Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 11, 2022
1 Timothy 1:12-17 Commentary
21st century culture is not, by and large, a patient one. It easily becomes impatient with the slowness of its electronic devices. Its citizens avoid friends who take too long to warm up, and politicians who take too long to enact legislation. It’s not just the 21st century’s oatmeal that we want to be “instant.” We want almost everything to be instant.
So it seemed appropriate that when our sons were younger, we taught them to sing along with Herb the Snail, “Have Patience.” Our sons who have their own children now sometimes even sing it to our them: “Have patience, have patience/ Don’t be in such a hurry/ When you get impatient, you only start to worry/ Remember, remember that God is patient, too/ And think of all the times when others have to wait for you.”
Yet it’s not just that the patience about which Herb and many young Christians once sang is a counter-cultural virtue. I suspect that it’s also not a characteristic that we often attribute to God. While the Bible links some form of the Greek word makrothumian to God five times, Christians don’t always think of God as particularly patient.
Yet God’s patience is arguably one of the central pillars of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. So its proclaimers might choose to explore 1 Timothy 1:12-17 through the lens of Christ Jesus’ “patience” (16), not just with Paul, but with all “who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”
It may not be especially helpful for 1 Timothy 1’s preachers to get bogged down in the controversy over the letter’s authorship. It’s probably better stewardship of worshipers’ time to explore what the letter says about the ways Paul taxed God’s patience. After all, the letter gives a prominent place to the person of Paul.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson describes him as having been “a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man” (13). It adds that Paul “acted in ignorance and unbelief” (13). Those who proclaim 1 Timothy need decide how much to proclaim about the way the apostle’s vices manifested themselves.
We may choose to note that Paul was hardly theologically ignorant. He’d learned a great deal from Gamaliel, one of Jerusalem’s most prominent rabbis. Saul, in turn, responded by trying to defend what he’d learned against what he assumed were attacks on it by the early church.
Perhaps as a result, he didn’t just approve of the execution of Stephen, one of that church’s first leaders. Saul also sought to arrest and jail other Christians. In fact, he was on his way to do precisely that when God knocked him off his high horse and into God’s kingdom, as well as gave him a new name: Paul.
This offers this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers an opportunity to explore with our hearers what sorts of folks we might leave into the spiritually hopeless camp alongside Paul. On what Americans have come to call 9/11, some may quickly think of those who murdered so many people on that otherwise-beautiful Tuesday.
Yet those whom we deem hopeless might also be people who are so versed in their own faith that they seem beyond even the lengthy reach of God’s grace. Those whom we deem hopeless may be so violent that we can’t imagine how they might embrace the way of the Prince of Peace. Or they may appear to be so ignorant that we assume the sometimes subtle nuances of the Christian gospel are simply beyond their ability to grasp.
Paul’s spiritual biography that in some ways in 1 Timothy 1 summarizes serves as a powerful reminder that no living person is beyond the long arm of God’s amazing grace. In fact, in a startling twist, the apostle insists that God showed him God’s mercy precisely “because” he “acted in ignorance and unbelief” (13).
The Greek connection between God’s mercy and Paul’s ignorance and unbelief is a causative conjunction that suggests that God graciously overlooked the apostle’s blasphemy, insolence and violence because it arose from his ignorance and unbelief. Yet this connection is hard to understand.
So perhaps its most helpful location is in the immense space of God’s amazing grace. God cares deeply about those who rebel against God’s good and saving purposes and plans. Yet God also seems to graciously consider human’s affinity for misplaced religious loyalties.
God doesn’t, after all, just let Saul ride off into the kingdom of darkness in his zealous pursuit of the truth as he understands it. God, instead, graciously corrals him and gives him something, or, perhaps more accurately, Someone new about whom to be passionate.
