Precious Words from a Dying Apostle
Lessons for 2020 from 2 Timothy
Cities Church | Saint Paul
Yesterday, September 12, was my fortieth birthday. I don’t remember my dad turning thirty, but I do remember him turning forty. I remember the black balloons. And I remember the cards that said “over the hill.”
Over what hill? The hill of life, it seems. The first half you go up the hill; the second half you go down. So being “over the hill” means you’re over halfway there — to death. Now you’re on the way down. You are closer to death than to birth. And that’s if death comes in old age. There are no guarantees it will. Especially in a global pandemic.
So yesterday was not only a fortieth birthday but also a mid-pandemic birthday, and now this morning, we open to 2 Timothy, which is the apostle Paul’s final letter before his death. He is in prison in Rome, and on the brink of execution, and he is very aware of it. He says to Timothy in 4:6–7, “The time of my departure has come.”
But far more significant than one of your pastors now being “over the hill” is this moment in the life of our church. Our five-and-a-half-year-old church. Our church, which is a people, not a building — which we should know well since we didn’t own a building until January. Our church, which has hardly used that building for the last six months. Our church, which last gathered all together in one place at one time back on March 8 — more than six months ago.
“God actually does something for us and in us and through us as we gather together.”
And as a church we now find ourselves in a critical season, as we come into this fall, with what has been the most abnormal six months in most of our lives, with no clear end yet in sight. Many of us are starving for the grace God gives us, the way he feeds our souls, in the regular face-to-face interactions we have as Christians in the church. Fellowship is a vital means of God’s grace. In weekly corporate worship and regular community groups and life groups, God shapes and nourishes and gives stability to our souls.
If you feel spiritually empty, or sluggish, it’s no great surprise. God actually does something for us and in us and through us as we gather together. To one degree or another, we all are feeling the spiritual effects of these six months dispersed. Will we coast? Will we reengage? We’ve come to a very important moment in the life of our church.
And 2 Timothy is not just “next up” in our series of expositions. This is an especially well-timed word for us in this moment, dispersed and fatigued by a global pandemic, with winter bearing down on us. A pandemic brings the consciousness of death to the fore. And every winter is a kind of rehearsal for death. In 2 Timothy, Paul contemplates his own death. And this letter is a bold call for endurance, and holding fast, in the face of affliction and suffering. This letter is just what we need right now as a church.
Three Words for the Church
So this morning, as we start into 2 Timothy, we look at verses 1–2. But then I also want us to get a preview of what God may have in store for our church through this letter in this particular season. I want to draw our attention to one truth in verse 1, and another in verse 2, and look at the bigger picture of the letter and get a foretaste of how 2 Timothy maps onto our moment.
1. Christ promises life beyond this world (verse 1).
Verse 1: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God according to the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus . . .”
In 2020, we are surrounded by voices that tell us overtly and subtly that this life is all there is. Whether it’s conversations with neighbors and coworkers, even family, or the messages on the big screen, small screen, and pocket screen, or what we read online and what we hear on the radio and through podcasts — at every turn we meet the subtle assumption, if not overt message, that this life is all there is. Or at least all we can really live in light of. All we know is what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. So get all you can out of this life, because there is no sure eternity to live in light of.
But here Paul, facing death, begins with “the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus.” Death now looks as real to Paul as it ever has — just as to some of us, death has looked as real as it ever has in recent months. Death is coming. It is certain, and now it is near for Paul. And in that moment, he clings to “the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus.”
He says more in 1:10: the grace of God “now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” What does it mean that he “abolished death”? Jesus has defeated the very thing our world fears most: death. He has emptied death of its power. He has defanged death. And having conquered death, by rising again, he has invited us to be united with him by faith, and to say with him, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).
But Jesus didn’t just abolish or destroy or set aside death. He “brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” In a world scared to death about its mortality, Jesus brought immortality. He brought the answer every living human is looking for. He himself took the death we deserved for our sin, that we might share in the life he has as fully God and perfect man — that is, eternal life.
And oh, how we, and our world, need to hear Paul talk of “the promise of the life” (verse 1) and “immortality” (verse 10) and “eternal glory” (2:10) and Christ’s “heavenly kingdom” (4:18) and the “hope of eternal life” (Titus 1:2).
Now, Jesus does promise life in the present, not only eternal life to come. We saw last year in 1 Timothy 4:8 that godliness “holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Yes, there is life, and life to the full (John 10:10), here and now in Christ. But that’s not the main emphasis in 2 Timothy, as Paul writes from a Roman jail, certain that soon enough they will take off his head. The promise of life now, in this age, is precious. We don’t scoff at it. And the promise of eternal life, in the end, will prove to dwarf the promise of life now.
