As Paul writes 2 Timothy, he’s at the end of his life and ministry.
It’s probably around 64-65 AD, writing from some obscure prison in Rome where it took Onesiphorus quite a while to find him (1:17), chained like a criminal (1:16, 2:9), he’s been isolated and deserted (4:16) and his expectation was that he would die in prison (4:6-8).
The wider church context at this time as well was challenging to say the least. If I were to use a football analogy, this is not a time to have your best player benched. This is the game to decide relegation or not… you don’t want Mo Salah or Trent Alexander-Arnold or Virgin Van Dijk… or pretty much any of the Liverpool team, because they may well be the greatest team in history… benched. Not that Liverpool will ever be relegated.
But you get my meaning. The wider church context was challenging. Nero was reigning, and after the great fire in 64AD he began to extensively torture and execute Christians.
This fledgling movement called the Church of Christ had had only 30 years to establish itself, and now it saw the greatest empire the world had known seeking to wipe it out, and it’s greatest advocate and evangelist rotting in prison.
And the question now, after what must have seemed like the golden age of church growth, is… what next? Who next? Who will be entrusted with the church in these challenging circumstances, with Paul gone?
While we aren’t being persecuted as those in this time were, there is something that rings true about that question and this context for the modern day.
40 years ago, nearly everyone I knew went to church at some point, and the church I grew up in was bursting at the seems. As were most other churches. Now that church is inhabited by a small number of godly, older folk, in a large building that echoes with memories when you walk through… but that is too often all that’s there. And that story can be told again and again across Australia in churches and denominations. What you have here is not common.
And I look at my kids… and the rising tide of hostility to the Christian faith… and the incredibly complex environment they find themselves growing up in… and I’m worried. What will they face?
We face a number of possibilities that we haven’t had to face (in my recollection) in Australia before, that the church and the state may well come into conflict. What will that mean for us? What will that mean for them?
So while we aren’t being tied to crosses and burnt… there are enough similarities that we need to listen carefully to not just what Paul says here at the end of his life, but also to why he says it… and why he can say it with such confidence.
But the question I’d be asking if I was a Christian in Paul’s day would have been “Is this the end? It was a good run… but it’s looking a bit bleak.”
And into this context, Paul writes what looks like his last will and testament to his protege, Timothy.
Let’s take a minute to talk about Timothy.
I remember speaking at a conference many years ago, and there were two of us speaking. Me… and a guy who was an internationally renowned speaker, an author of over 10 books, had led the largest bible college in Australia, and who was someone I had admired and learnt from for years. And did I mention there was also me. I’m not overstating the case to say that I’m a nobody. But this guy – not by his own words, as he was a humble, gentle, spiritual guru – he was a giant of the faith.
And I remember sitting next to during a QandA session one night and wondering why I was up there… if I was asking questions… I know who I’d be asking.
When I think of that moment, I can’t help but think of Timothy. Because I suspect that’s how he felt. And I suspect as well there were many in the church across the Roman Empire who were raising their eyebrows at Timothy being the seeming successor to Paul.
Timothy was loved deeply by Paul (1 Cor 4:17) and a co-worker of Paul (Rom 16:21) and Paul says in Philippians that he has no-one else like him (Phil 2:20-22).
But Paul was also young (1 Tim 4:12). And he seemed a little fragile with Paul writing in 1 Tim 5:23 to take a tonic for his upset stomach. Imagine having your medical conditions enshrined in God’s Word for all time… “Derek, make sure you lay off the KFC so that your IBS doesn’t flare up.” And he seemed timid as well – when he writes to the Corinthians he tells them not to treat him with contempt (1 Cor 16:10-11). Timothy seems like a young, gentle soul, with some health issues… who was taking over from the herald, apostle, teacher Paul who had – under God – seen the Gospel spread across the Roman empire.
But there’s no sense of resignation in this letter from Paul.
And let me point to what is a fascinating insight into a deep theological truth, that highlights where Paul’s confidence lies about the present and the future.
Look at VERSES 3-6.
He thanks God (v.3)… remembering Timothy in his prayers (v.4)… longing to see his son in the faith again… but keep looking.
He sees this sincere faith that exists in Timothy… where did it originate? It began with his grandmother… and his mother… and now it lives in Timothy.
