12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service,13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; 14 and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. 15 It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. 16 Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
One of the reasons I love reading the letters of Paul is because it gives me hope. It gives me hope that such a sinful man 1) is still loved by God and 2) is redeemed by God’s love. If you haven’t read much or learned a whole lot about this apostle, start with Acts 26, where he gives a brief explanation of his life before and after believing in Jesus as the Christ. Paul was a “Jew of Jews”. He was hauling Christians to jail for heresy and having them killed. He sanctioned the murder of the first Christian martyr.
The term “ignorantly in unbelief” really connects with me. As many know, I have been slowly yet progressively working on my Why We Don’t Believe series aimed at trying to pick apart the nuances of our unbelief (whole and partial). Before I go on, I think it is essential to point out specifically what Paul is saying here about ignorance and unbelief. The word “ignorant” is generally offensive to our society in this age. Let’s not get caught up in defensiveness here, but rather understand what Paul is saying. He is saying that he acted as one who does not know because of unbelief. If someone does not have an intimate relationship with God, then they will not know the why behind the what. People won’t understand why we do the things we do (good or bad). This is crucial to those of us who profess to believe in Jesus as the Christ, Son of the Living God. I try to remember this as it keeps me from unrightly judging others for their actions, even believers themselves. This is why I am so interested in understanding the disconnection of belief and action and life as a human. We act in ignorance simply because we don’t know God well enough yet.
Paul claims to be the foremost sinner of all. Some may see this as self-condemnation. Others may look at it as a power move of “the church,” a way to keep people oppressed and downtrodden in their iniquities and failures. Some may think that because we are told that “nothing we do is good enough,” that we are given a message of hopelessness and despair. However, it is the recognition of our own brokenness that actually sets us free. Once we realize and admit honestly our imperfection, regardless of the degree, we can better start to understand the message God has been trying to tell us since the beginning of time: He loves us anyway. This is Paul’s point in verse 16: God is patient, merciful, and loving despite our wickedness. God redeems our brokenness, our failures, and our iniquities. This isn’t just a biblical doctrine or church theology…this, my friends, I have experienced and continue to experience on a daily basis. It is real; it is tangible, and it is offered to all. God redeems our brokenness with His love. God heals our wounds with His mercy. God wraps us in His arms when we come to Him because we are His.