“I am grateful to the one who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me faithful in putting me into ministry, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor, and an arrogant man. But I was treated with mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief, and our Lord’s grace was abundant, bringing faith and love in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:12-14 NET).
Paul the Apostle mistakenly believed he was serving God as he persecuted Christians prior to his conversion. As Paul himself testified, “…I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14). But unlike some other religious leaders of his day, Paul repented of his ignorance when he was presented with the truth about Jesus.
You see, Paul was zealous to protect God’s honor. That zealousness served as the catalyst for his subsequent vendetta against the first-century Christian community. On the other hand, many of the religious leaders who interacted with Jesus were zealous to protect their status as spiritual authorities. One commentator expands on this difference in the following manner…
“Paul was neither a Jewish apostate nor a Pharisee who clearly understood Jesus’ teaching and still rejected Him. He was a zealous, fastidious Jew trying to earn his salvation, thus lost and damned (see notes on Php 3:4–7). His plea of ignorance was not a claim to innocence nor an excuse denying his guilt. It was simply a statement indicating that he did not understand the truth of Christ’s gospel and was honestly trying to protect his religion. His willing repentance when confronted by Christ (cf. Ro 7:9; Php 3:8, 9) is evidence that he had not understood the ramifications of his actions—he truly thought he was doing God a service (Ac 26:9).” (1)
The unbelief that arises from a volitional rejection of Christ may lead to more serious consequences than unbelief that stems from ignorance. While ignorance does not excuse sinful behavior, we can count upon God to be fair and impartial in taking the circumstances of our lives into account. As Jesus once said to His disciples…
“…a servant who knows what the master wants, but isn’t prepared and doesn’t carry out those instructions, will be severely punished. But someone who does not know, and then does something wrong, will be punished only lightly. When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required” (Luke 12:47-48 NLT).
(1) MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (1 Ti 1:13). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.