Jacqueline’s mum’s prayer… Jacqueline’s prayer… the prayers of some of those who are here, some of those who were here and who have gone to glory who prayed for us and for our boys. The future of God’s church and God’s people does not rest on the turn and tide of society… but on the everlasting God. So give thanks for those who pray… who model… who understand these deep theological truths, even while they are not celebrated as heroes. Yet they are.
And from these models and prayers of Timothy’s grandmother and mother, Paul tells Timothy that what God has given him, do not let lie dormant (v.6). For the God that his grandmother and model loved, served and prayed for him to know is the creator of all things… and so the hostility of his creation should not make him cower. Not one bit.
And so he says to Timothy in verse 8… “do not be ashamed“.
It’s hard to fathom in a society that seeks to avoid suffering and hardship at every turn how Paul could say this, but his word to Timothy as he dies is this: don’t be ashamed… and don’t avoid suffering if it comes your way.
And he says this because the Gospel is not seen in the avoidance of suffering and hardship, but in light of it. Nor is the Gospel experienced in the avoidance of suffering and hardship, but in midst of it.
The Gospel was born in suffering and opposition and hardship… as Jesus came to his own, but his own did not receive him, in fact they nailed him to a cross.
And the Gospel is not needed to save us from mild discomfort in a world that is steadily getting better all the time, but from a world that is groaning under the weight of sin and death, of which everyone experiences the impact.
And it’s into those realities and those truths and that suffering that the Gospel brings hope.
The Gospel was born in suffering and brings hope in suffering… and so Paul says to Timothy, don’t be ashamed to testify about Jesus, even if it leads to suffering… and don’t be ashamed of me… even though I’m in prison at the hands of those who are trying to suppress the Gospel… because the Gospel was born in suffering, and it is the only thing that can bring hope to a suffering world. So don’t be ashamed. And don’t avoid suffering for the sake of avoiding suffering.
Instead, as Paul identifies down in v.11-12a… if you pursue the proclamation of Jesus, and a lifestyle that is consistent with that message… you will suffer. It’s inevitable.
Now it’s worth asking the question at this point: why would we ever be ashamed of something we are convinced is truth and life?
Now it’s obvious, but it’s worth saying out loud:
I think it’s because it’s human nature to do everything we can to reduce suffering. To reduce shame. These things are the result of the fall… so it’s a natural human condition to seek the avoidance of them.
When someone looks forward to suffering, when they enjoy being shamed, we would point to some deep brokenness in them that needs to be addressed.
But Paul isn’t saying that here. What he recognises is the time we live in – the now and the not yet. This is a time now where suffering and shame are part of the broken order… but that Jesus has begun the restoration of the world to remove those things… but it is not complete.
Knowing that helps us frame our approach when people seem so hostile to God. Christians don’t enjoy suffering or shame… just as no-one does.
But they won’t run from. Why? Because people need to know that no matter how far you run now, you can’t escape it. And yet there is someone who give hope that suffering is not the full stop of life. There is someone who offers life eternal that will eventually be free from suffering and pain.
I suspect we’re entering a time in Australia where Christianity will not just be on the nose, but to be a Christian will be opposed to both a comfortable life. We are facing a challenging future.
It requires great clarity, biblical wisdom, gospel courage, to recognise where what God is calling us to sits at odds with what the world is calling us to.
This has been building for a long time in Australia.
The drift towards pluralism, the rise of tolerance at any cost, the confusion of those who grow up in this age as to who they are, what truth is, what health is, what meaning is.
And we’re entering an age in Australia and the west where to hold to biblical positions will not just be uncomfortable and not just shameful… but be illegal.
But to give in to shame, or to give up the truth in order to avoid suffering, or shut our doors to the outside world so as to protect ourselves, will not only mean abandonment of hope for us, but for a world that needs Jesus.
The Gospel does not find fertile soil in comfort, but in suffering and struggle. Because the Gospel does not hide from the truth, but that truth brings hope.
And so Paul tells his protege… do not be ashamed.
So what is the antidote for a lost world? What does Paul tell Timothy to hold on to?
It’s the understanding of what God is doing. It’s understanding the power of God. It’s aligning our understanding and view of the world with God’s.
See the foundation that Paul lays in verse 9-11. He says it’s remembering. Remembering the Gospel of Grace. Grace from three perspectives as one commentator puts it. Paul can’t contain himself as he casts a vision for Timothy of what lies at the heart of grace.
