Guard the Gospel (preaching resource for 10/2/22)

This post exegetes 2 Timothy 1:1-14 (RCL Epistles reading for Oct. 2, 2022), drawing on multiple sources including commentary from John Stott.

St. Paul the Apostle (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Paul wrote 2 Timothy to his friend and co-worker Timothy. Locked up in a Roman prison and nearing execution, Paul's concern is to pass along to Timothy a message of encouragement and exhortation. 

We are reminded by Paul's words that there is a constant danger of the gospel being corrupted within every Christian church. Therefore, we all need to heed Paul’s charge to Timothy. Moreover, we must work together to equip and release a new generation of Timothys—young leaders who will carry the sacred deposit of the gospel into the next generation.

Paul’s greeting (1:1-4)

1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, in keeping with the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, 2 To Timothy, my dear son: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. 3 I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.

Paul begins by identifying himself as an apostle, assigned to proclaim the gospel, which is 'the promise of life in Christ Jesus' (1b). With death staring Paul in the face, it's appropriate that he would define the gospel as the promise of eternal life. It’s also appropriate that Paul’s great concern is that this precious gospel be defended and proclaimed in his absence. 

Paul addresses Timothy as his *dear son*, wishing for him *grace, mercy and peace,* which flow abundantly from *God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord* (2). He reassures Timothy of his loving concern: 'I remember you constantly in my prayers,' he says (3). 'I remember your tears' (4). 'I am reminded of your sincere faith' (5). And whenever I remember you, Timothy, 'I thank God' (3). 

Timothy’s formation (1:3-7)

3 I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. 7 For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

Paul thanked God for Timothy because he knew it was God who had formed Timothy into the minister of the gospel he had become. and that God would continue to form Timothy for the even more challenging work that lay ahead. It is to this confidence in God and to responsiveness to God’s gospel call that Paul exhorts Timothy. He begins by reminding Timothy of four significant influences that God had used already to form Timothy: his upbringing, mentoring, spiritual gifting, and ongoing personal discipline.

His upbringing

The first influence was Timothy's mother and grandmother (5). We learn from Luke (Acts 16:1) that Timothy’s father was a gentile and probably an unbeliever, while his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois were Jews who became Christians.  Perhaps grandmother, mother and son all owed their conversion to Paul when he brought the gospel to Lystra.  Even before their conversion to Christ, however, these godly Jewish women had instructed Timothy out of the Old Testament, so that 'from childhood' Timothy had been 'acquainted with the sacred writings' (3:15). 

His mentoring

Paul not only led Timothy to Christ, but continued to invest his life into Timothy’s as his mentor. He took Timothy with him on his journeys as an apprentice. Through these shared experiences a strong bond of familial love developed—so strong that when they parted on the last occasion, Timothy had been unable to hold back his tears. And now, remembering those tears, Paul longed 'night and day' to see him again, that he might again be 'filled with joy' (4). Meanwhile he was praying for him without ceasing (3), and from time to time wrote him letters of counsel and encouragement, like this one. Such a Christian friendship did not fail to have a powerful molding effect on young Timothy, strengthening and sustaining him in his Christian life and service.

His spiritual gifting

Paul next refers to a direct gift which God had given to Timothy: *Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands* (6). What this gift was, we do not know with certainty. What is clear, both from this verse and from 1Tim 4:14, is that the gift was bestowed upon him when Paul and certain 'elders' (probably of the Lystra church) laid hands on him. These verses probably refer to Timothy’s ordination. If that is correct, the gift is probably the office itself, or perhaps a special spiritual gift (of evangelism?) that he was given in order to fulfill the office to which he was being appointed.

His personal discipline  

Paul tells Timothy in his first letter not to 'neglect' his gift (1 Tim. 4:14) and in this letter to 'rekindle' it (6). The Greek words mean to stir up dying embers into a roaring flame. Apparently Paul is calling Timothy to continuous personal effort to keep the God’s gift to him alive—even ablaze. He would do so, presumably, by exercising the gift faithfully and by waiting upon God in prayer for its constant renewal. 

Why should Timothy be so vigilant? Paul replies: *for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control* (7). We have already considered the problems of youth, ill health and temperament with which timid Timothy had to battle. He appears to have been a very shy and sensitive creature, to whom responsibility was a burden. Perhaps he was also fearful of intense spirituality.  So Paul is obliged not only to urge him to keep stirring up his gift, but to reassure him that he need not be timid about exercising it with purpose and with passion.  Why not? Because of the Spirit God has given us. Notice that, though a particular spiritual gift was given to 'you', Timothy the gift of the Spirit himself has been given to *us*, to all of us who are in Christ. And this Spirit God has given to us all is a Spirit not of 'timidity' but of 'power and love and self-control'. Since he is the Spirit of power we may be confident of his enabling as we exercise our ministry. Since he is the Spirit of love we must use God's authority and power in serving others, not in self-promotion. And since he is the Spirit of self-control we must use them with reverence and appropriate restraint.

