I Timothy 1:12-14 “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.”
In all genuine Christianity there is a sense of wonder. That sinning creatures like ourselves should know the Maker of this universe, that we may have a personal relationship with him, and that he does love us with a love that will never let us go – no true Christian can ever get to the stage where he becomes blase about such breathtaking realities. But those people who have lightly professed to have become Christians can just as easily give up their faith. What has cost nothing is worth nothing. How different those who have learned their unworthiness, and have groaned with the deepest conviction, “God be merciful to me the sinner.” They will never forget that arms of mercy embraced them. John Newton sings, “Amazing grace – how sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me.” He had lived a shameful life, but God had delivered him and made his life the happiest of anyone who lived in the village of Olney. “Amazing grace!” He deserved nothing but judgment; he received nothing but mercy. Many hymns have that note of wonder: “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood?” “I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me.” “O how the grace of God amazes me.” “‘Tis mercy all immense and free, and O my God – it found out me.” “In wonder lost, with trembling joy we take the pardon of our God.”
“It is a thing most wonderful,
Almost too wonderful to be,
That God’s own Son should come from heaven
And die to save a child like me.”
In much religion today those notes of wonder are absent. Check how many new hymns contain any wonder at the writer’s salvation.
Many churchgoing people are being taught that naturally they deserve to be loved. God owes them something. He is always there to accept them. If they have been exposed to just this one theme – the mercy of God – scarcely ever hearing about their unworthiness and the divine holiness, then the sovereign pity of God has been trivialised for them. Their spiritual lives have been stunted by cut-price grace. The sermons they’ve heard omit telling the world that it is in rebellion against God, under his wrath, and that the exercise of mercy is optional with him. “I will have mercy upon whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Roms. 9:15). After years of an unalleviated diet of the love of God men and women think, “I know I’m accepted. Of course. Big deal!” Grace has become boring. Self-pity is the mark of those who hear of the divine grace alone without God’s requirements that we repent. Sinners feel that they have been good to God and they deserve all they have, and when they don’t get what they want they feel sorry for themselves.
Pluck up courage and ask one such person if he is a Christian. “Of course I am,” he replies. In other words, how dare you question his faith when you can see for yourself how he lives. But you ask a Christian who has been exercised about his unworthiness and he will say to you, “It’s an amazing fact – almost too wonderful to be – but the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me. He took my sins to himself as he hung on the cross and so took away all my blame and shame. It is the most remarkable thing in the universe and I can’t get over it. It is all because of his grace that I am a Christian today, and nothing in me merits it.”
Paul has been writing about “the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (v.11). This gospel is certainly glorious, and it is glorious because it is God’s own good news to men. It originated in him, was accomplished by him, revealed by him and applied to the world – all by the power and divine initiative of God. The gospel is a matter of vertical sovereign grace from beginning to end. But here Paul is emphasising that the content of this good news is the glory of God. We have the tendency to think of the glory of God as one reality – the sheer effulgence of splendour and magnificent holiness which makes the angels cover their eyes – and then there is the other reality of the gospel message. We have made them two different entities. But Paul is saying here that it is the gospel which epitomises the divine glory. Nowhere else in anything God has done, nowhere else in the entire Bible is God’s glory seen so fully as in this gospel. Nowhere do the divine perfections combine and show themselves as they are manifest in the good news about the Lord Jesus. The glory of the blessed God is operative and resplendent in the gospel.
That God should love an evil defiant world, that he should determine to save that world – though some would be lost – that he spared not his beloved only Son to secure this salvation, the humbling of this Son in incarnation, the giving of himself to the anathema of his horrific death, all this is the zenith of the glory of God. The Word of God who was with God and was God became the Lamb of God to atone for our sins and to propitiate the divine wrath. Now a full forgiveness is being offered to the whole world if men but turn and entrust themselves to the Lord Christ. Nothing else is necessary. Nothing else matters. Hide beneath the covering love of the name of Jesus. Eternal, ever-blessed life will be yours. It is in that good news that the glory of God is seen as nowhere else. The apostle John cries, “We beheld his glory, and it was his grace and truth.” It was the glory of grace that men saw. When the angel appeared to the shepherds and told them that this day a Saviour was born for them, then, suddenly, a multitude of the heavenly host appeared and cried “Glory to God in the highest.” The message was of the glorious gospel.
