Imagine that we are at a marathon race. Many contestants are lined up at the starting point, but one especially catches your eye. He’s in his sixties, but he looks much older. You can tell that his body has endured many hardships. The thought flits through your mind that the old guy could die on the course. You wonder, “Why is he even in the race?”
But as the race gets underway, you’re amazed that the old man holds his own. In fact, he even pulls in front of the pack. And to your utter astonishment, as you stand at the finish line, you see him sprinting far ahead of his competitors. As he comes across the line, you expect him to collapse in a heap. But, instead, he turns and trots back to an earlier point in the course where a younger man in his late thirties seems to be losing steam. The older man jogs alongside the younger man, saying, “Come on, you can make it! Hang in there! Don’t quit!”
If that really happened, I would want to know, “What does this old guy have that I lack?” If I heard that he was going to speak on his training secrets, I’d show up and take notes. Clearly, the old man knows something about endurance. He is an example of how to finish well.
I didn’t make up that story. It really happened, but in the spiritual race, not in an actual marathon. We read about it in Paul’s second letter to Timothy. The apostle was in his sixties, but his body bore the marks of much suffering. He was in a cold, damp dungeon in Rome, about A.D. 67, awaiting execution at the hands of the cruel madman, Nero.
There were numerous reasons that he could have been discouraged. In 1:15, he writes, “all who are in Asia turned away from me.” In 4:10, he mentions Demas, whom he had formerly called a “fellow worker” (Philemon 24). But now he had deserted Paul, “having loved this present world.” In 4:14, he warns Timothy about Alexander the coppersmith, who did Paul much harm. Perhaps he had been responsible for Paul’s arrest and imprisonment. In 4:16, he pathetically writes, “At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me.” Only Luke was with him (4:11).
Not only that, but as the aged apostle awaited execution, he saw many serious errors infiltrating the churches. Hymenaeus and Philetus had gone astray from the truth, teaching that the resurrection had already taken place, thus upsetting the faith of some (2:17-18). Other ungodly false teachers were entering households and captivating weak women weighed down with sins (3:6). Paul knew that the day was soon coming when professing Christians would not endure sound doctrine, but would pile up teachers in accordance with their own desires to tickle their ears, turning from the truth to myths (4:3-4). Bishop Moule said that, humanly speaking, Christianity trembled on the verge of annihilation (Studies in II Timothy [Kregel], p. 18).
If there was ever a prime candidate for discouragement, Paul was it! Who could have blamed him if he had said, “I’ve had enough! I’ve given this thing more than my fair share of effort! I’m going to retire!” We would expect him to be a bitter, pessimistic, discouraged old man, his hopes and dreams shattered by overwhelming disappointments and setbacks. And yet we find him sprinting across the finish line and then jogging back to Timothy, who is pooping out, saying, “Come on, Timothy, keep going! Be strong! You can make it! Don’t quit!” When this guy speaks about endurance in the Christian life, I want to listen!
We live in a culture where pastors are bailing out of the ministry in droves. A newsletter in 2003 reported that 1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches. It said that 70 percent of pastors constantly fight depression. Fifty percent are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but they have no other way of making a living.
Not only pastors, but also many Christians, have burned out in serving the Lord. They have been wounded by criticism or conflict in the church. Some drop out of church entirely. Others attend occasionally, but that’s all that they do. They don’t want to risk getting hurt again. So they don’t get involved in serving the Lord.
I suggest that any discouraged pastors and Christians need a good dose of 2 Timothy. It’s a very personal letter, Paul’s last, written to his beloved son in the faith, who was timid by nature. He probably felt inadequate for the tasks facing him. The problems were overwhelming. It looked as if Paul was about to be executed, and the mantle would fall on Timothy. William Hendriksen (New Testament Commentary, I-II Timothy & Titus Baker], p. 218) nicely sums up the dominant theme of the book, “Timothy, do not be ashamed, but by God’s grace exert yourself to the utmost, being willing to endure your share of hardship in preserving and promoting sound doctrine.” We can sum up each chapter as follows:
Chapter 1: Unashamed as a witness: Guard the gospel!
Chapter 2: Unashamed as a workman: Suffer in godliness for the gospel!
Chapter 3: Adequate as a workman: Continue in the gospel!
Chapter 4: Awarded as a workman: Preach the gospel!
In Paul’s opening greeting and in his expression of thanks to God for Timothy (1:1-5), we see the foundation for a lifetime of faithful ministry. When I say ministry, I’m not referring only to those who are called into so-called full time ministry. Paul himself would not qualify, since he often had to work to support himself in ministry. Rather, I’m referring to the biblical truth that every Christian is saved to minister according to his or her gifts. If you’re a Christian, you were saved to serve, as we will see more next week. So you need to lay a solid foundation so that you will not burn out or drop out of the race.
A firm foundation for faithful ministry rests on knowing God’s call on your life through the gospel.
