In our evening services at church, we’ve been preaching through 2 Timothy. It’s an absolutely wonderful book and I do commend it to you – especially if, like me, you are involved in Christian ministry in some way. As we’ve been going through it, I’ve been reminded time and again how Paul predicts pretty much the exact state of the church in this age – and, really, in every age. I’ve come to believe that 2 Timothy is actually one of the most prophetic books of the Bible, to my mind Paul absolutely nails it.
As I’ve prepared to preach on various passages I’ve picked up a few insights which I thought might be worth sharing with you today.
1. Ironic Progress
Firstly, let’s think about 2 Timothy 2:15-17.
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene.
Paul, in 2 Timothy, is writing “to Timothy” (geddit?…) and is exhorting Timothy to remain faithful to the sound teaching which he received from Paul and the other apostles. Paul says to Timothy that a worker who “does not need to be ashamed” before God is one who “correctly handles the word of truth” (i.e. the Bible). Then he tells Timothy to “avoid godless chatter” – which probably refers to false teaching, given what he says in the next sentence – and the reason he gives us: “because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly.”
There’s a real sense of irony about this phrase. Apparently the words translated “more and more” were used in the ancient world in the sense of ‘moral progress’. However, here Paul employs them to the opposite use: it is progress, yes, but progress in a negative direction.
To my mind this neatly encapsulates the state of much of the church at the moment: straining to make ‘progress’ – and yet making progress in the wrong direction. C.S. Lewis astutely captures this in this little segment of dialogue from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
“But that would be putting the clock back,” gasped the Governor. “Have you no idea of progress, of development?”
“I have seen them both in an egg,” said Caspian. “We call it Going bad in Narnia. This trade must stop.”
I don’t think one has to look far to see people pushing for ‘progress’ in the church in ways which the apostle Paul would certainly not have thought progress. What’s interesting to me is that this ‘progress’ does seem to backfire. To take one example, I’ve never seen anyone who is affirming of same-sex relationships while being doctrinally orthodox on everything else. One thing leads to another – a weakening in one area will lead to a weakening in another. I think this is why Paul says that false teaching will “spread like gangrene”: if you deny some traditional facet of Christian doctrine, it’s pretty easy to deny another. And another. And so on.
2. The Crown of Righteousness
Secondly, let’s look at 2 Timothy 4:7-8.
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store 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 longed for his appearing.
The ‘crown’ here is using Olympics imagery: the crown, or wreath, was what the Olympic victor was given. But why is it a crown of righteousness? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6). I think what Paul is saying here is that those who hold to sound teaching, those who do as Paul is asking Timothy to do, will hunger and thirst after righteousness – and that ultimately, one day, that hunger will be sated.
In other words, what Paul is saying is: those who hold to sound teaching, those who desire to live a godly life, will ultimately find it. Those who desire to live a godly life, despite the ravages of sin in this world, will ultimately overcome on “that day” – the return of Christ. You cannot desire to live a godly life without longing for Christ’s appearing – because we know that ultimately, a truly godly life is only possible when Christ returns and transforms us to be like him.
Now, given the context of what we’ve seen above, where the idea of false teaching is connected with ungodliness, I think there is another important point here: the idea of godliness is connected with the future, i.e. those who desire to live a godly life will ultimately find it when Jesus returns. What does that have to do with false teaching? Because Paul says earlier on – just after the passage we looked at first – that some of the false teachers “say that the resurrection has already taken place”. In other words, those false teachers say that the future has already happened – that there is nothing in the future to look forward to. And if there is no future to look forward to, where is the motivation for godliness?
Where the rubber hits the road with respect to today’s church is on certain moral issues which I may have already mentioned. If you eradicate the idea of a future hope from the Christian life, it means that you must have everything now, in this life. If God doesn’t give you everything you want now, then life is hopeless. But, if on “that day” God will give the “crown of righteousness” to “all those who have longed for his appearing” – that, I think, is something worth living for. It gives us hope. It inspires us to live a godly life – no matter what sacrifices we need to make, no matter what struggles the Christian life brings, it will be worth it.
I wonder if, perhaps, part of the problem with the debates in the church at the moment are to do with a failure of the church to preach any kind of future hope. If we focus on this life and the blessings we have here, it will be almost a personal insult to us if we receive what we perceive as hardship. But what if that hardship is, in fact, a blessing? What if that hardship is preparing us for the future glory that is to be revealed?
I think an appropriate place to end would be Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Lord, help us to see by faith the eternal things which are unseen.