Ministry Is Grace
Passage: 1 Timothy 1:12-14
I think we would probably all agree that our first four weeks in 1 Timothy have been pretty heavy. We’ve talked a lot about the book’s historical setting and about the influence of false teachers. Last week, we talked a lot about the purpose of the OT law, which is not a regular part of children’s curriculum. There has been a good amount of application, but it’s been pretty heavy application regarding holy living and gospel-driven spiritual growth. If you are ready for something that is a little easier to follow, you are in luck the next two weeks as we consider vv. 12–17 where Paul reflects on his own salvation and the grace he had received. That’s not to say that this paragraph doesn’t have its own depth and beauty. It is wonderfully encouraging and full of grace, and it also cuts pretty hard against our pride. I’ve really enjoyed my study this week, and how this paragraph has reminded me of God’s work in my life, and I’m looking forward to how it will minister grace to us the next two weeks. Let’s read vv. 12–17.
The first time you read this paragraph, it might sound completely different from what has gone before. Verses 3–11 have a strongly argumentative tone. In contrast, vv. 12–17 are very personal. The words “I” and “me” appear ten times in only six verses. So how does Paul’s reflection on his own testimony fit with what has gone before? The answer is that this paragraph is all about the humility of God’s servants and our dependence on grace—two themes that were sorely lacking among the false teachers. They loved to talk about themselves and their own glory. Rather than using the Scriptures to glorify God, they twisted them into a means to promote their own supposed brilliance, mystical connection with God, and righteousness. It was always about them, and when you imagine what these teachers were like, vv. 12–17 stand out like a bright light in a dark wilderness. In this paragraph Paul continues to build his case against the false teachers by highlighting the grace that is at the center of true Christianity and the humility that ought to mark recipients of this grace. It’s pretty easy to identify three sections of this paragraph. Verse 12 begins with “I thank Christ,” and the thanksgiving continues through the end of v. 14. Verse 15 begins with “This is a faithful saying,” indicating that Paul is about to recite a foundational Christian doctrine. And v. 17 concludes the paragraph with a doxology, or a hymn of praise. And so we have a thanksgiving, a creed, and a doxology. This morning we will just discuss the thanksgiving, which I’d like to summarize with three principles.
Serving Christ is a great privilege (v. 12).
In vv. 12–14 Paul reflects on his conversion and call to ministry, both of which took place, while of all things he was travelling to Damascus with the intention of persecuting Christians. Paul gives a more detailed account of his conversion in Acts 26. I think it will help us appreciate our text more fully to hear Paul’s own account of his conversion and call (read vv. 4–5, 9–20). God did a marvelous work of grace in Paul’s life that he never forgot, and he dedicated his life to fulfilling the ministry Jesus had given him. Verse 12 reflects on the ministry he had received, and I’d like to summarize what he says in four statements.
Ministry requires God’s strength.
The tense of the verb “enabled,” indicates that Paul is not thinking of God’s continued enablement for ministry but of the initial gifting for service God gave when he was saved that enabled Paul to fulfill the mission God had for him. Now, Paul was also a naturally gifted individual. We read earlier how he grew up with a strong education in the OT. When you read Paul’s epistles, it’s obvious that he was a brilliant man, a skilled apologist, and gifted writer. But Paul was very aware of the fact that God’s enablement was what ultimately made his ministry affective, that spiritual power was necessary to make a spiritual impact. The NT teaches that God works in all Christians in a similar way. When we get saved, not only are we forgiven and made alive in Christ, we are given at least one spiritual gift that God intends for us to use in the advance of the church. It’s important that we remember often that all genuine spiritual impact is dependent on the power of God working through us. That’s easy for us to forget. We begin to think our spiritual gifts are just my talents or my dedication. And then we think that God really needs me and the church ought to be really thankful that it has me. When we think this way, ministry ceases to be a privilege, and becomes mere duty. Even worse, we stop depending on God’s strength and try to do spiritual work with human strength. If you are a Christian, be reminded that just like Paul, when you were saved, God enabled you to fulfill a role in his church. Make sure you are using that gift, and make sure that you are relying on God’s strength to fulfill that role. Otherwise we may be a church that looks really slick, but without God’s strength working through us, nothing of eternal significance will be accomplished. Ministry requires God’s strength. Second…
Ministry requires faithfulness.
