“. . . . . . of whom I am chief.”
The apostle Paul had spoken of sinners who were saved by your Lord Jesus Christ.
And grouping them altogether into one band, he places himself at their head and says: I am the chief of sinners!
Almost everyone will confess that he belongs to the race of sinners, that is, if you do not press them overmuch as to the nature of sin, and also if you do not include them with the worst of sinners, such as gangsters, murderers or harlots.
Expressed or in the thoughts of the heart, we often say: I’m glad I am not as he or she . . . .
But Paul says: I am the chief of sinners!
“. . . . of whom I am chief !”
And Paul knew what he was talking about.
Read the verses 9 and 10 of this same chapter. He gives, us a catalog of various kinds of sinners. He speaks of the lawless and disobedient, the ungodly and sinners, the unholy and profane, murderers of fathers and mothers, manslayers, whoremongers, them that defile themselves with mankind, men stealers, liars, perjured persons . . . .
Yes, Paul knew what constitutes a sinner before God.
Yet, he calls himself their chief.
Notice also that he does not speak of sin as a deed, an act, but he judges himself, his person. He, Paul, is the sinner.
Many will say: I have done evil, I have sinned! But Paul says: I am evil. And: I am the worst of all.
And at the same time we know that he said: “For in nothing am I behind the chiefest apostles.” But even there he returns to this theme in Timothy, for he adds: “though I am nothing.”
Attend unto this that Paul was taken up into the third heaven in order to see unspeakable things, things which he could not divulge because of their unearthly beauty and splendor, things which it would be unseemly to speak about while we are on this sorry globe, and in this terrible dispensation. And this man, so exalted, so pre-eminently holy and good, calls himself the worst of sinners.
We should hesitate to make this confession weaker, so explain it that after all Paul was not such a great sinner as he makes himself in this text. I am afraid of all such attempts. Paul spoke through the Holy Spirit, and he knew what constitutes a sinner. Look at the context: it is not possible to make his confession say anything else but that Paul is the chief of all the sinners that are saved. He says: Christ came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.
Well, let us single out one of the worst: the murderer on the cross. He is in heaven and was saved by Jesus Christ. But Paul says: I am worse than that murderer who was saved at the eleventh hour! I am the chief of all the saved sinners!
Is it not amazing?
How must this be explained?
For you have all felt more or less, that we cannot leave the matter at this juncture.
We all have placed Paul far above ourselves and have said: No, Paul, you are not the chief of sinners. I am.
Attend to this truth: Paul knew only one heart, and that was his own.
He knew a lot of sinners, and knew them to be sinners because of what he saw of them and heard of them. He saw deeds and heard words that were sinful. But he never heard the thoughts, and the motives of the hearts of his fellow men.
But he did know his own heart.
And that makes all the difference in the world.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? Jeremiah 17:9.
For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies . . . Matt. 15:19.
O we can behave before men!
We are able to bridle our tongue when men are near.
We watch over our hands and feet in the midst of our fellows.
But listen to your heart my brother.
Paul knew his heart, and that was the only heart he knew.
Comparing himself with the entire church of Jesus Christ, he saw in the one camp a lot of sinners. He saw all their wicked deeds and wicked words, but he saw not, one heart among them.
And then he looked into the other camp: he saw himself as he lived his life from out of the heart.
Listen to Paul: O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
Yes, he had talked of his heart for he spoke of the things he hated, and also of his inner man. And only the spirit of man knoweth the deep things of man.
And so, when Paul stood in his own camp, all alone with his heart and its depths of sin, and when he then looked at that other camp with all the sinners that Jesus saved, he came to the conclusion that he was the worst of the lot, the chief of sinners.
Of whom I am chief!
Yes, there are other reasons why Paul placed himself at their head.
The closer you are to the light the blacker your shadow.
And Paul was very close to the light. He walked with God much more than his fellows. And when you, walk very close to God you see your sins much more than those who walk from afar with God. Theirs is the grey, the twilight. Again: Paul was taken up into heaven. That happened once to Isaiah. And you will remember how strangely he acted. While everyone sang and rejoiced in the heavenly heights, Isaiah began to cry: woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live in the midst of a people of unclean lips. For mine eyes have seen the Lord of glory.
The closer to God the more you see the blackness of your sins.
The further away from God the more you are inclined to say: I am glad I am not as bad as he and he and he.
Let God be near unto you when you are ready to go to sleep. I mean those moments when we are alone with Him, and when we have set Him before our face. It does not take long and we bow our heads, we dare not raise our eyes. Shame floods us and makes our hearts hot within us.
At such moments you must compare yourselves once with your fellows, and see the outcome.
Listen: O God! I am not worthy to walk with Thee! And, Lord, I am not worthy to walk with Thy saints. They are much better than I.
I am black of sin and guilt!
Have mercy on me, O Jesus of Nazareth!
The chief of sinners?
There is more.
In our day the people like to speak of the responsibility of man.
Well, I will at this juncture also speak of our responsibility.
Two men commit the same sinful deed.
But the one has floods of spiritual light of God’s grace together with an exhaustive knowledge of God’s word.
And the other is one who is esteemed the least in the congregation.
Both committed the same sin. But who is the greatest sinner?
The first one, of course.
And so I could go on. There is also the element of temptation. Some commit sin without a cause—out of pure deviltry. Others were sorely tempted.
I think you see the point. And if you do, you have already said in your heart: with your permission (or without), Paul: I am the chief of sinners!
Yes, all, every last one of the saints of God say in their heart: Jesus came on earth to save sinners, of whom I am chief!
For we know our hearts, it is the only heart we know of.
And in comparison our neighbor received the higher place in sainthood.
Of whom I am chief!
O what wonderful fruit it bears.
Attend to the following phrase: Howbeit, for this cause I obtained mercy.
First of all, it will cause you to cry for mercy, it will make you cling to your Father in heaven. It will make a man of you mighty in prayer. And I mean in the silence of your hour with God. He will hear your voice, even if others do not hear you. Your voice will go to Him in the most unlikely places.
Sometimes your voice will no longer be a voice.
It will be a groaning that cannot be uttered.
But you will have the fruit of cleaving to God.
But there is more.
Having received mercy, you will be very merciful to your fellows.
Having seen the blackness of your own sins which were much worse than those committed by your brother, you esteem him more excellent than yourself.
No, you do not have to tell him that. Words are cheap.
You will show it in your demeanor. Your very breath will be humility in the midst of your fellows. Born from the conviction, the wonder that they allow you in their midst. That they have not cast you out of their midst long ago.
You will be very humble walking with God.
And it will have the wonderful fruit of being humble in the midst of the manifestation of His children who are the image bearers of Christ.
Now we can understand how this same Paul could caution the millions of God’s children: Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.Philippians 2:3.
He had walked that lowly way himself. He pressed the footsteps of Him who was God and became man; who was the great innocent one and became guilty; who belonged in heaven, but went to hell, who ought to be worshipped but who became a curse.
And, O, my brethren, His heart was white with the whiteness of beauty and purity and glory! The chief of those are saints of God.
No, there’s not one like the lowly Jesus!
No, not one; no, not one!