Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 6, 2019
2 Timothy 1:1-14 Commentary
The lectionary brings us this week from Paul’s first letter to his second letter to Timothy. Right away, we can feel that the stakes are higher, the emotions more intense. There’s talk of tears and mothers and grandmothers, of emotional longings and deep faith and trust. Why? Because things haven’t gotten better since the first letter; they’ve actually gotten worse. Paul is under house arrest now—with all of the suffering that that entails (and then some, as we discover in this letter). On top of that, all of the same problems plaguing the church in Ephesus then are still plaguing the church now. In fact, the situation with the false teachers leading members of the church astray may be even worse. Like he did in the opening of the first letter, Paul sets out quickly to encourage Timothy for the work yet to do. And like Paul always does, everything connects to God.
Though the NRSV translates the word in verse 6 as “rekindle,” other translations give a fuller sense of the definition: “fan into flame.” Paul isn’t accusing Timothy of having given up on the task set before him in Ephesus, instead Paul is encouraging Timothy to not give up on the task in the midst of very little fruit and intense pressure. “Light it up!” Paul says to his timid mentee turned colleague.
What’s being “lit” is the gifts of God within Timothy. In essence, it’s the power of the Holy Spirit that will burn brightly if Timothy allows it. Paul underscores that that power was part of the gifts given to Timothy when hands were laid upon him in prayer and God’s purposes for ministry through Timothy were prophesied. Paul teaches elsewhere in his letters about such gifts (the Greek word is charisma), specifically, that their purposes are always for the building up of the church. So it’s no surprise that, since what Timothy needs are the gifts of God, Timothy doesn’t have to worry about what he needs running out while he is going about the call. Like the bush that burned but was never consumed, God’s message and presence doesn’t run out. It may end when it’s planned purpose or time has passed, but the Holy Spirit is faithful!
By reminding Timothy to fan the flame of God within, Paul is encouraging Timothy to continue in teaching the true gospel and devoting himself to personal piety through the gifts and presence of the Holy Spirit within him. The flame of the Holy Spirit, akin to the image of the burning bush that was lit even before Moses saw it, is already lit and present within him; Timothy’s just letting it grow. In other words, Timothy is to feed the fire of God through his relationship with God and to let the Holy Spirit shine brightly through the practice of Timothy’s gifts—especially Timothy’s effectiveness at teaching sound doctrine. Through continuous communion with the triune God, God will overflow from Timothy’s internal life to the external world. This isn’t something special for Timothy and Paul; it’s the way God works in his church. We all have flames of the Holy Spirit alit in our lives, gifts or manifestations of God seeking to encourage his church within ourselves. Like God was doing with Timothy, the Holy Spirit is waiting for us to cooperate!
The power within, for life and fire, for service and strength, is the Holy Spirit, whom Paul calls upon multiple times in these fourteen verses. The power of the Holy Spirit is the fire that burns through Timothy’s—and our—love, boldness in the things of God, and self-discipline (which isn’t the same as the fruit of self-control, but more likely meant to be associated with sound thinking that is not swayed by other ideas like those of the false teachers). The power of the Holy Spirit is what sustains Paul and Timothy—and us—through hard times. The Holy Spirit is who called Paul and Timothy—and us—to our ministry tasks. God’s character and way of working has not changed!
Along with the Holy Spirit’s powerful presence with him, Timothy is sustained by another gift of God: faith. The faith he has, the faith he has received, the faith that connects to ancestors, are the deep roots for his quasi burning bush that is God’s presence within. Paul names Timothy’s mother and grandmother as sources of strength. In Paul’s eyes, Lois and Eunice represent people with vibrant faith, women who are at one with Christ and living the Christlike life, and Paul is confident that the same faith is alive in Timothy. Imagine being told by your mentor that you are in the same category as the person whose faith you admire the most. That’s one of those statements that is both humbling and confidence boosting. “Shine bright, Timothy! You come from good stock and are rooted in a family of faith!”
Timothy is also rooted in Paul. The Holy Spirit used Paul to shape and guide Timothy into ministry, and Paul is deeply rooted in the faith of their ancestors (verse 3). Paul and Timothy’s roots are so connected, that Paul actually wants Timothy to return to him in person during these last days of his imprisonment. And at the very least, Paul wants Timothy to stay connected to him through their shared role in the proclaiming the gospel of grace. Paul is, once again, overwhelmed by the grace that he’s known. It has fueled him, burned within him, fanned into flame and transformed the world through his ministry. Therefore, Paul declares with confidence, “I will not be ashamed and I hope that you are not either.”