This phrase raises some questions. Is Paul bragging? Is he saying that he deserves the favor of God? And if Paul is looking back on his conversion, then how could God have seen faithfulness in Paul’s pre-conversion life of persecution? We shouldn’t read this as if Paul is bragging because the whole tenor of the paragraph is one of thankfulness. Rather, we ought to read this statement as Paul expressing his amazement that Jesus would entrust such a significant responsibility to him. I think we’ve all been there. I grew up on the farm, and when I was 13 my dad bought a different combine. I remember the feeling I had the first time he let me operate it. I was in awe of the fact that I had been entrusted with the responsibility of running such an impressive machine. That’s how Paul felt. He was humbled by the fact that God would entrust him with such a great task. Again, God gave him this responsibility because he considered him faithful. There is a sense in which God could look at Paul’s zeal for the law and see that even though he was blind, he was a man of character, and of course, God could look ahead and see that Paul would be faithful and discipline himself to fulfill the difficult mission God had for him. Are you someone who is faithful? Faithfulness isn’t the most exciting character quality, but the NT repeatedly emphasizes the fact that it is of utmost importance for the ministry. God doesn’t really need our brilliance, charisma, or other flashy gifts because he has plenty of power. Instead, God wants faithful servants who will consistently fulfill the stewardship he has given them. Pursue faithfulness and don’t lose sight of its importance. Third...
Ministry is always service.
The word translated ministry is deoconia. We get the title “deacon” from this word, though the Greek term is normally just means servant or service. In this context it summarizes the role God had given Paul as a founder of the church and the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul could have used the term apostle, but he is making a point. Even the highest positions in the church are ultimately for service. Roles in the church are never about gaining human glory or power. It’s hard to miss the contrast between Paul’s humility and the arrogance of the false teachers (v. 7). For them the ministry was simply a way to prop themselves up as intelligent, but for Paul and everyone who loves Christ, ministry is always about service to Christ and his church. Don’t forget that. Don’t let Pastor Kris and I ever forget that. The only one who should get glory in the church is Christ, and all of us are his humble servants. Finally…
Ministry is a privilege.
It’s interesting that Paul says that Jesus “put him” in the ministry. The whole mood of this verse is one of amazement that Paul had the privilege of serving his Savior. This doesn’t mean that ministry is easy. It’s a lot of hard work and self-denial. But the difficulty never changes the fact that it is an amazing gift to be able to serve our Savior who gave his life for us and has rescued us from sin. If you are feeling discouraged or burned out, remember that there is nothing better that you can do with your life than to invest in the advance of the gospel and building of Christ’s church. Don’t lose sight of this privilege. It might be that you need to do more. Are you being a faithful steward of God’s calling on your life or have you become more concerned about being comfortable, avoiding the pain of working with people, or protecting your free time? I’m always moved when I think of Christ’s passion in John 4. The disciples bring Jesus dinner, but he doesn’t have an appetite because he is so passionate about the lost condition of the Samaritan people. With urgent passion, he tells his disciples to “look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!” We need to share Christ’s passion and Paul’s awe over the privilege of serving. Serving Christ is a great privilege. My second major principle is that…
Our sin makes us unworthy of service (v. 13a).
Paul’s description of his former life stands in his mind as an incredible backdrop for the privilege of his call to ministry. Paul first describes himself formerly as a blasphemer. This is interesting because Paul had thought he was serving Jehovah God, but he was a blasphemer because he vehemently rejected Jesus as God’s Son and opposed the gospel of Christ. Not only that, we read earlier in Acts 26 that in his persecution of Christians he had tried to make them blaspheme Christ. Paul also describes himself as a persecutor. Paul never forgot the biting question Jesus asked on the Road to Damascus when he said, “why are you persecuting Me?” and then “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Paul had acted violently against his Messiah and the one who died for his sin. He had done so through persecuting Christ’s servants. Again he said in Acts 26:10, many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them.” All of us cringe at the absolute evil of ISIS when they behead a Christian. Think about the fact that Paul was in a sense the first ISIS. Finally, he describes himself as an insolent man. This is the strongest of the three terms. Paul describes himself as having absolute, evil intentions. In Acts 26:11, he says again that he was “exceedingly enraged against them” speaking of Christians. Paul refused to forget how wicked he had been and how much evil he had done to Christ’s people. His memories pained him deeply. But they also caused him to be absolutely amazed at the mercy of God. Paul couldn’t get over the fact that God had been merciful to him in his wickedness. Not only did God forgive him; he chose to put Paul in the ministry and use him to lead people to salvation. Paul understood that he did not deserve the privilege of being in ministry. It was all of grace. This is true for all of us. I doubt any of us have done the kind of things that Paul had done, but we are still wicked sinners who deserve his eternal judgment. It’s good for us to remember often what we are apart from grace. I am a wicked sinner and so are you. And yet we have been given the honor of serving our King. My title this morning is “Ministry Is Grace.” It is a gracious gift to serve our Savior. Let’s never forget what we are apart from grace and the wonderful gift we have received.
