Paul’s call to his dear son Timothy to “guard” (14) the gospel is evocative. It’s, what’s more, the title of John Stott’s commentary, to which I owe a lot for this message’s ideas, on the apostle’s second letter to Timothy. So Paul’s call to “guard the gospel” might also serve as a kind of on-ramp to a proclamation of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson.
Of course, Paul doesn’t actually tell Timothy to guard “the gospel” in 2 Timothy 1. He, instead, calls Timothy “guard the good deposit that was entrusted to [him] … with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (14). Yet most scholars agree that the “good deposit” that the apostle challenges the young man whom he calls his “true son in the faith” (1:1) to guard refers to at least the gospel.
The Greek verb that English versions generally translate as “guard” is phylaxon. It suggests keeping a kind of careful watch over something in order to preserve or protect it. So to guard something includes a watchful attentiveness to it in order to keep it from being somehow harmed. Stott (Guard the Gospel, Intervarsity Press, 1973) suggests that Paul is calling Timothy to guard “the good deposit” that is the gospel so that no person or thing causes it to be lost or damaged.
The apostle’s call to guard the gospel echoes the verb he uses in verse 12 to describe what he’s confident God will do until Jesus Christ returns at the end of measured time. God, he says there, “is able to guard what” Paul has “entrusted to him for that day.” Paul doesn’t tell Timothy what exactly he’s confident God will guard until the end. Yet we sense that it’s also the gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone that God’s people receive with our faith.
So 2 Timothy 1’s preachers might explore with our hearers what it means that when we guard the gospel, we’re imitating God. It implies, at least, a sense of a high calling and an immense responsibility. Yet there’s also an assurance that while God entrusts God’s adopted children with guarding the gospel, God won’t allow anyone to damage or destroy it.
The apostle calls what he challenges Timothy to guard “the good deposit” (ten kalen paratheken). The imagery is that of something that’s not just valuable, but also morally good that has also been entrusted to someone. Stott (ibid) speaks of that deposit as the gospel that’s a good, noble, and precious treasure that God first entrusted to Paul, and that Paul now entrusts to Timothy and the Church.
Earlier in 2 Timothy 1 Paul notes that this good deposit that is the gospel has been part of Timothy’s life for a long time. It, in fact, first made its home in Paul’s dear son’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice. They, in turn, faithfully shared this good deposit with Timothy in whom Paul is convinced it now also lives.
In fact, as Paul adds in verses 9-12, this good deposit has an eternal past and future. God, after all, granted its grace “before the beginning of time” (9). What’s more, the apostle asserts in verse 10 that it was “revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus.”
Now God has made Paul “a herald and an apostle and teacher” of that precious deposit (11). On top of all that, the full beauty of that good deposit will finally be on display “on that day” (12) that Christians generally understand to be the return of Jesus at the end of measured time.
Those who preach this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might explore the kind of imagery that the concept of guarding this good treasure evokes. Might it suggest the imagery of bank personnel guarding money and valuables people deposited with them? Or might it evoke the imagery of a bird guarding her precious eggs or babies against any predators? It may even remind our hearers of the guards who recently stood watch of the treasure that was Queen Elizabeth’s body.
In his letters to Timothy Paul doesn’t devote much attention to the threats to that gospel against which Timothy must guard. He speaks far more extensively about them in, for example, his letter to Galatia’s Christians. But he alludes to threats to it in his reference to Phygelus, Hermogenes, and other residents of the province of Asia.
The apostle grieves how they “deserted” him. Those Christians somehow turned away from him, perhaps when the authorities arrested him. Stott (ibid) quotes one scholar as deducing that “To every eye but that of faith it must have appeared just then as if the gospel were on the eve of extinction.”
Thankfully, as Paul also notes in verse 14, neither Timothy nor any follower of Jesus Christ has to guard the precious treasure that is the gospel against such threats all by himself or herself. Timothy can rely on the Holy Spirit who lives in him to help him guard it against any enemies who want to damage or even destroy it.
Preachers may also want to reflect on two more things as we prepare to preach on this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. First, God is the gospel’s guarantor and ultimate guard. The gospel is safe not because of the vigilance of its human guards, but because God will guard it.
All sorts of God’s enemies may (and do!) attack the gospel. God, however, will not ever let it be destroyed. As Stott notes (ibid), God may entrust the precious deposit that is the gospel to human hands. However, God never completely takes God’s hands off it.
Second, however, preachers may want to spend some time exploring just what that gospel entails. It may not be necessary to lay out all of the gospel essentials, particularly in settings where most hearers know the gospel well. But it may be helpful for preachers to distinguish the gospel’s essentials from things like Christian ethics.
There is, after all, a kind of ferocity to some modern Christians’ efforts to defend against attacks on traditional understandings of what means to follow Jesus Christ. Our debates about things like human sexuality, the roles of men and women, and other things are sometimes heated.
There is a place for humble and loving discussions about those things. But Christians don’t confuse our ethics with the gospel essentials that documents like the Apostles Creed so beautifully summarize. Jesus’ followers sort out the gospel’s essentials so that we can, with the Spirit’s help, determine those things which God calls us to guard most vigilantly.
After all, one might argue that attacks against the gospel that question the divinity of Jesus Christ, and the sufficiency of his saving life, death, and resurrection offer more than enough to keep Jesus’ followers busy guarding them against attacks. Good guards know the difference between threats to the gospel and differences of opinion about its ethical implications.
In his compelling book, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Frederick Beuchner writes, “The gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy.”
“But,” he goes on to note, “Then there is comedy – we are loved anyway. But then there is a fairy tale – that extraordinary things happen … It is impossible for anybody to leave behind the darkness of the world he carries on his back like a snail, but for God all things are possible. That is the fairy tale. All together they are the truth.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 2, 2022
2 Timothy 1:1-14 Commentary