Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Sometimes we’re especially interested in people’s final words. 

The Mulberry Tree
Vincent van Gogh, "The Mulberry Tree." Creative Commons image from Wikimedia Commons.

October 6, 2013

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Timothy 1:1-14

Sometimes we’re especially interested in people’s final words. 

We often expect wisdom and special insight from those preparing to die, so our lives might be richer for what we learn from their perspective. Examples from modern literature may come to mind (recent bestsellers such as The Last Lecture, Tuesdays with Morrie, and the novel Gilead), but they have ancient forerunners. Think of testaments, literature in which an about-to-die leader offers reflections on a life lived and advice to family or friends who will live on. Examples include Genesis 49:1-28, 1 Kings 2:1-9, Acts 21:17-38, several extrabiblical writings (such as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs), and the letter we call Second Timothy.

Overview of Second Timothy

The lectionary devotes this and the next three Sundays to Second Timothy, which presents itself as Paul’s farewell (see 2 Timothy 4:6-8). Like other testamental literature, this letter carries a revered deceased figure’s legacy into considerations of new, emerging circumstances. Specific theological insights or doctrinal battles do not rise to the surface as much as Paul’s reputation as a model of faithful endurance. The letter encourages its addressee, Timothy, who was (when he too was still alive) probably the best known of Paul’s associates, to nurture those same qualities in his ministry. The letter assumes a setting in which Timothy confronts challenges created by rival teachers. It worries about their teachings’ potential to hamper and discredit the church.

The stylistic, theological, and historical evidence convinces me that Second Timothy was written in Paul’s name probably within a decade of the year 100 CE, long after the apostle’s death. (Any reputable commentary or Bible dictionary can review this evidence.) I don’t think sermons on Second Timothy should belabor the authorship question; they can legitimately dwell within the literary fiction the letter stages, as a suffering “Paul” gives his last lecture to his beloved pupil. At the same time, I see little value in keeping the debate over the letter’s authorship entirely hidden from congregations. They can handle learning about it and, moreover, it will help many understand why this book places such value on preserving and passing along a heritage Timothy himself has received. Beyond the sermon, preachers can host educational forums or otherwise direct people to helpful literature, so they know what you know.

An Established Faith (1:3-7)

Following the letter’s salutation, a thanksgiving introduces themes of continuity and succession. The mention of Paul’s “ancestors,” Timothy’s “sincere faith” with roots in his grandmother and mother, and Timothy’s need to “rekindle” God’s gift — these all encourage Timothy to understand his identity and his obligations by considering those who have gone before him (see also 2 Timothy 3:14-15). The letter construes Christian faith and ministry entirely in communal and familial settings, extended through time. This makes Timothy anything but an independent agent peddling new insights. His faith’s roots in the past make it reliable, proven. Timothy’s job, for the sake of the future, involves more preservation than innovation.

Right out of the gate, Second Timothy presents itself as a conservative letter, understanding “conservative” in the most literal sense of the word. It imagines “the faith” as something to be guarded (see 2 Timothy 1:14), lest it become corrupted or diluted. This makes the letter especially attractive to some contemporary Christians, while others get worried. Wise preachers will avoid using a single sermon to adjudicate those battles or to speak about tradition and change in abstract terms. Additional options for a sermon include these:

  • The letter tells Timothy his faith and calling aren’t ancillary to his identity; they are part of who he is. Consider, then, exploring with a congregation how our beliefs and ministry are meaningfully connected to our personal and corporate identities, rooted in particular yet shared heritages.
  • Taken as a whole, Second Timothy expresses great concern about false teachers and rival doctrines (some of these appear, based on 1 Timothy 6:20-21, to have involved ideas taken from gnostic thought). It worries about other teachings possibly leading Christians astray or making them cantankerous, thereby wounding the ministry of the gospel. Consider, then, asking questions about what kinds of perceived threats make you and your congregation determined to secure yourselves against “outside” or “foreign” influences. What influences must really be resisted? What do we resist only because we are scared or think we ourselves are under attack?

Confidence beyond Shame and Suffering (1:8-14)

Next, the letter exhorts Timothy to remain faithful, proceeding with numerous clusters of exhortations through 2:13. The first set of exhortations comes in 1:8-14, which instructs Timothy to emulate Paul in enduring suffering and shame (for the letter describes Paul as incarcerated here and elsewhere). Suffering indicates neither dishonor nor failure when the gospel is involved, because the gospel is all about God’s power to bring life from death (2 Timothy 1:10). That power, enacted in Christ Jesus, reconfigures our perspectives on the anguish and humiliation that supposedly must accompany suffering. Suffering cannot nullify God’s grace, which was “revealed” (phaneroo) or made known in the “appearing” (epiphaneia) of Christ Jesus. This leads Paul to express confidence in Jesus’ (or God’s?) ability to guard what Paul has entrusted to Jesus, meaning, perhaps, Paul’s very own self. Correspondingly, and mirroring that activity, Timothy must faithfully guard the apostolic teaching entrusted to him.

The language about Christ abolishing death (2 Timothy 1:10) strikes many hearers as powerful, good news. A sermon might devote itself to exploring how the defeat of death and the promise of immortality are expressions or consequences of God’s grace.

At the same time, the letter’s celebration of abolished death comes in the service of encouraging Timothy to endure suffering (see 2 Timothy 3:12). It is distressingly easy for caregivers of any kind to use these words to diminish the reality of pain and humiliation people experience, as if the Christian response to suffering is supposed to be, “It will all be better when you’re dead” or, worse, “Man up and stop whining.” We must note that the suffering this letter has in view is quite specific: suffering endured as a result of being persecuted for one’s faith.

Bear in mind, these statements about immortality and the end of death come to us as though from the pen of a man writing a confident testamentary farewell. Paul comes across as one modeling how to die. He does this by giving instructions about how to live confidently and in ways that instill in others confidence in God’s promises. Human history teems with discussions about what it means to die well and what kind of life prepares a person for such a thing. We need real, flesh-and-blood examples of what good living and good dying look like. The memory of Paul offered one for an ancient audience and for us. What others can you think of?