Today we are beginning a summer series from the little book of II Timothy. People sometimes wonder how pastors choose what to preach on. In this case, I feel like I didn’t choose II Timothy; II Timothy chose me. Last fall as we were finishing up our trip on the “Bible Bus,” we came to II Timothy. Even though I had read the book before, the power of its message grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. It seemed to say, “Preach me! Calvary needs to hear this truth.” So I promised myself that as soon as I had an opening in my preaching calendar, we would go through II Timothy. And now, seven months later, the time has come.
Five Fast Facts
In order to grasp the message of this brief book, we need to know something about its background. Here are five fast facts that will help us.
1) II Timothy was Paul’s final book.
Many people consider it his “last will and testament.”
2) When Paul wrote it, he was in prison, in chains, in Rome.
In II Timothy 1:16 Paul specifically mentions his chains. That’s not a metaphor or a symbol; it’s a statement of his incarceration in Rome. Although the precise details are hard to pin down, the chronology goes something like this. At the end of the book of Acts, Paul is under house arrest in Rome but is able to receive guests and to preach to them. At some point he was released and resumed his itinerant ministry. Later he was arrested again (perhaps at Troas), charged with a crime (perhaps treason for asserting the lordship of Christ, which could be twisted to mean an attack on the Roman emperor), and sent to Rome for trial. This time he was tried and condemned to death. Tradition says he was beheaded by the wicked emperor Nero. Though we cannot be certain, a date of A.D. 66 is possible.
3) The church was in a crisis situation.
Historical background is important at this point. For the first 25 years or so after the birth of the Christian movement in Acts 2, the church spread rapidly across the Roman Empire. Although there were pockets of resistance and occasional persecution, the church by and large found a warm reception in many places. That all changed in A.D. 64 when Nero burned Rome and blamed it on the Christians, ushering in a wave of general persecution across the empire. Suddenly being a Christian became a dangerous and sometimes deadly affair. As a result, many of the hangers-on drifted into the shadows. It wasn’t popular any longer to mention your faith in public. Lots of so-called Christians no longer wished to be “so-called.” It was easier and safer not to get involved with Jesus or his followers. In addition, false teachers had crept into positions of influence in many local churches. These heretics claimed to follow Christ but denied the major tenets of the Christian faith. And a surprising number of believers were taken in by their false teaching. From his prison cell, Paul saw all these ominous developments and knew things would get worse before they got better.
4) Paul had been virtually abandoned in Rome.
Given the situation, it’s not surprising that when Paul was condemned to death, few people came to his aid. Most of his friends from earlier missions found reasons to conveniently forget about him. “Out of sight, out of mind.” Only Luke was with Paul in Rome.
5) Timothy represented the up-and-coming generation of emerging Christian leadership.
Paul is an old man now, and Timothy is his trusted young colleague. Timothy is much younger than Paul, perhaps in his 20s. He loved Paul deeply and had been with him in many difficult situations. According to Acts 16, he was the product of a mixed spiritual heritage. His father was Greek, his mother Jewish. He seems to have been a young man with a sensitive, emotional, and somewhat timid disposition. No doubt he felt overwhelmed by the responsibilities being thrust on him, and he was overcome at the thought of his mentor’s approaching death. Paul’s final letter is a passing of the torch from one generation on to another.
One of the most exciting Olympic events is the 4x100 relay. Four men (or women) each race 100 meters, passing the baton as each runner finishes his part of the race. Coaches say that the most critical moment in a relay race is not the beginning or the end; it’s that split second when one runner takes the baton and places it in the hand of the next runner. If there is a bobble, or if the baton is dropped, the race will be lost. So it is with the Christian message. Each generation has a sacred obligation to pass the truth along to the next generation. Parents have an obligation to make every effort to see that their children follow the Lord. Church leaders have to look to the future or the church will die. The Christian movement is always one generation from extinction. It’s not enough to say, “I believe in Jesus.” We must do what we can so that the next generation believes in him as well. We must pass the truth along because we will not be here forever.
