The apostle Paul, writing in 1 Timothy 1:15, declared himself to be the world’s worst sinner. Is that hyperbole? Or is that apostolic self-deprecation? Or is that true? Was Paul really the world’s worst sinner? You want to know. I want to know. A listener named Joel wants to know. So we ask Pastor John.
Joel writes, “Pastor John, hello to you! Paul makes this claim in 1 Timothy 1:15. ‘The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.’ Foremost? It must be true because this is the authoritative word of God. But is Paul exaggerating his claim here? The context seems to suggest that Paul meant he truly was the worst sinner. He goes on to say in verse 16 that he was saved as an example that if he, the chief of sinners, was saved, then surely others can be saved as well. So was Paul really the world’s worst sinner?”
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15–16)
So the claim really does seem to mean foremost among all sinners, not just a little group, because he is comparing himself with all those whom Christ came to save. He says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” and among that group, “I am the foremost.” That’s all sinners — at least all at that time.
The Greek word behind the English word “foremost” is prōtos, which simply means “first.” I’m first. It’s used 155 times in the New Testament, almost always meaning first temporally. Well, Paul doesn’t mean that. He doesn’t mean temporally, as if there were no sinners before him — like, “I’m the first sinner.” He doesn’t mean that. He means first in line, measured on some other scale — not temporally, but some other scale.
So the task is to figure out from the context what scale. How is he the first, the foremost before others? In what way? By what criteria? And Paul gives us three scales, so to speak, in 1 Timothy 1:13: “Formerly I was a  blasphemer,  persecutor, and  insolent opponent.” Let’s just take those one at a time and see how he measures, how he’s thinking about his “firstness.”
This means he spoke. Blasphemy means something you do with your mouth. He spoke demeaning lies about Jesus, the Son of God. His words directed people away from the truth about Jesus. His words tarred and feathered Jesus with false descriptions. They belittled Jesus and mocked Jesus. His words treated Jesus as a pretender — in effect, a liar.
“The seriousness of the sin rises with the glory and dignity of the person you’re demeaning.”
Paul could not argue with any credibility that Jesus did not exist. Good grief — he lived at the same time. So he had to argue that Jesus put himself forward as something he wasn’t. He was a hoax. And when you treat someone that way, the seriousness of the sin rises with the glory and dignity of the person you’re demeaning. So Paul considered his slanderous language about Jesus as the first thing to be mentioned in his unworthiness. So that’s where he starts.
He went way beyond words. Now these are cumulative; he’s mounting things up here, and I guess the third one’s going to be the climax. But here we are at number two. He’s a persecutor. He went way beyond words. He pursued people to prison. He oversaw the murder of Christians. Here’s the way Luke puts it in Acts 9:1–2:
Saul, still breathing out threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way [that’s Christianity], men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
And what would happen there? Perhaps stoning.
In Galatians 1:13–14, he says,
You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.
So when he connects his aim to destroy the church with his advancing beyond any other zealous peers in Judaism, I think he meant, “Nobody went after the church like I did — nobody. My murderous, imprisoning, persecuting efforts to destroy the church were literally unsurpassed.” I think that’s just literally true. I think Paul said that, meant it, and there’s no reason to think it’s not the case.
Now here’s the third one. He calls himself not only a persecutor and a slanderer of Christ, but an “insolent opponent.” Now the word is in Greek hybristēn, and you can hear in English the word “hubris.” We get “hubris” from it — arrogance, haughtiness, pride. I think this is the key to understanding how literally Paul meant it when he said he was the foremost, the first, of sinners. To be a blasphemer or a slanderer, we can measure that by a person’s words. To be a persecutor, we can measure that by a person’s actions. But how do you measure proud insolence — haughty, arrogant insolence? Only God could see this evil perfectly, and only Paul could feel it existentially. And Paul perhaps knew it and felt it more than all the rest of his sins.
On the Damascus road, the words that Jesus used to convict Paul were these:
“Saul, Saul [that was his Hebrew name], why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And [Jesus] said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9:4–5)
This put all of Paul’s blasphemy, all his persecution, all his arrogance in a new light. Now Paul had to measure his blasphemy and persecution and arrogance not by itself, but in relation to the one he was sinning against: the risen, living Son of God. And my guess is that this set Paul to thinking not just about the greatness of Christ as the one he was persecuting, but also about the privileges that he was sinning against.
Depth of Paul’s Sin
Just think of it. I think this is what stirred up the sense of the depth of his arrogance. First, he was sinning against his own destiny, because God had set him apart from his mother’s womb to be an apostle (Galatians 1:15). Second, he was sinning against the greatest Bible knowledge of his time. He was a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee, he said in Philippians 3:5. That is, he was a great Bible scholar. He was sinning against all that knowledge.
Third, he was sinning against the nearness, the historical nearness of the historical Jesus. Paul was alive when Jesus, the Son of God, was on planet earth. He knew this was not myth. Hundreds of eyewitnesses to the miracles and the words of Jesus existed. Paul was sinning against great evidence. He was sinning against the beautiful love and mercy of martyrs. Paul was there, face to face with Stephen when he was stoned to death. They laid their garments at his feet (Acts 7:58). He heard Stephen say, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. . . . Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59–60). He saw that beautiful demonstration of Christlike mercy. He was sinning against all that.
“The pride of Paul’s own heart was so terrible in his eyes that he pronounced himself the foremost.”
So when Paul considered all that he was sinning against, and that his blasphemy and his persecution were in the face of all that truth and beauty, the insolence, the arrogance, the pride of his own heart was so terrible in his eyes that he pronounced himself the foremost.
None Beyond His Reach
And if we wonder, “How could he know that no one was worse?” the ultimate answer is, I think, that Jesus revealed this to him. And this seems right, because this very “firstness” in sin was part of the inspired writing with which God intended to encourage others who despaired that they could never be saved because they were that insolent (almost).
So it seems right to say that God would see to it that Paul realized this, felt this about his own arrogant heart. “You, Paul, are the least deserving of my mercy. So I’m going to save you, so that when you write 1 Timothy, no one will ever be able to say, ‘I am too undeserving.’”