By the time the Pastoral Epistles were written, there had been enough development in the Early Church that Paul was able to quote back to Timothy and Titus various “faithful sayings” that had gained currency among believers. These appear to have been pithy gospel summaries of key points. Since anything a person knew back then had to be carried around in their heads, short theological summations were a handy way of conveying key points of the Christian faith that did not require a person to memorize huge chunks of material. When Paul quoted these faithful sayings back to these pastors and declared them worthy or accurate, it was his way of putting his apostolic stamp of approval on them. “Here’s a good one” Paul as much as wrote. “Have people keep repeating this one because it’s true.”
In the case of 2 Timothy 2, the faithful saying in verses 11-13 almost looks like a poem and is often laid out in stanza format in various Bible translations. It’s also one of the longest of the faithful sayings in the Pastorals. Most are only a short sentence but this one divides out into about 4 stanza-like pairs of phrases. And mostly this all represents good news and hope-filled sentiments with one glaring exception smack in the middle.
If we die, we will live. If we endure, we will reign. If we are faithless, he stays faithful anyway. That’s all pretty positive.
But then: If we disown him, he will disown us. That’s less upbeat!
It also seems oddly undone by the following couplet that even if we are faithless, Jesus will remain faithFUL because he cannot disown himself, which seems to be another way of saying that since faithfulness is a part of Jesus’ DNA, he cannot let us go even if we let him go. But if so, how does this square with the prior couplet that as a matter of fact he WILL disown us if we do likewise to him? Which is it? Can we abandon Jesus somehow and in fact then actually be deserted by him or does he stick with us even when we fail or deny him or cave in to some fear when given the chance to witness to the gospel?
To my mind the answer to those questions is not clear in this context. Commentators have about as many opinions on this as there are commentators to render said opinions! But insofar as Paul was lending his approval to this particular faithful saying that was circulating among folks, it seems clear that for Timothy’s sake in the Ephesian context of his ministry Paul wants to emphasize the overwhelming goodness of the gospel and of the Jesus at the gospel’s bright center while at the same time being just stern enough to warn people that none of this is to be trifled with either.
The wider context here makes it obvious that there were all kinds of quarrelsome distractions in Timothy’s church. Squabbles arose over subjects for which Paul has not one lick of patience. Silly disputes, verbal shenanigans, endless speculations over this or that myth or old wives tale: no one should have time for such things, Paul urges. All they tend to do is tug at—if not outright ruin—our wider unity in Christ. “If you get caught up in some of that foolishness,” Paul as much as writes, “you might find your focus gets distracted from Jesus and that might make it easier for you to deny him in actions if not also by your own words. So stop it!”
As is often true of Paul, what you get here is warmth and gospel encouragement side by side with a deeper desire to inspire people to some holy seriousness. The gospel is the greatest news and the greatest story ever told. Jesus Christ raised from the dead is how this section begins—and curiously Paul calls just that one tidbit of information “my gospel”—but precisely because that is true, you cannot just willy-nilly mix that all up with silliness and myths and fruitless arguments among believers. There is more than one day to deny Christ as Lord so watch out! Major in majors and let the minor stuff fall away. And remember that you serve a Savior who never takes his eyes off of you so don’t get so distracted that you take your eyes off of him and his shining example of humility, sacrifice, and abiding love.
Paul’s ability in 2 Timothy 2 (and so many other passages) to strike that balance between warm encouragement and sober warning is probably instructive for us preachers today. Often we are under so much pressure to be inviting to newcomers and avoid negative, “downer” talk about sin and guilt that we do indeed end up being ever and only upbeat, non-offensive, cautious. But as Paul demonstrates, it is fully possible to do all that and yet be honest enough to proffer words of warning as well. We can do both. We need to do both lest the Christian faith get reduced to bumper sticker sloganeering that cheapens the depths of the gospel.
Earlier we also noted that there may be more than one way to deny Christ or his gospel, and for us preachers it is fully possible that one such current way to distract from the majors and get lost in the weeds of the minors is through the pressure we are under to preach what I call DIY sermons. A lot of North American preaching these days seems to spend a lot of time in the “How To” end of the rhetorical pool by delivering up more Good Advice than Good News. Whole sermon series get devoted to how to raise successful children, how to run profitable businesses, how to inject new life into marriages, how to be a real Christian man or woman, and so on. Some of the advice might be good but is dispensing such tips for happier living the main business of the church?
The “faithful saying” Paul quotes approvingly back to Timothy represents a fine balance between profoundly good news about the life-giving faithfulness of Jesus and a somber warning not to lose sight of all that by anything that distracts from or de facto denies Jesus. That’s not an easy balance to strike but it may well be the theological deftness we preachers are called to imitate.
In various lectures over the years Rev. William Willimon has often feared that what some congregations post on their church signs may reflect what happens inside the church in sermons too. Church signs that advise “Put on a Happy Faith” seem to trivialize the seriousness of what it means to bear the cross even as “We’re Too Blessed to Be Depressed” sends a signal that hard things and being a Christian just cannot coexist. Slogans like “Virtues Are Learned at Mother’s Knee, Vices at Some Other Joint” are more cute than helpful. And the main problem, Willimon once said “Is that some fool is going to drive by that church and conclude that THAT stuff is the Gospel.”
Paul warns Timothy to warn his people not to engage in silliness and conversations that have nothing to do with the gospel. What might change in some of our churches if we passed some of what we do, say, and present to the world through that filter?
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 9, 2016
2 Timothy 2:8-15 Commentary