I once heard a recording of Dallas Willard making a presentation at a church. While talking about confession, he said one those profound yet simple statements that we all know to be true but find difficult to shift to living as true in our lives. He said, “Reputation is bad for you… it’s actually very bad for you… it’s manning the facades.”
Paul seems to have understood what Dallas was getting at here: reputation based on anything but one’s devotion to the gospel, evidenced by one’s love and sound belief, doesn’t matter. Most of the time, we’re ashamed about the wrong things, but we should not be ashamed of doing the things of God—even if it puts us in a shameful position like being a law breaker. Isn’t it interesting that the two sources of evidence are internal as well as external? Our love shown to others is just as much a sign of God within as believing and trusting the true things of God in our minds and hearts.
But back to having a shameful reputation as a law breaker for the gospel… I don’t want to universalize this point too much—sometimes law-abiding is the way to protect and preserve the gospel—and I do not want to tell anyone under real persecution for their faith what God is asking them to do. But in North America, our law-abiding has somehow become synonymous with gospel obedience: following the law of the land equals following the way of Christ. How did that happen? I suspect that Paul would still have to talk about suffering as he did back then and would still have to declare that he was not ashamed of his choices to live within God’s will. If we really sat down and compared our lives to Paul’s, most of us wouldn’t find a whole lot of common ground.
Would Paul have been a peaceful protestor who ran the risk of being arrested in today’s world? Was Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow civil rights workers ashamed of the days they spent in jail? What about the preachers and believers who are escorted off of Capitol Hill for reciting Scripture about God’s justice and our call to care for the marginalized? The fire of the Holy Spirit continues to be strong and burning within God’s people! Paul’s encouragement to take stock of where we come from, who we come from, and what is alive in us unlocks our eyes to see the strength just waiting to be unleashed for God’s kingdom good. May we not be ashamed and may we be willing to suffer for its cause, entrusting our lives to Christ, learning from the great cloud of witnesses that root us in the family of faith.
What is the “deposit” with God (translated by the NRSV as “what I have entrusted”) that Paul refers to in verse 12? Scholars can’t seem to agree on one option because of the grammatical structure, nor do Paul’s other instances of the word shed any light. The two options that rise to the top fit the context equally well, and Paul could have meant for us to have both of them in mind since both were very true for him personally.
One idea is that Paul is referring to his own life. The letter we have before us is sometimes called Paul’s last will and testament, his passing of the torch. There is significant debate as to whether Paul actually wrote the letter or if someone else did after he died. Much like the debates as to whether or not Moses wrote all of the books accredited to him, it’s important to keep in mind the sense author attribution is meant to provide. In other words, what does making this one of Paul’s last letters add to the text? He’s been arrested, is under house arrest, has had his “court date”… and the writing is on the wall—his current hardships and sufferings are likely going to end with his death. Therefore, these words would be of comfort to one in suffering: even in death, our lives are in God’s hands. If you grew up in the Reformed tradition you likely just thought of Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 1: “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul—in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ…”
The other idea regarding what Paul is describing as “entrusted” to God is the gospel itself—it’s the gospel he is entrusting to Timothy in verse 14, after all. If it’s the gospel, then “the day” that Paul refers to is likely the day of judgement when Jesus finally and fully reveals the good news and establishes the fulfillment of the gospel’s promises through the new heaven and new earth. Language about the day of judgement fits the Old Testament motif as well as Paul’s teachings in his other letters. When that day comes, the perfect revelation of the gospel will make the work of his apostles complete.
Furthermore, all of the verbs that Paul uses for himself in verse 12 are in the perfect tense. “I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.” (emphasis added on perfect tense verbs) The perfect tense is used when an action is complete, but has ongoing results—it keeps having an effect. Paul’s trusting, his knowing, and his confidence all stemmed from a decision or experience in time, but that decision or experience continued to significantly shape everything about his life, faith, and ministry. It’s easy to see how this works with either understandings of the “deposit.” It doesn’t really matter if Paul is referring to his very life or to the gospel of grace that constantly overwhelmed him with awe, because both were in the perfect tense for Paul; they were continuously having an effect but rooted in a specific action of God: his conversion and calling.
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