Our text makes three points about this gospel foundation:
Paul begins (1:1-2), “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life in Christ Jesus, to Timothy, my beloved son: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” In verse 5, he also mentions the sincere faith that he is sure dwells in Timothy. These words reveal three vital truths about the gospel:
Paul was facing death, but he was focused on the promise of life in Christ Jesus (see also, 1:10). Christianity is not primarily a matter of religious rituals or a moral code to live by, although it does give us God’s moral standards. Rather, Christianity is a matter of experiencing new life in Christ Jesus. By nature and by our many sins, we all were spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1). Dead men do not need in the first place to hear about a better moral code to live by. They need life! They need God to raise them from spiritual death to spiritual life.
The eternal life that God gives centers on knowing Him personally through His Son. Jesus said (John 17:3), “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Or, as 1 John 5:11-12 puts it, “And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.”
Paul says that this life is a promise. God is the Promiser. Paul mentions God three times in the first three verses. The promise is as reliable and secure as God is faithful. If God promises new life in Christ Jesus, then we can count on it, even when we’re in a dungeon facing an unjust execution, when former friends have deserted us and spread falsehoods about us.
This promise of life comes to us in Christ Jesus, whom Paul also mentions three times in verses 1-2. The other New Testament writers always use the order, Jesus Christ. But Paul, especially in his later writings, often writes, Christ Jesus. Bishop Moule (p. 30) suggests that this order breathes a certain feeling of worship and intimate affection towards the Lord. It emphasizes His office as the Anointed One (=Christ, Messiah), embodied in the human Jesus, who revealed the Father to us. The mention of Christ Jesus our Lord in conjunction with God the Father, as the source of grace, mercy, and peace, is a strong affirmation of the deity of Christ. Clearly, for Paul, Christ Jesus was central. He is the gospel. To know Him is to have eternal life. Paul the persecutor had become Paul the apostle because God had intervened in his life, giving him eternal life according to the promise in Christ Jesus.
Paul’s conversion and his calling as an apostle both happened at the same time. When God struck down Paul on the Damascus Road, He told Ananias, whom He sent to restore Paul’s sight (Acts 9:15), “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine….” Paul’s salvation and his calling as an apostle were not by his human choice, but rather, by God’s will and choice. Of course, salvation is received by faith. But the reason we believe in Christ is that before the foundation of the world, God willed to save us.
I’m not making this up! Read Ephesians and you will see it clearly. Paul says (Eph. 1:4), “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world.” He adds (1:5), “In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.” He repeats (1:11), “also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.” Or (Eph. 2:8-9), “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Paul recalls (1:5) the “sincere faith” within Timothy, which first dwelt in his grandmother Lois and in his mother Eunice. Timothy’s father was probably not a believer, but God used his godly grandmother and mother as links in the chain that led to Timothy’s salvation. They taught him the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:15), but then God used Paul’s preaching to bring Timothy to saving faith. “Sincere” means, “unhypocritical.” There is such a thing as hypocritical or false faith, but Paul was convinced that Timothy’s faith was the real thing. It had to be Timothy’s faith, not the faith of his grandmother or mother. God may use godly parents or grandparents to bring us to faith in Christ, but no one gets saved apart from sincere personal faith in Jesus Christ.
By the way, these words should encourage any mothers who may be trying to raise your children without the help of a believing husband. Even though God’s best is to have a godly father and mother training their children in the Lord, His grace and power can work in imperfect situations. Train your children in the Lord and pray for the influence of a godly man, who could take your sons further in the Lord, as Paul did with Timothy.
We saw these three qualities in our recent study of 2 John. In Paul’s writings, this threefold blessing occurs only in 1 & 2 Timothy (the addition of “mercy” in Titus 1:4 lacks solid manuscript support). Why did Paul add “mercy” in his letters to Timothy? I think it was because as he drew near to the end of his life and ministry, Paul was ever more aware of the reality of God’s mercy to him, the sinner (1 Tim. 1:13-16).
God’s grace is His undeserved favor to those who deserve His wrath. His mercy is His compassion to those who are in misery because of their sin. His peace is the result of being reconciled to Him because of His grace and mercy. These blessings come to us freely from God the Father who sent His Son, Christ Jesus our Lord, to die for our sins.
Ask yourself, “Have I experienced new life in Christ according to God’s promise? Do I know personally God’s grace, mercy, and peace? Because of God’s sovereign will, do I now personally have sincere faith in Christ Jesus?” If you can answer yes, then you have a foundation for serving Him, no matter what trials it may bring into your life. You are not your own. “For you have been bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). God’s call on your life through the gospel is the foundation for a life of faithful service.
This opening greeting oozes with Paul’s deep feelings of love for Timothy, whom he calls “my beloved son.” He constantly remembered him in his prayers and he longed for the joy of seeing him, even as he recalled Timothy’s tears on their last parting (1:3-4). We don’t know whether Timothy got to Paul’s cell before the sword fell.
Beyond Timothy, this short letter mentions many others that Paul knew and loved. There were Onesiphorus and his household (1:16-17), Crescens, Titus, Luke, Mark, Tychicus, Carpus (4:10-13), Prisca, Aquila, Erastus, Trophimus, Eubulus, Pudens, Linus, Claudia, and all the brethren (4:19-21). Paul was not a lone ranger Christian! Each of these dear brothers and sisters in Christ meant something to Paul. The relationships that they shared had changed them all.
