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The Surprising Servant

Series: 1 Timothy

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jul 4, 2004

1 Timothy 1:12-14

The Lord's Day Morning
July 4, 2004

I Timothy 1:12-14
“The Surprising Servant”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to I Timothy, chapter one. We've been working our way through this book the last three weeks or so, and we come to I Timothy, chapter one, verse twelve today. I'd simply say, by way of preparation, that Paul has focused on the same themes throughout this letter so far. From the time he finished his salutation, in verses 1 and 2, he's been showing us what the gospel is and how it impacts Christian ministry. In verses 3 through 5, for instance, he tells you what the result is–what the goal is–of gospel ministry. In verses three through five, he reminds us that what we're aiming for as we teach the truth of God's word, as we proclaim the gospel of salvation through Christ alone, we're aiming for love which flows from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. And so a gospel minister isn't simply desirous of his people knowing certain things, or agreeing to certain propositions or doctrines, he wants those doctrines to be so embraced by the heart that there is a transformation of life. He's looking for a transformation [from] inside out, that only the gospel can effect. And Paul's telling this to Timothy because there are some people who are false teachers that are troubling this local congregation, and they seem to be spiritual, and they seem to be wise, and they seem to be knowledgeable in the Scriptures, and yet the fruit of their teaching has not only been a division in the congregation, but it has not led to the fruit of love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. And so, Paul is contrasting a true gospel ministry with the kind of ministry that is produced by the false teachers.

Then, last week, as we looked at verses 6 through 11, Paul does speak of the law in the Christian life–how it functions before the Christian life, how it functions in the Christian life–but, again, his purpose is to contrast a ministry based on the gospel and a ministry based on law-keeping. The law-keepers, he charges in verses 6 to 11, don't really understand the law. They don't understand what it's for, they don't understand its demands, and they don't understand that the law is not capable of producing gospel effects in the lives of people. And so again, even as he addresses the issue of the law, his concern is to contrast gospel ministry and this ministry that's going on by the false prophets.

Well, the same concern is before you in verses 12 through 14. Now, this is something of a personal testimony. You can't read these words without thinking of Paul's conversion, and all the commentators will acknowledge that what Paul himself is thinking of, as he contrasts what he was and what he is becoming in Jesus Christ, is that marvelous encounter on the road to Damascus.

Now, is Paul just pausing and saying, “Timothy, let's talk about me for a little bit”? No. The reason Paul is giving his testimony is, he's saying “Timothy, I am Exhibit ‘A’ for what the gospel of God's grace does in the life of a sinner. Though I was zealous for the law, just like these fellows who are troubling your congregation–in fact, I was more zealous than they were–though I persecuted Christians because I thought it was the will of God, I thought that I was doing what the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would have wanted me to do. Yet, I was a sinner; I was a wretched sinner in need of grace. And look at what God in His mercy did in my life. Now, Timothy, that's what we want to see happening in the lives of your congregation, not what these false teachers are promoting in the congregation.”

So again, even Paul's testimony here serves to contrast a true gospel ministry with the ministry of these false teachers that are troubling the Ephesian Christians. So let's turn our attention to I Timothy 1:12. Before we read and proclaim God's word, let's look to God in prayer and ask for His blessing. Let's pray.

Lord God, Your grace works in us the graces of faith and love. This morning as we greet the example of Your grace at work in the life of the Apostle Paul, work in our own hearts by Your Spirit, that we might graciously believe and love to Your glory. And remind us that what we are about to hear read and preached is not man's opinions about God and religion, but Your own word to us. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear God's word:

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service; even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. And yet I was shown mercy, because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love that are found in Christ Jesus.

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

Paul is giving thanks to the Lord here, and he's reflecting on what the Lord has done in his life. And yet, as he reflects on what the Lord has done in his life, as he gives testimony to God's grace at work in his life, his thanksgiving and meditation has the purpose of giving instruction to Timothy, and to us. Paul is wanting to remind Timothy and us what the gospel does in the lives of people. He's wanting to remind us the goal of gospel ministry. He's wanting to again contrast the nature of gospel ministry with the false ministry of these false teachers that are troubling Timothy's people. In fact, in this little passage–just three verses–Paul is going to teach us three things in this testimony.

First of all, he's going to teach us the nature of the gospel ministry, secondly, he's going to teach us the weakness of the law; and, thirdly, he's going to teach us the effect of grace. You’ll see him address the nature of the gospel ministry in verse twelve; and then, the weakness of the law to produce in us a rightness with God, in verse thirteen. And then in verse fourteen, he's going to show us the effect of grace. Grace always works something, Paul says, in the believer's life. And he tells us what, in verse fourteen. Let's look at these three things together for a few moments today.