Always Too Soon To Quit
Today we begin our study of II Timothy, a letter from a departing mentor for a dear friend. It contains a message for those in Christian leadership. Pastors, missionaries and Christian workers need to heed these words. Those who face opposition in their service for Christ will find much encouragement here. As the days grow dark, it’s always tempting to give in to despair. But this book reminds us that the darker the night, the brighter the light shines. I am reminded of the words of V. Raymond Edman, late president of Wheaton College, who liked to remind his students that “it’s always too soon to quit.”
Here are the final words of a dying man who knows his days are numbered. Many people think he died within weeks of writing II Timothy. He knows the end is clear. Paul’s work is done. Never again will he preach to great crowds. Never again will he stand on the Acropolis in Athens. Never again will he preach in Jerusalem. Never again will he visit the churches of Asia Minor. Never again will he sail the high seas. Never again will he preach on the streets of Corinth. Those days are gone forever. Life resolves itself into a few simple tasks:
Make sure the message goes on after he is gone.
Make certain the torch is cleanly passed.
Make sure Timothy knows what to do.
It is irresponsible not to pass on what you live for. And it is irresponsible not to make ready for the next generation. Do you want to go to Florida or Arizona to retire? Fine. Nothing wrong with that. But before you take off your shoes and go to sleep in the hammock, make sure you’ve made provision for your faith to be passed on. You’ve got a holy calling to your children and grandchildren and to all who follow you to pass the faith along to them.
This little letter is for everyone tempted to throw in the towel. II Timothy reminds us that the gospel is worth the battle, that God is faithful to equip us, strengthen us, and uphold the truth of His word. Chapter 1 tells us how Paul begins to pass the torch. He does it in a very personal way by telling Timothy of his confidence in him and calling him to join Paul in standing strong even if it means suffering for the sake of the gospel. We can summarize Paul’s message in five simple statements.
I. Remember your heritage.
“I thank God, whom I serve, as my forefathers did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also” (II Timothy 1:3-5).
Paul’s first appeal to Timothy is to remember his wonderful spiritual heritage that goes back at least two generations. His grandmother Lois was a godly woman who picked up the torch of truth and handed it down to her daughter Eunice who (despite being in a mixed marriage spiritually) passed it on to Timothy. In reminding him of this, Paul means to build some steel into Timothy’s soul. “Son, you’ve got a great heritage. I can see the faith of your mother and grandmother in you as well. Now live up to it.” Those words coming from a beloved mentor would have a powerful impact on a young man.
We all have a heritage, a family tree. We all have a spiritual history—whether good or bad. We are Christians because someone influenced us to come to Christ. No one comes completely on his own. We all have others who make their mark on us and help us come to the place where we put our trust in Christ alone. We will be blessed and strengthened as we remember where we came from.
Notice also that there is no resentment from Paul and no complaining over his present circumstances. He is obviously delighted in Timothy’s emerging leadership. That’s not always easy for the older generation. Do you realize God has already chosen your replacement? Have you ever prayed for those who will one day take your place? Have you thanked God for the young people God is raising up to do the work you are now doing?
By God’s grace, we can pass the torch to the next generation. Time itself guarantees that we will have our day and our day will pass and others will come to take our place. Other hands will hold the helm, other voices will speak, other feet will make the journey, and other hearts will set the agenda. To train those minds and hearts and voices is the great challenge of leadership in every generation.
I see this clearly in our own home and in our own church. One generation comes, another goes. Last month Pastor Bob Gray preached for me while I was in Haiti. For those who don’t know, Pastor Gray has the distinction of being the pastor with the longest tenure at Calvary—16 years, from 1958 to 1974. He has been a friend and supporter from the very earliest days of my ministry here. After his visit last month, he wrote me saying how happy he is to see Calvary moving forward. And I am happy to say that we are building on the foundation he (and other pastors) laid over the generations. Pastor Gray’s generous spirit reminds me of Paul’s heart. We ought to rejoice whenever we see the work of Christ going forward. To frustrate the next generation harms the work of God. David served God in his own generation and then he fell asleep (Acts 13:36). Thus it will be for all of us.
