Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 13, 2019
2 Timothy 2:8-15 Commentary
Paul gives Timothy three commands and a saying in the lectionary section for this week. Remember God… Remind others… Do your best.
Maybe I’ve watched too many cheesy movies—the ones where someone is leaving on the train and never coming back and they stick their head out the window and yell, “Remember I love you!” or someone is on their deathbed or hanging from a cliff and they know their time is running out and they frantically, maybe even tearfully, say, “Remember what’s important in life!” When I read Paul’s words here, this is the sort of intensity I imagine.
I’m not sure that Paul’s command to Timothy to “remember Jesus Christ” has that same level of emotion behind it, but it definitely has that same sort of import and emphasis behind it. When it comes down to it, Paul is essentially saying, this is what matters: “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David.” Jesus Christ, the eternal conqueror of death, the promised and anointed one. Jesus Christ, the resurrected King. “That is my gospel,” Paul writes. These truths are enough motivation and reason for Paul to personally be willing to go through all of the hardships and trials and sufferings and frustrations and pains, they are enough to fuel his ability to endure by keeping his eye on the prize: Jesus Christ, the resurrected King.
In today’s world, we would say that Paul is subtweeting his foes, the false teachers in Ephesus. Without mentioning them at all, he cuts to the heart of what separates him and Timothy from these folks messing up the church: who Jesus is and what that means. It’s as though Paul is voicing this deep lament about what he sees happening in the church in Ephesus (and elsewhere), and that he wants people to understand that there’s enough complexity in the simple truth that Jesus is the resurrected King that we don’t need to add more to it. Nor do we need to make any sort of conversation about who we are more important than this conversation about who God is. Besides, Paul argues, most of the time, this other stuff is about personal gain, but the way of God will more than likely include deep suffering. (Take a look back through the first letter if you need to be reminded about what the false teachers were up to.)
Consider the sure saying he flows right into in verses 11-13. They’re worth reading again: “If we die with Christ, we live with Christ; if we endure we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” Jesus has conquered death, and invites us to the resurrected life. That resurrected life is not one free from hardship, but is a life that enfolds us into our God-given role to rule (going all the way back to our created purpose). Choosing to reject association with Jesus means we reject all of it—rejecting also, then, the goodness that would come from a life lived with him. And through it all, God will remain who God is; no matter who we are, God is faithful to his purposes as the resurrected King as evidenced in the word of truth that is not chained or contained.
So Paul says to Timothy, remind everybody of these simple yet complex and powerful realities. Remember all of this, and remind others of it all because this is truly a matter of life and death. In fact, when it comes down to it, this is all that really matters. Remind them that what they are doing has consequences that reach far beyond themselves and impacts people’s relationship with the triune God.
These are convicting words from the apostle Paul! These are the kinds of conversations that the church needs to get better at having and reminds me of a gospel lectionary from this summer: Jesus comes to bring division (Luke 12.49-56). As we seek to discern such divisions, we would do well to first remember Jesus Christ as the resurrected King, and to plumb the depths of that mystery. By doing so, we’ll begin to see in powerful ways that nothing can stop the word of truth from doing its work in the world through the Holy Spirit, God-with-us—as well as where we have walked away from the work of God in the world.
And so finally, at least in our section for this Sunday, Paul says to Timothy, remember God, remind others, and do your best as you explore and live out the impact of the truth. As one who lives in such a way that Jesus Christ is your resurrected King and your gospel, you will have no reason to be ashamed of what you believe or what you do because you will be an agent of the unbound and unchainable word of God. The unchainable word (does Paul mean Jesus or the scriptures here? maybe the Holy Spirit kept it ambiguous for a reason…) will not return to God empty, and God has purposes for it which he invites us into.
By choosing not to deny those purposes, but to endure the challenge of living in but not of the world, we become people like Timothy, explaining the word of truth rightly through word and deed. We become like Paul, enduring for the sake of people coming to know salvation through Jesus Christ. And we become like Christ himself, embodied truth, dying with him, rising with him, reigning with him forever.
When Paul writes that “the word of God is not chained” in verse 9, he’s doing more than making a nice play on words with his present state as a prisoner of the Roman government; he’s making a profoundly important theological statement. The verb “chained” is in the perfect passive indicative. The passive indicative emphasizes that the Word will not be chained by any force; the perfect emphasizes that this is a done deal—a completed action with ongoing effect. In other words, the Word of God cannot be chained because of how God designed and decreed it to be. This is part of the great promise God made through the prophet in Isaiah 55.9-11. What a comfort!
As Paul sits awaiting death and sees the end of his ministry on earth, maybe he’s wondering how effective he’s been, maybe he’s pondering all of the disappointments of the wayward churches’ responses (like the present situation in Ephesus). But knowing that though his own influence and reach may be chained, that he’s just one smaller piece in a grander Word that cannot be stopped, Paul can push on to the very end without shame. And if the Word continues to be unchainable, what power does it have today? within us? in the world? Do we believe and live as though this is true?
The word picture command to avoid “wrangling over words” because wrangling ruins the people who listen to it, is a strong one. (This whole section is full of strong images, isn’t it…) What is it to “wrangle”? The definition of the Greek word is to have a “to dispute about words, split hairs.” When do we need to dispute over words or split hairs? It’s usually when we’re in trouble, caught out and trying to save face, or wanting to manipulate a situation to our advantage in some way. Either those or we just can’t stand to be wrong and will try to win at all costs. This is something we all do to some degree, and something we’ve been doing since childhood when our little lies snowballed into bigger and bigger deals as we wrangled over our words with the authority figure who we answered to. Most of the time, though, the adult we were wrangling with wasn’t in any trouble of being fooled, and we were the ones who were getting into trouble!
But when that wrangling is about the truth of the gospel, the stakes for our public witness are very high, and none of the motivations and reasons for wrangling I listed above are worthy of the gospel. In fact, they are indicators that the gospel isn’t enlivened in a person (or at the least that Jesus does not have full reign over that particular part of someone’s life).
Earlier this year, Prosperity Gospel Evangelist Kenneth Copeland got caught out in such a moment by the TV show Inside Edition. (You can watch the interview for yourself here). Watching Copeland work so hard to twist the words of the interviewer to try to justify his use of a private jets to avoid “the demons in a tube” (Copeland’s description of what it is like to fly commercial), or the way he makes excuses for his wealth—which he is not shy to admit to being—or the way he constantly switched between trying to flatter the reporter to rebuking/yelling at her as though she is the one in the wrong—all while doing so in the name and justification of Jesus Christ—is quite alarming. How many people have come to ruin, or found themselves “in chains” to a ministry like Copeland’s? And how many are pulled away and isolated from faith communities where they will hear the word of truth because of ministries like this?
Honestly, Prosperity Gospel evangelists are one of those examples that tempts me to pray the words of the second half of verse 12… that Jesus would deny people like Kenneth Copeland or the false teachers in Ephesus and Jesus would start doing it in public and right now! But Timothy is told that it’s his job to remind these false teachers of the truth, so it’s our job to continue to speak out against false gospels and to call wrangling for what it is: a harm to the gospel borne out of selfish greed. We endure this task just like Paul did, for the sake of people coming to know the truth and experience the saving, rescuing power of Jesus Christ.
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