Paul, the Foremost Sinner and Greatest Example (Sun. Jan. 22)

The word of the day is “pattern.”  St. Paul presented himself as a positive example of life in Christ.   Yet he also admitted that he was a great sinner for whom the promise of eternal life depended on the grace of God.  In our reading of 1 Timothy 3:15-17, Paul writes, ”I  received mercy so that in me as the foremost {sinner] Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example…” (vs. 16 OAB).

In 1 Corinthians, Paul directed that the  Corinthians consider him their father “through the Gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15).  As their father in faith, he instructed his flock to “imitate him” (vs.1 Cor. 16), following his example in all that he said and did.

Paul as the Fatherly Example

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 (vs. 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 (vs. 11 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.”

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 such 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.  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).  The point is that the merciful restraint that God showed to Paul assures all who look to God for the gift of 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.

For Reflection

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 OT and NT and church history, the greatest sinners have often become most notable saints (Moses, Rahab, David, Photini-the woman at the well)–Matthew, Paul, Mary of Egypt.) (OSB fn. on 1 Timothy 1:23-17).   If you 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.

Most of us think that we could never be saints like Paul or St. Herman.  We are too sinful for that!  But this denies what we have learned today.  Saints are different from us only to the extent that they allowed the Holy Spirit to work in them to transform them.  Father Stanley Harakats  wrote, “This is what the Church is all about. It is a redemptive fellowship of forgiven sinners who are in the slow, difficult process of being transformed into saints by the grace of God.” (Philokalia, the Bible of Orthodox Spirituality).)




About Fr. Basil

Now retired, the Very Rev. Archpriest Basil Ross Aden has served as a parish priest, parish pastor, diocesan mission director, writer, and college teacher of New Testament and Religious Studies. He has a Master of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the University of Chicago and has published daily devotional and stewardship materials as well as a college textbook on Religious Studies. He also has published papers and/or lectured on the Orthodox perspective on Luther and the Reformation. religious freedom, current issues of religion and society, and St. John Chrysostom. He is married to Sandra and has two sons and three grandchildren. He is still active as a priest as well as a writer of articles and materials on Orthodoxy and topics of faith and life today.

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