And in our own home, Josh has graduated from college, Mark graduates next year, and in two months Nick goes off to college. One generation comes and another one goes. Already my wife, Marlene, and I are beginning to scale back and to rethink what we are doing. The childrearing days for us are almost over and the empty nest beckons. We can be happy or sad about that, but it matters not, time rolls on whether we like it or not. And we’ll do better to accept it and to find reasons to rejoice in it. Time runs backward for no one.
Three Fathers, Three Sons
Last night I got together with two other fathers from Calvary for a special dinner for three of our sons who just graduated from high school. Three fathers, three sons, and a fine steak dinner. We wanted to honor our sons, to enjoy a fun night together, and to challenge them spiritually before they leave for college. We laughed a lot, told lots of stories, and the boys had a great time remembering their high school adventures. At one point things got serious when we announced that we were going to give them some words of advice. One man said something like this: “In the next few years you are going to hear lots of things you haven’t heard before. Pay attention to all of it, but don’t believe everything you hear. Don’t be gullible or you will be taken in by someone who wants to take advantage of you.” Then he added something I found very intriguing: “Along the way, you’ll run into people who will tell you that something is very important. Don’t be too quick to believe them. If what they have to say was really that important, we would have told you about it already.” That strikes me as a hugely important insight. “You would have heard it from us as parents or from your youth leaders or from the pulpit.” He’s absolutely right. You’ve already been told the things in life that matter most. Don’t be fooled by slick talkers who promise to show you “very important things” you’ve never heard before. If it really mattered, you would have heard it from us a long time ago.
Then someone else added these thoughts: “In just a few weeks you are leaving for college. We can go with you to drop you off, but then we’re coming back home and you’ll be hundreds of miles away from us. We won’t see you for weeks or perhaps for months, and even when you do come home, everything will be different. It’s never going to be the same again. You’re going to be a long way from us and we won’t be there to help you make your decisions. You’ll have to do it on your own. You already know we love you. We’ve told you that over and over again, and we tell you that once more. You know that we have great confidence in you and are excited about your future. So now we send you out to make your way in the world with our hopes and dreams and prayers. When you are out there by yourself, remember who you are and where you came from. Remember what we told you and taught you and showed you. Remember what you learned by watching us over the years. A good memory can keep a man out of trouble. You’ll eventually discover that every stupid mistake you make happens because you forget something you should have remembered. So remember to remember, and you’ll be alright.”
II. Rekindle your spiritual gift.
“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (II Timothy 1:6-7).
This exhortation comes in light of Timothy’s wonderful spiritual heritage. “Timothy, God has blessed you abundantly. Don’t hide your light. Let it shine! Fan the flames of the gift of God. Don’t live in fear, but let the Holy Spirit produce in you power, love and self-control.” And so the call of God comes to all of us. Say no to fear and yes to faith. How exactly do you “fan into flame” the gift of God? Remember that this “gift of God” is given to every believer at the moment of salvation. It is the divine equipping by the Holy Spirit so that we have everything necessary to live for Christ in this evil world. Paul doesn’t say, “Start the fire,” but rather, “Stir up the fire that is already burning inside.” Another way to say it is, “Use your gifts now! Serve the Lord now! Get involved now! God put the fire inside you but you have stir up the flame! Let it burn!”
If you can teach, teach.
If you can help, help.
If you can write, write.
If you can sing, sing.
If you can cook, cook.
If you can invest, invest.
If you can build, build.
If you can serve, serve.
If you can lead, lead.
Everyone can do something for God, and most of us can do more than one thing for the Lord. In these apocalyptic days, as the world reels from one crisis to another, we need “all hands on deck.” This is no time for benchwarmers or pewsitters. When the bullets are flying, we need every soldier to grab his gun and head for the front lines. There will be plenty of time to rest later. This is a day to work for God. Now is the time to grab your helmet and get into the ballgame for God.
