Paul is in the final years of his life when writing to Timothy. They have been hard years filled with persecution, prison, suffering, deprivation, endless travel, argument, and controversy. Yet, they have also been years of deep and long-lasting relationships with friends, converts, churches, and disciples like Timothy. But Paul’s life has been one of extremes. His deepest friendships remained intact but some who have been friends and supporters have abandoned or turned on him. We can read about those in the other letters but it is clear here that “everyone in the province of Asia has deserted him.” That’s not the way to finish life, is it?
But, as Paul says earlier in this letter, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.” And, in the same way that he has trusted Christ he is now entrusting Timothy with the pattern of sound teaching. “Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”
Deposits and trusts are a theme for Paul. Earlier, in the book of Ephesians, Paul writes to this same church at Ephesus about the Holy Spirit as a deposit that guarantees our inheritance. In 2 Corinthians he repeats the image. God has put the Holy Spirit in our hearts as a deposit guaranteeing what is to come. While we do not have everything now, we have the deposit and God’s guarantee that there is much more to come.
So, we live with the down payment of the Spirit that is our guarantee and we live with the responsibility of being entrusted with the truth of the gospel. We carry the only light there is in a dark world. We are not like the couriers who carry the locked briefcase chained to their wrist. We are like a candle being passed from one generation to the next with the world doing its best to blow out the flame. As I’ve said before, “The church is an anvil that has worn out many hammers” but it is a constant struggle to be true to Paul’s trust.
It requires being strong in grace. I like that way of putting it. It is not being mean but strong. It is not completely up to us to maintain the integrity of the Gospel because there is grace. We have our part to play but, ultimately, as Paul says, God’s word is not changed. It has a life of its own and all the attempts to smother or extinguish it will fail in the end. “And the things you heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will be qualified to teach others.”
As we’ve discussed in past weeks, I don’t think this limits the role of teachers to men. However, clearly it limits the role of those who are reliable and qualified. Those two characteristics are non-negotiable for a couple of reasons.
First, the early church, like the church today, was subject to a variety of heresies, schisms, false teaching and superstitions. People were too easily swayed by powerful personalities, superficial theology, celebrities, and wish fulfillment. The Old Testament and Christ’s teachings, like today, were used to support all kinds of false beliefs and movements. There were, even then, Conservatives and Progressives and they were always at each other with both believing they had the whole truth. Wars were fought over the interpretation of a single word. Many of the teachers were not qualified and were under no authority other than their own. The same is true in many parts of the world today. While a fresh enthusiasm is causing the Church to grow rapidly there is such a shortage of qualified teachers that many of the new believers are caught up in the prosperity gospel, cults, false beliefs, and the easy combining of native religions with the Gospel. Paul is not saying that every teacher needs a seminary degree. He is saying that teachers need to be qualified both in the character of their life and in their beliefs.
Second, there were many unreliable teachers who moved around from place to place taking advantage of naive people – like the snake oil peddlers in our country years ago with miracle cures that turned out to be mostly alcohol and kerosene. They were also peddlers of the Gospel having found out they could make a good living from it if they kept moving and never settling down in any one place. Paul called them wolves who came into the fellowship. “They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.”
Such high standards slow the growth of any movement. One of the keys to any franchise is exactly what Paul prescribed – reliable and trustworthy management along with people who are constantly being trained and qualified. There was a time when anyone wanting to go to seminary was brought before the elders of the church who were responsible to examine their call. Today, seminary is often more like graduate school and one consultant I have followed for years estimates that at least half the people attending are not there to prepare for professional ministry but as a part of the process of finding themselves or as a time-out in their career. That is why so many independent churches have started their own pastoral training inside the congregation. They want their staff to stay under supervision and the watch care of more mature believers.
Paul goes on to use three images for the life of a pastor teacher.
First, the teacher is enlisted as a soldier and under the command of a superior. That is why Ignatius used the image when he founded the Society of Jesus. “The society was founded in Paris in 1534 by St. Ignatius Loyola, a Basque soldier who discovered his faith while recuperating from a cannonball wound. He and six fellow students at the University of Paris, including St. Francis Xavier, dedicated themselves to serving the pope as missionary soldiers of Christ. The order was originally organized along military lines, under the leadership of a “Father General.” Early followers named themselves “The Company of Jesus,” and were nicknamed “God’s Marines,” for their willingness to go anywhere in the world at the pope’s command. Pope Paul III recognized them as an order in 1540; today there are over 20,000 Jesuits, including missionaries, teachers, and scholars.”
They were committed to the Company of Jesus and that took precedence over everything else in their lives. It doesn’t mean soldiers are only interested in one thing. Jesuits are some of the most educated and sophisticated men in the Church but their loyalty and first calling is to the mission.
Second, the teacher has the attitude of an athlete and here I am totally dependent on what others have said as I have no personal experience. Athletes compete but they do so within the rules. It’s not like politics where dirty tricks are regarded as clever and rewarded. We have higher expectations of athletes and while there are glaring exceptions, athletics is still one of the places where we count on people playing by the rules or be punished. Not only are there rules for the game but we have rules for the players – sometimes even off the field.
