Gospel Truths - 2 Timothy 2:8-13
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In his book entitled, Passion, Karl Olsen tells the story of the amazing endurance among the early French Protestants called Huguenots. This is what he writes: ‘In the mid 18th century in…southern France, a girl named Marie Durant was brought before the authorities, charged with the Huguenot heresy. She was fifteen years old, bright, attractive, marriageable. She was asked to abjure [renounce] the Huguenot faith. She was not asked to commit an immoral act, to become a criminal, or even to change the day-to-day quality of her behaviour. She was only asked to say, ‘J’abjure’. No more, no less. She did not comply. Together with thirty other Huguenot women she was put into a tower by the sea…for thirty eight years she continued…And instead of the hated word J’abjure she, together with her fellow martyrs, scratched on the wall of the prison tower the single word Resistez, resist!’ Olsen goes on, ‘The word is still seen and gaped at by tourists on the stone wall…..We do not understand the terrifying simplicity of a religious commitment which asks nothing of time and gets nothing from time. We can understand a religion which enhances time… But we cannot understand a faith which is not nourished by the temporal hope that tomorrow things will be better. To sit in a prison room with thirty others and to see the day change into night and summer into autumn, to feel the slow systemic changes within one’s flesh: the drying and wrinkling of the skin, the loss of muscle tone, the stiffening of the joints, the slow stupefaction of the senses- to feel all of this and still to persevere sees almost idiotic to a generation which has no capacity to wait and endure.’
Tell me: how do you explain that kind of persistence, especially from a fifteen year old girl who was 53 by the time she was released, an old woman by the standards of the day (pic)? Perhaps more to the point: what is it that will enable you and me to endure when our life circumstances seem to be conspiring against us? Well, we find the answer to those questions in the passage that we are looking at this morning in 2 Timothy chapter 2. For these are the Apostle Paul’s circumstances, and could, within the blink of an eye soon become Timothy’s circumstances bearing in mind that Nero’s persecutions were waiting just around the corner.
Now we have been seeing that Timothy has been sent to Ephesus to sort out a church which is in danger of being ruined by corrupt and corrupting teachers. In that kind of situation where Gospel truth is under threat, anyone who takes a stand for that truth is likely to be unpopular, especially when the false teachers are the flavour of the month. Nobody likes outsiders coming in to rock the boat. And so the temptation to soft peddle or to lose your nerve will be great. And Paul knew that, and so he tries to steady the nerves of his young protégé Timothy. And he does this in chapter 2 by drawing upon 4 pictures of the authentic Christian life. The first three we saw last week; the soldier (3-4), the athlete (5), and the farmer (6) - and the common thread running through them all is enduring hardship. In other words, endurance under trail is not an optional ‘add on’ for the Christian, it is part of the real deal. But in verse 8 Paul implicitly draws on another model which is to shape our view of the normal Christian life, namely, that of the martyr. I say ‘implicit’ because Paul doesn’t actually use the term, but that is what he is speaking about, someone in prison, suffering for Christ. And the reason why Paul opts for implication rather than outright demonstration is because he himself is the model. Talk of ‘soldiers’ and ‘athletes’ is one thing- they are illustrative, talk of martyrdom is another- this is reality.
So what is it that is going to motivate Christians when the flack comes to ‘keep on keeping on’ and continue to be faithful to the Gospel? Well, there are three ‘motives for martyrdom’ which flow from the Gospel itself.