Verse 7 tells us to do this because we already have everything we need to do God’s will. You have it now. It’s inside you, put there by God. Don’t say, “Give me more faith.” Say, “Lord, unleash the faith I already have.” “Lord, turn loose the power within me.” “Lord, show me how to use what you gave me.”
Here are two important thoughts for you to ponder: 1) Fear of failure comes from the devil. He whispers to us, “You aren’t qualified to do this. You aren’t important. You can’t. You don’t have what it takes.” Those thoughts don’t come from God. 2) Never believe the devil even when he speaks the truth. Why? Because he uses truth for the wrong reasons. He is a liar from the beginning and will twist the truth to keep you from serving the Lord.
III. Refuse to be intimidated.
“So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (II Timothy 1:8-12).
Note these two statements:
“Do not be ashamed” – v 8
“I am not ashamed” – v. 12
Ashamed of what? Of the gospel. Of the Lord. Of the Lord’s people. “Of me his prisoner.” “Timothy, don’t be ashamed because I am in chains in a Roman jail.” Paul understood that he was “the Lord’s prisoner,” meaning that he was there by God’s design. Nero was just the instrument the Lord used. No need to feel sorry for him because Paul didn’t feel sorry for himself. No complaints, no blaming, no whining, no “I don’t deserve this.”
We all understand why Paul wrote these words. There are times for all of us when we are tempted to be ashamed of our faith. You may keep quiet at work because you fear what will happen if someone finds out. Or you may not speak out in high school for fear of what others will say about you. Or you may play down your faith at a family reunion so you won’t offend anyone. The sad part about it is that we are ashamed of the Good News that comes from God. It’s like saying, “I’ve got a cure for cancer but I’m ashamed to mention it because you probably won’t believe me anyway.” If a person had the cure for cancer, it would be criminal not to share the cure with others. But we have a cure for the cancer of the soul. How can we keep it to ourselves?
“All they can do is kill us.”
That’s why Paul says, “Join me in suffering” (v. 8) and “That is why I am suffering as I am” (v. 12). Bold witness and suffering always go together. You can’t separate them. If you decide to go public with your faith, someone isn’t going to like it and you’ll pay a price for your faith eventually. Verses 9-12 explain the reason for Paul’s boldness. We can be bold because of what God has done for us:
He saved us by grace.
Grace came to us in Christ.
Christ gave us the gospel.
Death has been destroyed.
Immortality is now ours through Christ.
This is what we preach.
This is why we suffer.
We know that God will take care of us to the end.
Several points need to be made. First, the gospel is rooted in history—in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have not believed fables; we have believed the truth of God. Second, death itself has been abolished by our Lord. Even though we die, we don’t stay dead. Death has become like sleep for believers. Our bodies will “wake up” in the resurrection to come. We are now “immortal” because death for us is like going home. Third, this transforms our view of suffering. In a sense, suffering is rendered inconsequential. What’s the worse that our enemies can do to us? They can kill us. What happens then? We go to heaven! We win either way. This is similar to Paul’s argument in Philippians 1:21-23. If we live, we live with Christ; if we die, we see Christ face to face, which is far better. So why worry about suffering or even about death itself? What’s the big deal? If we die, we die, and then we live with the Lord forever in heaven.
Therefore: 1) Reject fear, 2) Stand strong for Jesus, 3) Embrace suffering for the sake of the gospel. Ministry and suffering go hand in hand. You can’t separate those things.
Don’t let anyone threaten you with heaven!
Paul can preach without fear because:
1) He is saved by God.
2) He is chosen by God.
3) He is protected by God.
Nothing bad can happen to him! Death has been defeated! He is now immortal through the gospel! So he can preach without fear! Nothing can touch him apart from God’s plan! So even in the dark confines of a Roman jail, under a sentence of death, knowing that his days are numbered, he has peace, assurance, confidence and boldness.
