Suffer for the Gospel (preaching resource for 10/9/22)

This post exegetes 2 Timothy 2:1-15 (the larger context of  the RCL Epistles reading for Oct. 9, 2022). This post draws on multiple sources, including commentary from John Stott.

"Jesus the Good Sower" (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Introduction (2:1-2)

Living as we do in a consumer-driven, comfort-crazed culture, we need to be reminded that following Jesus and sharing in his gospel ministry will often mean forgoing personal gain and enduring hardship. Such is Paul’s message in 2 Timothy 2, where the apostle challenges his sometimes timid protégé Timothy to be willing to suffer for the cause of Christ. 

Paul begins his exhortation with these words:

1 You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.

Paul is instructing Timothy to be strong in order to fulfill his calling to transmit the gospel on to others in a four part chain: from Christ to Paul; Paul to Timothy; Timothy to other ‘reliable people’; and on to those 'qualified to teach others.' As disciples of Jesus, we stand in this chain of transmission, called to be part of its faithful continuation. Participating actively with Jesus in this gospel work will often mean that we will struggle, even suffer.

In making this appeal, Paul offers Timothy several examples of those who suffer in order to fulfill their particular vocation. Some of these examples are metaphors; others are quite literal. All call forth our faithfulness to Jesus Christ and to the work of his gospel.

The dedicated soldier (2:3-4)

3 Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer.

Soldiers take hardship, risk and suffering as a matter of course. Similarly, Christians should not expect an easy time. If they are loyal to the gospel, they are sure to experience opposition and ridicule. They must join in suffering with their comrades-in-arms. In addition, they must be willing to concentrate on the task at hand, not getting themselves ‘entangled in business' (JBP). On the contrary, they free themsselves from civilian affairs, in order to give themselves to soldiering, wholly at their 'commanding officer's disposal' (JBP).  

Christians cannot, of course, avoid necessary and ordinary duties at home, at work and in the community. Indeed, as Christians they should be conscientious in doing and not dodging them. Nor should they forget, as Paul reminded Timothy in his first letter, either that 'everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving' or that 'God...richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy' (1 Tim.4:4; 6:17). So what is forbidden the good soldier of Jesus Christ is not all 'secular' activities and enjoyments, but rather 'entanglements' which, though they may be perfectly innocent in themselves, may hinder them from 'fighting' with Christ. 

The law-abiding athlete (2:5)

5 Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.

As in today's Olympics, the ancient games had specific rules. Every event had its prize also, but no athlete, however brilliant, was crowned unless they had competed 'according to the rules.'  

The Christian life is regularly likened in the New Testament to a race involving the strenuous self-discipline of training, the laying aside of all hindrances, and (as here) the keeping of the rules (laws) of competition. As Christians, we are to run the Christian race 'according to the rules,' having our lives conformed by the Holy Spirit to the patterns of the Law of Christ, which is the law of love.

Paul has in mind here specifically that Christian workers (teachers in particular) should discharge their duties like law-abiding athletes. A Christian teacher runs ‘lawfully’ by teaching only what is true—building only with solid materials on the true foundation of Christ. Paul is exhorting Timothy to faithfully pass on the ‘deposit’ of the gospel to other faithful teachers. And only if Timothy (and these other teachers) persevere to the end, fighting the good fight, finishing the race and keeping the faith, can they expect on the last day to receive that most coveted of all wreaths—the full reward Christ has for them at the finish line, that reward being 'the crown of righteousness' (2 Tim. 4:7, 8).

The hardworking farmer (2:6)

6 The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops.
Hard work is essential in farming, particularly in developing countries where it depends as much on sweat as on skill. However poor the soil, or inclement the weather, the farmer must keep at their work.  That is why a lazy person never makes a good farmer. And that is why Paul notes here that the first share of the crop is the farmer's because a good yield is due as much to the farmer’s personal toil as to anything else. 

Working hard, even to the point of suffering, in order to join with Christ in his gospel ministry is a seldom-heard message in some ‘feel good,’ ‘health and wealth’ Christian circles today. Yet Paul exhorts Timothy (and us by extension) to be ‘hardworking’ in our Christian vocation. The word Paul uses means to toil, strive and struggle. It was a word that was one of Paul’s favorites—he evidently believed that strong exertion and struggle is a necessary part of Christian service that is fruitful. 

