Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Paul begins and ends this passage with Jesus Christ.

Healing of the ten lepers
JESUS MAFA. Healing of the ten lepers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn.

October 9, 2016

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Timothy 2:8-15

Paul begins and ends this passage with Jesus Christ.

This bookending structure illuminates a central component to the argument that is threaded through chapter 2 of 2 Timothy. That thread is, of course, Jesus Christ. Jesus — though mentioned explicitly in verse 8 — is not mentioned by name in verse 15. Thus, it is easy to gloss over the implicit Christocentric structure which defines this passage. Yet, the “word of truth” to which Paul refers in verse 15 is clearly a reference to the “gospel” mentioned in verse 8. Further, in that verse, the term “gospel” is directly linked with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Messianic Savior in the line of David (see also for example , 2 Samuel 7:12-17). Continuing with this central theme of Jesus’ person and work as “the gospel,” Paul states in 2 Timothy 2:9b that his own imprisonment and binding in chains does not bind “the word of God.” Rather, Paul’s faithful endurance as a minister of the gospel is a means through which “the elect” are brought into gracious connection with “the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10); in other words, in connection with “the gospel.” Jesus, and the word about him — that is, “the gospel,” “the word of God” and “the word of truth” — are Paul’s response to a divisive movement that threatens to distract the church at Ephesus and to dilute the power of Timothy’s ministry.

Paul’s solution is “Jesus.” But to what problem specifically is this response directed? Well, it is evident from 2 Timothy 2:16-18, and 23-26 that the underlying tension being addressed by Paul is that of innovative and incorrect — or in some cases foolish, ignorant and controversial — teachings that are distracting people’s attention from and disturbing people’s faith in the truth of Jesus’ gospel. The contemporary application of this text might, then, seem to present itself most obviously as a word directed primarily against so-called “revisionist” teachings and aberrations from the norm — whether the norm is defined broadly as creedal orthodoxy or more specifically as a particular system of theology (i.e. Calvinism, Arminianism, the magisterial teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, etc.). However, the bookended message here — namely, that Jesus is the Gospel — is the Good News which reorients and rebukes both revisionists and dogmatists, both the boundary-breakers and the boundary-keepers, whenever these parties prioritize their boundaries, agendas, religious ideas, ideologies, or theological systems above Jesus Christ himself.

Jesus Christ is the Gospel, not our revisionist ideologies, not our political ideologies, Jesus. The Gospel is not something other than or in addition to Jesus, but rather consists in Jesus Christ himself and in his work “for the life of the world” (see also John 6:51). This is not to say that additional theological inquiries and statements cease to be crucial and valuable; on the contrary they are extremely important and worthy of being cherished. Yet, denominational doctrinal statements are not “the gospel.” Rather, they are explications and syntheses of a vast number of texts that issue forth from and unpack the core message and person of the gospel, namely Jesus Christ. The gospel is about Jesus Christ. The gospel is rooted in Jesus Christ. The gospel is Jesus Christ. Thus, when we come to a passage like this, it strikes me that we ought to see it as an opportunity to recalibrate ourselves and our churches — not around systems and ideologies, not around any thing — but around the one person who saves, namely Jesus Christ, “the gospel.”

For the parishioner who fears or faces death, or is coping with the loss of a loved one, we do not merely hand them a catechism of words about Jesus, we give them the Word made flesh, Jesus. Or, more accurately Jesus gives himself to them (and to us). As Paul says: “If we died with him [referring to baptism], we will also live with him.”

For the weary soul struggling with depression, the single parent, the oppressed, the outsider, the forgotten, the lonely, the rejected, and all who carry the burdens of this sinful world, we do not first and foremost offer revisions of dogmas, or defenses of dogmas, or systems of theological facts consisting of an interconnected set of dogmas — we offer them Jesus. Better, Jesus offers himself to them and to us. Paul writes: “if we endure, we will also reign with him.”

To the soul centered on the self, to the one seeking not to worship God but instead to be “god,” to the one denying the Son of God, we offer Jesus. In these cases, we offer the Lord not as a repose but as a rebuke unto the hope of repentance (see also 2 Timothy 2:25). We do not rely primarily on apologetics, nor, on the other hand, do we capitulate into the cultural milieu of agnostic spiritual speculation. No, we offer them Jesus, for “if we deny him, he will also deny us” (verse 12b; my emphasis).

The focus on the faithfulness of God in 2 Timothy 2:13 that remains constant regardless of our faithlessness is not an example of Paul talking out of both sides of his mouth. While our faith may prove to experience various seasons and degrees of excess or deficiency, nevertheless our hope rests not in the sophistication, theological learnedness, or in the current status of the spiritual vitality of our faithfulness but rather in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Our faith is the gift, realization, and imperfect human response to the gospel that assuredly and immovably rests on the eternal and perfect faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ, who himself is the gospel.

In the context of 2 Timothy, Paul is addressing teachers who are wrongly claiming the resurrection already happened, and other strange and erroneous doctrines rather than the word of truth, which is Jesus, “the gospel.” Yet, this same kind of “red herring” warning should apply to preaching that proclaims an ideology of stand-alone propositions as “the gospel” rather than the person and work of Jesus Christ who is “the gospel.” Often rebuke is directed by doctrinal dogmatists toward doctrinal revisionists, and many times, rightly so. However, I think it is worth considering how in a similar manner, doctrinal dogmatists are at risk of worshiping their tidy theologies rather than worshipping Jesus. Our answer to the weary soul is never an ideology; it is an individual, Jesus Christ. The Gospel is Jesus, the one whom Paul tells us to remember and the one whom we meet in the rightly divided word of truth about him by the power of the Holy Spirit.