That’s why he comes to a triumphant conclusion in verse 12: “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.” Our safety does not depend on ourselves but on the Lord alone. Note how Paul puts it: “I know whom I have believed.” He doesn’t say, “I know what I have believed,” though that would be true. And he doesn’t say, “I know how much I have believed,” even though that is also true. And he doesn’t say, “I know when I believed,” which he could well have said. And he doesn’t say, “I know why I have believed,” even though that would be true as well. He doesn’t even say, “I know in whom I have believed,” which would be perfectly appropriate. As Spurgeon puts it, it is as if he says, “I know the person into whose hand I have committed my present condition, and my eternal destiny. I know who he is, and I therefore, without any hesitation, leave myself in his hands. It is the beginning of spiritual life to believe Jesus Christ.” He then adds these words, “Jesus was a distinct person to the apostle, so real as to be known to him as a man knows a friend. Paul knew nobody else so well as he knew his Lord.” If you are trying to keep your own soul, you are in serious trouble and will be rudely surprised one day. You cannot keep yourself safe. Your only hope is to entrust all that you are and have to Jesus. Lay it all at his feet and you will be safe.
This week one of the Oak Park papers printed a special section honoring a number of the graduating high school seniors. They devoted an entire page to each student. It turns out that one of the students, Caleb Fields, attends Calvary’s youth group. Caleb just graduated from Fenwick High School in Oak Park and will attend Northwestern University this fall on a baseball scholarship. He is an outstanding young man in every way. I know this from personal observation because he and my son Nick are very close friends. The headline on Caleb’s story says, “Fields leaves future in God’s hands.” Here is how it begins: “Before every baseball game, Caleb Fields prays. And not just any prayer—to hit a home run, win the game, etc. He prays the Bible passage written inside his glove, Proverbs 16:3. His translation: “Put your plans in the Lord’s hands and they will succeed.” It seems he’s done both. “I’m taking my faith pretty seriously,” he said. “Everything I do revolves around that.” The article goes on to tell about his family, his background, how he learned Bible verses in AWANA, and his dreams of playing professional baseball someday. Toward the end of the article, one particular statement reveals his heart: “I had different beliefs than most people in school. But I’m not going to change my beliefs because of anyone.” The paper took that last sentence and featured it in bold type in the middle of the page: “I’m not going to change my beliefs because of anyone.” God bless that young man. May his tribe increase. I believe the Apostle Paul would say Amen, too.
Don’t be ashamed and don’t be intimidated about your faith. Though we may be mocked and ridiculed for what we believe, we can be sure that God will vindicate us in the end. The Lord is “able to keep” that which we have entrusted to him. All that we may have lost in this life through following Christ will be more than restored in the life to come. The truth will be known to the entire universe. And no one who trusts his life to the promises of God will be put to shame.
IV. Recommit to the gospel message.
“What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (II Timothy 1:13-14)
If we are going to make a mark for God in this generation, we must also recommit ourselves to the purity and truth of the gospel message. That’s not a popular position nowadays. Paul tells Timothy to “keep” the blueprint of truth that he had received. He was also to “guard” it against those who would corrupt it or change it or amend it or dilute it in any way. The need for guarding the gospel has never changed, and is in fact greatly needed in our day when doctrinal confusion is rampant. Just a few days ago an openly homosexual man was named as a bishop of the Episcopal Church. The shock is not that this should have happened; the shock is that, really, no one is very shocked by this. It is a portent of things to come. Once we stop “keeping” and “guarding” the truth, it soon becomes changed to meet the passing fads of each generation. In this case, the truth of God has been twisted to support that which God explicitly condemns. The so-called “More Light” movement (supporting homosexuality in the church) is really a “More Darkness” movement.
We do not have permission to change the gospel! We are to hold the truth as it has been given to us in the Word of God. Hold it, guard it, and then preach it everywhere we go. God did not give us his Word as if it were the first draft of a term paper and we can “blue pencil” the parts we don’t like. No! He gave us the final, finished version. When we start to water down the truth of God’s Word, we end up casting doubt on every major doctrine, which is precisely where the mainline denominations are today. That’s why they aren’t sure if Jesus is the only way to heaven, and that’s why they support abortion and homosexuality. Somewhere along the way, people started taking the truth for granted. They didn’t guard the truth, and someone came in and corrupted it.
