t make because he has some false sense of humility. He doesn’t make this statement because he has lost all self-respect or because he is fishing for compliments. And Paul certainly does not make this statement because he doesn’t have a clue! No!
Paul as an apostle makes this statement under the inspiration of Holy Spirit. This was not an off-handed or an incorrect self-depreciating comment. This statement is one of deep gratitude and sincere humility.
This is not the first time where we see Paul reflecting on his life and spiritual standing. It’s interesting to trace Paul’s personal progress toward this great confession. There are at least two other places where Paul stops to think, reflect and evaluate his own spiritual standing (something that we have neglected in our day much to our detriment).
He wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:9, “I am the least of the apostles…,” to which we might sarcastically say, “Wow, Paul, how humble you are! How self-depreciating…! The least of the apostles! During Paul’s time the apostles would have been considered the most exclusive group of men that lived on the face of the planet earth! As apostles, they held the unprecedented and unrepeatable office. There were only twelve others and he was the thirteenth. “That certainly doesn’t sound very humble,” we might say.
A little later in his life, Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:8, “I am the least of all the saints…” And to that we might respond by saying, “Well, that is certainly a step down…but it’s not that great a step downward.” In Paul’s day, Christians made only about one percent of the population. Therefore, being the least of the top one percent and the least of the top ten percent of the people in the entire world is not really that great of a step down!
But much later in his life, Paul wrote these words which we find in 1 Timothy 1:15 where he refers to himself as the “chief” of sinners. What changed? The longer he lived (as a Christian), the lower estimate he had of his own spiritual standing. Paul is no longer setting himself above anyone else! He now puts himself at the bottom of the pile of all of humanity. No longer just “the least of the apostles” or “the least of the saints”! He is now the “chief” of sinners. The closer he got to Christ, the more clearly he saw his sin. The more clearly he saw the original, the ideal, the pattern, the more clearly he understood how far short he fell of that standard.
It’s not so much that Paul wants to draw attention to himself as the “chief” sinner although I am sure he was not speaking hyperbolically here. Rather, he wants to cast a greater light on Christ and show us the magnificence of Christ, His love, mercy and grace towards sinners! Paul is calling us all to cast our eyes upon Christ and marvel at Him and the greatness of His saving grace. As Paul is evaluating his own spiritual standing (i.e. in relation to the grace and glory of God in Christ) he cannot help but see himself as the “chief” sinner.
He had seen the original pattern and he immediately understood his position in this world as being the “chief” of sinners. He had seen the perfect Man in the Lord Jesus Christ and consequently, he stopped comparing himself to the rest of the apostles. He stopped comparing himself to the rest of the believers in the world. He is now comparing himself to the Lord Jesus Christ and at once, he sees himself as he really is, the “chief” of sinners. The more he increased in the knowledge of Christ, the more he grew in grace. The more the image of Christ was restored in him, the more he understood how much of that image was yet to be restored in him.
We all know this from our own experiences in life, don’t we? The further we stay from the light, the less we see the dirt on us. Conversely, the closer we get to the light, the more clearly we will see the dirt on us.
Here is a very sobering truth that we all need to grapple with: the most spiritual among us are those who most clearly see their sins and NOT those who think they are okay and have no sin. And so it was with Paul. Towards the end of his life, a very long way down the road, he ultimately came to view and speak of himself as the “chief” of sinners. Those who are maturing in the faith and growing closer to Christ, have a low view of themselves and a high view of God. I wonder if that describes you and me. I pray so!
“He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Fletcher Matandika, Mdiv and WSC alumnus
Founder and President of Joy to the World Ministries