Christ the suffering servant (2:8)

8 Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel,

Next Paul commends Christ’s personal example. Why? Because Jesus is the gospel—the One 'raised from the dead' and 'descended from David'. The birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus are all implicit in these two phrases, reminding us of both his divine-human person and his saving work.  

As to his person, the words 'descended from David' imply his humanity, for they speak of his earthly descent from David. The words 'raised from the dead' imply his divinity, for he was powerfully designated God's Son by his resurrection. 

As to his work, the words 'raised from the dead' indicate that he died for our sins and was raised to prove the efficacy of his sin-bearing sacrifice. The words 'descended from David' indicate that he has established his kingdom as David's greater Son. 

Taken together, these two phrases seem to allude to Jesus’ double role as Savior and King. These truths about Jesus not only constitute the gospel which Timothy must preach, but they also illustrate, from Jesus Christ's own life and death, 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 the contrast between humiliation and exaltation. 'So then, Timothy,' Paul seems to be saying, 'when you are tempted to avoid pain, humiliation, suffering or death in your ministry, remember Jesus Christ and think again!'  

Let us also carefully consider this call to sacrifice in advancing the cause of Christ.

Paul the suffering apostle (2:9-10)

9 for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.

Paul himself is an example of suffering for the gospel. At the time he wrote this letter he was imprisoned 'like a common criminal' (NEB) although he was a Roman citizen and an innocent man. But, though he was chained, God's word was not. 

This relation between Paul's suffering and the advance of the gospel is not just one of contrast but also of cause and effect: 'Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus...' The proclamation of the gospel is the means by which God brings people to Christ for salvation. Such proclamation often brings suffering—another example of 'glory through suffering'—in this case the 'eternal glory' of the elect through the sufferings endured by the apostle and those who join with him in suffering in order to proclaim the gospel of our salvation.

Christians who endure (2:11-13)

11 Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; 13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.

Paul’s next example involves a ‘trustworthy saying’—apparently a quote from an ancient Christian hymn. Paul quotes two pairs of stanzas that refer to the lives of believers. The first pair relates to those who remain true and endure:

  • If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
  • if we endure, we will also reign with him. (11b, 12a)

The death with Christ mentioned here involves, in context, the death to self and to safety, as we take up the cross and follow Christ. Paul depicts the Christian life as a life of dying, a life of enduring. Only if we share his sufferings and endure, shall we share his reign in the hereafter. For the road to life is death, and the road to glory is suffering.

The second pair of stanzas envisages the dreadful possibility of denying Christ and so proving faithless:

  • It we disown him, he will also disown us;
  • if we are faithless, he will remain faithful—for he cannot disown himself. (12b, 13)

The first phrase 'if we disown him, he will also disown us' seems to be an echo of our Lord's own warning: 'whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven' (Mat 10:33). The structure suggests that 'if we disown him' and 'if we are faithless' are parallels, requiring that 'he will also disown us' and 'he will remain faithful' are parallels as well. In this case his faithfulness when we are faithless will be his faithfulness to his warnings to disown us, which must be understood in the context of all that Scripture says concerning how we are saved by Christ's faithfulness, not our own. However, by our faithlessness we can fail to experience the fulness of Christ in this life and indeed others may suffer as a result of our inactivity in sharing in the gospel ministry of Christ.

The good workman (2:14-15)

14 Keep reminding God’s people of these things.Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

Paul exhorts Timothy to be a good workman who is 'approved' (tried and true), one who 'correctly handles the word of truth.' ‘Correctly handles’ means literally to 'cut straight' like a farmer plowing a straight furrow through their field. The good workman handles the word with such skill and care that they stay on the path themselves, making it easier for others to follow straight behind.  

Conclusion

Christian workers are to follow after the pattern of Paul and of Christ himself. They are to be willing to struggle, even suffer like good soldiers, law-abiding athletes and hard-working farmers who are utterly dedicated to their calling. As unashamed workers they must stand up for the truth. 

Each of these metaphors concentrates on a particular characteristic which contributes to the portrait as a whole, and in fact lays down a condition of usefulness. Only if we give ourselves without reserve to our soldering, running and farming can we expect results. Only if we cut the truth straight and do not swerve from it shall we be approved by God and have no need to be ashamed. In all of these ways we are called to suffer if need be in order to serve our risen Lord, participating actively in his gospel ministry. There is no higher calling. Amen.