It is to declare the same message that the apostle Paul was summoned: “the glorious gospel of the blessed God was entrusted to me,” he says (v.11). The message itself is an amazing one, but what was more incredible was that God should have commissioned someone like Saul of Tarsus to preach it, saying in effect, “Not by angels and seraphim but by your speaking shall the world hear of the glory of God.” It was that personal divine commission that the apostle found so amazing. Years earlier God had given to Paul this sacred stewardship and now Paul is writing this letter. It is towards the end of his earthly ministry, but he still retains this sense of wonder. This amazement has survived all his sins and failures, his cowardice and bouts of dryness, his fears and discouragements. He has often been a poor servant of God, yet God had called him to preach this message, and Paul is still overwhelmed at that thought and the measure of obedience that he had been enabled to give. There are a number of reasons for this wonder:
1. AMAZING BECAUSE OF WHAT PAUL HAD BEEN. (v.13)
We often think of the contrast in the life of certain men. One was raised in the most humble of circumstances, but he becomes one of the most powerful men in the world. “From Log Cabin to White House” is the title of a biography of Abraham Lincoln. Men have risen above many natural disadvantages to positions of extraordinary power. But not one has had the influence over the world for almost 2000 years which this man Paul has had, and it all began so unpromisingly: “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy,” he says. He confesses those three crimes:-
“I was once a blasphemer,” he acknowledges. You might not think it matters to take the name of Jesus Christ or the name of God and spice your jokes and the pathetic incidents that have happened in your life with the divine eternal name to make you seem a funnier person. It’s not funny. For every idle word God will hold us accountable. Foul language hurts us deeply. I sometimes think that the worst thing about TV is the way it brings wretched blasphemies suddenly into our homes. We never get used to it. Paul once cursed the name of Jesus. He did it in front of Christians. He even tried to make them repeat what he was saying. He tells us in Acts 26:11, “I tried to force them to blaspheme .” It’s been the way with torturers across the centuries.
“I was once a persecutor,” says Paul. He says in Acts 26:10ff “I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished.” Stephen was not the only one in whose death Paul had been involved. You remember how he guarded the coats of the men who were stoning Stephen and looked on approvingly. He had done that many times, maybe even himself hurling rocks into the soft human flesh of young and old. And then on the sabbath as people were sitting in a synagogue hearing the Word of God the doors would crash open and Paul and a number of others would march in and would display their credentials as men with the authority of the chief priests, and they would ask, “Who professes to follow Jesus here?” How easy to find our who were serious about Christ. Then they would bind them and lead them out to torture and death.
“I was once a violent man,” says Paul. The word ‘violent’ is the word which in the original form we get our word ‘hubris’. Here it means arrogantly sadistic. It means inflicting pain for the sheer pleasure of it. It is referring to satisfaction derived from openly shaming men and women. Paul went beyond what Jewish law required. He injected into their arrest and interrogation a degree of cruelty the details of which he spares us. There was a hideous brutality about this inquisitor. This, in his own words, is the chief of sinners.
