Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15-16, NIV).
On Sundays at 5pm this term we are reading the book of Acts — Luke’s electrifying account of the spread of Christianity in its very first decades. It is, in a sense, part two of Luke’s Gospel, and carries the story forward from the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It tells us what happened next — and this is what makes it so fascinating.
But Acts contains a big puzzle. Although the book starts on a note of continuity with all that’s gone before (with familiar characters like Jesus’ disciples), in the middle of it we meet someone totally new, who from then on dominates the narrative. He’s Saul of Tarsus, a violent persecutor of Christians, who gets converted and becomes the Apostle Paul — Jesus’ key man for reaching the non-Jewish Mediterranean world, and official spokesman.
The puzzle is this: in this great task of outreach to the Gentile world, why didn’t Christ use the men He’d already trained in such depth for His years on earth, like Peter and John? Why, of all people, bring in this arch-persecutor?
As I prepared last week to speak about Paul’s conversion from Acts 9, this question niggled me. Then I found the answer — in one of Paul’s own letters. In the paragraph printed above, written to his co-worker Timothy, Paul looks back to his conversion, before which he’d been a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man. He then recounts how Christ poured out His grace on him. And he explains: this was to display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.
The global expansion of Christianity was going to involve millions of converts — many of them from backgrounds very far from Christ. Such is the wonder of the power of the risen Christ to forgive and to transform! So it makes sense that the man God chose to spearhead that movement would himself be an unlikely convert — a violent persecutor, no less. He is a constant reminder to us that no-one is beyond the reach of Christ to forgive (and to use for His purposes), if they will but come to Him.
As John Stott put it in his commentary on 1 Timothy: “[The conversion of Paul] 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.”
We continue our Acts series on Sundays at 5pm.