Cities Church, Christ promises life beyond this world. Let’s not be snookered by our secular society and its propaganda. Everywhere we turn, the assumptions are increasingly secular. God is increasingly ignored in public discourse and polite conversation, if not said to be altogether out of bounds. Without the word of God and the people of God reminding us that the sights and sounds and tastes and smells and textures of this physical world, real as they are, are not all that is real, we will be deceived. This is one of the great deceptions in our day, and perhaps the deepest: that this world and life is all there is. But Christ promises life beyond this world.
2. Christ provides family beyond this world (verse 2).
Verse 2: “To Timothy, my beloved child . . .”
It is amazing to see how Paul talks to Timothy as his son in the faith:
- 1 Timothy 1:2: “my true child in the faith”
- 1 Timothy 1:18: “my child”
- So also to Titus, in Titus 1:4: “my true child in a common faith”
- Then here in 2 Timothy 1:2: “my beloved child”
- Also in 2:1: “my child”
To be clear, Timothy and Titus are not Paul’s biological sons. Nor are they legally adopted sons. They are more than that. They are “true” sons, he says. Not like sons; they are true sons. Which shows the kind of relationships God means to create and sustain in Christ.
“In Christ, what we have in common is the single most important reality in the universe.”
This kind of familial — and deeper than familial — bond is not unique to Paul and Timothy and Titus. Rather, this is the offering, and indeed the norm, for those who claim the one true Lord as their greatest allegiance. Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50). And he said, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29).
In Christ, what we have in common is the single most important reality in the universe. Sharing biology and blood does not compare. Sharing the same alma mater does not compare. Sharing the same neighborhood, the same city, same state, same nation, skin color, subculture, political causes, occupation, or hobby does not compare to sharing Christ.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we share in common the unrivaled, single most important reality in all the universe and in all of history: we have God himself in Jesus Christ. Do you know what potential we have in this room — in Christ — for the most significant, most challenging, most strengthening, most precious relationships on the planet?
As we now move back into weekly life together in fresh ways, let me ask, Do you have relationships like this? “My beloved child.” “My true child in the faith.” “My true child in a common faith.” My true sister. My true brother. I cannot promise you that this kind of depth, that these kinds of closer-than-a-brother relationships will happen here. They are not automatic; they are gifts from God, to be cultivated over time. But I can promise this: there is no better place to find such friendships. You may not find the relationships you’ve always wanted at this church, but in Christ, there is no better place to look for them.
3. Christ protects his people in moments like these.
So Christ promises life beyond the world, and Christ provides family beyond this world, and now, I want to give you three themes from the rest of the letter, under the heading: Christ protects his church in moments like these. In times of unrest and uncertainty. So here, we’re asking, What might we find 2 Timothy saying to us in the fall of 2020? Consider three refrains that meet us in this moment.
1. He calls us to endure (as others turn away).
There are times when it seems like few are defecting, and other times when it seems like more than a few. Paul wrote 2 Timothy in what seems to be a lean season. It didn’t seem like revival. Times felt tough; perhaps even the churches seemed thin. Paul writes in chapter 3 of “those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions” (2 Timothy 3:6). And he warns in chapter 4, “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3–4).
But this wasn’t distant for Paul; it was painfully close. He says in 1:15, “All who are in Asia turned away from me.” And if that doesn’t sound heartbreaking enough, he mentions Demas — the same Demas he mentioned as part of his team in Colossians 4:14 and Philemon 24. He says in 2 Timothy 4:10, “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” Can you sense the ache in his heart as he writes “in love with this present world”?
As pastors, we have seen the good and bad of the pandemic. Let’s not pretend; this has been a trial. It is sifting the church like wheat. For some, these have been precious days of new depths of seriousness and focus and devotion. Some will think fondly back on 2020. And for others, these times have eroded and hollowed out the heart of faith. Roots are loose. Some are turning away. You in particular may feel like many are turning away, or just drifting away.
And in a day in which the ways are parting, Paul’s call to Timothy, and us, is to endure. Paul himself endures, with “eternal glory” in view (2:10), and he promises in Christ, “if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2:12). He says “the Lord’s servant must [be] patiently enduring evil” (2:24). He mentions the “persecutions I endured” (3:11). And he says to Timothy directly, “Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it” (3:14). And he warns, “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching. . . . As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (4:3–5).