He says that he did this “in ignorance and unbelief.” He was being consistent with his own religion: “I was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9). He was being zealous and sincere in his Jewishness. He talks of his fellow countrymen and he acknowledges, “they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (Roms.10:2), it was based on ignorance. So it had been with him, his persecution flowed from “ignorance and unbelief.” That is still the judgment of the Christian church upon Judaism’s fanatics today. The roughing up of Baruch Maoz’s congregation at a recent baptismal service by the Sea of Galilee was because of this same ignorance and unbelief. It is not that the Orthodox Jews are walking one of the many different roads which all lead to God. They are acting through ignorance and unbelief. Paul is the pre-eminent example of natural religion. The greater the intensity of its religious fervour, the greater the opposition to God
When Paul says that he did what he did “in ignorance and unbelief” he is not excusing himself. He is facing up to the vileness, the sheer godlessness of his sin and the enormity of his guilt. Paul is not thinking that the tortures were not that heinous because they were done in unbelief. Ignorance does not excuse stoning a man to death. Paul was kicking against the goads doing such things. What Paul is saying is this, that his conduct was so reprehensible, so cruel, that if he had done those things knowingly he would have put himself beyond the pale of salvation. His behaviour is so terrible in his own eyes that they brought him to the very edge of damnation. But the one thing that kept him from that place across whose entrance the words are written, “Abandon Hope All Ye That Enter Here,” was simply the fact that he did these things in unbelief. There is one sin that cannot be forgiven, and that is blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. Paul’s blasphemies were almost that, but the one thing that restrained him was he didn’t know that those he helped to kill were filling up the sufferings of Christ. He did not know that when he persecuted the body he was persecuting the Head too.
Paul was not ignorant that sadistic cruelty was wrong. When he says, “I acted in ignorance and unbelief” that fact is not the grounds of his obtaining mercy but the grounds of the forgivableness of his sin. It was dreadful behaviour yet it was not blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. When on the Damascus Road he was confronted with the risen Christ he bowed before him and asked him what this Lord wanted him to do. He did not blaspheme the Holy Spirit by rejecting this Christ. Judas did, though seeing his glory. Paul is not pleading his unbelief to get a lighter sentence but to magnify the grace that saved him from cruelty, blind zeal, plus ignorance and unbelief. All a man’s actions will be weighed by God, and when we stand before him there will be some sins we must answer for which we did unintentionally as well as there being sins which we did intentionally (Numbers 15), and God will know the difference. But we must answer for them all. Palliatives don’t exculpate culprits, neither will they sheathe the sword of justice. The only sheath for that righteous blade is the wounded side of Christ. To those alone who are hidden there will mercy be given.
Now if there were ever a man you would think would be the least likely to be saved it would be Saul of Tarsus. If there were a man who deserved to justly condemned that man was Saul. Yet this is the man who is shown mercy – “even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man”. Let no one think that they have passed through those portals where the mercy of God may not reach them. Is not this a day of grace? If the fulness of long-suffering and mercy reached this man who dare claim that they beyond the grip of grace? Don’t allow a sense of your sin and the gravity of your guilt keep you from serving Christ.
So often the minister is weighed down with a crushing sense of his own unworthiness and sinfulness. He will ask, “How can I continue my duties when I have behaved in this way?” But such feelings are indispensable for a blessed ministry John Murray says, “It is always well for us to be keenly aware of our sinfulness. Much evangelical preaching, to say nothing of unevangelical preaching, suffers from the absence in the preacher himself of the note of contrition and humility, and of contrition and humility a deep sense of personal unworthiness is an indispensable ingredient. Unless our ministrations are performed in the spirit of sincere personal contrition there will be something metallic and even forbidding about our delivery of the message of the gospel. That metallic clanging the broken in heart and contrite in spirit will soon detect to their pain and sorrow…Paul never forgot what he had been, he had not forgotten the rock whence he was hewn and the hole of the pit whence he was dug. Though he gloried in the divine forgiveness he never excused or forgave himself” (John Murray, Collected Writings, Volume 3, “Paul an Example”, pp.247 – 255, Banner of Truth).
How did the remembrance of what he had been benefit the apostle Paul?
i] It saved him from pride. There were those many privileges Paul had had, the visit to the third heaven, the multitudes converted, the letters written, the churches planted, the experience of the Spirit of God upon him filling him in preaching, the people who loved him who would give their right eyes to him. All these factors could encourage spiritual pride, the sin of glorying in his own knowledge, in his blessings and outstanding success. So the livid memories of what he had done as an unregenerate man were kept alive as a counterpoise, to enforce a sense of dependence and an acknowledgement of weakness. To silence the clamorous, ‘You ought to be proud of yourself,’ there had to be another voice, equally insistent ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself.’ The memories actually purified and mortified. They poured contempt on all his pride.
