Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Suffering is a natural part of faithful living

October 2, 2022

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Timothy 1:1-14



While in 1 Timothy Paul appears as a free man, in 2 Timothy he is assumed to be in a prison (1:8; 2:9), probably in Rome (1:16-17; see also Acts 28:16). Besides, he seems to be abandoned by most of his inner circle of colleagues and friends (4:9-16), with imminent death pending (4:6-8).1 That is very likely why 2 Timothy is more filled with personal exhortations addressed to Timothy than concerns or teachings for the church. In particular, Paul’s endurance in the midst of suffering is used to provide an example of faithful Christian life, which is “a holy calling” and can be overcome with the ultimate Christian hope in the savior Christ and eternal life (1:8-14). 

The overall spiritual tone and ethical ethos of the given passage (and of course, the whole of 2 Timothy) may remind diligent readers of the Bible of Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 14-17, which is the final and personal account of exhortations of Jesus for his beloved disciples, just like the personal relation between Paul and Timothy. In the speech, the first words of Jesus are, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” as if his disciples are now distressed or facing certain suffering (Of course, they are! Soon they will all be persecuted, imprisoned, and even led to death). But they shouldn’t utterly despair as the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is firmly promised (John 14:26 and other places), just as Timothy is told the same in 1:14, “the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” Last, like Timothy is exhorted, the disciples of Jesus will be able to find their unceasing joy and peace in Christ even in the midst of pain (John 16:22), more importantly because they have their hope in eternal life (John 17:16). 

This historical and scriptural background information sheds considerable illumination on understanding this week’s three-part passage: 1:1-2 (salutation), 1:3-7 (thanksgiving and personal remarks), and 1:8-14 (encouragement).

The salutation, full of confidence, opens this personal letter. Paul’s apostleship is confirmed, rooted in no other than Christ Jesus and even “by the will of God.” “The promise of life” seems to assume Paul’s impending death (according to the church’s history, Paul was beheaded near Rome). As aforementioned, this promised life is eternal life beyond this world, full of joy and peace, which must be the ultimate source of courage and encouragement in overcoming continuing pain and suffering as discussed further in the third part. 

In the second part, like in 1 Timothy, the intimate spiritual-parental relation between Paul and Timothy is recounted, along with the introduction of Timothy’s own matrilineal life of faith. What is intriguing—probably by intention—is the reference to the “ancestors” of faith and Timothy’s grandmother, Lois. As Romans had a suspicion of new religious cults but put high esteem on ancient religions, this reference may have served as a fine apologetic tactic vis-à-vis the anti-Christian, hostile environment. Now equipped with full confidence in Christ, the eternal savior, and a persuasive defense strategy, the passage moves on to its last part, that is, encouragement for the continued courageous missional life in the Holy Spirit, in the midst of persecution. 

It cannot be overemphasized that this third part, like many other similar messages found in Pauline letters, considers pain or suffering encountered in the life of faith not to be the unfortunate result of unattractive, forced or illegitimate religious life, but the true mark of faithful, grace-filled living in Christ. In other words, the letter seems to say suffering is a natural part of faithful living and since Christ has already overcome it so can we! 

What a paradox, however. If Christ has already “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (1:10), why do we still have suffering in life, particularly persecution due to faithful living? The passage itself does not provide a quick answer for it. In 1 and 2 Timothy taken as a whole, we may sense that these letters see suffering or defeat of it from a cosmic kairos perspective. That is, in the eyes of Christ who lives through eternity now, all the suffering or pain lose their control and are already crushed in his dominion. As humans living through chronos time, however, it is inevitable that we may still encounter severe suffering and persecution, which most Pauline letters, if not all, acknowledge. But those same letters, including this week’s passage, emphasize that there is another very important way of looking at the same reality—kairos!—which has become clearer in the life of Christ and surely will culminate at the eventual moment of eschaton. 

It should be, finally, good to know that the given passage does not propagate any (bad) form of spiritual triumphalism or heroism, things like “Yes, there is pain in faithful living, but it is simply nothing compared to the grace of Christ (thus, get over it easily!),” or “If you cannot shout out your triumph in the midst of suffering and persecution, your faith itself is in serious trouble.” No. That does not seem to be the case of the passage or any Pauline letters. Rather, all those letters and this passage seem to solemnly state that pain is real pain, shame is shame, and suffering is so very real, which could be very devastating for those going through these things; Paul found himself in distress and agony on many occasions. Yet, no pain or persecution will have its final victory over the faithful who endure it. The kairos time and events are also real. And it is already happening. If only we have eyes to see it with the help of the Holy Spirit, the passage finally seems to say, all should be well even in the midst of all the chaos and mishaps—which are, by the way, always normal in any type of ministry. 

This young fellow and rising minister, Timothy, seems to have a fine mentor who knows the multilayered dynamics of ministry really well. He is quite lucky; and, I think, so are we, reading this same letter today.


Notes

  1. The Harper Collins Study Bible, Fully Revised and Updated (2006), 2023