Jesus had broken through the sin-hardened ignorance of Paul.
"The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life." 1 Timothy 1:15-16 (ESV)
FOREMOST: protos (foremost in time, place, order or importance); from pro ("fore", in front of, prior or superior to)
"Foremost" occurs many times in the Bible. Simon was described as foremost of the apostles, not in order of time, but in importance (Matthew 10:2). The command to love the Lord our God is the first commandment, because of time, being the first command given by God. (Matthew 22:38).
Paul was certainly not the first person in the world to sin. Paul is saying that as a sinner, he was most important.
More important than Adam? David? Judas Iscariot? Hitler?
WHAT DO YOU THINK? How can Paul say that he was the most important sinner, of all the sinners in the world? What about his blasphemy, persecution and insolence was foremost above all others? Has there been another to take Paul's place as "foremost sinner of all"?
Paul believed his sin to be foremost, the most important in the world. His human nature cowered in fear, fully expecting God's wrathful and perfectly just punishment, with no hope of escape or pardon.
But God opened Paul's eyes to His mercy, extended to Paul by Jesus Christ:
"But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life." 1 Timothy 1:16 (ESV)
Paul understood that God had made Jesus Christ to be both Judge and Forgiver. With perfect patience, Jesus allowed Himself to be crucified, satisfying God's wrath upon Paul's sin, and the risen Christ forgave Paul, as He forgives all sinners who believe in Him.
PERFECT: pas (all, any, every, the whole)
PATIENCE: makrothymia (longanimity, forbearance or fortitude); from makros (long in place, or distant in time) and thumos (passion, as if breathing hard)
If Paul were blind to God's mercy, seeing only himself as sinner, his only expectation would be imminent wrath, with Jesus passionately angry to the core, breathing fast and furiously, on the very edge of violently punishing Paul for his sin.
But God had mercy.
Jesus opened Paul's eyes to God's mercy shown on the cross. Paul believed that Jesus had willingly died in Paul's place, securing forgiveness for the sinner. Now, Paul saw Jesus, not as an angry Judge, but as a patient Judge, a Judge who has seen justice served and has forgiven the sinner.
Perhaps Paul saw himself as the foremost sinner because of the effect his transformation had on other sinners. Perhaps he saw many people believe in God's mercy for sin, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, because they had seen Paul change from sinner to saint.
If it could happen to Paul, it can happen to me.
Paul described Jesus as King:
"To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen." 1 Timothy 1:17 (ESV)
Saul, as sinner, saw Jesus as a charismatic, false preacher of a heretical cult that threatened the power and influence of the Jewish religion in Jerusalem.
Paul, as saint, saw Jesus as King: immortal, invisible, the only God, deserving all honor and glory forever.
Many people, from the time of Paul to now, have seen the radical transformation of Paul as convincing evidence that Jesus Christ is the King of their life, and this belief transforms them in the same way it transformed Paul.
A transformation from death to life. Eternal life. In Christ.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Paul believed that his transformation from saint to sinner was apparent to others, that it was a display of Christ's patience and mercy. Paul was a blasphemer, persecutor and insolent opponent before coming to Christ. What was he afterward? What would people have seen different? What might people be seeing in you now that is very different than when you did not believe?