“I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man: but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13).
Paul did much evil before his conversion to Christ (cf. Acts 9:1-2; 22:4; 26:9-11; Philippians 3:6a). He was a blasphemer (He spoke against Jesus and the church cf. Acts 9:1-2; 22:10). He even compelled Christians to blaspheme (Acts 22:11). He was a persecutor (He punished, imprisoned, and brought death to Christians cf. Acts 9:1-2; 22:4; 26:9-11; Philippians 3:6a). He was an insolent man (injurious KJV; violent aggressor NASB).
He obtained mercy. Ananias instructed him, “Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling in the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). Paul became a Christian. Paul was not only saved; he was entrusted with the gospel. Reflecting on this, he said, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man…” (1 Timothy 1:12-13). The Lord can use those who are truly converted.
The word “mercy” (eleeo) is defined to mean “to have pity or mercy shown one, to obtain mercy” (Vine’s). It refers to “help to the wretched…specifically of God granting even to unworthy favor, benefits, opportunities, and particularly salvation by Christ” (Thayer).
What did Paul’s ignorance have to do with his obtaining mercy? (1) This certainly does not mean that ignorance excuses sin (cf. Matthew 15:14; Luke 12:47-48; 2 Thessalonians 1:8; 2 Peter 3:16). (2) It does mean that he had a misinformed heart. He did not have a heart in willful rebellion against God (cf. Acts 23:1; 26:9). He had a heart that wanted to do God’s will. He received correction. He was teachable. Some people are not. (3) It may mean that God granted him the opportunity to repent; and that God did this due to his heart. Denny Petrillo comments, “So, although Paul was worthy of God’s judgment, God gave Paul the opportunity to repent. To Paul’s credit, he was willing to change when he learned what he was doing was wrong” (Petrillo, Commentary on 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, p. 19). God could have struck him dead, but he did not. God could have allowed him to die without learning the truth, but He did not.
“This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. 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” (1 Timothy 1:15-16).
This is one of five important points which are emphasized to the evangelists Timothy and Titus by the words, “This is a faithful saying…” (1 Timothy 1:15-16; 3:1; 4:9-10; 2 Timothy 2:11-13; Titus 3:8). Jesus extended mercy to Paul to teach mankind a lesson: If He could forgive Paul, then He can forgive you. You too can have your sins washed away (Acts 22:16). Denny Petrillo comments, “People of all future generations can look to Paul’s salvation and find hope for themselves. Paul’s conversion is a vivid example of Christ’s desire to save” (ibid, p. 20).