It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all (1 Timothy 1:15)
It is almost impossible to understand how the apostle Paul declares that he is the chief of sinners. Of all the people that Jesus Christ came into the world to save, Paul says he is on the top of that list of sinners. Yet, such is hardly the impression we tend to get about the apostle Paul in our reading of Scripture. We tend to think of Paul as having the closest walk with Christ that is possible for men to have. We tend to find Paul's statement as simply too difficult to accept, and try to soften his statement as Paul simply speaking of his "past life" prior to his Damascus Road experience in which he had an encounter with the risen Christ. Yet, that is not what Paul says.
Paul says he is the chief of sinners. Not "has been," as being past tense, but says "I am," which is present tense. In the Greek this emphasis is more clear and would read more like Paul was shouting "I, I AM the biggest of all sinners!"
How does such a great saint though view himself as such a great sinner? As great as Paul's sins were, they surely never measured up to the likes of many people we know of from history. When we think of great sinners, we think of individuals like Hitler all the way to former church members who have left the church. We don't think of people like the apostle Paul. How could this statement possibly be true?
I believe the key to understanding Paul's mysterious statement comes from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, when He said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:3) I think perhaps the reason we have a hard time accepting Paul's statement is because we often lack a poverty of spirit in our own lives. We tend to view ourselves as better than others. We tend to view our own sins as smaller than others. We tend to view our own accomplishments as greater than others. We tend to see ourselves as more deserving than others. We tend to see ourselves in whatever way, better than others. This is perhaps best seen in what we gossip about. "DID YOU HEAR ABOUT WHAT SO AND SO DID? I can't believe it!"
I think I sometimes tend towards this sort of mindset in my natural self. I've always been told my entire life by many others that I am very smart. Once I even took an IQ test that confirmed what has long been common consent amongst friends, family, teachers, co-workers, etc. I scored a 132, which is well into the genius level. Now here I am, a genius. I consider myself well versed in the Scriptures, and as having a great understanding of not only what the Scriptures themselves teach, but I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of what other people believe about them too. I'm very devoted to God, with a strong devotional life. I pray, read my Bible, pay my tithes (even though I don't believe I'm Biblically required to!), don't cuss, don't commit sexual sins, don't touch alcohol or drugs, refrain from watching many movies because of objectionable content, and listen almost exclusively to Christian music.
And then, I've met various individuals I consider "less" than me, and have a slight jealousy and even anger that there are other ministers out there, who don't even come close to me and my walk, who are guilty of these sins, yet as far as ministry paid ministry chances go, they have many more doors open to them. What angers me most is that many of them obtained their chances through playing church politics, which I think is totally unfair.
I confess, this is what naturally is within me. And because I'm feeling led to write this e-mail, I'm guessing if you guys are honest with yourselves, you'll find a similar mindset is perhaps naturally within you as well. But it ought not be this way. As difficult as it might be, we need to pray that God makes us to see the depths of our own carnal nature so that we can honestly say with Paul, "I am the chief of sinners!" I think when such happens, we'll be able to be used by God in a greater way, as when people sin, we will not so much get angry at them for being stupid, foolish, jerks; but that we will rather have compassion on them, and perhaps be able to move them to repentance, knowing that we too have been guilty of sins which are abhorant to God, for which Christ died.
Let us be poor in spirit.