8. Are looking closely at the lives of famous men and women of the Bible who turned out to be ordinary sinners like us.
Finding sinners among Old Testament Bible characters is a pretty easy thing to do. These people are revealed to us as fallible human beings. There’s no attempt to clean up their act for us. Indeed, the writers of these Old Testament stories don’t seem to care about how these people are represented. They just tell the stories, and some of them are pretty horrific.
Now, someone could say the Old Testament characters were different from us in that they weren’t “Christians,” as it were. They didn’t have the Holy Spirit indwelling them like we do. But the same kind of thing can be found in the New Testament, even among the early believers. There was a running disagreement between Peter and Paul about Jewish traditions, especially circumcision. Peter had to have God address his prejudice against Gentiles in a dream. There was a fight over whether John Mark was ready for service, and an apparent run-in between Paul and Barnabas because of it, who parted ways later on in Paul’s ministry. There were disagreements and personality conflicts just like we experience all the time among Christians. These people were not perfect.
But by far the strongest statement made about being sinners in the New Testament is found when Paul writes to Timothy: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Two things about this are important. First, he says it is a saying that deserves full acceptance, meaning it should be a saying we all accept. And if it’s a saying we all adopt, then we will all be saying we are the worst of sinners. It’s not that Paul wants us all to agree that Paul is the worst of sinners — that if we had a contest for the worst sinner, Paul would win hands down. No. He means he wants us all to adopt the saying: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst,” obviously making each of us the worst sinner in our own eyes. He wants us to adopt the saying, not to crown him Worst Sinner on the Planet. He wants us all to believe that if we did have a contest, we would have a huge disagreement, because each one of us would argue we were the worst.
It’s the way he wants us to walk among people, no matter who we are walking with, that we are worse sinners than that person. Put yourself next to the worst despicable scoundrel you can think of, and you would still win the sin contest in your own mind. This is because you know yourself better than you know anybody else. You cannot be a judge of that other person; you are not in their skin. But you don’t have to know about anybody else. You only need to know one thing: no matter who it is you are with, you are worse. That’s why it’s a saying worthy of full acceptance.
The second thing about this saying that is remarkable is that it is in present tense: “I am the worst.” Believe me, if you or I were coming up with this, we would have put it in past tense, for sure. That is, in fact, the way all the testimonies I ever heard in church went: “I was the worst sinner before I got saved. You wouldn’t believe how bad I was. I was so bad that …” you can almost complete the sentence can’t you? And the rest of it is implied: “… but look at me now. Look at how righteous and holy I am. I got fixed.” And right here is what is wrong with many churches: you have congregations full of fixed people — no one is able to admit their current struggle with sin because they are all supposed to be over that.
But an alcoholic going to A.A. is still an alcoholic. A sinner going to church is still a sinner. We must always be aware of our propensity to sin, or we will become Pharisees faster than you can say “Nicodemus.”
This is truly good news because it levels the playing field, it stops all judgment, and it makes us all humble, and eternally grateful for the grace of God. And, as recovering Pharisees go, this is where we want to be all the time.
- In what ways was your early understanding of Bible characters different than what is described in this article? How did you feel when you found out the truth about the biblical characters?
- Are there any human figures in the Bible whose sin it seems should disqualify them from the place they were given? Why? What is your reaction to the sin of that person or those people? Does he or she resemble you in any way?
- Has anything in your life led you to think that God cannot use you? If so, why? Is anything too sinful or too ugly or too shameful to be used by God for his glory?
- Whom would you have a hard time saying you were worse than?