John Newton had the opportunity as the captain of a slave ship to be involved in the most depraved of activities. When he was converted to Jesus Christ, and appointed a preacher of the gospel, he wrote a text in great letters, and fastened it above the mantelpiece of his study where he could not fail to see it: “Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.” He even composed his own epitaph and it ran, “John Newton, Clerk, once and Infidel and Libertine, a Servant of Slaves in Africa, was by the Mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Preserved, Restored, Pardoned and Appointed to Preach the Faith he had so long Laboured to Destroy.” The greater our sense of insufficiency and impotence the more equipped we will be to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ.
ii] The memory of our sins will keep our gratitude fresh. You can divide the whole of Christianity under the headings of Guilt, Grace and Gratitude. God had shown his grace to the guilty Paul. “All my life I’ll be grateful,” he vowed. He could have been a bigoted nonentity, another of those religious despots whose contribution to humanity has been pain – men’s religions are amongst their worst crimes. Instead Paul was loved and delivered from cruel bigotry. For the rest of his days he was grateful.
Thomas Goodwin one wrote a letter to his son in which he said, “When I was threatening to become cold in the ministry, and when I felt Sabbath morning coming and my heart was not filled with amazement at the grace of God, or when I was making ready to dispense the Lord’s Supper, do you know what I used to do? I used to take a turn up and down among the sins of my past life, and I always came down again with a broken and contrite heart, ready to preach, as it was preached in the beginning, the forgiveness of sins…I do not think I ever went up the pulpit stair that I did not stop for a moment at the foot of it and take a turn up and down among the sins of my past years, I do not think that I ever planned a sermon that I did not take a turn around my study table and look back at the sins of my youth and of all my life down to the present; and many a Sabbath morning, when my soul had been cold and dry, for the lack of prayer during the week, a turn up and down in my past life before I went into the pulpit always broke my hard heart and made me close with the gospel for my own soul before I began to preach.” Gratitude to God for what he has delivered us from makes us better servants.
iii] The memory of our sins urges us on to greater effort. “Let me show you, Lord, how much I’m grateful for your mercy.” The true Christian can’t do too much for God. Paul put many into prison. Now he is inside many a prison himself. Spurgeon had a friend who lived four or five miles away from his place of worship, and he used to say, “You old legs, it is no use your being tired for you’ve got to carry me. You used to take me to the public house when I served the devil and you shall carry me now to the house of God that I may serve him.” And when arthritis set in and he found it hard to sit for an hour in a pew he would say, “It’s no use grumbling, old bones, you will have to sit here, or you will have to stand. Years ago you put up with all kinds of inconveniences when you went to the match, or in some other place, when I served Satan. You must be content to do the same now for a better Master and a nobler service.” We have to say, “Come covetousness. You were generous when you used to serve sin. Are you going to be stingy in serving God? Come cold heart. You were hot enough when the price of your stocks went up or your team was winning. While Jesus reigns wont you be lifted up to praise God?”
iv] The knowledge of deliverance from our sins will be a constant encouragement to others. Here is a man, Saul of Tarsus, whose sins were greater than your husband’s and viler than your prodigal child’s. Yet the mercy of God reached him. The early church might have judged that this apostle would have been the last man in the world to have become a Christian yet it was the old blasphemer and persecutor who was saved. Paul says in verse 16, “I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” Here is the great example we are to set before ourselves: this is Exhibit A. If someone like Paul could be saved then of whom may we say that such a person could never receive eternal life? We sometimes go through great wintry seasons, or fall into the same sin repeatedly and we begin to despair. But Christ Jesus showed unlimited patience to Paul. Will he not show that same patience to you too?
Let’s not forget the sins from which we have been delivered. In Pilgrim’s Progress (Part II) Greatheart turn to Christian’s boys and says to them, “You must know that Forgetful Green is the most dangerous place in all these parts.” So Paul’s sense of amazement was so powerful because he didn’t forget what he had once been.
