Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord (2 Timothy 1:1-2).
The sun broke bright and clear over Washington, D.C. on the morning of January 20, 1961. The ground was covered with eight inches of snow that had fallen the night before. It was bitterly cold, but the day was bathed in a bright aura. The sunlight reflected off the snow and the marble buildings of the nation’s capital. At noon John F. Kennedy took the oath of office and became the 35th president of the United States.
Many questioned Kennedy’s ability to lead the country at such a critical time. The Cold War was heating to a boiling point with the massive buildup of nuclear arsenals. The fact that Kennedy was the youngest president ever elected and the first Catholic to hold the office also contributed to the questions. Knowing that he had been elected by the slimmest of margins in the popular vote meant that his presidency was beginning with the country divided.
In his speech, Kennedy attempted to unite the country and address the world. Memorable lines from the speech include the following:
“We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
“And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Thurston Clarke, author of the book Ask Not—a treatise on the Kennedy inaugural address—stated, "When Kennedy said, 'Ask not what your country can do for you…,' people knew that this was a man who'd been decorated in World War II, who'd almost lost his life trying to save the surviving crew members of the PT boat under his command. So it wasn't Where does he get off saying 'Ask not'? He had the credentials to make this claim on people."
In a similar way, Paul had the credentials to make claims on Timothy and other Christian leaders of Timothy’s generation. Paul was in prison—again—awaiting the outcome of a second hearing. He was not optimistic about the outcome of his trial before Lord Caesar, but he was certain of his standing before the heavenly Lord as a righteous judge (4:6-8).
So even though it appeared to be a distressing time to Timothy, Paul assured him with words of hope. But, imagine how Timothy must have felt when he read these words of resignation from Paul: “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come” (4:6).
As the letter unfolds, we get a picture of an urgent situation. I’m working from the position that the letter originated with Paul in the mid-60s at the height of Nero’s malicious persecution of the church in Rome. The beleaguered apostle was passing the torch to the next generation of Christian leaders (see 2:2). In the heat of the moment, some of his delegates had abandoned him (1:15). Under threats from the state, some were defecting from the faith (4:10). I think that Paul was concerned whether Timothy would withstand the pressure and fulfill his calling (1:6-8).
Beyond the menace of outside harassment and persecution Paul perceived a more insidious threat from within the church. Teachers were presenting bad doctrine that Paul says is spreading like gangrene and resulting in bad behavior (2:17-18). Quarrels were erupting and sides being taken (2:24). It was a distressing time for the church (3:1).
In this time of distress, Paul both encouraged and challenged Timothy. In fact, it seems that at times Paul was urging Timothy to “man-up” to the distressing circumstances. The future of the church was in the balance. With Paul probably sidelined permanently, he knew the urgency of the moment. Christian leaders like Timothy could not pull back and lie low in such distressing times.
Yes, Paul definitely had the credentials to make such a strong claim on Timothy’s life. 2 Timothy begins in the typical style of a formal letter commonly written in the first century Roman world. But as was Paul’s practice, he finessed the standard letter opening with a distinct Christian touch.
There are two elements in the greeting that I want to highlight. Those are authority and personal relationship. Paul claims authority when he states that he is “an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (1:1). He called on the relationship between himself and Timothy when he addressed Timothy as his “dear child” or “beloved son” (1:2).
In the line prior to his bold announcement that the torch had been passed to a new generation, Kennedy said, “We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution” (emphasis added). As children of a revolution, the readiness to challenge authority seems to be a part of our national DNA. Submission has never been a character trait that Americans gladly embrace. This is consequential for the church in America.
As Christians, we need to remember that we are also heirs. It is important that we not forget Paul’s admonition that we need those older ones, our elders in the faith, who have lived and learned through the struggles, the successes, and the failures of confessing Jesus as Lord in daily life. Yes, we need to submit to those whose faith was forged, knowledge gained, and wisdom earned in the crucible of experience. There is an element of authority that comes with such faithfulness.
However, those granted such authority must not succumb to abusing it or misusing it. Christian authority will inherently have a gentle, loving and gracious dimension (2:24-26). Although Paul claims the authority granted to him as an apostle by the will of God, he does not attempt to beat Timothy into submission.
Rather, Paul turns to the relationship he and Timothy had forged over the years. Before he began to instruct and challenge Timothy, he reminded him that he loved him like a son. Deep affection and regard is embedded in this tender address. In playing the authority card, Paul tempers it with the relationship card.
Kennedy’s words resonate with Paul’s challenge to Timothy’s generation of Christian leaders. I could hear Paul saying, “Ask not what the church can do for you. Ask what you can do for the church.” As Paul passed the torch, don’t you think he hoped that the next generation of Christian leaders might have said, “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of the gospel.”
Later in the letter, Paul would admonish Timothy saying, “. . . and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well” (2:2). By following Paul’s instruction in general and his example in particular, Timothy would also gain the authority to pass the faith on to the next generation. Such mentoring has the potential to help others become fine Christian leaders and capable teachers, caring friends and colleagues, gentle husbands and tender wives, respectful children, and committed church members.
I appreciate Kennedy’s call for the American people to be proud of their heritage. But as a Christian, I know that the American heritage pales in comparison to the ancient heritage of the gospel and the church that bears responsibility for it until Jesus returns to fully establish his kingdom. May we give that Christian heritage due respect and readily accept the challenge to do whatever it takes to practice the faith in times of distress which are inevitably a part of living out the faith.
May we also encourage one another with Paul’s words, “I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him” (1:12). Even in times of distress, Christians are assured by Paul’s words to Timothy that there is reason to hope. The church would do well, in its own season of distress, to again carefully listen to these words of hope from Paul to Timothy.
Stan Reid will be lecturing on “Words of Hope for Seasons of Distress: Preaching from Second Timothy at Austin Grad’s 36th Annual Sermon Seminar on May 22-25. Other speakers include Steve Cloer, Rick Marrs, John Weaver, and Allan McNicol. Information is available at www.sermonseminar.com.
The first five to respond to this post who have attended in the past can register for the seminar at half-price. So, a normal registration at $210 is now $105. In addition, the first five to register for the seminar who have never attended before will have their registration fee waived. Spread the word!
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