God considered them faithful (June 21, 2020)
God considered them faithful
1 Timothy 1:12-17
What do an exiled executioner, a sly swindler, and a pompous persecutor have in common? God considered them trustworthy and faithful! The three I’m referring to are Moses, the exiled executioner, Matthew, the sly swindler, and Paul, the pompous persecutor.
Really all three people highlighted in the readings today were at a low point in their lives. Or, at least, referring back to a low point in their lives. Moses was out in a wilderness area tending flocks because he had tried to deliver his people but failed. He killed an Egyptian to rescue one of his own, was found guilty, and threatened with death so he fled and hid. Matthew too was the exact opposite of the law abiding Pharisees of his day. He secretly swindled money from the people and could only find company with sinners. Paul, vehemently persecuted Christians, tore apart families, even obtained letters from the authorities to justify his work as he breathed out murderous threats against God’s people.
And what I find most fascinating is that the sections we read today is their own autobiographies. Can you imagine! The Holy Spirit is carrying these writers of Scripture along to pen the Word of God, and Moses is probably thinking, “Can we just skip the part where I murder the Egyptian and keep trying to refuse your call at the burning bush?” Or Matthew, “I don’t really have to explain where you called me from, do I?” Paul too, when he was known as Saul, his backstory is spelled out in great detail throughout Scripture. And he refers to it in several of his letters, here calling himself the “chief of sinners,” “the worst of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). Do I have to write about all that? God says, “I don’t care what you think. This is the book of my mercy and love. Though you may have been an exiled executioner, a sly swindler, or a pompous persecutor, I made you something new. I considered you faithful.”
The reason I go into all of this is because haven’t you had the same thoughts too? And not just thoughts on their own, but thoughts based on truth. What is that sin that you can’t seem to shake? We all have one – at least one. The trap that Satan knows our sinful nature is prone to fall for. Are you merciless murderer, a debilitated drunkard, a sly swindler? Is it lust? Is it telling lies? Is it identity issues or that you’ve harmed someone else on purpose? It’s quite common for me to hear people say, “But pastor, you don’t know what I’ve done. You wouldn’t be saying such words of forgiveness if you knew what I’ve done.” I don’t care what you’ve done! Are you remorseful and burdened with quilt? Are you repentant and searching for mercy? Good! Then hear the words of Jesus, “You are forgiven.”
“But pastor, you don’t understand…” I don’t need to understand your side of it, because I understand God’s side of it. It doesn’t matter what you have done. Let me tell you about what Jesus has done for you. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). Are you a sinner? … Me too. Jesus came to save you. He died on the cross to pay the punishment for every sin. So whatever it is you have done, whatever it is that is on your mind, bothering you, or you consider unforgiveable, I want you to think of it right now. You don’t have to tell me, unless you want to, unless it helps. Just hold it in your mind there for a moment. I agree with you, it deserves punishment. God agrees with you, it deserves punishment. Now see Jesus, punished by God on the cross for that particular sin. It’s not a pretty picture, I know. But it is the picture of God pouring out his grace upon you abundantly, in love. It is the picture of God’s glory and honor – that he came into the world for this very purpose! To save sinners. He did it because he loves you. All glory and honor be to God for taking our sins onto himself. As you come away from that image in your mind, come away renewed, refreshed, leaving whatever it was there on the cross.
Moses, Matthew, the apostle Paul are all right there with you. Paul says, “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy” (1 Timothy 1:13). I’ve known the details of Paul’s past from Scripture. One of the first times we hear about him is when he is holding the coats of those who stoned Stephen to death. He took pride in what he thought was work for the Lord as he persecuted, tore apart, and broke up the Christian church wherever he could – making this is passion and his mission. Until Jesus came and changed his life – made him one of his own apostles to preach salvation through Christ to the Gentiles. Yet, I’m sure his past plagued him. In fact, he brings it up in several of his letters, “I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people” (Eph 3:8), and “I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor 15:9). This fact really came to life for me recently when I watched a movie about the Apostle Paul, and the persecution of Christians under Nero was graphically portrayed. The Christians were turning to Paul for help and direction – by now an old man in prison. And he was having flashbacks of having done the very same things against the people he now serves.
Yet, in all of this – even humbled and at times plagued by his past – Paul knew that it didn’t matter what he thought. It only mattered what God declared. “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst” (1 Tim 1:15). “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy… The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 1:13-14). That word, “abundantly,” refers to a vessel that has been filled and yet the pourer just keeps pouring. It’s running over. It’s spilling onto the table and flooding the floor beneath. You are that vessel, that cup. God pours out his grace abundantly along with the faith that clings to that grace for salvation. There’s no room left for your failures because you are filled and running over with God’s grace and love.
Even that part where Paul says, “I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief” (1 Tim 1:13), Paul is not making excuses. He is including himself among those to whom the Savior referred to from the cross when he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). Forgive them. Who was Paul to question the Savior’s judgment? If Jesus considered him trustworthy and faithful for service, Paul was ready to serve! Who are you to question God’s judgment?
Are still you plagued by what you consider an unforgiveable past? Have you read about the people in the Bible? Have you read the backstory of even some of the most famous people in the Bible – Moses, Matthew, Paul? Even having come to faith they all still struggled with very real sins. That’s one of the most compelling points of the Bible is that God takes very real people – faults, flaws, and failures all included and spelled out – and calls them to serve him! In fact, their faults and failures make them even better missionaries to the sinners that Jesus came to save. They are real. They are relatable. “For that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience” (1 Tim 1:16).
When the Pharisees questioned Jesus’ acts of mercy, he told them to go and learn the Scriptures. See the difference between mercy and sacrifice. See that their claims of righteousness were nothing but mere whitewashed tombs – a denial and covering up of the death that lies beneath. Could these Pharisees and self-righteous people really be healthy when they are blind to mercy for their brothers, blind to the prophets, and blind to the Savior? Christ wanted different ministers than these. He wanted ministers who knew the mercy of God and would share the mercy of God. So, he turned to the sinner, Matthew, and called him from his life of sin to a life of ministry with those merciful words, “Follow me” (Mt 9:9).
He called Moses, who had already proven himself a failure at delivering God’s people from bondage, living as an exiled killer, fleeing from Pharaoh. And no wonder Moses asked, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Ex 3:11). To which God responded, it doesn’t matter who you are. “I AM” (Ex 3:14). Thirteen times here God uses the first person pronoun. Can the point be any clearer? Your call is by my mercy, and the ability to perform the service I give you comes only from me. I am the great I AM.
The Holy Ministry is filled with people whom God called out of his boundless mercy. Nothing else could explain the choices for ministers that God made! “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me the strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once… [fill in the blank]…. I was shown mercy… The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly” (1 Tim 1:12-14).
This speaks to me in a very special way as your pastor. But you too are called to God’s service, to proclaim the message of salvation. That “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” Paul goes on, “of whom I am the worst” (1 Tim 1:15), but really, can’t we all say that. Sin is sin in God’s eyes. We are all tied for the “worst of sinners award”. But God fills you with his overflowing mercy. In fact, Christ Jesus displays his immense patience in the mercy he has shown you. You don’t have to be the shining example of righteousness to share the good news of Jesus with someone. Be real with people. Be real about your own struggles too. Be shining examples of Christ’s mercy for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. All glory, honor and praise be to God for considering sinners like you and me faithful in his service.