Sovereign grace. Verse 9. God has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. Not by our work and effort, but God’s grace.
Pre-existent grace. And this grace was given in Jesus Christ before time began. This is the doctrine of election. Not used here as a late night curiosity or a doctrine to separate us from those who might hold other positions on God’s sovereignty.
I was listening to Alistair Begg in his talk on 2 Timothy puts it in his great Scottish accent, this is placed here by Paul not as a bomb to be dropped, a banner to be waved… but a bastion for the soul in the midst of difficult and doubting days.
What a comfort for a young leader like Timothy looking at his mentor and father-figure dying, and feeling the weight of responsibility pass to him… to know that this was and always will be God’s plan.
Finally, Visible grace – VERSE 10. God’s purposes in this world, his hope in suffering, the hope that is eternal finds its focus and meeting point in the Jesus Christ himself. This is grace made visible.
This is the words of the famous hymn we sing, isn’t it:
Through many dangers, toils and snares
We have already come
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far
And Grace will lead us home
But let me draw your eyes to one more important thing Paul says here as he writes to Timothy.
Notice how he finishes this small section here in verse 12. “I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.”
Where is Paul’s confidence? Not in WHAT he believes… although that is part of it. But the WHAT flows out of the WHO. Paul’s confidence is in WHO he believes.
I take it that the end of verse 12 Paul is talking about his own life that he has entrusted to Jesus… and he knows that Jesus will guard it no matter what the external circumstances look like. He cares not for the body… because his soul is safe.
As he thinks about his life and ministry, the first point of reference for him is not WHAT am I in this for… but WHO am I in this for? Not WHAT am I suffering for… but WHO am I suffering for? Not WHAT has saved me… but WHO has saved me.
Grace incarnate. The Lord Jesus.
If I were to paraphrase John Calvin, “Paul is not philosophising in the dark, but with the reality of Jesus before his eyes.”
As Paul writes to Timothy, as he prepares him for an uncertain time ahead, as he reminds him of the truth that needs to be guarded, and what it will look like to guard it with faithfulness and courage…
He says to Timothy and all those who would come after Timothy… including us… remember grace. Remember the person who brought you that grace. And remember the God who is behind it all.
Friends, as we began with in this talk, we are at a juncture with the Gospel in Australia.
And no matter what generation you are a part of, you are on the front-line.
There is a moment in the Lord of the Rings where Gandalf is sitting with Frodo at a juncture in the mines of Moria, and Frodo is discussing the weight of bearing the ring, and his regret that this all had to happen in his lifetime.
Frido says “I wish it need not have happened in my time,”… and Gandalf’s reply was “So do I… and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
It’s a challenging moment for the church, and one which 40-50 years ago would have been hard to predict.
My parents’ generation has watched society be turned on it’s head. My generation is cynical about the past and in denial about the future. The generations following me live in a sea of uncertainty as to what anything looks like – there are no absolutes, no answers, only individuality which results in isolation and heartache.
What would Paul have said to Timothy? What would have been his concern? Where would his confidence have been placed?
For Paul, his identity is so caught up in Jesus, that it does two things for him in the situation he finds himself in.
First, it meant that he was willing to play whatever role he needed for Jesus to be proclaimed, honoured and glorified. Even if that means being humiliated, suffering, or even being undermined by other Christians. He knows not just WHAT he believes… but WHO he believes… and that person is more important to him than his legacy, his reputation or his comfort.
But it also did a second thing for Paul. See, if Paul could entrust his very soul to Jesus… and if he is trustworthy with that – which I am convinced he is – then Jesus can certainly be trusted with other things… not least of which is Jesus’ church… which was founded on his death that brought forgiveness, and his resurrection that pointed to eternal hope.
See, my life is not my own… it’s Jesus. It doesn’t diminish me to say that… it acknowledges my place in creation, while reminding me that I am part of something eternal… even while I can’t always see the details of the creator and my Father.
But it reminds me as well that this is not my church, and while I’m called to serve, love and be part of the local church… it’s actually Jesus’ church. And he can and will care for his people through the ages… even if I’ve got question marks over where things are going.
Jesus is not just my God and Saviour when I agree with how things are going, or I think the world is being managed well, or life is turning out how I wanted it to turn out… but at all times, with great care, great wisdom… and a certainty as to how it will end.