This offers this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers yet another opportunity to remind hearers of the length of the gospel’s arms. It’s easy, after all, to give up on those who have surrendered entirely to non-Christian religions. Zealous secularists and hedonists, Buddhists and Hindus, are well within the loving reach of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
But, of course, as Paul insists in not just 1 Timothy 1, but also throughout the New Testament, it’s not our zealotry, no matter how well-intentioned, that rescues us. Our ignorance isn’t our ticket into God’s kingdom. God didn’t give Paul what Paul had earned. The apostle twice (13, 16) insists that God, instead, showed him “mercy” (eletheen). God poured out on him not just “the grace of our Lord,” but also “faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (14).
Paul, of course, cites God’s mercy as the grounds of this salvation. But he also explicitly anchors God’s display of mercy towards him in God’s “patience” (makrothumian — 16). It’s almost as if Paul recognizes that he’s a poster child for the gracious results of God’s patience. Eugene Peterson’s Message lyrically paraphrases the apostle as saying here, “And now [God] shows me off – evidence of his patience – to those who are right on the edge of trusting him forever.”
God sent God’s Son Jesus Christ into the world to “save” even the “worst of sinners” (16). But Paul insists that Christ graciously did all of that with a very specific goal in mind: to display God’s “patience.” God, in fact, had to be patient with the apostle. He was, after all, a blasphemer, persecutor and violent person. He was, in fact, what he later called the worst of sinners. Yet God remained patient with him. God didn’t give up on Paul. God was, instead, longsuffering with him.
Yet it’s almost as if Paul suggests that God remained patient with him while at the same time, in one sense, also looking beyond just him. The apostle at least suggests that God was patient with him because God wanted to display God’s patience to people who would eventually come to believe on God and, thus, receive eternal life (16).
Paul doesn’t explicitly identify the implications that God’s patience has for the lives of God’s adopted children. But my colleague Chelsey Harmon suggests that Paul is at least implicitly encouraging his “son” Timothy to imitate God by remaining patient with both himself and those to and among whom he ministers.
It’s as if the apostle reasons that if God saw Paul as someone God could use, then God could use Timothy too. If God saw someone like Paul as someone worth saving, then God could also see Timothy as someone worth saving. In 1 Timothy 4:12 the apostle at least implies that some people looked down on his friend because he was young and perhaps a bit impatient with both them and himself. Paul, however, suggests that Timothy can remain patient because the God whom he serves is exceptionally patient.
As a result, those who proclaim 1 Timothy 1 might also invite those who hear us to cultivate godly patience with both themselves and our brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s, after all, one of the results of the Holy Spirit’s life and work within us. God’s adopted children can be patient with ourselves and our fellow image-bearers of God because God fully equips us to be patient. This Lesson’s proclaimers might even offer some hints for ways that God’s dearly beloved people can cultivate our God-given patience.
Perhaps, however, 1 Timothy 1 more than anything invites those whom God has graciously saved to remain patient with those whom God still longs to save. As my colleague Scott Hoezee notes “Now that he was saved by grace, Paul could assure anyone that there is no such thing as a lost cause, as a person not worthy of someone’s time or effort to save through the message of the Gospel. There is always hope. There is always the possibility of resurrection. That’s just what the Gospel is all about.”
God remained startlingly patient with John Newton who penned the most familiar of all hymns about God’s mercy, Amazing Grace. After all, though he’d received God’s grace with his faith when he was twenty-three years old, he remained a slave trader until he was nearly twenty-eight. Newton did not, in other words, immediately renounce the slave trade of which he was integral part as soon as he became a Christian.
Years later he penned his testimony in a book. After describing slaves’ “masters’” horrendous treatment of them, Newton wrote “The reader may perhaps wonder, as I now do myself, that knowing the state of this vile traffic as I have described, and abounding with enormities which I have not mentioned, I did not at the time start with horror at my own employment as an agent in promoting it.
Custom, example [of others], and interest [i.e., personal financial gain] had blinded my eyes. I did it ignorantly, for I am sure had I thought of the slave trade then as I have thought of it since, no considerations would have induced me to continue in it” John Newton, the Slave Trade and Moral Blind Spots .
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