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Experiencing God’s mercy and grace

A sermon by Rod Benson

1 Timothy 1:12-19

They can put a man on the moon, but they can’t make solar cars. Or cure acne. Or invent the self-sorting sock drawer. Or make me lose weight by eating all the donuts. Or find a word that rhymes with orange. Or drive a road tunnel through the Blue Mountains. And here’s the big one: They can put a man on the moon, but they can’t create world peace.

“Why can’t we all just get along?”

Compared to most other countries, Australians enjoy relative peace and tranquility, despite the scaremongering politicians and enterprising journalists who want us to believe otherwise. Why have “the boundary lines fallen for [us] in pleasant places,” as the Psalmist put it (Psalm 16:6)? I would suggest it is, at least in part, because of God’s mercy.

How conscious are you of God’s mercy displayed in your life? Paul’s first letter to Timothy was a personal (though public!) letter, and we might expect Paul to write about himself and his work. And he does!

See verses 1 and 3; and the whole of verses 12-16 (which we shall look at shortly); and verses 18-20, where Paul advises Timothy based on his own experience of unfaithful friends.

But then there is verse 17, one of those rich, emotive, theologically charged doxologies that erupt now and then in the midst of the often dense and sometimes almost mundane prose of the New Testament letters. When I read this verse I’m reminded of Romans 11:33-36; and 1 Timothy 6:15.

It’s not about Paul, but about Paul’s God: the God who revealed himself in the person of Jesus, not only in frail humility in Bethlehem but in resurrection majesty on the road to Damascus. It’s about the God who called and saved Paul, and who calls and saves you; the God who justified Paul, and who justified you when you trusted Christ; the God who sanctified him, and who sanctifies you; the God who commissioned him, and commissions you; the God who satisfies and sustains and strengthens Paul day by day, whether on the road, or in the centre of Athenian intellectual life, or languishing in a Roman prison cell.

And it is this same God will do the same for you and for me because of his great love, and his rich mercy, and his abundant grace, and his limitless patience with our muddled heads and stubborn hearts. Who is this God who saves us? Why can he be trusted completely and forever?

Because he is “the King eternal.” He is sovereign and his rule continues forever. Time and change have no claim on him. He is “immortal,” different in character and nature from us, “beyond the ravages of death and decay.”[1] He is “invisible,” not in a make-believe sense, or because he is hidden from us, but “beyond the limits of every horizon.”[2] He is “the only God,” he is unique, he has no rivals (see Deut 6:4; Isa 45:18).

To this God, and this God alone, belongs all “honour and glory for ever and ever.” With W. Chalmers Smith (1824-1908), we sing:

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise!

Paul is profoundly aware of the power and excellence of the living God, who has demonstrated that he knows Paul intimately, and who has shown him mercy, and saved him, and entrusted him with the gospel so that all nations might participate in the glorious salvation of God. And he is profoundly moved by this realization.

What comes to mind when you think about your own conversion to Christ? Can you think of a time when you were especially aware of the mercy of God? In what ways is grace a distinctive quality of the Christian faith, among the world’s religious traditions?

When were you last overwhelmed, excited, thrilled, at the thought of the greatness and goodness of God, and the length to which God has gone to adopt you into his family? What needs to change in order for you to have a fresh experience of God’s mercy and grace?

In verses 8-11, Paul has asserted his unique apostolic authority as the divinely appointed trustee of the “glorious gospel of the blessed God” (v. 11).

Now, in verses 12-17, he speaks of his shameful yet stunning personal experience in order to emphasise why his faith in Christ is unshakeable, and his devotion to Christ unquenchable. Notice the repetition of the words “Christ Jesus” (vv. 13, 14, 15, 16).

These are verses rich in theology, soteriology, and especially Christology. Paul takes pains not only to extol “the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (v. 14b), which I take to be a short summary of Christian living, but to emphasise the classic Christian conviction that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was both fully God and perfectly human (see 2:5-6; 3:16) – perhaps to counter the emphasis of the false teachers he mentions in verses 3-7.

As Philip Towner observes:

Undoubtedly something about the heresy (its theology, eschatology, ethics, etc.) had shifted the balance decisively away from thinking about engagement in the world … Paul begins to redress this shift by telling his own story of the gospel’s relevance.[3]

Let me ask you: how relevant is the gospel to the story of your life? How relevant is what you hear on Sunday to what you do on Monday?

There was a time when Paul was unwittingly God’s enemy. In his zeal for what he thought was right and true, he was doing to God’s people what the pagan nations had previously done to Israel. Yet like the soldiers responsible for crucifying Israel’s Messiah (Lk 23:34), he had no idea what he was doing.

He was arrogant, insolent and violent. To those first Christians in the infant church, Paul was like a Jewish terrorist. He confesses here (v. 13) of horrendous crimes against God and God’s people. In fact, in Galatians 1:13, he indicates that it was his purpose to destroy the church, to wipe its presence and testimony from the face of God’s earth.

And then God intervened, displaying his “unlimited patience” (v. 16; cf Ex 34:6; Num 14:18; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). We don’t often think of patience as a divine attribute, but Scripture is shot through with the patience of God in the face of human sin, rebellion and attempted autonomy.

But God does not stop at patience. He shows Paul his mercy (vv. 13b, 16a), and pours out his grace in his life (v. 14; cf Rom 5:20), overflowing like a river in flood, bringing freshness, cleansing and new life to a barren and parched land.

When the Puritan Christian leader John Bunyan published his autobiography in 1666, he took the title from these verses (vv. 14, 15): Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, and subtitled the work: “The Brief Relation of the Exceeding Mercy of God to His Poor servant John Bunyan.”

God’s mercy and grace took hold of Bunyan, and transformed his heart and mind. Paul had the same kind of experience.

The centre of God’s merciful action and gracious provision is the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, his Son (v. 15). This is the first of five “trustworthy sayings” in the Pastoral Letters (the others are found in 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim 2:11, and Titus 3:8).

God is utterly worthy of our trust, and this saying (perhaps an early church creed) is a faithful representation and summary of the good news of God.

What is the appropriate response to such a stupendous message? Consider the words (v. 15), weigh their significance, embrace their full meaning, and act accordingly. As Rick Warren from Saddleback Church says, “You don’t have to clean up your act before you can worship God. Worship him and he’ll clean up your act. You don’t repent and confess in order to earn forgiveness. You change your ways because you’ve been forgiven.”[4]

To experience the mercy and grace of God is to begin to know God, and knowledge of God and his ways leads to loving God, and loving God leads to serving God because he is altogether worthy of our best qualities, our best resources, our best resolve.

And Paul urges Timothy to fall into step with this gracious God, and “fight the good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience” (vv. 18-19), bringing many others to glory, and taking care to avoid his own spiritual shipwreck.

The reward is to “receive eternal life” (v. 16c). Tom Wright comments on this phrase: “As always in Paul, faith in turn becomes the key to membership in ‘the age to come,’ the new age for which the Jews had longed.”[5]

You have been shown God’s unlimited patience and undeserved mercy. Are you looking forward to the eternal life God has given you? You are the recipient of God’s abundant grace. In what ways are you passing on that grace to others?

Take time this week to reflect on the mercy and grace of God, as you have experienced it, and give him the praise and honour and glory he deserves.


Sermon 626 copyright © 2015 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 19 July 2015. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] John Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus (Leicester: IVP, 1996), p. 55.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2006), p. 136.

[4] http://rickwarren.org/devotional/english/worship-comes-before-transformation (accessed 13 Jul 2015).

[5] Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters (London: SPCK, 2003), p. 13.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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