By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)
One of the most intriguing statements made by the Apostle Paul comes from his first Epistle to Timothy.
Writing to this young Gospel preacher to encourage him in the work of ministry, Paul reflects on his own past (and the incredible mercy that God had shown to him).
In describing some of the reasons why God had revealed Himself to Saul/Paul, we are told:
1 Timothy 1:12-15-12 And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry,
13 although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.
14 And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.
15 This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.
Reading this passage (especially verse 13), some have concluded that God showed Paul mercy because he simply did not know the truth. As such, many reason that God will only show mercy to those who sin in ignorance.
Yet is that what Paul is really saying?
Ignorance In The Bible
Let’s notice first of all the fact that Paul says he committed these actions in “ignorance.”
What did the Apostle mean?
When we use the word “ignorance” in our English language, we usually mean a lack of knowledge.
Someone who is “ignorant” is someone who does not know the facts about something, and hence needs to be educated.
However, the word “ignorance” meant far more to the Hebrews!
Renowned scholar William Barclay tells us of the significance of the word “ignorance” among the Jewish people:
“The sin of ignorance is pardonable; the sin of presumption is not. Nevertheless, we must note that by the sin of ignorance the Jews meant more than simply lack of knowledge. They included the sins committed when someone was carried away in a moment of impulse or anger or passion or was overcome by some irresistible temptation, and the sins were followed by repentance. By the sin of presumption, they meant the cold, calculated sin for which the perpetrator was not in the least sorry, the open-eyed disobedience of God. So, the priest existed to open for sinners the way back to God –as long as they wanted to come back.” (William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible: The Letter To The Hebrews, 54 (Kindle Edition); Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press)
So the Hebrews used the word “ignorant” to refer to any sins which a person committed, for whatever reason, that he would repent of.
As such, a sin of ignorance could obviously mean a sin which a person committed due to weakness, impulse, circumstance, or even flat out rebellion!
To make it absolutely clear what he means, Paul says that he acted through “unbelief.”
The word used here in the Greek New Testament is very informative (apistia). What does this word mean?
“apistia as the state of unbelief is a condition in which people can choose to stay or which they can abandon (Rom. 11:23). The consequences of living in such a state are acting out of ignorance (1 Tim. 1:13), impeding the miraculous (Mt. 13:58; Mk. 6:6), and, at its worst, leading one to reject God and suffer the consequences (Heb. 3:12, 16).” (William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 30184-30203 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)
To better understand the meaning of this, consider another word (apisteo).
This word is very similar to apistia, and carries the following meaning:
““disbelieve” (or “disbelieved”) in the RV, in Mark 16:11, 16; Luke 24:11, 41; Acts 28:24; “disbelieve” is the best rendering, implying that the unbeliever has had a full opportunity of believing and has rejected it;” (W.E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, William White, Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 28573 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers)
Those who were guilty of the sin of “unbelief” were those who stubbornly refused to accept the truth of God.
Far from being a statement that Paul was shown mercy because he simply “didn’t know better,” the Apostle makes it clear that he was entrenched in willful and sinful unbelief!
The rest of the text implies this, does it not?
Look carefully at the words “blasphemer,” “persecutor,” and “insolent man.” A “blasphemer” is one who speaks evil of another; a “persecutor” is one who deals hatefully with another; and an “insolent man” is a person who is spiteful and insulting of another.
All of this goes to show us that Paul was a very hardened sinner indeed.
Kicking Against The Goads
This interpretation of the text is strengthened by the fact that the Lord declares that Saul was “kicking against the goads.”
Acts 9:5-And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
Acts 26:14-14 And when we all had fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me and saying in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’
Goads were sharp sticks that farmers used to prod animals in the direction which they were supposed to go. Paul had known for some time that Christianity was true, yet he had been “willfully” rejecting this truth.
“The reference to goads is a new detail for this scene. A goad is a stick that serves the same purpose as a whip and is used to prod and direct an animal. So in the appearance Jesus was asking why Saul is kicking against God’s discipline and direction. The word often occurs when speaking of a horse that was not to kick against the goad ( κέντρον , kentron ; BAGD 428 §2; BDAG 539–40). Saul was being told not to resist the divine call and to stop persecuting God’s people. The “kicking against the goads” pictures his being pricked and his reaction against them. The pricks are not just his conscience but also the new forces crowding in around him, fighting his sense of divine destiny. To kick against the goads is part of a Greek proverbial idiom, although a general reference simply to the goads is common in Greek literature.  Paul cannot and should not fight against Jesus. Paul himself speaks of compulsion in his ministry (1 Cor. 9:15–18; Fitzmyer 1998: 759).” (Darrell L. Bock, Baker Exegetical Commentary On The New Testament: Acts, 17411-17455 (Kindle Edition): Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic)
Even more interesting is the fact that the Greeks used this same phrase to have reference to people who stubbornly refused to accept a Divine work to which they were being called, but who did not want to accept such:
“Perhaps Paul included them here because they were a common proverb of the times, particularly prevalent among the Greeks and Romans, and would hit a responsive chord in his Gentile audience on this occasion.162…In the many instances where the proverb occurs in Greek literature, it always has the meaning of resisting one’s destiny or fighting the will of the gods. That meaning fit Paul’s situation. In persecuting Christ, Paul was fighting the will of the One who had set him apart from birth (cf. Gal 1:15). Like a beast of burden kicking against his master’s goads, he would only find the blows more severe with each successive kick. He was fighting the will of God (cf. Acts 5:39). It was a futile, senseless task.” (John B. Polhill, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical And Theological Exposition Of Holy Scripture-ACTS-Vol. 26, 504 (Kindle Edition): Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group)
Far from being “ignorant,” Saul was obstinately refusing to heed the Word of God! His self-given description as the “chief of sinners” is an apt description indeed (as it is for all those who have been converted to Jesus when they realize the depths of their sins and lost condition).
