The Chief of Sinners

Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief: howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me as chief might Jesus Christ show forth all his longsuffering, for an ensample of them that should thereafter believe on him unto eternal life (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

Even though we may live in a society that vaunts the self-worth of the individual, attempting to “empower” people to understand how great they are, many people are constantly bedeviled by guilt and shame. They acutely feel that they are terribly sinful people. In their eyes there can be no rehabilitation for them. They have come to the conclusion that nothing can atone for their sins.

If this belief system had any truth or merit, Saul of Tarsus would have certainly been able to accept it. He had approved of the execution of Stephen (Acts 7:58), worked to lay waste to the church (Acts 8:3, 1 Timothy 1:13), and was heading to Damascus to do more damage (Acts 9:1-2). He then sees a great light, and we can only imagine how he must have felt when he heard that the “Lord” is the Jesus whom he has been persecuting (Acts 9:4-6). The guilt! The shame! How terribly wrong and misguided his work! He had believed that he was doing God’s work; instead, he now understands that he has opposed God’s work and even complicit in murder. Little wonder that he declares himself the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15)!

Did Saul head back for home, despondent and frustrated, assured of his own sinfulness, dejected and despised? Did he declare that his sin was so great that it could not be forgiven? Absolutely not! He was made to understand the will of the Lord– God’s enemy will now be used to champion God’s cause (Acts 9:15-16). The chief of sinners will be put to work in God’s Kingdom to warn others about their sins (cf. 1 Timothy 1:12-16). When he believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and was immersed in water for the remission of his sins, he obtained that mercy and forgiveness that so many today feel that they cannot obtain (cf. Acts 22:14-16)!

Why is it that so many people believe that they cannot be forgiven of their sins? The problem is really threefold.

The first problem is that people have this innate sense that they must diligently work to atone for sin. They understand that they have done wrong and therefore seek to “make it right” somehow. Nevertheless, there is a recognition that all of this moral striving cannot really cover or atone for sin. The shame and guilt that have come as a result of sin are still there. Such people feel as if they cannot be forgiven, and in a sense they are right– they cannot be forgiven through their works. No one can be made righteous through the works of any law, and no one can atone for sin through their efforts (Galatians 3:11, Ephesians 2:8-9).

The second difficulty involves an implicit challenge to the power and sovereignty of God. For a person to believe that they have sinned so terribly that they cannot be forgiven means that they believe that God is somehow unable to forgive them, that Christ’s blood cannot atone for what they have done. Paul shows how this view is a lie, for few are the people today who have sinned as grievously (in human terms) as Saul of Tarsus, and yet Christ’s blood could cover his sin (1 Timothy 1:12-16). God is greater than our sin, and if we desire to be cleansed through Jesus, then we can be clean!

In the end, the challenge has less to do with God in Christ and more to do with the people themselves. We can see that there is no one who has sinned so terribly that they cannot be forgiven– instead, God really does want to save sinners, and therefore He wants people to be forgiven and saved (1 Timothy 1:15, 2:4). The problem is not even with shame and guilt, for such ought to exist when we have sinned (cf. Genesis 3:10, Isaiah 59:1-2). The challenge often is that even if God is willing to forgive people of their sins, they are not willing to forgive themselves. They cannot envision a time when they have released themselves from the burden of sin and death as God is willing to do for them in Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 8:1-11). They maintain a measure of control while holding onto that shame and guilt, whereas God calls us all to release that control and trust in Him (Galatians 2:20, 2 Corinthians 5:7).

We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). There is nothing we ourselves could ever do to atone for that (Ephesians 2:8-9). We all really deserve condemnation because we have sinned (Romans 6:23). These are all accurate statements of reality, no matter how difficult or challenging they are to swallow. There are too many more people who will not concede these realities than there are who are enslaved to them. Nevertheless, as assuredly as we have sinned and are worthy of condemnation, God has provided the means of reconciliation through the blood of His Son Jesus Christ (Romans 5:5-11). We can obtain mercy and pardon through our obedient faith even though we can never deserve it (cf. 1 Timothy 1:12-16, Romans 6:16-23). Nevertheless, we must place our confidence in trust in God. If God is willing to be for us, we should not be against us (cf. Romans 8:31). If God will justify us, we ought not condemn ourselves (Romans 8:33-34). If God wishes to show His abundant love toward us, cleanse us of sin, and provide eternal life for us, why should we stand in the way (cf. Romans 8:35-39)?

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, no matter how sinful they are. Let us proclaim that truth, praise God for that truth, trust in God, and be willing to be cleansed and healed!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Chief of Sinners

Walking as He Walked

He that saith he abideth in [Jesus] ought himself also to walk even as he walked (1 John 2:6).

Why did Jesus live?

It would be entirely understandable if people got the impression that Jesus lived only to die for our sins. A lot of emphasis in preaching and teaching falls squarely on the death of Jesus for sin and comparatively less on how Jesus lived and the lessons of His life.

This is not to say that Jesus did not die for our sins, or that His death was not part of His life. According to Ephesians 3:11 and John 1:29, Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins was understood from eternity and from the beginning of His work on earth. Romans 5:5-11 eloquently expresses the nature of Jesus’ death and its great value for those who would believe in Him. Furthermore, there must be an emphasis on the death of Jesus for sin in the preaching of the Gospel, since it is a significant part of what must be believed, and a good reminder of what was required for us to be redeemed from sin (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Titus 3:3-8).

On the other hand, to believe that the only reason for Jesus to come to earth was to die would be a gross exaggeration and a distortion of what the Scriptures teach. If all Jesus had to do was to die, why did He preach and teach the people for three years? Why not just go quickly to Jerusalem and get it all over with?