2. AMAZING BECAUSE OF PAUL’S NEW CALLING (v.12)
This section is so very personal, and it faithfully reflects the original emphases. “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service” (v.12). Paul seizes on the full imperial title of his Saviour – Christ Jesus our Lord. All the gospel is in those three capitalised words. All of divinity and all a sinner’s hope. One: Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed prophet, priest and king; two: Jesus, the great Saviour; three: our Lord, the incarnate Jehovah. “Christ Jesus our Lord.” He believed none of that before his conversion. The Lord Jesus meant nothing to him, and worst than nothing, a charlatan, a liar and a blasphemer. But this Jesus had caused an intellectual revolution to take place in him, and had shown him mercy, and entrusted to him the glorious gospel. What had Christ Jesus our Lord done?
i] He considered Paul faithful. Of all people he made Paul a trusted man. He had once attacked Christian women as well as men. His lips had used foul blasphemies. He was merciless and violent. Now he was chosen by the Prince of Peace to be his ambassador. He became the trustee. The one who helped the Lord. The one who had the keys. “Feed my sheep,” the Lord said to Paul. “Feed my lambs.” He made the sheep-killer a shepherd. This man of such fiery impatience is forgiven and made useful in the Lord’s service. He trusted him.
It is a great challenge to us, to trust men whose pasts have been shameful and violent but whose hopes now are in Jesus Christ. Too much of the spirit of the older brother is in us, and we cannot rejoice when the prodigal comes back from the distant city. We cannot believe he is sincere. We have to mortify our suspicions so that we trust such people with baptism and sit with them around his Table, and they lead us in the Prayer Meeting. If they have fallen with regards to children in their pasts we would be foolish to put temptation in their way and ask them to help with the Sunday School or in the Young People’s work today. If they have fallen with money in the past we would be unwise in giving them any financial responsibility in the congregation. But we will trust them as our brothers and sisters in Christ with fitting duties.
A person considered trustworthy by God will trust others and once again trust in themselves. A new convert may talk, behave and act in a certain way peculiar to her group or age, but she doesn’t worry about that and neither do we. People now trust her. She doesn’t depend on those superficial things to get into our group. God has accepted her and so does the whole church. When God finds a person faithful we accept them as faithful too.
One of the most famous Spanish writers was Miguel de Cervantes who wrote the story of Don Quixote. My wife and I saw an adaptation of it this past summer. Don Quixote is a sad awkward brave foolish knight. In one episode he comes to a village inn where he meets a pathetic woman, the inn’s serving maid and…whore. There can be little doubt about that. Everyone in the village treats her coarsely and meanly. When people look at her with scorn she reads ‘prostitute’ in their eyes. Then into the inn comes Don Quixote and when he sets his eyes upon her he doesn’t see a harlot, he sees a beautiful sensitive woman. He surveys a noble lady. He kneels before her and devotes himself to her service and to honouring her name. He treats her as if she were royalty. And most important, when he looks at her she does not see in his eyes lust and ribaldry but respect for an important lady. His treatment of her exalts her, and she starts behaving with some self-respect, modesty and dignity.
In John Rendle-Short’s book “Green Eye of the Storm” he writes about his father Arthur, a notable Christian surgeon from Bristol, and the result of reading about him is that one finds a warm affection growing for this man who died in the middle of the century. On one occasion a specialist had taken a woman off the streets to see his father for a consultation. He was recalling the incident to John shortly after the death of his father telling him what a remarkable man Arthur was. This specialist described the woman to John as “an old hag, filthy, smelly and disgusting. ‘And yet,’ he ended as he turned away, ‘Short treated her like a princess.'” (p.140) Now that is the way Paul had been treated by God, like a son of God, a joint heir with Christ. He considered Paul trustworthy. When the Lord looked at Paul the apostle never read the words ‘blasphemer,’ ‘persecutor,’ ‘violent man,’ in his eyes, but the words ‘son,’ ‘ambassador,’ ‘fellow-worker,’ ‘beloved child.’
ii] He appointed me to his service. It was very personal calling. Christ Jesus the Lord appointed Paul to serve him. He writes about this in an earlier letter to the Corinthians, “For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of; for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel” (I Cor. 9:16). If it were not for the fact that his ministry was by divine appointment there is no way Paul could have done it, year after year. He was called to an impossible task. It was not like trading or politics or teaching at a university – at all of those Paul could have excelled. Paul was called to represent the Lord before men. “If anyone speaks,” Peter says, “he should do it as one speaking the very words of God” (I Pet. 4:11). Paul himself can say, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Cor.5:20). As though God were beseeching you! What an awesome responsibility. Who would dare take on this work unless they had some sense of assurance that the Lord had appointed them to this work. Let everyone else stay out of the pulpit. Even the apostle, confident of his calling spoke in weakness and in fear and in much trembling (I Cor. 2:3).
The great Methodist preacher, William Bramwell, once confided, ‘I die a death every time I preach: I wonder I have lived as long as I have.” He had great gifts as a minister and preached the word with power. There was a great American Puritan preacher called Thomas Shepherd who acknowledged that every sermon he preached cost him sweat and tears. No man takes such a work upon himself. He must be appointed by God. No man should preach unless he can possibly dodge it. No man should go into the Christian ministry if can avoid doing it. It is not a career one takes up like one goes into the army or into banking. All the biblical preachers were men like Paul conscious that they had been appointed to the ministry, and sent by God. They may have been initially appointed to other work; Amos was a herdsman, Peter was a master-fisherman, Matthew was in a tax-office and then this divine compulsion came upon them – “God is appointing me to the ministry” – and it never went away. Peter speaks on behalf of all the apostles when he declared, “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). The apostolic preacher is under a divine compulsion to preach the gospel. There are occasional preachers who have kept buildings from closing down and done valiantly for God, but there is also this full-time calling of men expressly appointed by God who say with Paul, “I am simply discharging the trust committed to me” (I Cor.9:17).
This appointment gives a man a divine energy of the soul. He cultivates this in his study, in all the conversations and contacts he has each day in visiting, in letters and phone-calls. Everyone knows that the ministry is not a sideline in his life nor is it one interest among many. This is his divine appointment. It has priority over everything else. He dare not become preoccupied with any other matters. If God has appointed a man to this office then let him go for it. Let him say, “This one thing I do.” Pray for him. Call down God’s blessing upon the preaching week after week, and on himself as he fulfils this divine appointment.
A short time ago a man was invited to become the minister in a Church of Scotland, and so before accepting the call he requested meeting with all the elders to explain to them his vision of the work of the ministry. He talked to them about the Word of God, that it was the sword of the Spirit, that by it the joyful news of salvation was heard and through it Christians were sanctified. “I shall give myself to studying the Word,” he told them, “that I might bring it to you full and fresh every week. And I want you to pray for me and for the Bible that it affect every area of the church’s life, and ask that the Holy Spirit will come down upon the Word and bring life and salvation to this church. Now,” he asked, are there any questions?” These elders looked down and shuffled their feet. There was a long silence, and finally one man raised his hand. “Yes?” the minister said to him. “Do you play indoor bowls?” the man asked. The minister thought, “What has happened to the Church of Scotland?” I can only plead with the pew that they never lose sight of the gift of a man appointed by God to the ministry.
iii] The Lord Christ gave Paul strength. He considered him trustworthy, and appointed him to the ministry, and he gave him strength. It would have all been useless without that divine energy. The Lord was so committed to Paul that he gave him everything that he needed for his entire life and ministry. He so regulated Paul’s life that every single need that incurred from serving God was met by the Lord himself. And so it was when Paul began as a Christian he discovered new resources and energy. He found when he waited upon him he renewed his strength. He mounted up with wings as an eagle. He ran and didn’t grow weary and he walked and did not faint. Paul found he could cast many a burden upon him and the Lord took them all up. He never failed him. He delivered Paul from the Jews, the false prophets within the church, from Caesar, from lions, from shipwrecks and thorns in the flesh.
All Paul needed to hallow God’s name, and build Christ’s church and maintain the congregation as the fellowship of the Spirit God gave to him. Wherever he took Paul he provided for him, and everything the apostle needed to become more Christ-like God gave him. He empowered him with patience, and love, and trust, and forgiveness, and contentment, and self-control, and purity, and vitality, and joy, and wisdom, and inspiration. Paul could never say, “My resources were inadequate.” He provided Paul with fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, friends, houses, means of transport, sufficient health and food for every day. He energised Paul so that his heart did not break, his mind did not snap, nor his spirit sag in despair. He kept Paul sane, and strong enough for all God wanted him to do. Whenever there was a time of need Christ’s power supplied Paul’s need. Just then. Not before, and not when it was no longer needed. In times of stress, and bereavement, and pain, and rejection, betrayal, loneliness and pressure – at all those times strength from the Lord was given.
When the churches seemed to be collapsing, and all those in Asia turned away from Paul, when one year in prison was followed by another, and preachers of another gospel were busy everywhere then strength was given to Paul. When he was tempted by lust and tempted to depression, and tempted to worry, and tempted to become bitter, and tempted simply to faint then again strength was given to him from the Lord. When his flesh had no rest, and there were fightings without and fears within, and he despaired even of life, the Lord gave him strength. When the good he would he did not, and the evil that he would not that he did so that he cried, “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” then the Lord delivered him. There was never a time when the Lord did not stand by him. When he asked the Lord, “Keep me patient; keep me content; keep me courageous; keep me unselfish; keep me dutiful; keep me mindful that my chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever,” then the Lord heard and answered his requests. When trials came and surrounded him on every side when he asked God there was a way of escape provided and he was able to bear them. When Satan seemed to walk tall through the land and had increasing access to the souls of men, when ungodly and unrighteous lifestyles seemed tremendously attractive so that Paul quaked with fear he asked God for strength and then again strength was given to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul never served Christ at his own expense or by his own energy. The Lord supplied every necessary gift, all the equipment needed, and he did that habitually day after day. This letter is one of the last Paul wrote. These are not the experiences of the young convert but the man who has long served God in many different contexts, and for every single day of this long and incredibly influential life he found a divine empowerment. It was the most unbelievable story. Paul was tapping the source of power that created the universe. He saw communities transformed and the most hideous lives healed and elevated, and he saw this thousands of times amongst the Jews and Greeks.
I wish we could tell the world this truth, how wonderful it is to be loved by God, how marvellously he blesses, what great moments and days we have known over and over again. He has supplied strength for our lives in the most indescribably grand ways. He did this for this former blasphemer and persecutor and violent man. It was amazing to Paul that one he had treated so ill should treat him in such an extraordinary way.
3. AMAZING BECAUSE OF THE BLESSINGS PAUL RECEIVED v. 14
“The grace of our God was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” I was once a terrible man, but I received abundant grace. At the moment of his conversion God did so much for him. Before he had spoken a word for God, before any of the sufferings, or any of the mighty letters had been written, at that moment when he bowed before Christ as Lord so much was conferred upon him. God freely pardoned all Paul’s sins. Paul became whiter than the snow. All his sins were taken from him as far as the east is from the west. They were all plunged into the depths of the deepest sea where the water pressure is so immense nothing at all can live and where there is impenetrable darkness. He sets Paul’s sins there where they can never be discovered again, and he puts up the notice, “Forbidden to Fish in These Waters.” He clothed him in the righteousness of Christ. He adopted him into his family and made him his son and a joint heir with Christ. He was given the right to talk to God as Father and to bring his problems to him and be taught by him and kept by him. He united him to the Lord Jesus, like a branch is joined to the vine, so that the life of Christ’s joy and peace and patience was his. God terminated the reign of sin over him and gave him a new loving Master, even the Lord Jesus. He gave to Paul the knowledge and additional assurance that these things were indeed true so that he was persuaded that God would keep that which he had committed unto him against that day. There was that sense of assurance which he enjoyed every day, and then there were even better days, when he knew joy unspeakable and fullness of glory, when there was a melody on his lips of praise to God. There were days when God restored his soul, and Paul walked high and saw the promised land with the clearest vision.