So…Why Did God Keep Reaching Out To Such A Wicked Man?
Why would God work so strongly to converts such an insolent man?
1 Timothy 1:16 (CEV)-But since I was worse than anyone else, God had mercy on me and let me be an example of the endless patience of Christ Jesus. He did this so that others would put their faith in Christ and have eternal life.
1 Timothy 1:16 (ERV)-But I was given mercy so that in me Christ Jesus could show that he has patience without limit. Christ showed his patience with me, the worst of all sinners. He wanted me to be an example for those who would believe in him and have eternal life.
God worked so hard to save Saul because He wanted to show us something through this man: God’s mercy can extend to even the most hardened and rebellious sinners!
The Lord kept reaching out to Saul because he wants all sinners to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).
In the example of Paul, we see how the grace of God can reach to even the most unlovable and the most lost.
In His grace, the Lord descends into our deepest hells and reaches out to us to be saved.
“Many Christians try to get God off the hook for suffering; God put himself on the hook, so to speak—on the cross. And therefore the practical conclusion is that if we want to be with God, we have to be with suffering, we have to not avoid the cross, either in thought or in fact. We must go where he is and the cross is one of the places where he is. And when he sends us the sunrises, we thank him for the sunrises; when he sends us sunsets and deaths and sufferings and crosses, we thank him for that.”..We were clearly moving toward the climax of our discussion. The clues Kreeft had mentioned at the outset of our interview were converging, and I could sense an increasing passion and conviction in his voice. I wanted to see more of his heart—and I wouldn’t be disappointed. “The answer, then, to suffering,” I said in trying to sum up where we’ve come, “is not an answer at all.” “Correct,” he emphasized, leaning forward as he pleaded his case. “It’s the Answerer. It’s Jesus himself. It’s not a bunch of words, it’s the Word. It’s not a tightly woven philosophical argument; it’s a person. The person. The answer to suffering cannot just be an abstract idea, because this isn’t an abstract issue; it’s a personal issue. It requires a personal response. The answer must be someone, not just something, because the issue involves someone—God, where are you?” That question almost echoed in his small office. It demanded a response. To Kreeft, there is one—a very real one. A living One. “Jesus is there, sitting beside us in the lowest places of our lives,” he said. “Are we broken? He was broken, like bread, for us. Are we despised? He was despised and rejected of men. Do we cry out that we can’t take any more? He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Do people betray us? He was sold out himself. Are our tenderest relationships broken? He too loved and was rejected. Do people turn from us? They hid their faces from him as from a leper. “Does he descend into all of our hells? Yes, he does. From the depths of a Nazi death camp, Corrie ten Boom wrote: ‘No matter how deep our darkness, he is deeper still.’ He not only rose from the dead, he changed the meaning of death and therefore of all the little deaths—the sufferings that anticipate death and make up parts of it. “He is gassed in Auschwitz. He is sneered at in Soweto. He is mocked in Northern Ireland. He is enslaved in the Sudan. He’s the one we love to hate, yet to us he has chosen to return love. Every tear we shed becomes his tear. He may not wipe them away yet, but he will.” (Peter Kreeft in Lee Strobel, The Case For Faith: A Journalist Investigates The Toughest Objections To Christianity, 45-52 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)
I ask you today: are you ready to surrender to Jesus Christ today and be saved from Hell?
There is no sin too great that He cannot forgive.
The Son of God loves you and died for you on Calvary to pay the price for your sins (1 Timothy 2:6). He was buried, and arose from the dead on the third day after His death (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).
Why not today repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins (Acts 2:38)?
Those in the first century who heard the Word of God obeyed immediately (cf. Acts 2:41; 8:12-13; 16:30-33; 18:8).
If you are an erring child of God (2 Peter 2:20-22; Revelation 3:20), why not immediately repent and return to the Lord and His church (1 John 1:9; James 5:16)?
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.