Third, the teacher is to be a hard worker. I know a number of people who have gone into the ministry because it is a good lifestyle. There are perks for being a professional and the life is comfortable – especially in a wealthy congregation. There are often low expectations on the part of the congregation and a smart professional can fly under the radar for a whole career. That is not Paul’s standard for ministry. It is not only hard work but as he says in verse 3: “Take your share of suffering.” The ministry is not a place free from suffering and hardship.
While there are people who use the cloak of ministry for an easy lifestyle, I have also met some of the hardest and least appreciated workers there as well. My own grandfather was one of those. His deacons told his wife, “We’ll keep him humble and you keep him holy.” Somehow the two were connected. They held up their promise. The deacons conveniently ignored this passage that the farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops. They saw him more as a sharecropper who at the end of the year still owed the man owning the land. He died worn out with $25 to his name. As my father once said, “the world was not worthy of him.”
“If he had two suits, he looked for someone who needed one. He never graduated from college or held a degree. There were no honors significant enough to mention in his obituary. He never held an office of any responsibility within his profession. Dad walked the slums like a padre, carrying home the drunks, feeding the bums until Mother hid the food, visiting convicts, riding ambulances with fighting and feuding families, visiting the sick, marrying lovers, and burying the dead.
When his neighbors were hungry, he couldn’t eat. When they were sad, he cried, and when they laughed, he out-laughed them.
Through the funeral parlor poured people of all stations and status—the poor, those energized by poverty to move out and up, from the wealthy president whom Dad saw converted from a young infidel in a charity TB hospital to the widow who asked to sit alone with him and to relive his great comfort in her past sorrows. In the line were the reclaimed of the rough stuff of life, recounting their experiences with him, and those who felt his great Irish temper he self-indulgently termed ‘righteous indignation.’ They all came and sat for hours. No tears were there…just victory. Vicariously they felt victorious over death. Because he lived, they knew heaven exists. Where else could he be? A spirit so big could not vanish.”
As Paul says to Timothy so he says to us this morning, “Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.” Insight is not the same as the wisdom of the world. Reflection is not passive consideration. It is not simply a creative thought. It is not a sprinkler but a spring. Insight grows over time into a particular kind of wisdom. It accumulates in a life until that life becomes what David describes in Psalm 1:3 – “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, and whose leaf does not wither.” There is a source to the life of a person who has maintained a habit of reflection and valued the insights given by God. It is not a detached life but a deep life. It is not an isolated life. There is nothing in the life of this person that is cut off or protected. Instead, it is a life that is fed by a deep source.
Finally, Paul describes in the briefest way possible his gospel. “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel.” This is the heart of Paul’s teaching. Later in the book he writes, “But the Lord stood by my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.” The word for message here is “kerygma” and Paul uses it in several places to describe the essence of the Gospel.
Romans 16:25. “Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past..”
Titus 1:3. “..and at his appointed season he brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Saviour.”
1 Corinthians 2:2. “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
1 Corinthians 2:4. “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”
1 Corinthians 15:14. “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
For Paul, the kerygma and his central message was the sacrificial death and victorious resurrection of Christ. If you boiled it all down and had to put it on a business card that would be it for him. We have added so much to it over the years, haven’t we? Now the kerygma includes positions on abortion, support for Israel, appointment of judges, economics, gender, political party, immigration, and a host of other things. It includes tips for a happy life or quotes lifted out of context to prove a point. It has come a long way from the simple foolishness of the message of the death and resurrection of Christ. In some ways, we have left that behind in favor of our new kerygma. We have so many non-negotiables devised by us that we have lost track of them. Remember our lesson on the Jerusalem Council when the elders gave Paul a list of non-negotiables for the Gentile believers? What did he do with them? I think his dog ate them because we never hear about them again. There was only this: the death and resurrection of Christ. Yes, there is spiritual maturity that comes over time but the essence, the core, the central message of Paul’s preaching is the death and resurrection.
But, no matter all the corruption, the additions, the syncretism and idolatry of merging Christianity with a nation, the word of God, the message, the kerygma, cannot be chained or contained. Somehow, in spite of our attempts to extinguish, hide, embroider, and redefine it for our own purposes, the word of God has a power that we cannot affect. Martin Luther said had he been Christ he would have never entrusted his words to such a motley crew as the early disciples. He would have picked better people. I agree. But God knew the Word will not be stopped either by evil attempting to block it or by people making up their own versions of it.
Sometimes I agree with the words of the character created by Wendell Berry – Jayber Crow. “I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road, for as I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here. Well, you can read and see what you think.”
Other times I recognize the need for an organized church that provides light for a community and a place of permanence. But more than anything, I believe in the deposit, the seal, the promise God has made in Christ and that he will one day come again and we will all rise in a new life.
”For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”