Tricky Translation – Chief or First

Paul called himself the chief of sinners. We all know it. We all heard it. We all sing it. We all read it. If the apostle Paul can call himself the chief of sinners, then what about us? What are we? “We are lower than low. We are just guilty sinners”. This is what many Christians have heard and thought throughout the years in churches around the planet. Doctrines have been formulated around this idea. Great preachers have proclaimed powerful sermons around this idea of Paul being the chief of sinners. As a consequence of this, many Christians live defeated lives but are masquerading as pious and humble. What if Paul never said he was the chief of sinners? Well, maybe, instead of just accepting everything we hear, let’s take a deeper look.

Chief of what?

In Paul’s letter to his spiritual son, Timothy, in Ephesus, there is a passage that talks about the powerful work that Jesus did to save sinners in the world.

12 And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; 13 Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. 14 And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. 15 This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. 16 Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting. 17 Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen. – 1 Timothy 1: 12-17

In this passage, Paul says (in verse 15) that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief”. From this, preachers and Christians have drawn many conclusions about the Christian life and about how Christians should view themselves. The idea is that Paul said that he was the ‘chief of sinners’. This phrase, ‘chief of sinners’, is not even in the text, but has been taught to mean that he was the worst sinner of us all, the one who was the greatest sinner. The typical idea is to reference verse 13, which talks about Paul’s life prior to his conversion, where he says he was a blasphemer, a persecutor (someone who harasses or bullies others) and a verbally abusive person (injurious). Although Paul didn’t mention it in this letter, we know from Luke’s account in Acts 8: 3 that Paul attacked the church by invading people’s houses and throwing men and women in prison for their faith in Jesus. This is the extent to which we know of Paul’s pre-conversion sin. If we evaluate this objectively, is this the image of what the worst of sinners is that comes to mind? I would not call what Paul did worthy of being the “chief” of sinners. I can think of many more wicked things that someone could do to earn that title. I can also think of many historical figures who would be more worthy of that title, and I am sure that Paul could think of many persons more worthy of that title too.

I personally think that Paul was not trying to focus on himself. He was really focusing on Jesus Christ, and on the fact that Jesus came to save sinners. Actually, Paul was not really saying he was the “chief” or worst of sinners. In fact, he was saying that he was the first of the sinners that Jesus saved where he showed patience with in order to save. I know that Paul was just using himself as an example of how Christ works, and how the love of God works. I know this because Paul actually didn’t say that he was the chief of sinners. If you look at the Greek of that passage, you will find that he actually said “that in [him, Paul] first, Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern”.

One word that means first

If we examine the passage carefully, we will find that the Greek word for “chief” in verse 15 and the Greek word for “first” in verse 16 are exactly the same word, “protos”. The word, protos, is used 104 times in the New Testament, and is translated 84 times as “first” in the KJV, and only 9 times as “chief”. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines it primarily as “first in either time or place, in any succession or things or persons”, and secondarily as “first in rank, influence, honor; chief; principal”. According to BDAG, Danker states “the basic idea: having to do with beforeness” and defines it primarily as “having primary position in a sequence” and secondarily as “standing out in significance or importance”. So, if we take the true meaning of the word, protos, we can properly say that it is about being the first in order or sequence of what Christ did. Looking at the full context, especially in verse 16, we see that the Paul was explaining in verse 16 what he stated in verse 15. He clearly meant “first” in both instances.

Giving the translators the benefit of the doubt, it could be said that the word “chief” can be used to denote or infer idea of “the first”, but as we clearly see from the history of misuse in the church for so many years, the word “chief” does not typically convey being first. All the apostle Paul was saying is that he was the first to be saved who was difficult to get through to. Jesus had a lot of patience with him considering how he persecuted the church in his younger days. It was never meant for us to adopt a negative self-image about being sinners, as many would have us do.

What amazes me is how easy it is for translators to side with a self-deprecating understanding of scriptural text, rather than to just say what it says. If you were to use biblestudytools.com to compare various translations of this verse, you will see that the majority of translations present the idea of Paul saying he is the “worst”, or “foremost”, of sinners, or many just copying the KJV and saying “chief”. I found only four out of the total thirty-eight translations that rightfully said “first”, and these four were Darby Translation, Jubilee Bible 2000, Wycliffe Bible and Young’s Literal Translation.

It’s about Christ and us

Ironically, most preachers seem to think that if we stress how lowly and terrible sinners we are, it makes what Jesus did look better. However, all we ever do is to speak against what the scripture says about us, and thus reducing our faith in God and love for each other to nothing more than a duty or debt to pay back to God for how sinful we are. This is what self-deprecation really does. However, when we look at this passage, we see that Christ was exalted in how he chose and empowered Paul (verse 12). He knew who Paul used to be and why Paul was the way he was (verse 13), but we see how great the power of grace was in using faith and love to save sinners (verse 14). Paul stressed the purpose of Jesus Christ to save sinners (verse 15) and he counted himself as the first of sinners whom Jesus showed mercy and patience in changing (verses 15 & 16). It is interesting that Paul highlighted that his experience was a pattern of how Jesus will save others (verse 16), and that God will receive the glory and honor for it all (verse 17).

If we look at the passage as a whole, it had little to do with Paul’s life as a sinner, for we all have sinned and come short of God’s glory (Romans 3: 23). It had everything to do with Christ and what he came to do for us, of whom Paul was just the first example of Jesus saving difficult people.

If you read this short post, I trust that you will ask the Lord to show you the truth in translation. Don’t be dismayed nor upset that I have presented a different understanding of the text that most have traditionally thought to mean something else. The more I study Koine Greek and try to read the scriptures with unfiltered eyes, the more I notice that words are important. First means first. “Chief” is only a clever substitute for the idea of “first in rank”. However, first in rank does not apply to this passage. Let’s not be fooled so easily with creative word usage. Paul clearly tells us what he meant by calling himself the first of sinners that Jesus came to save. Let the Spirit guide us all. Be blessed and encouraged.

Reference

  1. Lexicon : Strong’s G4413 – protos – Site: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G4413&t=KJV
  2. The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament – Frederick William Danker (BDAG)
  3. 1 Timothy 1: 15 – Biblehub – Site: https://biblehub.com/1_timothy/1-15.htm
  4. 1 Timothy 1: 15 – Bible Study Tools – Site: https://www.biblestudytools.com/1-timothy/1-15-compare.html