First, there is the reality of the Gospel vv 8-9a, ‘Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal.’ You see, the Christian faith is not some airy fairy theory, an interesting philosophy of life which you can take or leave. That may be what the false teachers were peddling, but that certainly wasn’t what Paul was proclaiming. When he speaks of ‘my Gospel’ it is not in contrast to other gospels from which you can take your pick off the shelf of the local religious supermarket. It is another way of Paul saying it is the message that he is committed to- ‘my’ in the sense of possessing it and being possessed by it. Paul’s Gospel is the only Gospel, because it is God’s gospel, rooted in actual events in history, bringing to a climax all the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament. It centres upon the identity and work of a particular person at a particular point in history- Jesus Christ. What is special about him? Paul tells us two things. First he is descended from King David, which is why he has the title ‘Christ’. This is not a surname ‘Jesus Christ’ like ‘Melvin Tinker’. It’s a Jewish way of speaking about God’s king, the Messiah. There is a direct physical connection between King Jesus and King David. So this is no ordinary person, this is God’s special agent, the Son of God himself who has come to do the work of God’s king, namely to rescue his people from their sins. And he does this by dying on a cross, ‘raised from the dead.’ The bodily resurrection of Jesus is not only confirmatory proof that he is who he said he was, but that he is now the living, reigning ruler of the universe. So a King like that is worth suffering for if that is what it takes. And that is what is happening to Paul, he is chained like a criminal, he says. The word used there for criminal is a very interesting one (kakourgos), it literally means ‘evil doer’. The only other place it appears is in Luke’s Gospel chapter 23 as a description of the revolutionary bandits crucified on either side of Jesus- they were evil doers. Now that is how Paul was being viewed, on the same level of a terrorist bomber. Do you think he would have received preferential treatment in jail for that? Hardly. But for Paul it is a badge of honour. So the reason why Paul will not only put up with imprisonment but embrace it is because Christianity is true. He can no more deny the truth of the Christian message than we can deny that the earth orbits the sun. But this is no mere statement of fact; it is more like possessing a medicine which will cure a devastating epidemic- in this case the epidemic of sin. For it is only by believing in Jesus Christ who has been raised from the dead and who is now ruler of all things, that eternal life can be had. You can’t throw that away for to do so is not only to throw away the lives of others but your own. So that is the first motive for martyrdom- the reality of the Gospel.
Secondly, there is the power of the Gospel v 9b-10, ‘But God’s word is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.’ Paul may be manacled to a prison wall, but the Gospel isn’t. It is still being proclaimed, it is still doing its work of saving ‘the elect’, God’s people, so that they will receive ‘eternal glory’. Paul himself is no doubt sharing the Gospel with his fellow prisoners and guards. He is still sharing the Gospel through his letters. But it is also by Paul enduring the hardship of prison that he is confirming the faith of God’s people elsewhere for as they look on and see God’s grace sustaining Paul, they in turn are encouraged to put up with whatever hardship and martyrdom which might come there way. Of course, the opposite would be the case if Paul renounced his faith, that would be a major blow leaving young believers weakened and disillusioned. But Paul wasn’t going to do that- he was so assured of the truth of the Gospel and the power of the Gospel that prison was just par for the course.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus made it abundantly clear that what will mark out his followers is that they will be given a rough time from the non- Christian world. The sign of a Christian isn’t that they have a Jesus sticker on their car but Jesus’ stickability in a crisis. Suffering is discipleship territory, in part it makes disciples. How so? Well, for one thing nothing creates a greater sense of dependence upon God and confirms that we really do mean business with him than a good dose of difficulty. Do you wonder whether you truly believe in Jesus? Then see what happens when you have to make a stand for him and God gives you the grace to do it. In our country it may be no more than having to speak out at work about a practice you think is wrong and so you are passed over for promotion. It may be that you are shunned by workmates or family because your faith is an embarrassment. Neither of which is pleasant. But the willingness to take a stand and pay the price may be precisely the thing God uses to impress the Gospel upon others in order to bring them to faith- it is part of the Gospel being ‘unchained’.
I am sure many of you will have heard of the ‘Killing Fields’ of Cambodia, when in the 1970’s a third of Cambodia’s population was wiped out by the communist Khmer Rouge of Poll Pot. Many were killed simply because they were Christians. Let me read you part of an account of one such Christian family, that of Haim. ‘Curious villagers watched as the Khmer Rouge ordered the family to dig their own graves. Then, consenting to Haim’s request for a moment to prepare themselves for death, father, mother and children, hands linked, knelt together around the gaping pit. With loud cries to God, Haim began exhorting both the Khmer Rouge and all those looking on from afar to repent and believe the gospel. Then in panic, one of Haim’s young sons leapt to his feet, bolted into the surrounding bush and disappeared…the Khmer Rouge and the stunned family kneeling at the graveside, looked on in awe as Haim began calling his son, pleading with him to return and die together with his family. ‘What comparison, my son.’ He called out, ‘stealing a few more days of life in the wilderness, a fugitive, wretched and alone, to joining your family here momentarily around this grave but soon around the throne of God, free forever in paradise?’ After a few tense minutes the bushes parted, and the lad, weeping, walked slowly back to his place with the kneeling family. ‘Now we are ready to go,’ Haim told the Khmer Rouge. But by this time there was not a soldier standing there who had the heart to raise his hoe to deliver the death blow on the backs of these noble heads. Ultimately this had to be done by the Khmer Rouge communal chief, who had not witnessed these things. But few of those watching doubted that as each of these Christians’ bodies toppled silently into the earthen pit which the victims themselves had prepared, their souls soared heavenward to a place prepared by their Lord.’ What was the effect of such martyrdom? The writer goes on, ‘The rapid news of such as this, of certain Christians boldly bearing witness to their Lord in death, was gossiped about the countryside. Eventually these reports were brought across to the refuge camps in Thailand, and not always by Christians, but by typical Cambodians who, until then, had despised the Puok Yesu- the people of Jesus.’ Christians may be snuffed out, but not the gospel for it has a power and dynamic all of its own.