I. The true gospel minister is thankful for the underserved privilege of serving Christ and His people
First of all, let's look at the nature of gospel ministry in verse twelve. A true gospel minister is thankful for the undeserved privilege of serving Christ and His people, and Paul, as he reflects on the fact that he's not only been saved, but he's been called to be an apostle, a preacher of the unsearchable riches of Christ, he is staggered by the thought that God would have allowed him, of all people, to be someone who preaches the gospel, who cares for God's people.

Remember that Paul was the greatest single threat to the existence and continuation of the church that the church had ever experienced in the early days of her existence. If you had named one person who, more than any other, had worked to exterminate Christianity in the first three years of its existence, Paul's name would have been on the top of the list. He had been extremely successful in persecuting and harassing Christians from Jerusalem all the way into Samaria. It was his desire to see this “heretical sect” of people wiped off the map. They were an affront to his service of the living God, to the teachings of Moses, and they needed to be dealt with. It was Paul who was standing there holding cloaks as people picked up stones to kill Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian church. This man was bent and determined on the destruction of the name of Jesus Christ, and of all the people who called on that name as Lord and Savior. He rejected Jesus as Messiah, he rejected Jesus as Lord, and he wanted everyone else to do the same. And that Paul, God called into gospel ministry, and the fact that God had done that stunned Paul. Every time he thought about it, he was moved. And he's telling Timothy that here: “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, Who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service; even though I was formerly a blasphemer....” The thought that God had called him not only out of darkness and into the light, not only from unbelief to belief in the one way of salvation, but from being an enemy of the church of Christ to being the pre-eminent missionary of the church of Christ–that thought struck wonder into Paul's heart. And he's telling Timothy about it here.

But, as he tells Timothy about it, you understand, he's showing Timothy the nature of gospel ministry. In fact, you see four things just in verse twelve about gospel ministry. Let me just give them to you, and then we’ll walk through them. And it's straight through the sentence: (1) Gospel ministry is a thankful ministry; (2) gospel ministry is a dependent ministry; (3) gospel ministry is an undeserved ministry; and, (4) gospel ministry —well, it's ministry! Or to use the word: service. Let's talk about each of those for a few moments.

Paul begins by saying, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord....” When Paul thinks about what he was, and about what he was doing, and that he is now in the service of Christ, loved by Him, accepted by Him, given responsibility by Him, and ministering to His beloved people–you remember, this is the man who was persecuting Christians, and Jesus met him on the road to Damascus and said “Paul”... or, as he used his former name.... “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting them?” Is that what He said? No! “Why are you persecuting Me?” In other words, Paul's persecution of Christians, Christ took to be a persecution of Himself. After all, we are Christ's body, the Lord Jesus says. And so Paul is staggered by the fact that one like himself who had persecuted Christians could be called into the service of Christ and Christians. And so he's thankful for it. He is absolutely mind-boggled that Jesus our Lord has entrusted him with the privilege of serving and suffering for Him. And so, his ministry, his gospel ministry is thankful.

And I want to say that that provides such a contrast to the constant ministerial complaining that we often hear about the difficulties of service and ministry for those who are in the ministry. You see, that's out of accord with a proper sense of gratitude. You know, Paul suffered things that most of us who minister in America and in the Western free world have never experienced. Oh, we experience a few disgruntled congregation members, and most of the time we deserve it, but we never have experienced, most of us, what Paul experienced. Some of our brothers in the ministry in Sudan, in the ‘10-40 Window’, in Indonesia, in Muslim dominated countries, they have experienced some of the things that Paul has experienced. Paul: this man was beaten; this man was kicked out of cities; this man was number one on the ‘Jewish FBI wanted list.’ He was hunted down by his own people; he was wanted by the Roman government–and what does he say about his ministry? ‘Lord, I just can't believe that You would let me do this for You. I am so grateful.’ What an attitude that Paul had! He was grateful in his gospel ministry. His service was thankful. And true gospel ministry anywhere ought to be thankful ministry.

But secondly, notice that he was dependent in his service of the Lord. He says, “I thank Jesus Christ our Lord, who has strengthened me....” Paul knows that it doesn't matter how smart he is. He was smart. And it doesn't matter how much he knows. And he knew a lot. And it doesn't matter how zealous he is. And he was zealous. And it doesn't matter how faithful he is. And he is faithful. What makes the difference in the success of his ministry is the strengthening of the Lord. It's the Lord who made him faithful! It's the Lord who used his service! And we need to remember, that in the gospel ministry the final determining factor is not our abilities, not our capacities: it's what the Lord does. That's the way gospel ministry is. You know, any time that you hear someone say that some particular method, or some particular program, is The Key to ministry, and if we just do this or that, then everything will be fine, it's clear that they don't understand I Timothy 1:12.