Often when I counsel with someone who is struggling with a personal problem or a difficult sin, I ask, “Do you know any other brothers in Christ who could meet with you each week and help you in the things of the Lord?” Sadly, the answer is often, “No.” That’s not right! The Christian life is not just you and God. It is you and God and God’s people. You may be thinking, “It’s God’s people who are my problem!” That may be so. In fact, Paul mentions many people in this letter who had caused him grief (1:15; 2:17; 3:5-9, 11, 13; 4:3, 10, 14, 16).
But it’s only as you remain committed to God’s people in a local church and work through your problems in accordance with His Word, that you will grow as a Christian and have a foundation for serving Him. Try to look for both a Paul and a Timothy in your life. Ask God for an older man (or, a woman for women) who can be a friend and an example of godly maturity in your life. And, look for a younger man (or, a younger woman for women) that you can help to grow in Christ. These relationships that we form through the gospel should cause us to thank God and to pray continually for one another (1:3).
So, the gospel brings us into a personal relationship with the Father through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord. It also brings us into close, life-changing relationships with others. Finally,
Paul was called to be an apostle by the will of God. None of us are apostles, but each of us has received a spiritual gift that God expects us to use to serve Him in some capacity (1 Pet. 4:10-11). There should be no benchwarmer Christians. As Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 12, there aren’t any spare parts in the body. He wasn’t talking about a “spare tire,” of course! But except for that, we need every part of our bodies to function.
But, why does Paul emphasize his apostleship in a letter to Timothy, who knew full well that Paul was an apostle? Some suggest that it was because Paul intended for these pastoral letters to be read more widely, and he wanted all of his readers to be reminded of his divine appointment as apostle. Many were attacking Paul, saying that a true apostle would not be imprisoned. Paul wanted Timothy and others to recall the dramatic story of how God had appointed him to this office of apostle.
He also was emphasizing to Timothy that he had not volunteered for the job. Rather, he had been drafted! Timothy was faltering in the race. Maybe he was thinking, as every pastor has, “I’ll bet there is an easier line of work to get into! Maybe I should consider a career change.” Once in California I had been going through a difficult time, receiving a lot of criticism. Marla and I were driving somewhere and were stopped by a flagman for road work. I sat there watching a guy driving an earth-mover and thought, “That looks like a nice line of work to get into! You go to work, drive your machine, go home at night, and nobody criticizes you. Maybe I should look into that!”
But Paul says, “I am an apostle by the will of God.” I’m not in this line of work because I went to a guidance counselor who said, “Your aptitude tests show that you’d make a good apostle.” It wasn’t my career of choice. Rather, it was the will of God.
Why does Paul mention serving God with a clear conscience the way his forefathers did? Paul was about to lose his head for the faith. At such times it’s important to remember that you’re dying for the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Elijah, and all of the other faithful men of God in history. You’ve been handed the torch and you’ve got to carry it faithfully and hand it off to those who come after you.
Also, both Nero and the Jews were persecuting Christianity as a new cult. Paul is saying, in effect, “This is not a new cult. This is the culmination and fulfillment of God’s promises to the Jewish fathers. They looked forward to the promised Messiah. Christ Jesus is the promised Messiah, in whom we also believe.” So Paul was making the point that he was in the mainstream of the history of God’s purposes as revealed in the Old Testament, but now fulfilled in Christ.
If you’re feeling like dropping out of the race, read about the heritage of godly men in the Bible and in church history. They have persevered through incredible trials, disappointments, loss of loved ones, persecution, and martyrdom. As I’ve said before, I’ve learned more by reading Christian biographies than from any other source, except for the Bible itself (which also has many biographies).
Paul mentions serving God with a clear conscience. “Serve” means to serve as an act of worship. “Clear” is literally, “cleansed.” It does not imply perfection, but it does imply walking in reality before God, confessing your sins to Him and to those you have wronged, so that you don’t fall into hypocrisy. Paul knew that God examines the heart (1 Thess. 2:4), and so he lived to please God on the heart level (2 Cor. 5:9). He knew that soon he would be standing before God, to give an account of his ministry. So will each of us.
Are you running in the race, serving God in accordance with the gifts He has bestowed on you? You may say, “I’m retired. I’ve already put in my time.” But there’s nothing in the Bible about retiring from serving God. Paul was an old man in jail, but he says, “God, whom I serve” (present tense). God doesn’t have a retirement program!
You say, “I don’t feel qualified to serve.” Neither did Timothy. He was in over his head. So was Paul. He exclaimed, “Who is adequate for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16). You think, “But I’m not in the best of health.” Neither was Timothy. He had frequent stomach and other ailments (1 Tim. 5:23). “But I’m shy and introverted. I don’t have the personality to lead.” Neither did Timothy. “But I tried serving and people criticized me.” Yes, talk to Paul. Here’s this old geezer, sprinting across the finish line, and then he comes back to you as you’re ready to drop out of the race. He says, “If God has called you through the gospel and given you new life in Christ, then you’ve got to hang in there. Don’t drop out! Keep going! Eternity is just ahead. Then you can rest.”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation