Who is the chief, or foremost, sinner?

Towards the end of his life, the Apostle Paul wrote a pastoral letter to Timothy. In this letter, he gave amazing instructions, commands, encouragements, warnings, and personal testimony. He revealed that he was a sinner. Not just any sinner, he said he was the chief, or foremost sinner. This is completely contrary to the common perception of a devout, pious, holy man of God. What did he mean?

  • Instructions concerning false doctrine (1 Timothy 1:3-20)
  • Instructions concerning the church (1 Timothy 2:1–3:16)
  • Instructions concerning false teachers (1 Timothy 4:1–16)
  • Instructions concerning pastoral responsibilities (1 Timothy 5:1-6:2)
  • Instructions concerning the man of God (1 Timothy 6:3-21)

Right in the middle of these amazing instructions to this young pastor, the Apostle Paul reminded Timothy that he, himself, was a sinner, and not just any sinner, but the chief, or foremost sinner.

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord that he has trusted me and has appointed me to do his work with the strength he has given me. In the past I cursed him, persecuted him, and acted arrogantly toward him. However, I was treated with mercy because I acted ignorantly in my unbelief. Our Lord was very kind to me. Through his kindness he brought me to faith and gave me the love that Christ Jesus shows people. This is a statement that can be trusted and deserves complete acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and I am the foremost sinner. However, I was treated with mercy so that Christ Jesus could use me, the foremost sinner, to demonstrate his patience. This patience serves as an example for those who would believe in him and live forever. Worship and glory belong forever to the eternal king, the immortal, invisible, and only God. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

What did the Apostle Paul mean when he said he was the chief sinner? Was he exaggerating with a false modesty? Did he mean he sinned before everyone else? Did he mean he sinned more than everyone else? Did he mean he sinned worse than everyone else? No, I think we can show that the Apostle Paul learned to hate his sins more and more as he learned to appreciate his merciful salvation more and more. Let’s look at some chronological episodes that illustrate this point, starting with the teachings of Jesus…

Learn what this means: ‘I want mercy, not sacrifices.’ I’ve come to call sinners, not people who think they have God’s approval.” (Matthew 9:13)

When Jesus heard that, he said to them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor; those who are sick do. I’ve come to call sinners, not people who think they have God’s approval.” (Mark 2:7)

“I will build my church. And the gates of hell will not overpower it.” (Matthew 16:18)

Saul [who’s name was later changed to Paul] tried to destroy the church. He dragged men and women out of one home after another and threw them into prison. (Acts 8:3)

After Saul arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples. But everyone was afraid of him. They wouldn’t believe that he was a disciple. Then Barnabas took an interest in Saul and brought him to the apostles. Barnabas told the apostles how Saul had seen the Lord on the road and that the Lord had spoken to him. Barnabas also told them how boldly Saul had spoken about the one named Jesus in the city of Damascus. Then Saul went throughout Jerusalem with the disciples. He spoke boldly with the power and authority of the Lord. He talked and argued with Greek-speaking Jews, but they tried to murder him. As soon as the disciples found out about this, they took Saul to Caesarea and sent him to Tarsus. (Acts 9:26-30)

Rather, God’s kingdom consists of God’s approval and peace, as well as the joy that the Holy Spirit gives. The person who serves Christ with this in mind is pleasing to God and respected by people. So let’s pursue those things which bring peace and which are good for each other. (Romans 14:17-19)

I’m the least of the apostles. I’m not even fit to be called an apostle because I persecuted God’s church. But God’s kindness made me what I am, and that kindness was not wasted on me. Instead, I worked harder than all the others. It was not I who did it, but God’s kindness was with me. So, whether it was I or someone else, this is the message we brought you, and this is what you believed. (1 Corinthians 15:9-11)

If I ever wanted to brag, I wouldn’t be a fool. Instead, I would be telling the truth. But I’m going to spare you so that no one may think more of me than what he sees or hears about me, especially because of the excessive number of revelations that I’ve had. Therefore, to keep me from becoming conceited, I am forced to deal with a recurring problem. That problem, Satan’s messenger, torments me to keep me from being conceited. I begged the Lord three times to take it away from me. But he told me: “My kindness is all you need. My power is strongest when you are weak.” So I will brag even more about my weaknesses in order that Christ’s power will live in me. Therefore, I accept weakness, mistreatment, hardship, persecution, and difficulties suffered for Christ. It’s clear that when I’m weak, I’m strong. (2 Corinthians 12:6-10)

I am the least of all God’s people. Yet, God showed me his kindness by allowing me to spread the Good News of the immeasurable wealth of Christ to people who are not Jewish. (Ephesians 3:8)

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord that he has trusted me and has appointed me to do his work with the strength he has given me. In the past I cursed him, persecuted him, and acted arrogantly toward him. However, I was treated with mercy because I acted ignorantly in my unbelief. Our Lord was very kind to me. Through his kindness he brought me to faith and gave me the love that Christ Jesus shows people. This is a statement that can be trusted and deserves complete acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and I am the foremost sinner. However, I was treated with mercy so that Christ Jesus could use me, the foremost sinner, to demonstrate his patience. This patience serves as an example for those who would believe in him and live forever. Worship and glory belong forever to the eternal king, the immortal, invisible, and only God. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

Paul doesn’t just say that he had been a sinner, or that he used to be a sinner, he said he currently is a sinner, and the word he used means “first in rank, influence, honor; chief; principal.” Consider…

Of whom I am chief.—The intense humility of the strange, beautiful character of the Gentile Apostle prompted this bitter expression. St. Paul, it has been well said, knew his own sins by experience, and every other man’s [by speculation]. In another place a similar feeling leads him to style himself as “less than the least of all saints” (Ephesians 3:8). He had been in time past so bitter an enemy of the Lord that no preaching of the disciples was effectual to work his conversion. In his case, to overcome his intense hatred of the Name, it needed a special appearance of the Risen One. (Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers)

Of whom I am chief – Greek, “first.” The word is used to denote eminence – and it means that he occupied the first rank among sinners. There were none who surpassed him. This does not mean that he had been the greatest of sinners in all respects, but that in some respects he had been so great a sinner, that on the whole there were none who had surpassed him. That to which he particularly refers was doubtless the part which he had taken in putting the saints to death; but in connection with this, he felt, undoubtedly, that he had by nature a heart eminently prone to sin; see Romans 7. Except in the matter of persecuting the saints, the youthful Saul of Tarsus appears to have been eminently moral, and his outward conduct was framed in accordance with the strictest rules of the law; Philippians 3:6; Acts 26:4-5. After his conversion, he never attempted to extenuate his conduct, or excuse himself. He was always ready, in all circles, and in all places, to admit to its fullest extent the fact that he was a sinner. So deeply convinced was he of the truth of this, that he bore about with him the constant impression that he was eminently unworthy; and hence he does not say merely that he had been a sinner of most aggravated character, but he speaks of it as something that always pertained to him – “of whom I am chief.” We may remark:
(1) that a true Christian will always be ready to admit that his past life has been evil;
(2) that this will become the abiding and steady conviction of the soul; and,
(3) that an acknowledgment that we are sinners is not inconsistent with evidence of piety, and with high attainments in it. The most eminent Christian has the deepest sense of the depravity of his own heart and of the evil of his past life. (Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary)

It is this, in Christians who have a well-grounded consciousness of perfect reconciliation with God, assured to them even by the seal of the Spirit of adoption, this happy consciousness is, however, perfectly compatible with a vivid remembrance of wrong things done in the past. And this remembrance is perpetually suggestive of sentiments of self-loathing – self-loathing the more bitter in proportion as the soul, by its growing purification through the Spirit, is enabled the more truly to estimate the evil character of those evil deeds. This is exemplified by St. Paul’s wailing recollection, near the very end of his course, of those heinous sins of his, committed long years before, against Christ and his Church (1 Timothy 1:15). (Pulpit Commentary)

This is an amazing statement from a man who would soon write…

My life is coming to an end, and it is now time for me to be poured out as a sacrifice to God. I have fought the good fight. I have completed the race. I have kept the faith. The prize that shows I have God’s approval is now waiting for me. The Lord, who is a fair judge, will give me that prize on that day. He will give it not only to me but also to everyone who is eagerly waiting for him to come again. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

Consider this similar statement from another older man of God…

This is the message we heard from Christ and are reporting to you: God is light, and there isn’t any darkness in him. If we say, “We have a relationship with God” and yet live in the dark, we’re lying. We aren’t being truthful. But if we live in the light in the same way that God is in the light, we have a relationship with each other. And the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from every sin. If we say, “We aren’t sinful” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. God is faithful and reliable. If we confess our sins, he forgives them and cleanses us from everything we’ve done wrong. If we say, “We have never sinned,” we turn God into a liar and his Word is not in us. (1 John 1:5-10)

Who is the chief, or foremost, sinner? You and me! If we ever lose sight of that or start to think we’re better than others, then we have lost track of the goal, then we have fallen short of the mark, then we have become the worst self-deceived self-righteous sinner of all.

  • The more I appreciate the God’s love and mercy to me,
    the more I realize what an unworthy sinner I am.
  • The more I love the nature of God,
    the more I hate my old human nature.
  • The more I press on towards the upward calling,
    the more I despise the sins that so easily drag me down.
  • The more I understand God’s holiness,
    the more I understand my filthiness.
  • The more I understand God’s perfection,
    the more I understand my imperfection.

The more I remember I am weak and he is strong, the more I rely on his strength in my life…

Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)

When I think of all this, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)

We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. May you be filled with joy, always thanking the Father. He has enabled you to share in the inheritance that belongs to his people, who live in the light. For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins. (Colossians 1:11-14)

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength to do his work. He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve him, even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 1:12-14)

I think groups, families, fellowships, churches, Christians, and the world in general would be better if we remembered that we are each the chief of sinners.

  • Chief, or foremost, sinners don’t exalt one another over one another.
  • Chief, or foremost, sinners don’t require perfection in each other.
  • Chief, or foremost, sinners aren’t shocked when each other fall short of the mark.
  • Chief, or foremost, sinners easily forgive one another and keep pressing on.

What do you think?

For deeper study:

  • The controversy of sin
    The controversy of sin is not that we are sinners, it is how badly we are sinners, not that God hates sin, but what God has done about sin.
  • The gospel of rest
    There are many false prophets in the world distorting the Good News about Christ. What is truth? Jesus Christ is the answer! He provides rest for the weary.
  • What is the “Romans Road”?
    The “Romans Road” is a simple way of presenting the gospel using verses from Romans. And, it’s a good way to introduce someone to studying the Bible.
  • The Gospel in Small — MacLaren’s Expositions
    I said in the beginning of my remarks that it seemed to me that without the reproduction of this estimate of ourselves there would be little strong Christian life in us. It seems to me that that continual remembrance which Paul carried with him of what he had been, and of Christ’s marvellous love in drawing him to Himself, was the very spring of all that was noble and conspicuously Christian in his career. And I venture to say, in two or three words, what I think you and I will never have unless we have this lowly self-estimate.

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