One Great Task

| 2 Timothy 2:1-10

The Point:  Each of us must share the Gospel.

Strengthened by Grace:  2 Timothy 2:1-10.

[1]  You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, [2]  and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. [3]  Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. [4]  No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. [5]  An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. [6]  It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. [7]  Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. [8]  Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, [9]  for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! [10]  Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.  [ESV]

Handing on the Truth [1-2].  The first chapter ended with Paul’s sorrowful reference to the widespread defection among Christians in the Roman province of Asia [1:15]. Now Paul urges Timothy that he, in the midst of the general landslide, must stand his ground. It is as if Paul says to him: “Never mind what other people may be thinking or saying or doing. Never mind how weak and shy you yourself may feel. As for you, Timothy, be strong!” Of course if his exhortation had stopped there, it would have been futile, even absurd. But Paul’s call to fortitude is not a summons to Timothy to be strong in himself but to be strengthened by means of the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Timothy is to find his resources for ministry not in his own nature but in Christ’s grace. It is not only for salvation that we are dependent on grace [1:9], but for service also. Paul proceeds to indicate the kind of ministry for which Timothy will need to strengthen himself by Christ’s grace. So far he has been exhorted to hold the faith and guard the deposit [1:13,14]. He is to do more than preserve the truth, however; he is also to pass it on. If the disloyalty of the Asian church made it imperative that Timothy should guard the truth with loyalty, the approaching death of the apostle made it equally imperative that Timothy should make arrangements for the handing down of the truth intact to the next generation. In this transmission of truth from hand to hand Paul envisages four stages. First, the faith has been entrusted to Paul by Christ. This is why he has called it “my deposit” (what has been entrusted to me [1:12]). It is not something he invented but that which has been given to him. As an apostle of Jesus Christ he insists that his gospel is not man’s gospel, whether his own composition or somebody else’s, nor is he relying purely on human tradition. On the contrary, he could write: I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ [Gal. 1:12]. Secondly, what has been entrusted to Paul by Christ Paul in his turn has entrusted to Timothy: guard the good deposit entrusted to you [1:14]. This deposit consists of certain sound words which Timothy has heard from Paul’s own lips. The reference to many witnesses [2:2] shows that the apostolic faith was not a secret tradition handed on privately to Timothy, whose authenticity there was no means of testing, but a public instruction, whose truth was guaranteed by the many witnesses who had heard it and who could therefore check Timothy’s teaching against the apostle’s. Thirdly, what Timothy has heard from Paul he is now to entrust to faithful men [2]. The men Paul has in mind must be primarily ministers of the word, whose chief function is to teach, Christian elders whose responsibility it would be to preserve the tradition. The fundamental requirement in these men is trustworthiness (faithful men). Fourthly, such men must be the sort of men who will be able to teach others [2]. The ability or competence which Timothy must look for in such men will consist partly in their integrity or faithfulness of character already mentioned and partly in their facility for teaching. Here, then, are the four stages in the handling on of the truth, which Paul envisages: from Christ to Paul, from Paul to Timothy, from Timothy to faithful men, and from faithful men to others also. This is the true apostolic succession. Certainly it would involve men, a line of faithful men at that, but the succession from the apostles is to be more in the message itself than in the men who teach it. It is to be a succession of apostolic tradition rather than of apostolic ministry, authority or order, a transmission of the apostles’ doctrine handed down unchanged from the apostles to subsequent generations, and passed from hand to hand like the Olympic torch. In the rest of this second chapter of his letter Paul enlarges on the teaching ministry to which Timothy has been called. He illustrates it by using six vivid metaphors. In our passage, Paul refers to three metaphors which are favorite images to him: the soldier, the athlete and the farmer. He has made use of them several times in former letters to enforce a wide variety of truths. Here they all emphasize that Timothy’s work will be strenuous, involving both labor and suffering. Metaphor 1:  The Dedicated Soldier [3-4].  Paul’s prison experiences had given him ample opportunity to watch Roman soldiers and to meditate on the parallels between the soldier and the Christian. Here the good soldier of Christ Jesus is so called because he is a dedicated man, who shows his dedication in his willingness both to suffer and to concentrate. Soldiers on active service do not expect a safe or easy time. They take hardship, risk and suffering as a matter of course. Similarly, the Christian should not expect an easy time. If he is loyal to the gospel, he is sure to experience opposition and ridicule. The soldier must be willing to concentrate as well as to suffer. When on active service he does not get entangled in civilian pursuits, but seeks to please his superiors. The Christian, who is intended to live in the world and not contract out of it, cannot of course avoid ordinary duties at home, at work and in the community. Indeed as a Christian he should be outstandingly conscientious in doing and not dodging them. So what is forbidden the good soldier of Jesus Christ is not all secular activities, but rather entanglements which, though they may be perfectly innocent in themselves, may hinder him from fighting Christ’s battles. This counsel applies specially to the Christian minister or pastor. He is called to devote himself to teaching and tending Christ’s flock. The application of this verse is wider than to pastors, however. Every Christian is in some degree a soldier of Christ, even if he is as timid as Timothy. For, whatever our temperament, we cannot avoid the Christian conflict. And if we are to be good soldiers of Jesus Christ, we must be dedicated to the battle, committing ourselves to a life of discipline and suffering, and avoiding whatever may entangle us and so distract us from it. Metaphor 2:  The Law-Abiding Athlete [5].  