Paul is saying everything in gospel ministry depends on the strength that the Lord alone provides, because gospel ministry asks the minister to do something that no human being can do. The gospel ministry entails a Christian preacher preaching to those who are dead in sin, and telling them to embrace Christ. And then it entails preaching to wounded Christians, and telling them to become warriors for God. Now, my words can't do those things. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. My favorite picture of Christian ministry is from Ezekiel 37. It's that passage that Jesus alludes to in John 3. You remember the picture? God takes Ezekiel the prophet out into a valley, and all he can see is bones. And He says to Ezekiel, ‘Ezekiel, got a question for you: can these dry bones live?’ And I love Ezekiel's answer: “You know, Lord.” And then He says to Ezekiel, “Preach to the bones.”

Now, I would have raised my hand at that point! “Lord, there's got to be a better technique than this!” “Preach to the bones.” And Ezekiel preaches. And what happens? The Spirit works and brings them together, and the bones reassemble; and breath comes into them, and flesh comes onto those bones; and life is breathed into the lives of those people, and they march back to Jerusalem! It's a picture of the ministry of God's faithful servants. Our words alone cannot produce the effect that we desire, but God's word and God's Spirit always accomplish His will.

And so Paul is utterly dependent upon God and His strength, Christ's strength, for the success of his ministry. All real ministry must be done in conscious dependence upon the Lord's strength.

But notice also that Paul acknowledges that this is an undeserved ministry. “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful....” Now that could be very easily misunderstood. Let's pause and think about it for a few moments. Is Paul saying that he thanks God...that God looked down and said, “You know, Paul is an exceedingly faithful guy. I think I’ll call him into ministry.” Is that what Paul is saying? What does he say about himself in the next verse? “I was a blasphemer; I was a persecutor; I was a wanton aggressor. I was a violent man.” No, Paul is not saying “I thank Jesus that He looked down and chose me because I'm a faithful guy.” No. Paul is saying something very different. He's “I am staggered that God would look down at me, and would count me trustworthy to take care of His people. I can't believe that the Lord in His mercy would not only save me, but that He would let me minister to people that I had once harmed.”

Can you imagine if Billy Graham called a big meeting this afternoon, and he had a special announcement? And he came on national television and he said, “I have very important news for you. My son, Franklin, has been meeting secretly in a cave in Afghanistan with a man named Osama bin Laden. And he's come to Christ and he's going to join the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.” Now, my friends, I suspect that you would be thinking, “Billy, you have lost it! Bring him in–find a Marine!” Well, look! This is how Christians thought when they heard that Paul had been converted. “Barnabas, you've slipped a cog! You’re going to bring Paul to Christian meetings with us? This is public enemy number one!” Can you imagine it? ‘This man is responsible for my husband's murder; this man is responsible for my father's exile; this man is responsible for my brother losing his job in Jerusalem; this man is responsible for countless Christian churches being shut down all over Palestine. What do you mean, he's going to minister to Your people?’

Well, Paul's response to that is, “I understand that response. That's my response to me. I can't believe that God has let me minister to His people.” And what is he saying this to Timothy for? He's saying, “Timothy, that's the gospel ministry! I'm Exhibit ‘A’! That a sinner like me–a blasphemer, a persecutor–could be so forgiven, so shown the forgiving grace of God that I could be called into His service? That's mind-boggling, Timothy, and that's what the ministry of the gospel does. It's so different from the ministry of these false prophets out there, Timothy.”

But notice one last thing: Paul does call this ministry, or, to give it its proper name, service: “He considered me faithful, putting me into service.” You know, Paul could have said “God gave me the exalted position and status of apostle, wherein I have the plenipotentiary authority of Jesus Christ vested in me for the ruling of the church.” Now, that was true. And Paul will say things like that elsewhere. But here he simply says “Jesus called me to serve, to serve His people, to serve Him. That's what I am: I'm a servant.”

And that's what true gospel ministry is. It's service. And when we serve one another in the gospel, that means we need to expect to be treated like servants every once in a while. And you know, we get offended by that. We say “Lord, make me a servant.” We sing it: make me a servant. But then when we get treated like servants, we don't like it. Well, remember the next time you’re treated like a servant, when you’re serving the gospel in this congregation, when you’re loving someone and they treat you like a servant, remember: you’re just getting a little bit of a taste of what the Master himself, the Lord Jesus Christ, and what His servant Paul experienced in gospel ministry. We’re called to service.

The great William Childs Robinson, the evangelical professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in the 1950s and ‘60s, was called upon by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1961 to give the report of the Committee of Thanks. That's the committee that thanks the General Assembly and the Local Arrangements Committee for doing all the things that you have to do in order to put the General Assembly on. And in the course of that thanks, Dr. Robinson — all his students called him ‘Robbie’–Dr. Robinson made reference to the fact that we are all just slaves of Christ. And he was giving the thanks report, and somebody objected! “I object to that! I don't want to be called a slave.” And so they ‘x’ it out of the report. Dr. Robinson was too humble to say “Friends, that just comes out of the Bible. That's what we are. We’re servants of the Lord Jesus Christ.” And that's what Paul's reminding us here.

