The man that penned these words also wrote the bulk of the New Testament. He was the man chosen by God to take the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. He braved shipwrecks, prison, beatings, stoning, snake bites and more as he criss-crossed the Roman world carrying the hope of Jesus to the lost. And yet, years later, nearing the end of his life and ministry, he could write that he’s the chief of sinners.
Let that sink in: The man largely responsible for the spread of Christianity to the Western world considered himself to be the chief, the head, the foremost of sinners.
I think what we are see here in Paul is what we see in the lives of saint after saint throughout history, those who were faithful to follow the Lord, those who truly gave their lives over to what A.W. Tozer called “The Pursuit of God”, which can be summed up like this: the closer I get to Jesus, the more I see my own wretchedness.
This is not some kind of morbid “woe is me” mentality, either. Read the rest of Paul’s 2 letters to Timothy…he was secure in who he was in Christ. He knew what God had called him to, what He had saved him for.
It’s not a pity party. It’s not a plea for sympathy. Nor is it simply about the things we did in the past, before we knew Jesus, before we experienced His grace. If you’re constantly dwelling on who you were before Jesus you’ll never become who He saved you to be, nor do what He saved you to do!
No, I think Paul’s words are simply the reality of what John the Baptist’s said in when Jesus arrived on the scene: “He must increase, I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
Think of it like this: If you could draw closer to the sun, the brighter and hotter it would become, and the smaller and more frail you would become. The same goes for drawing close to Jesus, the Son of God. The closer we get, the more we see the incredible intensity of His holiness, the greatness of His goodness, the unfailing nature of His steadfast love towards us, and in that light, we see our frailty, our brokenness, our desperate need for a Savior.
And we end up finding ourselves arguing with Paul, realizing that “I myself am the chief of sinners.”
This is not condemnation, but rather realization of the greatness of God’s grace towards us in Christ Jesus. Paul in fact, just a few verses later, breaks into song, declaring:
“Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Tim. 1:17)
I don’t have this all figured out. I’m just a sojourner on this earth along with the rest of you. But I know this: Jesus is everything. He is the source and summit of my life, the goal and the sustainer, the One who wakes me up each day to draw ever closer to Him. And He is worthy of everything I have.
May He increase in each of our lives as we decrease.