The Apostles taught their elders and deacons to “be examples to the flock” over which God had given them to shepherd and serve (1 Timothy 4:12; Titus 2:7; 1 Peter 5:3). No less than six times the Apostle Paul urged those under his care to imitate him and the others in his missionary team (1 Corinthians 4:16, 11:1; Philippians 3:17, 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:7, 9).
It’s hard enough to imagine imitating Paul’s courage, powerful writing and preaching, his willingness to suffer mental and physical anguish and travel all over to proclaim the gospel. But I want to focus on one of Paul’s virtues that I’ve tried and failed to imitate over and over again. The more Paul grew in maturity in Christ, the more he believed he was the worst of sinners.
In his earlier years of ministry (around AD 55), Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthian church in which he referred to himself as “the least of all the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:9). You can see the humility in calling himself “the least”, but he’s still an apostle, right? That’s a pretty elite group of guys. About five years later, around AD 60, Paul wrote to the Ephesians and in chapter three, verse eight he said “I am the very least of all the saints” (Ephesians 3:8). OK, fine, but he’s still one of the saints. Then, maybe four to six years later, Paul writes these words to his apprentice, Timothy, in 1 Timothy 1:12-17:
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 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. 16 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. 17 To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Paul identified himself as a sinner, and not just your average sinner, but the most prominent sinner. The patience Jesus showed to a sinner like him would be an example to other sinners who need Jesus too. Paul regarded himself as the “poster child” for sinners-who-need-Jesus.
This is something I find incredibly difficult to emulate. And yet it is the only way that I will truly be able to love the other sinners in my area of influence. How can I truly love and serve other sinners unless I am consciously aware of how undeserving I am of the love and service Jesus has shown me? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, commenting on these verses in 1 Timothy in his book Life Together, drives this home:
“If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all. My sin is of necessity the worst, the most grievous, the most reprehensible. Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others, only for my sin is there no apology whatsoever. Therefore my sin is the worst. He who would serve his brother in the fellowship must sink all the way down to these depths of humility. How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own? Would I not be putting myself above him; could I have any hope for him? Such service would be hypocritical.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together, pages 96-97.)
Which of all the sinners you know in your world is the most difficult to love and serve? What would happen if you were convicted that you were a worse sinner than that person, but yet convinced that Jesus had come to save you, to show you his mercy, his grace, his welcome? Would that not change the way you see and serve that other sinner? Would it not melt your heart toward them? Would you not be inclined to say You’re a mess and so am I, but Christ is mercy. You’re a great sinner and so am I, but Jesus is a great Savior. You’re broken and so am I, but Jesus was broken for us. Sometimes your a real jerk and sometimes so am I, but Jesus justifies jerks like us by his great grace.
What would our marriages, families, workplaces and churches be like if all of our church’s shepherds and servants lived with that attitude and put it into action? My guess is we’d see revival.