Cities Church, in these days, when some are drifting away, like Demas, in love with the world, let’s follow Paul and be able to say in the end (4:7), “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Let’s finish this segment of the race God has put before us in this season, and keep the faith together, as we come into this fresh season of church life.
2. He calls us to speak the truth with grace (as others spew lies, venom, and folly).
It is striking what a contrast there is in 2 Timothy between how Paul characterizes the false teaching and what he says Timothy should be. First of all, he gives us the negative, what to avoid, what characterizes the false teaching (and it may not be what you think):
2:14: “Charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.”
2:16–17: “Avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.”
2:23: “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.”
“Brothers and sisters in Christ, we share in common the unrivaled, single most important reality in all the universe.”
It sounds like the false teaching Paul is concerned about is more like the daily drivel on social media and television than it is like formal teaching. Some false teachers are preachers and teachers, no doubt. But most are not. They “creep into households and capture weak women.” They sow seeds in polite conversation. They don’t mount a pulpit, but fill our ears the other hundred and twenty waking hours of the week. Think of that: half an hour a week of preaching, versus what? Ninety hours a week of other influences?
A recent article at The Gospel Coalition observes, “The church is increasingly just one voice among many speaking into a Christian’s life. A church’s worship habits may occupy two hours of a Christian’s week. But podcasts, radio shows, cable news, social media, streaming entertainment, and other forms of media account for upwards of 90 hours of their week.” And consider the effect of the pandemic. The author, Brett McCracken, observes,
“COVID-19 has further accelerated the already troubling tendency of Christians being shaped more by online life and its partisan ideological ecosystem than by church life and its formational practices.”
“In quarantine, Christians have been driven yet farther into a fully online existence: drinking from the often-toxic well of internet discourse in ways that poison their souls. Largely devoid of meaningful immersion in Christian formative practices, Christians are instead being formed in whatever online echo chamber they call home.”
He says this is “perhaps the biggest meta threat facing the church in the 21st century.” Brothers and sisters, social media can be a cesspool. Wisdom for some is avoiding it altogether. For others, there’s a calling and opportunity to do good, speak truth, have some small influence. But don’t just float in without intentionality. Your mood will be encumbered; your hope will be taxed; your vision of the world will be skewed; which is, in microcosm, what it’s like to live in this world.
But this is really important to note: In the ancient content war going on in Ephesus, Paul doesn’t just say to plug your ears. He doesn’t just say to cover your eyes. He doesn’t even say to not talk. He has something positive to say: Use words to give grace, to speak truth, to provide clarity, to produce peace. Speak and type constructive and clarifying words rather than destructive and confusing words. Use careful, intentional words, rather than flippant, uncareful words. And see that you get a regular stream of such clear, constructive, life-giving, soul-feeding words into your ears and hearts. Here’s how Paul puts it in 2 Timothy 2:24–26, saying “the Lord’s servant” so that we know it’s not just for Timothy but for pastors, and all of us:
The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
And we have a standard and source, as Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” And to Timothy in 4:2: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” So Timothy must “do [his] best to present [himself] to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2:15).
3. He calls us to keep the end in view (as others live only for the moment).
The apex of the letter is 4:1–8. There Paul solemnly charges Timothy, for the final time, to preach God’s word, and then says, “The time of my departure has come” (4:6). And in this final section of the letter proper, before his closing comments and notes, Paul twice draws attention to the coming of Christ:
Verse 1: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom . . .”
Verse 8: “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”
Paul keeps the end in view. Christian endurance does just that. It does not just endlessly grunt out one more day. It looks to the end, and looks to Christ and his grace for daily strength (2:1; 4:17), in light of his final rescue.
Cities Church, the pandemic will end. This life will end. This age will end. Jesus Christ is coming back, which is spectacularly good news to his people, and an untold horror to his enemies. He is coming as “the righteous judge” (verse 8), who will “judge the living and the dead” (verse 1). He will bring full and appropriate and uncompromising justice on those who have rejected him and turned away from him. And he will bring rescue and reward, not just for Paul, but for “all who have loved his appearing”:
Rescue — 4:18: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.”
Reward — 4:8: “There is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”
To Brighten Our Eyes
Which brings us to the Table where we not only look back but also forward. To the end of this season. And to the end of this age, when Christ comes again to repay his enemies and rescue and reward his people.
And God gives us this Table in the present for our endurance. Here Christ gives us spiritual food and drink, to receive in faith, to restore our souls, brighten our eyes, strengthen us in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, to endure, to hold fast, to not blow over in the storms and not tap out in this trying season.