So he tells us about gospel ministry in verse twelve: it's a thankful ministry, a dependent ministry, an undeserved ministry, and it is a service. It's a ministry. We serve one another in the gospel.

II. The true gospel minister remembers what he was and is apart from the grace of Christ Jesus.
But that's not all. Paul goes on to say in verse thirteen that the true gospel minister remembers what he was and is, apart from the grace of Christ. Paul is remembering for Timothy his former state. In all his zeal and knowledge he was just a blasphemer and a persecutor. Notice how he characterizes himself? “...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.”

Now don't misunderstand Paul. Paul's not saying “God showed me grace because I was ignorant.” He's not telling you the reason, the ground on which God showed him grace: “Because I was ignorant, God showed me grace.” You know, like when you say to the officer, “But officer, I didn't know it was a 35-mile-an-hour speed limit here!” And he says, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Seventy-eight in a 35-mile-an-hour zone is not ignorance.” That's not going to work. Paul's not saying “I didn't know, and therefore God forgave me.” No, he's saying something different.

You remember the people who were troubling this church were people who were saying “Timothy, the way of righteousness is the way of the law, and if you will keep the law, you can be right with God.” And here's the Apostle Paul saying “Let me tell you something: I kept the law; I was more zealous than anybody in Israel for the law; I killed Christians for the law; I thought I was doing God a favor. And when God showed me what I was, I realized it could all be summed up in this: I'm an unbeliever, and I'm ignorant.” You see what Paul's saying? ‘Timothy, these people who are telling you that the way of righteousness is law-keeping–they haven't kept the law half as well as I kept the law. And you know what I found out? Law keeping in my own strength led me to the exalted pinnacle of being an ignorant unbeliever. But the grace of God in my life worked faith and love. Timothy, if anybody could have been right with God by the law, it was me. But I found out that I needed a righteousness of God apart from the law. And I found it in the gospel. I found it in Jesus Christ.’

And you see, we have to understand that experientially if we're going to minister the gospel. We need to understand our sin. And we need to understand the inability of trying to be good, and of keeping the law to make us right with God. And we need to understand our need of mercy. Those things have to be understood in order to minister the gospel. Paul understood them. He's pressing them home to Timothy. ‘Timothy, you need to understand that the only way of being declared right with God is the gospel. It's the work of Jesus Christ. It's the work of the Holy Spirit drawing us to trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, as He is offered in the gospel.’

And so, Paul is telling us here in verse twelve not only of the nature of the gospel ministry, but also in verse 13 of the weakness of the law, and therefore of the need of the gospel.

III. The true gospel minister is always mindful of the transforming power and sufficiency of the grace of Christ.
But finally, in verse 14 he speaks to us of the effect of grace. You see, the true gospel minister is always mindful of the transforming power and sufficiency of the grace of Christ. Paul was not only forgiven, Paul was not only declared right with God; Paul was changed! And the grace of our Lord was more than abundant with the faith and love that are found in Jesus Christ. Paul is saying this: ‘When God's grace got hold of me, the grace of God in the gospel did what the law had never done in me. That is, made me one who believed in God, in His promises, in His word, and one who loves as Christ had called us to love. In other words, God's grace in me produced faith and love.’

When grace works in a Christian heart, there are always two fruits: (1) faith, and (2) love. Trust in God, trust in His word, trust in His promises through Christ; and love for the brethren. And Paul says that these things are found in, they are experienced in, union with Christ alone. And you can't exhibit them apart from Him. You see, Paul is saying to Timothy ‘A gospel ministry recognizes that these false teachers that are saying the way to be right with God is through this law-keeping have it upside down. They have it backwards. Only in Jesus Christ can we trust and love, can we believe on the promises of God, and love as He's called us to love. If we say that law keeping is the way into that relationship’–Paul is saying–‘you will never get to the point where you can obey God's command to love. But if you will trust in Jesus Christ, then you will see, as God in His grace and mercy gives you the ability to trust and to love.’

And Paul again, you see, is telling this to Timothy because he wants Timothy to know the difference between a gospel ministry and a legal ministry. And it's so important for us to know, too.

And if you’re here today thinking that if you’re a ‘good’ person you can be right with God, I have some bad news for you. You can't. But if you’re here today realizing that you can't be good enough to be right with God, then I have some really good news for you. And that is that God knows that, because God knows you. And God has provided His Son in the gospel so that as you trust in Him and that as you’re united to Him by the Holy Spirit, He can produce in you the love that God wants His people to show. That is the only way that we can be what God has intended us to be. May the Lord bless His word in our hearts. Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, we bow before You asking You by Your Spirit to convict us of our need, and to point us to the only One Who can supply it: Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

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