Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 9, 2022
2 Timothy 2:8-15 Commentary
Paul speaks repeatedly about suffering for the sake of the gospel. He does so not just in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson but also throughout his letter to Timothy. Yet that kind of suffering may be largely unfamiliar to many of the preachers who read this commentary as well as 2 Timothy.
Of course, some North American Christians complain about an increase in suffering for their faith. But, candidly, such suffering largely pales in comparison to what Paul endured and what our Christian brothers and sisters in Christ endure in other parts of our world. So while 2 Timothy 2’s preachers may choose to explore what North American Christians endure for their faith, we want to set it in a context of the far greater suffering for their faith with which other Christians must live.
Paul, of course, explores Christian suffering in the midst of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s description of the character of the Christian life. He compares Jesus’ followers to soldiers (3-4), athletes (5), and farmers (6). However, his description of the life of discipleship takes a more ominous turn in verse 8’s beginning of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson.
However, that grimness doesn’t lie in the Jesus Christ about whom Paul writes. He is, after all, the world’s true light. The darkness about which the apostle writes lies in the suffering that Jesus endured. That darkness lies, what’s more, in Jesus’ suffering in which his adopted brothers and sisters, including the apostle, share.
“Remember,” says Paul in verse 8, “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead (egegermenon ek nekron).” Of course, the apostle doesn’t explicitly mention Christ’s suffering here. But his reference to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead certainly alludes to the suffering that ultimately led to his death. Jesus didn’t, after all, die in his bed as an old man surrounded by his loving family. Nor did he die in some kind of accident along the road or of a fatal illness. No, the Roman authorities essentially tortured Jesus to death by crucifying him.
And yet in the startling economy of God’s amazing grace, God somehow turns all that pain, misery, and the resurrection’s victory into the means by which God rescues God’s dearly beloved people. That message is at the heart of the “gospel” that Paul preaches (8b). Jesus suffered, died, and rose from the dead in order to save the Spirit makes his friends and followers.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson Paul summons Timothy to “remember” this suffering Jesus. Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrases the apostle as summoning his readers in verse 8 to “fix in” their minds “the picture” of Jesus “raised from the dead.” Christians concentrate on Jesus so that we never forget just what he endured in order to make things right between God and God’s dearly beloved people.
But, as Paul goes on to remind Timothy, those who concentrate on Jesus in faith also share in his suffering. The apostle was certainly no exception. Even as he encourages his fellow Christians to remember Christ’s suffering, he is suffering for the sake of the gospel. He is “being chained like a criminal” (kakourgos).
It is instructive that the New Testament only uses this term in Luke 23’s description of the criminals the Roman authorities crucified with Jesus. The implication is that the Roman authorities think of Paul in much the same way they thought of Jesus – as some kind of evildoer. As a result, the apostle is suffering in jail as he writes his second letter to his dear son Timothy.
In verse 10 Paul speaks further about his suffering by speaking of “enduring” everything. The Greek verb that English translations render as “enduring” is hypomeno. It literally means to “stay under” something. It’s evocative imagery that hints at the apostle feeling virtually buried under his suffering for the sake of Jesus.
However, just as God refused to let Jesus stay “chained” to his tomb, so God refuses to let God’s word stay chained. Just as the Romans couldn’t keep Jesus “chained” (dedetai) by death, so they also can’t keep God’s word chained with or to the jailed Paul. God’s word, in fact, can’t be bound or restrained by anyone or thing in any way.
So God’s unfettered word has already reached not just Timothy, but also his grandmother Lois and grandmother Eunice (1:5). Neither the Romans nor anyone or anything else could keep God’s unrestrained word from reaching Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:16). Nor could anyone restrain that word from reaching Priscilla and Aguila (4:19).
But, of course, as Paul also warns in verses 11-13, with that unchained word comes suffering for its sake. Just as Jesus and Paul suffered unjustly, so will Timothy and his fellow Christians suffer unjustly for the sake of the gospel. Most scholars suggest that the apostle quotes either a poem or Christian hymn when he warns Timothy about the inevitability of such suffering for the sake of the gospel. It speaks of faithfulness and faithlessness.
The New Testament scholar Matt Skinner points out that verses 11-13’s first two lines work in parallel. They point to the positive outcome of sufferers’ faith in Jesus Christ and perseverance. Paul may startle his readers with his fourth assertion: even sufferers’ faithlessness will not produce Christ’s faithlessness. Christ, insists Paul in 13, “will remain faithful” (pistos).
Verses 11-13 remind God’s dearly beloved people that enduring suffering for the gospel’s sake is a central part of what it means to follow the Jesus who also endured suffering. But they also offer the great news that sufferers who die with Christ, that is let the Spirit kill our sinful nature, will also live with him, both now and always. Sufferers who endure (hypomenomen) with Christ will also reign with him.
Those who preach this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson will need to wrestle with verse 12b’s grim warning: sufferers who “disown” the suffering but risen Christ will be disowned (amesetai) by him. This echoes Jesus’ stern warning in Matthew 10:33: “Whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.”
There seem to be nearly as many interpretations of this warning as there are interpreters. It’s dangerous to simply ignore this warning or bury it under verse 14’s “If we are faithless, he will remain faithful.” Preachers will want to wrestle with this under the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit.
Preachers may choose to settle somewhere near where I personally choose to settle somewhere near: those who die in deliberate and persistent denial of Christ place themselves in deep danger of being denied by God at the Last Judgment. People who love people who die denying Jesus Christ may hope that God will choose to graciously receive them to himself. But the gospel offers no guarantees of that. The most appropriate and safest response in life and in death to Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection is a faithful reception of God’s grace.
Those who preach 2 Timothy 2 may also want to explore and address at least two things related to Christian suffering. The first is the exact nature of that suffering. Is Paul here and elsewhere speaking only of suffering that Christians endure because we follow Jesus Christ? Or is he also alluding to Christians’ response to the kinds of suffering that befall all sinful humanity?
Second, if Paul sees Christian suffering as such a central feature of discipleship, why don’t all Christians have to endure it? Is there something about the weakness of some Christians’ faith and witness that doesn’t engender the kind of violent response that Paul and Timothy endured, and so many of our fellow Christians continue to experience?
John Stott (ibid) concludes his commentary on this text by noting that “Paul seems to be hammering home a single lesson [here] … Blessing comes through pain … life through death, and glory through suffering. It is an invariable law of Christian life and service.”
In his book, An American Marriage, Michael Burlingame writes about American President Abraham Lincoln’s wife Mary’s response to their son Willie’s early and tragic death. She mourned, he wrote, “according to her nature.”
Mrs. Lincoln’s friend Mary Clemons Ames wrote about Mary’s grief, “She shut herself in with grief, and demanded of God why he had afflicted her! Nobody suffered as she suffered.”
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