Monday, April 16, 2007

2 Timothy 2:14-26

Is anyone else finding 2 Timothy 2 not at all an easy read?

Who are the Christian leaders you admire? And why do you admire them? I can think of a few – they were invariably gracious, humble, full of integrity while showing a concern for biblical fidelity and thus faithfulness to their Master, Jesus Christ. I think they knew and internalised the words of Paul to Timothy here in 2:14-26, words which, as someone who has served a little in leadership myself, make me tremble. How we need the strength by the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2:1)!

Paul starts off this section by telling Timothy to keep reminding "them" – the "faithful men" entrusted to teach others – of "these things" (v.14). These things are all the big themes that he has hit on so far: not to be ashamed of God or his people, to share in his suffering, to guard the deposit that is the gospel, to keep going. All this, of course has its basis "in Christ Jesus". What does it mean "not to quarrel about words"? Here he is talking about relentless nitpicking – splitting hairs over such minute doctrinal differences that one loses sight of everything else. I suspect many will have a war story to tell here. This only serves to damage those who are listening in. Just as seriously, notice this charge is "before God", and no wonder, as it might distract us from truly learning what God has to teach us.

So Paul has told Christian leaders what to avoid; what should they be striving for instead? They are "workers", which tells us that it’s not an easy job (keeping in line with the metaphors used in the previous section), who should "do your best to present yourself to God as one approved" (v.15). In doing so, we will have no need to be ashamed, like Paul! Moreover, Christian leaders must "rightly [handle] the word of truth". Apparently, "rightly handling" is literally “cutting straight”. Some think the term here has connotations of bricklaying, others, ploughing. In any case, the implication is clear, it is to present the Word of God clearly to the people of God that they might live as the Bride of God.

This is so important because, to use a pithy phrase, ideas have consequences. "Irreverent babble" leads to increasing ungodliness, and will not stay self-contained: it will spread like an outbreak of chicken pox (if you don’t mind me modifying the simile!). Paul gives the example of two people and their teaching. At first glance this might puzzle us: hasn’t the resurrection already happened? (v.18) But it seems like, to use the technical term, a case of overrealised eschatology. In other words, Hymenaeus and Philetus were teaching that we were living, as it were, as if we were already in heaven – it is the age after the Second Coming, there is nothing left to anticipate. There won’t be a physical resurrection in the future. This might be more helpfully illustrated by showing, from this song excerpt, what orthodox Christians have always believed:
Now death destroyed, the death left open wide,
our Saviour reigns at the Father’s side.
Where death your sting, where your power, O Grave?
The Son of God prepares to come again.
It might help to explore the consequences of such teaching. Firstly, imagine those who are grieving the death of family and friends. How devastating such teaching might be! Death becomes a bleaker reality; there’s no hope of a call back to embodied life (eg. see John 5:24-30). Secondly, imagine the false picture it gives of the present! It leads to unrealistic expectations that there is no suffering in the Christian life. Yet we can be sure that to encounter suffering, all we have to do is live long enough. How crushed a believer might be who hears such false teaching; it might lead to unnecessary doubts. “They are upsetting the faith of some”. (v.18b).

V.19 is a reassurance however (and might be in favour of my reading of v.13, but you’ll have to judge that for yourself!). Paul is apparently alluding to Numbers 16:5, where the context is the truth that God knows who is faithful and unfaithful, and he will preserve the former. The mark of such people is their departure from wickedness.

Having talked about his "firm foundation", the true people of God, Paul now employs a picture to describe this in further detail. A "great house" will have different kinds of "vessels". Some think that "vessels" here refers to faithful and unfaithful Christians. Others, to true and false teachers. If you were to read v.20 as following straight on from v.19 then it would seem as if the former option is more appealing. But if you were to take v.19 as a further elaboration of v.18, and v.20 as returning back to the larger argument of good and bad workers, then the latter option is more palatable. It seems to me that the latter option makes more sense in the context of the whole section. In v.21, for instance, Paul talks about “cleans[ing]…from what is dishonourable”, taking the former option would seem to imply having to distance ourselves from Christians whom we think are not living faithfully, and I’m not sure if that is something we can support from the entire counsel of Scripture.

Paul shows what this is to look like in practice. We need to "flee youthful passions" (v.22)- really, really run! A sermon I heard once helpfully made this concrete for me when the pastor pointed out that "youthful passions" doesn’t just refer to lust, which is often the first thought that pops into our head, especially for guys. Rather, it also includes other things like a love for novelty and a desire to look good. Instead, we're to "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness" (Matt 6:33). So we’re asked not just to put as much distance between ourselves and "youthful passions", but also to re-orient ourselves to pursue what God knows is best.

Verses 23-26 is very important and in some ways is really self-explanatory. Verse 23 doesn’t mean that any dispute should be brushed under the carpet, since Paul has already clearly stressed the need to "rightly handle the word of truth" and has expressed to Timothy not to be like the false teachers. Rather, it is to model what Josh Harris calls “humble orthodoxy” (or alternatively, Dan Kimball’s term “humble theology” – I like both phrases). Here is the criteria for a faithful Christian teacher of God’s Word. "Able to teach" here doesn’t just refer to having impeccable academic credentials. Rather, here it means having the credibility to teach. The person’s conduct (as noted in v.23-24) and character is in line with his teaching. It is also the ability to teach under pressure. Yet he is also not just teaching truth, but correcting error “with gentleness”. For me, J.I Packer is one person who immediately comes to mind here when I think of someone who models such leadership.

The last two verses are a call to hope. In continuing to gently correct and teach, it is always with a view to the restoration of those who are in error. It is to be done, not for the sake of feeling superior, but a genuine wish to be able to fellowship better and to rejoice that a brother or sister is once again following God.

True, biblical leadership must remain humble. In his little book, Humility, CJ Mahaney, himself in Christian leadership for nearly 30 years, writes about one of his prayers of confession: “Lord, in that moment, with that attitude and that action, I was contending for supremacy with You. That's what it was all about. Forgive me.” Every Christian of course, should place God at the throne of their lives, and this is particularly true of anyone in positions of influence. So to anyone in Christian leadership, and btw, that doesn’t mean you have to be the senior pastor of a megachurch, hear Paul’s words again:

"Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth."

I feel like this was a bit of a haphazard post and not particularly well-written, so my apologies there. As always, feel free to ask a question, point out what I’ve missed or might have gotten wrong etc. This is the section I’ll be leading a study on so prayers and insights are really appreciated!

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