These are not mercy drops like the last drip of the water-bottle falling on the parched lips of a lost man in a desert. This is a waterfall of grace that threatens to sweep us away, “flowing like a mighty ocean in its fulness over me.” The banks are bursting and the fields are flooded and there is irrigation and growth and fruitfulness. That is what Paul is talking about when he says, “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly.” He could not confine it or contain it. It was immeasurably vast and free. It is the grace of our Lord. It is the grace of Jesus, the one who spoke and the winds and waves obeyed him. It is the grace of the one who raised Lazarus from the grave. It is the grace of enfleshed omnipotence now enthroned at the right hand of God and yet touched by the feeling of our infirmities. His grace is poured out on us. Then what have we to fear? It is inexhaustible.
Think of a little mouse standing on top of a mountain holding its breath until it is almost bursting. “What are you doing that for little mouse?” “I am afraid that my breathing will use up all the oxygen in the atmosphere.” “Breathe on little mouse there is a super-abundance of air for your lungs and a million million million like you.” Think of a fish in the Atlantic holding its gills tight shut and turning purple with the effort. “What are you doing little fish?” “I am holding my gills shut lest I use up all the oxygen in the Atlantic.” “Open them wide little fish. There is plenty of you and billions upon billions like you I this mighty ocean.”
So too with the grace of our Lord, it is enough for a company of people more than any man can number like the sands on the sea-shore. It is enough to make and sustain a new heavens and a new earth. God will never put you in any circumstance where his grace cannot keep you. It is an insult to God to refuse any office in the church because of feelings of your own limitations. Our sufficiency is of God. The measuring rod for our ability is not our intelligence, our environment, our studies, our hard work, our qualifications, our experiences or our gifts. The bench-mark for our service is the grace of God poured out on us abundantly.
John Bunyan read these words and the words of the next verse and he put them together and he made them the title of his autobiography, “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.” What is the explanation of this man, demobbed from the army in his early twenties and becoming a saucepan repairer, knocking on doors, going from house to house and asking if they had any kettles to fix. He was the first in the lineage of Bunyans to have become literate, and yet he goes on to write one of the most helpful books that has been written, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” and scores of other books which are still in print three hundred years later. The grace of our Lord was poured out on him abundantly. So it is with you too. The same grace from the same Lord is on you, and it is abundant grace.
And with it there is the faith that trusts God during the worst times, that enables us to sing when the trial has been unjust, the flogging excruciatingly painful, the dungeon stinking and black as night, and the stocks an additional agony. Even those times we find our faith in Christ Jesus alive and focused. “He has never let us down,” we say. “He told us that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of heaven and so it has proved to be. But he said that he would work all these things for our good, and we trust him now.” That is the voice of faith that is in Christ Jesus which is always a mark of abundant grace.
There is love too that enables to go on in the Christian life forgiving, bearing burdens, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things and never failing. It is a love that stops us holding grudges, and overcomes resentments, and enables us not to retaliate, but to turn the other cheek. It is a love that enables us to experience the most warm affection for one another so that we would lay down our lives for one another. That love which is joined to Christ Jesus and given to us is the inseparable companion of the abundant grace of our Lord. This is the equipment which God provides for every single one of his people, and it is so amazing that we scarcely can believe that these are our privileges. Yet this is the Christian life.
It is for all this grace that Paul responds by crying, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord.” He says it with a catch of the breath, a stab of joy, a beat of the heart and a lifting of the soul in worship. At times it made him weep, that the brave Son of God had so triumphed over this mean and evil man. Then he humbly thanked God whispering “I’m so grateful, so very grateful.” All heaven rejoices with him, the angels breaking loose, the stars leaping in their courses singing together and all the sons of God shouting for joy.
Things are not as they seem. Men without God are living in a fantasy world and the real world is this one in which Jesus Christ rose from the dead and lives, and we by his grace live with him and he in us.
September 26 1999 GEOFF THOMAS