Many may point to the fact that Jesus needed to first fulfill the prophecies made regarding Him, and that is certainly true (cf. Luke 24:44-47). Jesus Himself said that all things required fulfillment (Matthew 5:17-18). But are the only reasons why Jesus lived the fulfillment of prophecy and to die?

The Scriptures indicate that Jesus is the Word made flesh– if you see Jesus, it is as if you are seeing the Father (John 1:18, 14:6-11). Jesus came to communicate in word and deed the nature and essence of God. This was not designed to be a mere intellectual exercise or a model attempt!

When we read Scriptures like the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7, the various parables in Matthew 13 or Luke 14-16, or the instructions to the disciples in John 13-17, among other passages, it becomes quickly apparent that Jesus in life is interested in making disciples who will follow Him, live by His principles as He did, and to proclaim His message and advance His Kingdom for His purposes and to His glory.

Under both covenants the command is given to be holy as God is holy (cf. Leviticus 11:17, 1 Peter 1:16). We are to love others as God has loved us, and this is expressed most powerfully through Jesus Christ (1 John 4:7-21). When we stop and think about it for a moment, all of the commands, principles, and exhortations of the new covenant– either regarding clinging to the good or abhorring the evil (cf. Romans 12:9)– are grounded and based upon the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

This is why John is able to express the truth simply: if we will abide in Jesus, we must walk as He walked. We must be imitators of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Granted, there are some aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching that apply to first century Judaism and are not directly relevant for the new covenant, yet this does not change the reality that the foundation of the ethics, principles, and statutes of the New Testament is Jesus and what He accomplished in life.

Did Jesus live to fulfill prophecy and to die for the sins of mankind? Certainly– but His life means so much more. He lived to show us how to live. He became flesh and showed the way through His words and His deeds. He shows us that it is possible to be human and yet be holy and godly, both in what we are doing and in what we avoid.

But how can we walk as Jesus walked if we do not know how He walked? If we believe that we are Christians, then we must claim that we are disciples of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20); how can we be disciples, or learners/followers, of Someone whom we barely know and under whose feet we are not sitting in order to learn? While all Scripture is profitable for spiritual growth (2 Timothy 3:16), the four Gospels should always hold a special place in our hearts, devotions, and study, for they are where we find the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth, our Redeemer, Lord, Master, Teacher, and Friend. Let us walk as Jesus walked, growing in His grace and knowledge (1 John 2:6, 2 Peter 3:18)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Walking as He Walked

Relating the Father

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him (John 1:18).

In both the Gospel and the first letter that bear his name, John affirms that no man has ever seen God (John 1:18, 1 John 4:12, 20). This seems to be a most baffling statement considering everything else that John is trying to teach, and, for that matter, what has been revealed in the Old Testament. How can John say that no one has ever seen God after saying that the Word was God and the Word became flesh (John 1:1, 14)? Didn’t Jacob wrestle with God (Genesis 32:28-30)? Didn’t Moses see God’s back (Exodus 33:18-23)? This is a conundrum indeed!

We should not believe that John is terribly inconsistent and ignorant of the Old Testament. He understands what he has written earlier in the Gospel, and he knows what is revealed in Genesis and Exodus.

Instead, John is trying to get us to understand a profound truth. As Jesus says, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). In that form, as He truly is, no man has seen Him nor can see Him. Humans have only seen manifestations of God– His glory, His power, and/or His messengers, the angels. Jacob most likely wrestled with an angel. Moses, no doubt, saw God’s glory. Jesus the Word is truly God in the flesh, but no man can see the spirit in Him.

But if no man has ever seen God, how can we know about God? This is the focus of John’s statement in John 1:18– even though we have not seen God, we can know all about God, because we can know about Jesus the Word.

John says that the Son, Jesus, has “declared” God. The word translated “declared” involves the idea of relating or telling a story (cf. Acts 10:8, 15:14, 21:19). According to John, therefore, the very nature and essence of God is related to us through Jesus.

But how can this be so? Jesus explains it for us in John 14:6-11. He boldly declares that if you have seen Him, you have seen the Father (John 14:9). The Father is “in” Jesus, and the words Jesus speaks and the deeds Jesus does are from the Father (John 14:10-11).

As Paul will say, Jesus is the “image of the invisible God,” in whom “dwelleth all the fulness of Godhead bodily” (Colossians 1:15, 2:9). If we want to understand what God is like, all we need to do is consider Jesus. As God is love, so Jesus loved (1 John 4:8, John 13:1). As God is just, so Jesus will be the judge (Matthew 25:31-46, Romans 2:5-10). As God is the Creator, so through Jesus were all things created (Genesis 1:1, John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:15-17).

A lot of people have a very negative picture of God the Father. They imagine Him as a cantankerous old man with a long white beard who sits in Heaven all day trying to figure out new and inventive ways of smiting people and condemning them. Yet many of these people have a much more favorable view of Jesus, picturing Him as the loving Savior of the world, the Good Shepherd laying down His life for the sheep.

We haven’t seen God. Nevertheless, it should be clear that God is not a cantankerous old man, but instead a loving Father who wants to bless His children (cf. Romans 8:1-39). We know this because we can see Jesus through what is revealed of Him in the New Testament, and when we have seen Jesus, we have seen the Father. We know of God because Jesus has made Him known. Let us praise God for His great love and care, and seek to reflect His attributes in our own lives (cf. 1 John 2:3-6)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Relating the Father