Commentary on 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
In 2 Timothy 4:6, Paul employs the sacrificial metaphor of a drink offering to refer to his lifetime of faithful, gospel ministry.
Observing the context here is crucial. Looking back to the prior verse (v.5) Paul exhorts Timothy to “always be sober-minded, endure suffering, [and to] do the work of an evangelist” which will fulfill his ministry. Thus, Paul’s explanation in verse 6 of his own ministry of sacrificial suffering for the sake of the gospel is meant to provide the foundation for his prior exhortation to Timothy in verse 5 to behave in a sacrificial manner. The exhortation to fulfill a ministry characterized by suffering is a common theme in 2 Timothy. Earlier in the epistle in 1:8, Paul charges Timothy not to be ashamed of the gospel “but [to] share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.” Soon after, in verses 11-12, Paul roots this imperative to Timothy in his own suffering as a preacher and teacher. Similarly, in 2:3 Paul implores Timothy to “share in suffering as a good solider of Christ Jesus.” In that context also, in the very next verse (2:9), Paul grounds his exhortation to Timothy in his own suffering and imprisonment for the sake of the gospel. But what is the point of this obsession with suffering? Is it merely to prepare Timothy for the difficult nature of the task at hand? Possibly. Yet, it seems that more is at play underneath the initial layer of pragmatic pastoral mentoring in this context. Weaved throughout the passage is the understanding that the spiritual presence and power of God equips the believer for a life of redemptive suffering for the sake of the gospel.
Throughout the Pauline epistles there is a well-known underlying theological texture which is comprised of Paul’s commitment to a pursuit of the cruciform way of God in Jesus Christ for every aspect of life and ministry. The word cruciform is a reference to the fact that Paul’s way of thinking is governed by the Christocentric ideal of a life that is formed in accord with the self-giving love of God demonstrated on the cross. By combining the words “crux” (Latin for cross) and “form” we arrive at the word “cruciform.” [See also e.g., Michael Gorman, ‘The Cross in Paul: Christophany, Theophany, Ecclesiophany,’ in Ecclesia and Ethics: Moral Formation and the Church (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2016), 21–40.] In Philippians 2:1-11, for example, we are told to “be of the same mind” and to “have the same love” as Jesus Christ. The verse goes on to reveal that the “same mind” and “same love” refer to the humble, others-centered (Philippians 2:3-4) death-defeating love of Jesus Christ on the cross. To think like Jesus and to love like Jesus is to live a life and to have a ministry that is marked by the ‘suffering-for-the-other’ love of the cross; it is to be cruciform and thereby cruciformed. Likewise, in Galatians 2:19 because of the power and centrality of the cross of Jesus Christ, Paul can assert that he has been “crucified with Christ” and that he has been “crucified to the world” (Galatians 6.14). Elsewhere, in Colossians 1:24–2:5 Paul speaks of “rejoicing” in his sufferings for the sake of the church (verse 24) in order that the mystery of salvation in Christ might be revealed to the Gentiles (verses 25-28). Paul communicates to the Colossians in 2:1 that he desires that they know about his struggles on their behalf in order that they might act out of the same kind of sacrificial love toward one another which he is enacting toward them (Colossians 2:2-3). Thus, the sacrificial, cruciform love of God is not merely something expected of ordained ministers, but rather is a key component to the Christian life for all believers. In each circumstance in 2 Timothy, throughout the Pauline canon and, indeed, throughout the entire New Testament, this cruciform suffering is empowered by spiritual strengthening.
Notice that in 2 Timothy 1:8 the call to share in suffering for the gospel is possible “by the power of God” and in 2 Timothy 2:3 the charge to “share in suffering” is preceded by a prayer for strengthening “by the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1). In our passage today, the sacrificial, cruciform, ministerial suffering of Paul is, once again, grounded in the strengthening given by God (verse 17). This same phenomenon of Spirit-empowered strengthening as the basis for Christian living, sanctification, and ministry can be observed throughout the Pauline epistles as a central and frequent theme (see also e.g., Ephesians 1:19; 3:7, 20; 4:16; Colossians 1:29; 2:12; 1 Corinthians 12:6, 11; 2 Corinthians 4:12; Galatians 2:8, 3:5; Philippians 2:13; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; and James 5:16). Thus, Paul is not simply calling us to a human-centered, self-generated “so-called power” for life and ministry; he is calling us to a Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered ministry of cruciform suffering-for-the-sake-of-the-other.
Normally, this call to cruciform, Spirit-empowered suffering is situated in the midst of the life and worship of the Church as the body of Christ. Paul frequently highlights the importance and necessity of bearing the burdens of one another as inseparable members of one, united body (see also e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 4:12). Here, however, the empowering work of God for ministry appears on its own. Even when no-one came to his side, nevertheless God was with Paul and God strengthened him. This is a word of encouragement to the lonely and defeated soul that even in the midst of total and utter desertion the power and presence of God will be with us, and in us, and will work victoriously and redemptively through us. This brings us to the final point for today, namely that the point of God’s empowering presence for cruciform life and ministry of suffering love is the proclamation of the gospel to all nations (2 Timothy 4:17). The God of redemption aims to rescue the world from the power of sin and death through the sacrificial love of Christ as it is embodied by his Church and empowered by His Spirit. In the midst of this task, on account of the power that empowers us to accomplish all things through his Spirit and his Son, we say with Paul: “To him be the glory forever and ever.” Amen.