Paul now turns from the image of the Roman soldier to that of the competitor in the Greek games. Every sport had its rules, always for the contest itself and sometimes for the preparatory training as well. Every event had its prize also, and the prizes awarded at the Greek games were evergreen wreaths. But no athlete, however brilliant, was crowned unless he had competed according to the rules. The Christian life is regularly likened in the New Testament to a race, not in the sense that we are competing against each other, but in other ways, in the strenuous self-discipline of training [1 Cor. 9:24-27], in laying aside every hindrance [Heb. 12:1-2] and here in keeping the rules. The Christian is under obligation to keep the rules, to obey God’s moral laws. True, he is not under the law as a way of salvation, to commend him to God, but he is as a guide to conduct. So far from abolishing His law God first sent His Son to die for us in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, and now sends His Spirit to live in us and to write His law in our hearts [Rom. 8:3-4; Jer. 31:33]. Further, there is no crown otherwise, not of course because our law-abiding could ever justify us, but rather because without it we give evidence that we have never been justified. The context requires that competing according to the rules has a wider application than to our moral conduct, however. Paul is describing Christian service, not just Christian life. He seems to be saying that rewards for service depend on faithfulness. The Christian teacher must teach the truth, building with solid materials on the foundation of Christ, if his work is to endure and not be burned up [cf. 1 Cor. 3:10-15]. So Timothy must faithfully pass on the deposit to faithful men. Only if, like Paul, he perseveres to the end, so that he too fights the good fight, finishes the race and keeps the faith, can he expect on the last day to receive that most coveted of all wreaths, the crown of righteousness [2 Tim. 4:7-8]. Metaphor 3:  The Hardworking Farmer [6].  If the athlete must play fair, the farmer must work hard. Yet the first share of the crops goes to the hardworking farmer. He deserves it. His good yield is due as much to his toil and perseverance as to anything else. To what kind of harvest is the apostle referring? Two applications are more obviously biblical than others. First, holiness is a harvest. True, it is the fruit of the Spirit, in that the Spirit is Himself the chief farmer who produces a good crop of Christian qualities in the believer’s life. But we have our part to play. We are to walk by the Spirit and sow to the Spirit [Gal. 5:16; 6:8], following His promptings and disciplining ourselves, if we would reap the harvest of holiness. Many Christians are surprised that they are not noticeably growing in holiness. Is it that we are neglecting to cultivate the field of our character? Secondly, the winning of converts is a harvest too. The harvest is plentiful, Jesus said, referring to the many who are waiting to hear and receive the gospel [Mt. 9:37; John 4:35; Rom. 1:13]. Now in this harvest it is of course God who gives the growth [1 Cor. 3:6,7]. But again we have no liberty to be idle. Further, both the sowing of the good seed of God’s word and the reaping of the harvest are hard work, especially when the laborers are few. Souls are hardly won for Christ, not by the slick, automatic application of a formula, but by tears and sweat and pain, especially in prayer and in sacrificial personal friendship. Again, it is the hardworking farmer who can expect good results. The Way to Understanding [7].  This verse concludes the first paragraph of the chapter. There is an important biblical balance here. If Timothy is to know and understand the truth, not least as expressed in the metaphors Paul has just employed, two processes will be necessary, the one human and the other divine. Timothy himself must think over (reflect on) the apostle’s teaching, listening to it carefully and applying his mind to it. For then the Lord will grant him understanding in everything. Paul expresses a promise from the Lord here: the Lord will give you understanding in everything. There are at least two important implications of this combination of human study and divine illumination for anybody who wants to inherit the promised gift of understanding from the Lord. First, if we are to receive understanding from the Lord, we must consider what the apostle is saying. This is a good example of Paul’s self-conscious apostolic authority. He commands Timothy to ponder his teaching and promises that the Lord will grant him understanding in everything if he does so. Secondly, if we are to receive understanding from the Lord, we must think over what the apostle is saying. Some Christians never get down to any serious Bible study. The reason may of course be purely carnal, namely that they are too lazy. Alternatively, it may be a false understanding of spiritual, namely that they believe understanding will come to them from the Holy Spirit and not from their own studies (which is a totally false antithesis). So all they do is to skim through some Bible verses in a haphazard and desultory fashion, hoping (and even praying) that the Holy Spirit will show them what it all means. But they do not obey the apostle’s command, think over what I say. Others are very good at Bible study. They are hardworking farmers, as it were. They use their minds and grapple with the text of Scripture. They compare versions, consult concordances and pore over commentaries. But they forget that it is the Lord alone who imparts understanding, and that He imparts it as a gift. So we must not divorce what God has joined together. For the understanding of Scripture a balanced combination of thought and prayer is essential. We must do the considering, and the Lord will do the giving of understanding. Suffering a Condition of Blessing [8-10].  