But there is a third motive for martyrdom which comes to us in the form of a poem which point us to the entailments of the Gospel, vv 11-13, ‘Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us;13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.’ Paul impresses upon Timothy that what he is about to unpack is a ‘trustworthy saying’. There were plenty of untrustworthy sayings doing the rounds in the church in Ephesus which people are latching on to and which were going to lead them away from Christ and straight to hell. But here is a saying upon which you can not only stake your shirt but your life, in fact, your eternal life depends upon it, says Paul. Certain things are put forward as God-given guarantees all of which have certain entailments or consequences.
The first is the promise of new life, ‘If we died with him, we will also live with him.’ When a person become a Christian they undergo a death, their old rebellious self is no more, it is dead and buried as far as God is concerned. What is more, they are given a new life, one which is connected to the very life of Christ himself, so that Jesus Christ become a personal reality and his power and energy begins to course through their bodies. That is experienced in the here and now, but will find its consummation in the future. ‘If we died with him’ (and we have) the entailment is living with him.
Secondly, there is the promise of heaven, ‘if we endure, we will also reign with him’. When Paul speaks of ‘enduring’ he is not primarily thinking about gritting our teeth and putting up with things, rather it is standing your ground, which is what Timothy is being urged to do throughout this letter. Paul doesn’t want Timothy to go wobbly on the Gospel and to give in to his fears to just to modify it ‘ever so slightly’. No, he is to hold on to it. The result is that he will reign with Jesus when he returns to establish a new heaven and a new earth. That is a promise for all believers. Now do you see why we cannot and must not go soft on the gospel?
The seriousness of this is underscored by the next line, ‘If we disown him, he will also disown us’. Christian insincerity has always has been a problem. There is the insincerity of the hypocrite, even the evangelical hypocrite, who, when times are easy will want to ensure that every theological ‘I’ is dotted and every biblical ‘T’ crossed; who will covet all the kudos of being in a leadership position, but who in reality has a heart as cold and dead as a stone. But there is a second kind of insincerity which surfaces at times when it is not so popular to be a Christian and that is the insincerity of the traitor. This is the one who wishes to keep his faith private, who would be the last to draw attention to his beliefs out of fear of being ostracised. Christ can be denied by silence as well as by outright refutation you know. And I would suspect that for most of us and our children this is going to become the greatest challenge in the years to come as the thought police backed up by legislation will make it more and more difficult to even think Christian ideas let alone speak Christian truths. We need especially to prepare our children and young people for this by allowing them to experience just enough opposition for them to realise their faith is real and worthwhile. Though we can pray for them we cannot give them immunity. Can I ask whether you are equipping your children and grandchildren by enabling them to see the infinite value and beauty of Christ above all things by your teaching and example, because they are going to need it?
Finally, we have the rock solid reality that no matter what happens Christ remains King, ‘if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.’ What does that mean? Well, some take this optimistically, that even if we renounce Christ he will not renounce us. But given that Paul has already said that is possible in the previous line that is unlikely. Others take this pessimistically, such that if we are faithless, Jesus will be faithful to the previous line’s promise that he will judge us. But may it not be something more inspiring than either interpretation? Just supposing under persecution, some Christians are made to recant. Supposing Marie Durant had caved in under the pressure and renounced her Protestant faith- would that have made any difference to Christ being King? Of course not. The truth remains that Jesus is Lord and he cannot renounce that. The efforts of despots like Nero, Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and countless others to stamp out the Christian faith are doomed to failure, because whatever they do they cannot dethrone Christ.
Friends, we have one in heaven who has been through all of this and triumphed, we have one who makes promises and keeps them- not least the promise that he will be with us even to the end of the age.
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