It happens so slowly that we don’t see it at first. It’s like the frog in the kettle. First, the water is cold so the frog is comfortable. Little by little the temperature is raised but the frog adjusts, not sensing the danger. Finally, the water boils and the frog is paralyzed and can’t jump out of the kettle. So it is inside the church as error comes in little by little, unnoticed at first, then one day error has come to a boil and the church is overwhelmed with false doctrine. That cycle has been repeated time and again throughout church history. It is the duty of every generation—and every local church—to “keep” and “guard” the sacred truth of God.
V. Respond to God’s call.
“You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes. May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus” (II Timothy 1:15-18).
No matter how hard we work and pray, there are always some who turn against us. In this case Paul mentions two names—Phygelus and Hermogenes. They represented a larger group of Christians from Asia (modern-day Turkey) who turned away from Paul after he was thrown into prison. They were first-century “fair-weather” friends. What a crushing blow this must have been. People he loved had turned against him. People he thought he could trust had disappeared. People into whom he had poured his life were not there when he needed them most.
But that is not the whole story. If some fall away, others choose to respond in faith even in the moment of crisis. Paul mentions one such man—a hero named Onesiphorus who, when he heard Paul was in prison, came to Rome and searched until he found him. Unlike others who were embarrassed by Paul’s chains, Onesiphorus proved that “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” His coming was like a breath of fresh air in that dark, dank, smelly Roman prison. He stands for all those Christians who take the words of Jesus to heart, “I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:36). He was one of the first “prison ministers” in Christian history, but he is not the last. God bless all the modern-day sons and daughters of Onesiphorus who remember those who are forgotten by society because they are behind bars.
Where the Battle is Hottest
As we stand back and look at II Timothy 1, several facts stand out clearly.
It is important that we not be ashamed of Jesus.
It is important that we stand fast for the gospel.
It is important that we stand with those who suffer for the Lord.
Martin Luther remarked that the soldier’s test of loyalty is whether or not he shows up where the battle is hottest. Anyone can be a soldier behind the lines, but it takes a special kind of courage to go where the bullets are flying. Paul’s message to his timid yet loyal prot�g� is clear: “Timothy, stand fast for the gospel. Never be ashamed of what you believe. And don’t be ashamed of me because I am in chains.” And if any of us feel unequal to the task, remember that God has given us all that we need to be strong in the Lord. When we consider all that God has done for us, all that Christ has provided for us, and the Holy Spirit who lives within us, there is no excuse for halfhearted Christian commitment.
We live in amazing times when the world itself seems to be undergoing a seismic change. Long-held opinions are being overthrown and new ones embraced by millions of people. All over the world men and women cry out for freedom. They march in the streets of Tehran and they gather to pray in Jerusalem. This is no time for neutrality! Everyone we meet is going to heaven or hell. There is no third option. Jesus said, “He who is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30). Each person makes a choice and then we live by the choices we make. We are either for Christ or against him. Do you stand with Jesus or against him?
Do not despair and never lose hope. These are great days to be alive, perhaps the greatest days in all history. Who knows? Perhaps we will live to see the coming of Christ in our generation. The vast moral decay should not discourage us. These things were known to God from the beginning and were clearly predicted in the Bible. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. Ultimately, it is God himself who stands behind the gospel message. Truth does not depend on us but on the Lord himself. He will preserve the truth and will cause the light of the gospel to shine in the darkness.
Our part is to be faithful. So let us determine to stand fast by the power of God, to be bold in our witness, to entrust the future into the hands of the Lord, and to live for Christ no matter what it costs. Paul said, “I am not ashamed.” What about you?
Dr. Ray Pritchard is the founder and President of Keep Believing Ministries.