We now come to a new paragraph before the apostle introduces three more metaphors to illustrate the role of the Christian worker. The command to remember Jesus Christ [8] at first sight seems extraordinary. How could Timothy ever forget Him? Yet the human memory is notoriously fickle: it is possible to forget even one’s own name! The epitaph over Israel’s grave was ‘they soon forgot’, and it was to overcome our forgetfulness of Christ crucified that He deliberately instituted His supper as a feast of remembrance, a fragrant ‘forget-me-not’. Even so the church has often forgotten Jesus Christ, absorbing itself instead now in barren theological debate, now in purely humanitarian activity, now in its own petty, parochial business. How and why, then, are we to remember Christ? Essentially because He is the gospel, the heart of the good deposit. Indeed, Paul expresses it, He is the heart of the gospel which has been entrusted to Paul [1:12]. So then, if Timothy is to guard the deposit, and to hand it on faithfully to others, he must remember Jesus Christ … as preached in my gospel. In particular, Christ is to be remembered as the One who is both risen from the dead and the offspring of David. As we meditate on these two expressions, it is remarkable how full an account of the gospel they give. The birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus are all implicit in them. And these remind us both of His divine-human person and of His saving work. First, His person. The words offspring of David imply His humanity, for they speak of His earthly descent from David. The words risen from the dead imply His divinity, for He was powerfully designated God’s Son by His resurrection from the dead [Rom. 1:4]. Secondly, His work. The phrase risen from the dead indicates that He died for our sins and was raised to prove the efficacy of His sinbearing sacrifice. The phrase offspring of David indicates that He has established His kingdom as great David’s greater Son [Luke 1:32,33]. Taken together, the two phrases seem to allude to His double role as Savior and King. There is another reason why Timothy must remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David. It is not just because these facts constitute the gospel which Timothy must preach, but because they also illustrate, from Jesus Christ’s own experience, the principle that death is the gateway to life and suffering the path to glory. For He who died rose from the dead, and He who was born in lowliness as David’s seed is now reigning in glory on David’s throne. Both expressions set forth in embryonic form the contrast between humiliation and exaltation. ‘So then, Timothy,’ the apostle seems to be saying, ‘when you are tempted to avoid pain, humiliation, suffering or death in your ministry, remember Jesus Christ and think again!’ Having set forth the experience of Jesus in verse 8, now Paul gives his experience in verses 9 and 10. Paul is having to endure the painful indignity of wearing chains as a criminal, although he is a Roman citizen and an innocent man. But, though he is chained, God’s word is not. Even he himself at his first defense had been given the opportunity and the strength fully to proclaim God’s word to the court, as he will later explain to Timothy in greater detail [4:16,17]. In addition, God’s word could spread through many others, and in particular Timothy must share increasingly in this work. The relation between Paul’s sufferings and the effectiveness of the gospel is not just one of contrast, however: ‘I am chained; God’s word is not.’ It is actually one of cause and effect: Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation [10]. We notice in passing that the doctrine of election does not dispense with the necessity of preaching. On the contrary, it makes it essential. For Paul preaches and suffers for it that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The elect obtain salvation in Christ not apart from the preaching of Christ but by means of it. Further, it is not just the preaching but also the resultant suffering which are the means of the elect’s salvation. Paul’s statement that in some sense the salvation of others is secured by his sufferings may at first astonish us. Yet it is so. Not of course that his sufferings have any redemptive efficacy like Christ’s, but that the elect are saved through the gospel and that he could not preach the gospel without suffering for it. It is another case of ‘glory through suffering, the eternal glory of the elect through the sufferings endured by the apostle.”  [Stott, pp. 49-63]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What is Paul’s concern in this passage? What does Paul instruct Timothy to do in light of the present circumstances? How are these circumstances similar to our own today?

2.         What three metaphors does Paul use in this passage to illustrate the importance of the teaching ministry he is encouraging Timothy to perform? Seek to apply these metaphors to your own Christian service.

3.         In verse 7, Paul instructs Timothy concerning the way to reach understanding. What two processes are necessary in order to reach an understanding of Biblical truth? What does Paul mean by instructing Timothy (and us) to think over what I say?

4.         In verse 8, Paul instructs Timothy to remember Jesus Christ. How and why are we to remember Christ? What two truths does Paul emphasize? Why these two truths? What can you do in your own life to keep remembering Jesus Christ?

References:

1, 2 Timothy, Titus, Thomas Lea, NAC, Broadman Press.

2 Timothy, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

The Letters to Timothy and Titus, Philip Towner, Eerdmans.