Commentary on 2 Timothy 2:8-15
This reading from 2 Timothy comes to us in a bit of a strange way.1
Strange, because it skips over the beginning of the chapter, and seems to stop rather short of its ending. This is not to suggest that the selection here is inappropriate, or incomplete, but it is to suggest that one might be well served in reading both a little behind and a little ahead.
In all, this reading is, once again, an exhortation to remain focused on what is of primary importance (or things “of first importance,” 1 Corinthians 15:3); to remember the Gospel, and to avoid “wrangling over words” (2 Timothy 2:14).
The 2 Timothy 2 (verses 1-7) sets the stage for the author’s exhortation to remember and to remind, and it does so through a trio of mixing metaphors. Timothy is encouraged to first to be like a solider (obedient and aiming to please), second to be like an athlete (finishing the race), and finally to be a like a farmer (the one who does the work). In each case these metaphors serve to keep Timothy focused on what has come earlier in the letter, the admonition to “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13), and to “endure everything” for the sake not of oneself, but for the sake of the people to whom one preachers and ministers (2 Timothy 2:10).
It seems that for “Paul,” faith and love, as well as the grace that “is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1) are, the keys to avoiding conflict and discord which can result in the ruination of the ones who listen (2 Timothy 2:14).
These mixed up metaphors and the exhortation to keep one’s eye on the prize and one’s nose to the grindstone (to mix metaphors even more) in one’s calling frame what is the core of this reading, the act of remembering.
Remember and remind
Timothy (and we who read with him) is told to remember (verse 8) the gospel which is “Paul’s,” and then to remind (verse 14) those he himself serves of it as well. Those two words share a similar etymological origin, having to do with memory. “Remember” is mnemoveue, and “remind” is hupo–mimneske, both related to the word mnemonic. “Remember,” here is a command to Timothy that he remember, and “remind” is, perhaps obviously, a command that he cause others to remember.
This remembering and reminding, remembering as causing to remember, is anchored in two things; first, in the spare summary of “Paul’s” own gospel, “Jesus (the) Christ, raise from the dead, a descendant of David.” This summary collapses the entirety of the story of Jesus into three basic claims:
- He is the Christ, the anticipated messiah.
- He is the descendant of David, the rightful king (anointed one) of Israel.
- That Christ-ship and king-ship is defined by one thing: the resurrection.
Jesus’ reign is over death, according to 2 Timothy 2:8 (and in harmony with the overall witness of the New Testament), and that reign is the central point of memory.
Second, this central point of memory is the central point of reminding, because it is where the relationship of the elect with the Christ Jesus lives. This is what matters, above and beyond “wrangling over words,” or any other point.
The saying is sure
There is, further, movement between the remembering and the reminding just outline. While Timothy is to remember “Paul’s” gospel-nutshell, the implications of … the outcomes of that gospel are laid out in the “saying that is sure.”
Verses 11b-13 are one of two things, and maybe both—allusions to similar Pauline expressions found in Romans, Galatians, and Colossians, or selections from an early Christian hymn.
In several other places, the central, defining work of Jesus—death and resurrection—are preached as profoundly important for and effective in the “elect.”
- Romans 6:4-6: The refore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.
- Galatians 2:19-20: For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
- Colossians 3:2-3: Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
What 2 Timothy 11b-13 do is hold those same tensions in place. If death, then life; if endure, then reign. What is more, Timothy here turns what is cause for memory, a challenge and a promise.
First, the challenge—if we deny him, he will deny us—which he cannot do; Christ cannot stay in relationship with people who deny him, to do so would be to deny himself. This is challenging for us, hard, even, to come to grips with. And we ought not to be quick to try to smooth over that challenge. The purpose of causing us to remember in this way is meant to elicit in us a reaction. We should let it rest there, and let it happen however it will happen.
Second, the promise, which is seated within the challenge—even if we are faithless, Christ remains faithful. This is, apparently, a paradox, and yet in the Christian faith that is nothing new. So, what do we make of it? This calls to mind, for me, a passage from Psalm 81. Calling to the people and almost pleading with them, begging them, God says, “O, Israel, if you would but listen to me!” And then, chillingly, the psalm both describes and condemns the peoples’ behavior,
But my people did not listen to my voice;
Israel would not submit to me.
So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
To follow their own counsels (Psalm 81:11-12).
This is, it would seem, a denial of God’s people, who have denied their God. But the psalm is not done, and herein lies the promise once more. God turns again to the people in verse 13-14,
O that my people would listen to me,
That Israel would walk in my ways!
Then I would …
God remains faithful, ready to speak and be heard, even in the midst of our faithlessness. This is the paradox of a just God, who loves the unjust, a paradox embodied in Christ Jesus. In that paradox, in that tension, lies remembrance, which is that paradox’s only resolution.
Preaching that causes remembrance
With all of this in mind, I want to suggest two questions for preaching, which may serve as a causing of remembrance. Two “what if, what then” questions.
What if this is true, that Jesus Christ, raised from the death, means for us that we will live also? What then does that mean for us today, right now?
What if we sought to live our lives “enduring,” and “faithful” to that gospel? What then would our lives of faith mean for the world, today, right now?
- Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 13, 2019.