The word of the day is “pattern.” In various letters, Paul presented himself as a positive example of life in Christ. Yet he also admitted that he was a great sinner who had to depend on the grace of God for the promise of eternal life. In today’s reading of 1 Timothy 1:15-17, Paul writes, “However, for this reason, I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life (vs. 16 OSB).
Already in 1 Corinthians, Paul directed that his congregation in Corinth consider him their father “through the Gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15). As their father in faith, he instructed his flock to “imitate him” (1 Corinthians 4:16) following his example in all that he said and did.
Paul Is an Example to His Followers
But Paul expected to play the same role as father and example in all his congregations. For instance, he said to the Philippians, “Brethren, join in following my example and note those who so walk as you have us for a pattern (1 Thessalonians 3:17). And to the Thessalonians, he wrote, “For you yourselves know how you ought to follow us…not because we do not have authority, but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us (2 Thessalonians 3:7and 9). And again, he wrote to the Corinthians, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ (I Cor. 11:1).
Paul considered this kind of exemplary conduct to be essential for shepherding the flock of Christ. Therefore, when he left his co-worker Titus in Crete to carry on his work, he wrote, “in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works (Titus 2:7)
In these cases, Paul’s word for “pattern” is derived from stamping something to make an exact impression on it (Strong’s #5179, 254). Thus, the word means that followers should resemble their leaders. And leaders should be models for their followers.
Paul as the Foremost Sinner
However, while Paul sees himself as a godly example for his flock, he also considers himself the “foremost” sinner. As the former chief persecutor of the Church, he also serves as a model of God’s grace. The Greek word he uses as “pattern” refers to a sketch or outline of an original design (Strong’s #5296, 260). This pattern showed the manner of God’s treatment of Paul, the sinner. Despite the apostle’s offenses against Christ and the Church, God displayed His longsuffering; that is, God treated him with patience and forbearance (Strong’s #3115, 155). Paul’s point is that the merciful kindness that God showed to him gives assurance of God’s patience to all who will look to Him for eternal life. The Lord’s lovingkindness of the apostle demonstrates that all who turn to the Lord will not receive the condemnation that they deserve but the grace that they have not earned.
We esteem the saints, martyrs, and fathers of the Church for their godly life. And so, we see them as examples to follow. However, The Orthodox Study Bible observes that “Throughout the Old Testament and New Testament and church history, the greatest sinners have often become most notable saints (Moses, Rahab, David, Photini (the Samaritan woman at the well), Matthew [the tax collector], Paul, and Mary of Egypt.)” (OSB fn. on 1 Timothy 1:23-17). If we asked these holy men and women–and all those we revere–they would not glory in their saintliness but in the mercy of God just as Paul did.
What We Should Imitate
The Very Rev. John Fenton observes that to imitate the saints is to give them the greatest honor. He then lists two things about the saints that we should imitate. First, their testimony to the mercy of Christ to the point of self-sacrifice and martyrdom. Second, their goal of humility, not fame.
Fr. Fenton writes that we too should honor the saints with the same kind of self-giving. Moreover, we should follow the example of the saints in living a life of repentance (Fr. John Fenton, St. Michael’s Orthodox Church, Whittier, California. https://www.stmichaelwhittier.org/parish-site/2018/imitating-the-saints/,).