Summary 

Note that we find in these four influences a combination of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. In God’s way of working with us, it is always both.  Paul could write of God's work in his own life and assert that God's grace had made him what he was. But then he would at once add: 'and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me' (1 Cor.15:10). That is, he added his labor to God's grace, although, to be sure, it was God's grace which inspired his labor.

Timothy was similar. His mother and grandmother could teach him out of the Scriptures and lead him towards conversion. Paul could actually bring him to Christ, befriend him, pray for him, write to him, train him and exhort him. And God could give him a special gift at his ordination. But still Timothy must himself stir up the divine gift within him. He must add his own self-discipline to God's gifts.

We are no different. However much (or little) we may have received from God, either directly in natural and spiritual endowment or indirectly through parents, friends and teachers, we must still apply ourselves in active self-discipline to co-operate with God's grace, to keep fanning the inner fire into flame. Otherwise, we shall never be the men and women God wants us to be, or fulfill the ministry he has given us to exercise.

Timothy’s responsibility (1:8-14)

8 So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. 9 He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. 12 That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day. 13 What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

Paul now turns to Timothy's responsibility in relation to the gospel. Before he defines the gospel, he begs Timothy not to be ashamed of it (8). Suffering rather than shame is to characterize Timothy's ministry. He may be young, frail, timid and weak. He may shrink from the tasks to which he is being called. But God has molded and gifted him for his ministry. So he must not be ashamed or afraid to exercise it.

This means, to begin with, that Timothy must 'not be ashamed to testify about our Lord' (8a). Christian testimony is testimony about Jesus and every Christian must be ready and willing, if necessary, to be a 'fool for Christ's sake' (1 Cor.4:10).  Timothy must not be ashamed of Paul either (8b). For it is possible to be proud of Christ, but ashamed of his people and embarrassed to be associated with them. 

Timothy must also not be ashamed of the gospel, but rather take his share of suffering for it (8c). Paul now enlarges on this gospel. He begins by sketching its main features (9, 10) and then summarizes our responsibility in relation to it (11-18). This then is the double theme of the rest of the chapter: God's gospel and our duty.

God's gospel

Paul links the gospel (8) to the affirmation 'God...saved us' (9).  This is appropriate because the essential content of the gospel is the good news of our salvation and ‘of our Savior, Christ Jesus' (10).  As we look more closely at his presentation of the gospel here, we shall see that he indicates its character (what it is), its source (where it comes from) and its ground (on what it rests).

The character of salvation. Paul makes it clear that salvation is more than forgiveness. The God who 'saved' us (9a) also and simultaneously 'called us to a holy life' (9b). When God calls a man to himself, he calls him to holiness also. Paul laid much emphasis on this in his earlier letters. 'God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness.' For all of us are 'called to be saints', called to live as the holy, the separated people of God (1 Thess.4:7; 1 Cor.1:2). 

But if holiness is an integral part of God's plan of salvation, so is the 'immortality' of which he writes in the following verse (10). Indeed, 'forgiveness', 'holiness' and 'immortality' are all three aspects of God's great 'salvation'. 'Salvation' is thus a majestic word, denoting that comprehensive purpose of God by which he justifies, sanctifies and glorifies his people: first, pardoning our offences and accepting us as righteous in his sight through Christ, then progressively transforming us by his Spirit into the image of his Son, until finally we become like Christ in heaven, with new bodies in a new world. 

The source of salvation. Where does such a great salvation come from? Paul answers, *not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time* (9). Paul is here emphasizing that salvation is due to God's grace alone, not to man's merit; not to our works performed in time, but to God's purpose conceived in eternity past.  How God could work this out and have us in mind before he even created us is beyond our understanding. None-the-less, God reassures us of this great truth so that we might respond to him in deep humility and gratitude and so that we might have peace and assurance in our salvation accomplished fully and finally in Christ, not in ourselves.

