I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (NIV)
Previously, Paul listed some very gross and violent types of people. As I read these verses that followed, I can’t help thinking that Paul had been looking into his own heart at a time before he became a believer. While he hadn’t committed all of the sins listed, he certainly was an accomplice to murder. Acts 8:1 Now Saul was consenting to his death. Acts 8:3 As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. Acts 9:1-2 Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (NKJV) While there is no record of Paul blaspheming, I can imagine that he had some pretty nasty things to say about Jesus and where His power came from. Looking back on Paul’s life and what he had done to Christians, in the name of God, it is no wonder that he identified with being a persecutor and a violent man.
The good news is that he gives thanks to Jesus who saved him. Jesus also gave him strength. When I think back on my life and some of the things I’ve done, I can identify with Paul. I didn’t realize how wicked my heart was until I became a Christian. Unfortunately, that wicked heart, even though changed by Jesus still has some junk in it. That has resulted in sins that were just as bad if not worse than my life before being saved.
How did Paul get over the guilt and shame of his past life? How can I put the past behind me and do the same? Paul gives the answer. Jesus gives me strength to do that. He considers me faithful and appoints me to His service. Say what? Even as a Christian I’ve blown it. How can Jesus call me faithful? How can He use me?
Heb 10:14, 22 For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy. 22 Let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ's blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. (NLT) When I stop to think about it, it doesn’t make sense – at least from a human standpoint. These verses and the whole discussion of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross in Hebrews 9 and 10 tell the truth about how God now views us and how we can respond to Him. Jesus has forever made us (you and me) perfect. When He sees any of us who have accepted His sacrifice for our sins, He sees the perfection of Jesus. At any point in time, He doesn’t look upon the past but the reality of who we are in Jesus. Does He know we just sinned or will in the next couple of minutes? Sure, but He says we are being made holy. God looks at the ultimate results and gives us the strength to be made holy in the everyday parts of our lives.
At any time – no, all the time, I can and should be in the presences of God trusting fully in Jesus. My conscience has been sprinkled with the blood of Jesus so that I can say that my conscience is clean before my Lord. That spark of sin that is still in my heart and Satan’s prompting will tell me that it is impossible because I’m going to sin again or remind me of how badly I blew it in the past. They will try to keep me from being useful in Jesus’ service by making me wallow in my guilt instead of celebrating the strength Jesus gives and His attitude toward me, calling me faithful. I have been shown mercy, right along with Paul and every believer in Jesus.
Paul says he was shown mercy because he acted in ignorance and unbelief. This has always puzzled me, not the mercy, but receiving mercy because of his ignorance and unbelief. I think it puzzles other as well since many commentaries don’t even talk about it. Does this mean that a person who rejects Jesus after he has known God’s Word about Jesus won’t be shown mercy, especially if they believe that it is true? Paul knew the Scriptures. He had been trained by the best Acts 22:3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.” (NIV) How could he claim to be ignorant? Certainly, he had heard of the claims of Christ because he persecuted the Church. How could he claim ignorance? Unbelief, yes, that he could claim.
On the other hand a better translation is 1 Tim 1:13 And yet I was shown mercy, because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; (NASB) The emphasis in this translation is that ignorant modifies unbelief instead of standing alone as in the NIV translation. Most other translations agree with the NASB.
A side note about studying the Bible; never depend on only one translation. I don’t care how brilliant or godly the translators are, they very often insert their own bias when dealing with difficult passages, or in this case, cause a passage to be more difficult that it should be. I’ll give you another hint about studying the Bible; watch out for people like me. We often pick the translation that fits our bias. While my desire is to present an good biblical study that is in accordance with God’s Word, I don’t always achieve my goal. I attempt to look at several translations to see if they agree and look at the Greek to see which seems more accurate. There are times when I’ll pick one that makes the most sense to me and that’s where my bias can come in. As a fallen human being, I don’t always realize it. Now, let me give you the same warnings about study Bibles and the footnotes. The footnotes are no more Scripture than my writing. It is always best to try to understand the Word based on the Word than anyone else’s word. Sure, if you are having a hard time, look up the notes but don’t rely only on one set.
Getting back to ignorant unbelief, in one sense, any unbelief in Jesus is ignorance. I wished I knew exactly how much knowledge a person has to have in order to know Jesus enough so that they are no longer ignorant and then believe. Even as I mentioned above, Paul should have known enough to belief, but he didn’t. I should have known enough with the religious upbringing I had to believe, but I didn’t. That seems to be the point that Paul is making when he talks about grace. Left to ourselves, we’ll always be ignorant of Jesus.
God poured out his grace abundantly on Paul. There isn’t any human reason anyone would have suspected that God would want to save Paul, the persecutor of the Church. When I look at my life before Jesus, there is no reason that God would want to save me. After I was saved, I walked into a noontime Bible study at work. The leader of the group was shocked that I was there, but after asking me about my faith, welcomed me. I was one of the last people he expected to see there. That is what God’s grace is about. I didn’t earn God’s favor and neither did Paul.
Paul also says that along with that grace, God gave him faith and love. Everything Paul did up to the point of getting knocked off his horse, demonstrated unbelief and hate. How did Paul go from unbelief to belief? How did I go from believing in myself to faith in Jesus? The answer is not in anything Paul or I had to offer God. Eph 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. (NASB) Grace and faith are both a gift from God. If it were based on anything in me then I would be able to boast about it. I would be able to say, “Hey, look at these abilities, skills, potential, or whatever that I have that are so great that God chose me. He thought I was worth it.” On the contrary, I was worthless.
I’ve heard it said that we were of such great worth to God that Jesus died for us. I think we have it backward. We are worth nothing to God. Because Jesus died for us, we now have worth. Eph 2:10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (NASB) We were like Onesimus, Philemon’s slave. Philem 10-11 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. (NIV) Even though God had a plan of good works for us, it wasn’t until we became a son of His that we became useful. We were slaves to darkness but now, in Jesus, we are sons of the Light. It is all because of God’s love.