Paul adds a qualifier that might strike us as odd. He goes on to say that he committed these sins “ignorantly.” Is Paul making excuses for his sin or trying to minimize its significance? We need to read this statement understanding Paul’s Jewish background because the OT Law makes a major distinction between sins of ignorance and willful, “high-handed” rebellion. Sins of ignorance could be atoned for through sacrifice, but there were no sacrifices for intentional rebellion. Paul’s point is that he had not persecuted the church knowing that Jesus is Messiah. He sincerely thought he was serving God. Therefore, in NT terms, he had not committed the unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Spirit. He probably is also implying that his sin is in this sense different from the false teachers, who knew the truth and had turned away from it. There’s certainly a lot more we could say here, but for now understand that Paul is not making excuses, and Paul’s ignorance didn’t change the fact that his persecution of the church was terribly wicked. He still describes himself as a blasphemer, and he will still say in v. 15 that he is the worst of sinners. The emphasis is still very much on the fact that Paul was unworthy of the ministry God had given him, as are all of us. My third major principle is that…
God’s mercy toward sinners is incredible (vv. 13b–14).
Paul uses a strong conjunction in the middle of v. 13. After describing the darkness of his life without Christ, he say, “But I obtained mercy.” Paul rejoices in the fact that…
God forgives (v. 13b).
When the NT talks about mercy it almost always has in mind the withholding of the punishment that sinners deserve. That’s exactly what Paul is reflecting on here. In light of the wicked sins he had committed against Christ and his church, he deserved the full expression of God’s wrath. But instead, he received mercy. I think it’s unfortunate that the NKJV says he “obtained mercy” because that sounds a bit like Paul had something to do with it—like maybe he bought it or achieved it. But that’s not at all what the Greek verb communicates. It’s a passive verb meaning that Paul did nothing to obtain mercy; instead, it was simply given to him as an unmerited gift. Again, none of us have probably done the kinds of things that Paul had done, but all of us would be hopelessly lost apart from the mercy of God. Remember today and every day, what I am and what I deserve and how incredible it is that I have received mercy and will never face the just consequences of my sin.
Of course there may be someone here today who has never experienced that mercy. Maybe you don’t think you need it because you don’t think you are all that bad. But in comparison to the holiness of God, you are. According to God’s perfect justice, your sin deserves his eternal wrath. But v. 15 says that Jesus came to save sinners. When he died on the cross, he took on himself the punishment for sin and made it possible for God’s justice to be satisfied and for God to also show mercy. And you can receive this mercy if you will cry out to him for mercy. If you will do so, you can know the peace of having your sins forgiven and of enjoying a fatherly relationship with the eternal God. If you have never come to Christ for salvation, I hope you will do so today. If you have questions, don’t leave without getting them answered. Nothing is more important in life than making sure you are right with God.
And so in v. 13, Paul reflects back on his conversion and remembers how God forgave his sin. But in conversion God does much more than forgive; he also grants tremendous gifts. Notice in v. 14 that…
God restores (v. 14).
Again, God’s mercy tends to emphasize the withholding of his wrath, but God’s grace usually describes how he gives benefits that we do not deserve. And v. 14 describes God’s gracious blessings. Notice that Paul says that at his conversion he didn’t just receive a little bit of grace. Rather, “the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant.” In other words, Paul received an over abundance of grace—much more than he needed. What a blessing it is to know that our God is not cheap with his blessings. We serve a generous God who gives abundantly. Specifically, Paul notes that God’s grace was abundant at his conversion in granting Paul “faith and love.” When faith and love are combined in Paul’s writings, they always describe human expressions of faith and love. And it fits the flow of the passage much better to see faith and love as gifts that God gives at conversion than as something God expresses. Notice in particular that faith and love are made available in Christ. And so the idea is at conversion we are united with Christ. And through that union, we receive the benefits of his perfect life.
Paul notes that in particular we are granted faith. Think about Paul’s testimony. Before salvation, Paul surely knew all of the facts about Christ. He knew all of the stories about his miracles and his resurrection, but he refused to believe. Then Christ appeared to him, and God granted faith. And that’s what God does in salvation. If you are saved today, it’s not ultimately because you found God or made a wise discovery. No, God opened your eyes and granted you faith, and he continues to grant faith. I’m so thankful that God helps our faith because it’s not always easy to believe. But God continually strengthens our faith by his grace.
Not only that, Paul says that God granted him love. Based on Paul’s normal way of speaking, this is probably primarily love for our fellow man. Again, think about the change that took place in Paul. He left Jerusalem with the intent of doing evil to Christians, of killing and imprisoning them. And in a moment, his life’s work went from destroying them to serving them. He went from hating them to loving them as brothers. God filled his heart with love.
And so v. 14 describes how God restored Paul that day. He didn’t just forgive him; he changed him. And this is always a vital aspect of true conversion. We don’t just gain a new eternal destiny; we gain a new direction for life and a new power to pursue that direction. We all ought to be so thankful today for the abundant grace we received through the gospel and for the continuing work of that grace in our lives each day.
My challenge today is simply to rejoice in the mercy of God and the privilege of service. Remember today who you are apart from Christ, what he did to save your soul, and how great a gift we’ve been given to be able to serve such a great king. To be able to serve Christ in the most important mission in the world is pure grace. Let’s never forget that, and let’s serve joyfully with full hearts of thanksgiving.