The ground of salvation. Our salvation rests firmly grounded upon the historical work performed by Jesus Christ at his first appearing. For though God 'gave' us his grace in Christ Jesus 'before time began’ (NEB), he 'revealed’ (‘manifested') it in time, 'now', through the appearing of the same Christ Jesus, our savior. Both divine stages were in and through Jesus Christ, but the giving was eternal and secret, while the manifesting was historical and public. What, then, did Jesus do when he appeared and proceeded to manifest God's eternal purpose of grace? To this Paul gives in verse 10 a double answer: 

1. Christ abolished death 

'Death' summarizes our human predicament as a result of sin. For death is the 'wage' sin pays—its grim penalty (Rom.6:23). And this is true of each form which death takes. For Scripture speaks of death in three ways: There is physical death, the separation of the soul from the body. There is spiritual death, the separation of the soul from God. And there is eternal death, the separation of both soul and body from God for ever. All are due to sin; they are sin's terrible though just reward.

But through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ *destroyed* (abolished) death in all three forms. This cannot mean that he eliminated it. Sinners are still 'dead through trespasses and sins' in which they walk (Eph.2:1, 2) until God makes them alive in Christ. Human beings continue to die. And some are going to die 'the second death' (Rev.20:14; 21:8). Indeed, Paul has written previously that the final abolition of death still lies in the future, as the last enemy of God to be destroyed (1 Cor.15:26). Not until the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead shall we be able to shout with joy 'Death is swallowed up in victory' (1 Cor.15:54).

Yet, in the lives of Christian believers, death is already defeated. Physical death is 'falling asleep' in Christ and is viewed as positive 'gain', because it is the gateway to being 'with Christ' which is 'far better' (1 Thess.4:14, 15; Phil.1:21, 23; 1 Cor.3:22, 23).  Death has been rendered so innocuous that Jesus could state that the believer, though he dies, 'shall never die' (Jn.11:25, 26). What is absolutely certain is that death will never be able to separate the believer from God's love in Christ (Rom.8:38, 39).  Furthermore, spiritual death has, for believers, given place to that eternal life which is communion with God begun on earth and perfected in a new heaven and a new earth.  As a result, those who are in Christ will 'not be hurt by the second death', for they have already passed out of death into life (Rev.2:11; Jn.5:24; 1 Jn.3:14).

2. Christ brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 

Through the gospel Christ reveals what he has done, and offers men the ‘life of the eternal kind’ (eternal life) which he has won for them.  Only God possesses immortality in himself. But Christ gives it to men. We share in that life now, and then in the resurrection we will share in it fully (1 Cor.15:42, 52-54).  Of course dying can be very unpleasant, and bereavement can bring bitter sorrow. But death itself has been overthrown, and 'blessed are the dead who die in the Lord' (Rev.14:13). 

Summary. Such, then, is the salvation which is offered us in the gospel and which is ours in Christ. Its character is man's re-creation and transformation into the holiness of Christ here and hereafter. Its source is God's eternal purpose of grace. Its ground is Christ's historical appearing and abolition of death.  

Our duty

What is our duty toward this glorious gospel of salvation in Christ?  Paul gives three answers:

Communicate the gospel (v11). Paul offers his personal sense of duty toward the gospel: 'For this gospel I was appointed a herald [preacher] and an apostle and a teacher.' Although there are no apostles today, there are certainly preachers and teachers, men and women called by God to devote themselves to preaching and teaching the gospel which was once and for all time formulated by the apostles. The reference to 'testify' in verse 8, adds a fourth word to this list. It reminds us that although only some are called to the ministry of preaching and teaching, every Christian is to offer testimony to others concerning the goodness and grace of Jesus Christ and the salvation he has secured for us.

Suffer for the gospel (v12a). Paul notes that to give such testimony often brings opposition, even suffering: ‘That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed.’ Why do so many oppose the true gospel? It is because the gospel proclaims that salvation is by God’s grace alone apart from our good works (9).  The 'natural' (unregenerate) man hates to admit the gravity of his sin and guilt, his complete helplessness to save himself, the indispensable necessity of God's grace and Christ's sin-bearing death to save him. Thus to proclaim this gospel of grace is often to face opposition, even from those who proclaim the name of Jesus but do not embrace the gospel.

Guard the gospel. Timothy is to ‘keep’ what he received from Paul (13) and 'guard the good deposit that was entrusted’ to him (14). Here Paul refers to the gospel, the apostolic faith, by two expressions. It is both a pattern of sound teaching (13) and a good deposit (14). 

'Sound' teaching is 'healthy' teaching. The Greek word is used in the Gospels of people whom Jesus healed. Previously they had been maimed or diseased; now they were well or 'whole'. So Christian teaching is 'sound’ because it is not maimed or diseased but 'whole'. It is what Paul had previously called 'the whole will [counsel] of God' (Acts 20:27).

