A Commentary by John Stott
1 Timothy. 1:12-17. 2). The apostle and the gospel (continued).
Having considered Paul’s descriptions of what he had been before his conversion and how he had received mercy, we are ready in the third place to ask why God had mercy on him. The only possible answer is ‘because God is a merciful God’. Ultimately, there is no other explanation. His merciful forgiveness originates not within us, as if we had any merit which inclined (let alone obliged) God to show mercy, but within his own merciful character, ‘whose property is always to have mercy’, as the Prayer Book says. Nevertheless, Paul mentions two factors which in his case might he said to have ‘predisposed’ God to be merciful.
The first concerned his past ignorant unbelief: *I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief* (13b). As he put it elsewhere, ‘I…was…zealous for God’ and ‘convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth’ (Acts 22:3; 26:9). Mind you, his conviction and zeal, his ignorance and unbelief were still culpable. He is not saying that his ignorance established a claim on God’s mercy (or mercy would no longer be mercy, nor would grace be grace), but only that his opposition was not open-eyed and willful, or it would have been the sin against the Holy Spirit and would have disqualified him from receiving mercy. It is similar to the Old Testament distinction between ‘unintentional’ and ‘defiant’ disobedience (E.g. Num.15:22ff.). We may still pray for others what Jesus prayed from the cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Lk.23:34), providing we remember that we all still need to ‘repent’, even of sins committed ‘in ignorance’ (Acts 3:17, 19).
If Paul’s ignorant unbelief in the past was one reason why God had mercy on him, a second related to the faith of others in the future: *But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited (‘inexhaustible’, REB, JB) patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life* (16). Although Paul’s conversion had a number of unique features (the heavenly light, the audible voice, the Hebrew language, Paul’s fall and blindness), it was also a ‘prototype’ (*hypotyposis*, BAGD) of all subsequent conversions, because it was an exhibition of Christ’s infinite patience. In fact the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road has proved to be just that. It remains a standing source of hope to otherwise hopeless cases. Paul seems to speak to us across the centuries: ‘Don’t despair! Christ had mercy even on *me*, the worst of sinners; he can also have mercy on *you*!
To sum up, although Paul had been a blasphemer and a violent persecutor, the grace of Christ had overwhelmed him. He received mercy partly because of his ignorant unbelief and partly in order to display for the benefit of future generations the limitless patience of Christ. It was this experience of Christ’s grace, mercy and patience which underlay Paul’s evangelical enthusiasm. Just so, nobody can share the gospel with passion and power today who has not had a comparable personal experience of Christ.
No wonder Paul broke out into a spontaneous doxology, in which, however (as in the similar verse, 6:15), he made use of some phrases from an early liturgical form, which seems to indicate that liberty and liturgy are not necessarily incompatible. He addressed God as *the King*, the sovereign ruler of all things, who not only reigns over the natural order and the historical process, but has also established his special kingdom through Christ and by the Spirit over his redeemed people. The divine king is now characterized by four epithets. First, he is *eternal*, literally ‘king of the ages’ (as in Rev.15:3), beyond the fluctuations of time. Secondly, he is *immortal*, beyond the ravages of decay and death. Hence the folly of idolaters who have ‘exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles’ (Rom.1:23). Thirdly, he is *invisible*, beyond the limits of every horizon. For ‘nobody has ever seen God’ (Jn.1:18; 1 Jn.4:12), and indeed nobody ‘can see’ him (6:16); all that human beings have ever glimpsed is his ‘glory’, which has been defined as ‘the outward shining of his inward being’. His glory is displayed in the creation (Rom.1:20), in both the heavens and the earth (Ps.19:1; Is.6:3), and reached its zenith in the incarnate Son, who is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col.1:15). Fourthly, the King is *the only God*. The addition of the adjective ‘wise’ in the Textus Receptus used in the AV is ‘no doubt a scribal gloss derived from Romans 16:27’. What Paul is affirming is not the uniqueness of God’s wisdom, but the uniqueness of his being. He has no rivals. ‘I am the Lord’, he declares, ‘and there is no other’ (Is.45:18). To this great *King, eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God*, Paul now ascribes (as is most justly due) all *honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen* (17).
Tomorrow: 1 Timothy 1 18-20. 3). Timothy and the good fight.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Timothy. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.