Do you have something in your past that you would rather forget? I know I do.
Paul’s letter to Timothy reveals an uncomfortable truth about his past. He reminded Timothy of the time when he was Saul of Tarsus and he violently persecuted Christians for their beliefs. He was present at the stoning of Stephen and was “extremely zealous” and famously violent for persecution “beyond measure” (Galatians 1). He was a Pharisee, a Roman citizen, a tent maker by trade, and yet God used all of his sinful past to convert the world after he first converted Saul on the road to Damascus.
I think it is easy to forget Paul’s violent beginnings as we study his many letters and his theology. Paul brought the Gospel to the modern world in a stunning series of missionary journeys that included imprisonment, shipwrecks, great personal cost, and eventually death.
This passage in 1 Timothy talks about his appointment to ministry in spite of his past:
1 Timothy 1 (Common English Bible)
12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength because he considered me faithful. So he appointed me to ministry 13 even though I used to speak against him, attack his people, and I was proud. But I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and without faith. 14 Our Lord’s favor poured all over me along with the faithfulness and love that are in Christ Jesus.
15 This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I’m the biggest sinner of all.16 But this is why I was shown mercy, so that Christ Jesus could show his endless patience to me first of all. So I’m an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life. 17 Now to the king of the ages, to the immortal, invisible, and only God, may honor and glory be given to him forever and always! Amen.
What a remarkable reversal! The persecutor became the proclaimer. The sinner became the saint. The faithless one became the leader of the faithful. The Lord’s favor was poured out over Saul, and he received the faithfulness and love that are in Christ Jesus.
What do you have in your past that either enables or hinders you from sharing the gospel? Paul’s story is a powerful reminder of the power of forgiveness of sin to wash away all of our transgressions. It is also a good reminder to us that God loves every sinner and shows mercy and patience to all. When we sit in judgment of other people’s sins, we sit outside of God’s great plan to bring Jesus into the world to save sinners. All the doors of redemption must be left open for the Sauls to come in.
If the “biggest sinner of all” can be made new and whole through the mercy and grace of the Lord, so can the rest of us.
Do you have a story of a past that was changed? Go and tell.