Further this 'sound teaching' had been given by Paul to Timothy in a 'pattern'. The idea here is of a ‘standard.’ Timothy is to keep before him as his standard of sound teaching what he had heard from Paul. And he must do so in the ‘faith and love’ which are in Christ Jesus. That is, Paul is concerned not just with *what* Timothy is to do, but with *how* he does it. His personal doctrinal convictions and his instruction to others, as he grips hold of Paul's teaching, are to be characterized by faith and love. He is to seek these qualities from Christ, a sincere belief and a tender charity.

The apostolic faith is also 'the good [literally *beautiful* deposit that was entrusted to you' (14), or 'the treasure put into your charge' (NEB). The gospel is a treasure - a good, noble and precious treasure - deposited for safe keeping with the church. Christ had entrusted it to Paul, and Paul now entrusts it to Timothy. And Timothy is to 'guard' it. There were heretics abroad, bent on corrupting the gospel and so robbing the church of the priceless treasure which had been entrusted to it. Timothy must be on the watch.

And he must guard the gospel all the more tenaciously because of what had happened in and around Ephesus where Timothy was (15). Apparently many in the province had deserted Paul when he was re-arrested. The churches of Asia, where he had labored for several years, had depended heavily upon him. Perhaps his arrest seemed to them to indicate that the Christian cause was now lost. Perhaps they reacted by repudiating and disowning him. We know nothing of Phygelus and Hermogenes, but their mention suggests they were the ringleaders. In any case Paul saw the turning away of the Asian churches as more than a personal desertion; it was a disavowal of his apostolic authority. It must have seemed particularly tragic, because a few years previously, during Paul's two and a half years residence in Ephesus, Luke says that 'all the residents of Asia' heard the word of the Lord and many believed (Acts 19:10). Now 'all in Asia' had turned away from him. The great awakening had been followed by a great defection, 'To every eye but that of faith it must have appeared just then as if the gospel were on the eve of extinction.

The one bright exception appears as to have been a man called Onesiphorus, who had often entertained Paul in his home ('refreshed' him, verse 16), and had rendered him other, unspecified service in Ephesus (18). He had thus been true to the meaning of his name, 'a bringer of profit'. In addition, he had not been ashamed of Paul's chains (16), which seems to mean both that he did not repudiate him at the time of his arrest and that he then followed him, even accompanied him, to Rome, and then searched diligently for him until he found him in his dungeon. Paul had good reason to be grateful for his faithful  and courageous friend. 

It was in such a situation of almost universal apostasy that Timothy was to 'guard the good deposit', to hold firm the ‘pattern of sound teaching', that is to say, to preserve the gospel in the form given to Timothy by Paul. It would have been a heavy responsibility for any man, let alone a man of Timothy's temperament. How then could he stand firm?

The apostle gives Timothy the assurance he needs. He cannot hope to guard the gospel-treasure by himself; he can do it only 'with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us' (14b). The same truth is taught in the second part of verse 12: ‘Because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.’ The ‘deposit’ here is the gospel which is Paul’s because Christ had committed it to him. And Paul was persuaded that Christ would himself keep the gospel safe 'until that day' when he would have to give an account of his stewardship. What was the ground of such confidence? Just this: Paul knew Christ in whom he had put his trust and was convinced of his ability to keep the deposit safe. And now that Paul is entrusting the gospel to Timothy, Timothy can be sustained by the same assurance in Christ’s superintending care. 

There is great encouragement here. Ultimately, it is God himself who is the guarantor of the gospel. It is his responsibility to preserve it.  We may see the apostolic message of the New Testament (the gospel) ridiculed. We may have to watch an increasing apostasy in the church. Do not be afraid! God will never allow the light of the gospel to be finally extinguished. True, he has committed it to us, frail and fallible creatures as we are. He has placed his treasure in brittle, earthenware vessels. And we must play our part in guarding and defending the truth. Nevertheless, in entrusting the deposit to our hands, he has not taken his own hands off it. He is himself its final guardian, and *he* will preserve the truth which he has committed to the church. We know this because we know him in whom we have trusted and continue to trust.

Conclusion

We have seen that the gospel is good news of salvation, promised from eternity, secured by Christ in time, revealed to faith. Our first duty is to *communicate* this gospel, making it known throughout the world. If we do so, we will undoubtedly *suffer* for it. And when we do suffer, we are tempted to eliminate those elements that give offence, and so cause opposition. But we must resist the temptation to do so. For, above all, we are called to *guard* the gospel, keeping it pure whatever the cost, and preserving it against every corruption.