Paul is writing to Timothy, one who he considers as a son, one who has grown up under his ministry. Timothy is currently a pastor in the Turkish port city of Ephesus, a major distribution center for the area's rich agricultural and quarry industry. It was a wealthy town with powerful men directing the affairs of the region; this was Rome's economic heart - from this region they financed their Empire. And here is Timothy, in over his head, overwhelmed by the pressures, desperate for Paul to come in and take over; and he gets the first of two stirring letters.
First, Paul is charging Timothty to lead, to be the authority needed to quell quarrels, to halt hypocrisy and heresy, and to set the standard for ministry: truth in teaching, holiness in character, love in all things. Maybe Timothy was feeling that it was impossibe for his church to thrive in its location, maybe he felt like his church was unable to really live out God's will, to save people.
Paul's second point in this letter is that God desires all people to be saved; Timothy can rest assured that no matter where he was leading a church, it would be amongst people whom God desired to be saved. Timothy may have countered: but you don't know how bad these people are, how opposed or ignorant they are of God. And Paul patiently reminds Timothy: I was the chief of sinners, of all the sinners surrounding your sanctuary, they are not as bad as I was - if God can save me, he can save anyone.
Paul actually describes the kind of people who might be frightening Timothy:
the lawless and the disobedient
the ungodly and sinners
the unholy and profane
those who strike their fathers and mothers
the sexually immoral and men who practice homosexuality,
slavetraders and slaveowners
liars and perjurers
And then Paul writes:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, fo 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 him for eternal life.
Know any sinners in your life? A characteristic of a sinner is a denial of the character of their actions, most sinners don't admit that their deeds are sinful. Or sinners are in denial that they are sinning, or they know they are sinning and choose to do it anyway out of rebellion or helpless addiction. What about the sins in your life, think they could keep you from Christ?
Paul goes on to write:
God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and people, the person Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all.
God is always at work in the world, working to rescue sinners from their deadly ways. All have been ransomed, set free from the ownership of the Devil, and thus are now free to be adopted by God - if they desire it. So our task is to seek God's Kingdom first, his righteousness, His Way, and as we go that route, he will bring us across people - we as his instruments of grace and faith and love - whom he is at work in, people that are ready to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. For some this happens early in life, others very late; for some it is a quick conversion, for others it takes a lifetime. But if God is patient with the world, so should we; and if God is lavishing mercy on the world, so should we; and if God is speaking truth into the world, then so should we; and if God is working to love the world and rescue it, then so should we.
Sinners are not to be hated, despised, scorned, mocked, sneered, ignored, forgotten, or despaired of. Sinners are to be loved in truth and grace, in mercy and patience, with salt and light; for that is how you need others to handle you, and it is how God handles you. God saved you from his wrath, and God wants to save everyone else in your life from his wrath; so stay open to his promptings so that you can be his instrument of salvation and truth.