(Sermon preached at Cromer, 16/10/16)
Welcome to our third talk in our mini series on Paul’s second letter to Timothy. (For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Timothy – not the one Paul was writing to, but Tim Britton, one of the retired ministers in this church.) You may find it helpful to have your Bibles open at the passage – page in the church Bibles.
Paul is writing to Timothy to encourage him to keep going and to keep growing. We get the impression that Timothy was a timid young man; yet he had spent some years as one of Paul’s team, and had been sent to supervise the churches in and around Ephesus – he was a mature church leader. But the situation was tough, and Paul knew it would get tougher. The beginning of 2 Timothy 3, just before our reading, warns that in the last days there will be an increase of godlessness – ‘people will love only themselves and their money, they will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will be unloving and unforgiving’ – and so on. Timothy needed encouragement – as do we all, whatever stage we are on in the Christian journey, whatever our circumstances. Keep going! Keep growing! But how?
In this passage Paul’s answer has three parts. The first is, Follow me! Verses 10 to 14: ‘You know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings.’ Paul knows his experience is not unique – ‘everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and imposters will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.’ So he goes on: ‘As for you,’ Timothy, ‘continue in what you have learnt and have become convinced of, knowing from whom you learnt it.’ We saw in chapter 1 how Timothy had learnt from his mother and grandmother in his early years; their teaching and example had set him off on the right road, and latterly Paul’s teaching and example had brought him to where he was now. Timothy had learnt not only what they taught, but also how that teaching affected the way they lived, the relationships they had, and their reactions to bad circumstances. The implication was, if they could keep going and growing, so could he!
- how important it is to learn from other Christians. I enjoy reading Christian biographies, and seeing how God used them and grew them through all the problems they faced. I know that I am a different person in a different situation, and that I can’t expect exactly the same experiences; yet I do find it an encouragement – the God who works in them is the same God who works in me. I can learn from the lessons they learned, and from the mistakes they made.
We can learn from any Christian. We’re all different, with different experiences on our Christian journey, different points of view, different relationships with God through Jesus. We can give one another new perspectives, new insights. The Holy Spirit may give even the newest Christian a thought or a message that encourages and builds up the greatest theologian. One of the values of home groups is that they are safe places in which we can share and grow together. So let’s listen carefully to each other – God may be speaking to us! But let’s also make a point of trying to learn from those who are ahead of us on the Christian journey. They are not perfect, but they have much we can learn from. Don’t be afraid to ask!
- Notice also how important it is that others learn from us! We’re not perfect either; but the important thing is whether we’re still growing or not. We can’t guarantee we’ll never make a mistake; but we can learn from our own mistakes as well as from other people’s, and it is helpful to pass on lessons we learn, both positive and negative. We can’t do this if we try to hide away because we feel we’re not good enough. Those around us will notice anyway how we live and how we react to things, and they’ll draw their own conclusions for good or ill.
The second part of Paul’s encouragement for Timothy to keep going and keep growing is this: Learn from the Scriptures! Timothy knew the Scriptures – he’d been listening to stories from the Scriptures since he was an infant, as we see in verse 15. The Scriptures he knew, of course, were what we call the Old Testament – the New Testament had not been written then. Those Scriptures, says Paul, ‘are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.’ In other words, what’s written in the Bible has the power to prepare people to receive the gospel; so that when they hear the good news of Jesus and what he has done it makes sense, and they are ready to believe in him as the Messiah, their Lord and Saviour. The Scriptures have the power to do all that; but they do not work automatically – the Spirit needs to work in our hearts so that we are ready to listen. Paul had known the same Scriptures before he was converted on the Damascus Road, but didn’t believe in Jesus until that experience. Once he was convinced that Jesus was alive, the rest made sense – though he had to take himself off for a long time to sort his head out.
Timothy had known the Scriptures since infancy. I don’t expect his mother and grandmother taught him to recite the Old Testament while he was in the cradle; but they would have told him lots of Bible stories. Parents and grandparents, do the same! Don’t expect schools to do it for you. But if you are involved in taking Open the Book to our schools, be encouraged! Who knows what God will do through these stories!
Paul encourages Timothy to keep living as Scripture taught – ‘continue in what you have learnt.’ The Bible is given not just for information or discussion, but to teach us how to live in the presence of God. We must take Scripture to heart and let it transform our lives, v 13: ‘All Scripture is God-breathed (that’s a literal translation of the original Greek) and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’
‘All Scripture?’ What, even the blood thirsty, vengeful bits? Even the boring bits? Well, all have their uses, though the uses may not be relevant for every situation, and we may find some Scriptures impossible to get our heads round at the moment. Paul in another letter tells Titus to ‘avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.’ Scripture has been breathed out by God to be useful – to equip us for every good work. So let’s not worry too much about the Scriptures we don’t understand. Let’s make sure we take to heart and put into practice those Scriptures we do understand.
Let’s pause here for a moment. I find it easy to deceive myself about my attitude to Scripture. I say it is the word of God – ‘this is the word of the Lord’; but I sometimes find myself picking and choosing which bits to obey. Jesus says, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ I find it easy to love those who are easy to love – and all too easy to avoid others. Paul says,’Respect those who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.’ I find it easy to point out the failures of Bishops and other church leaders, especially when they do something I disapprove of. However when I get the chance to talk to them, I discover that they are people of great integrity, who are doing their best to serve the Lord and really want to get things right. So I have to take note of other Scriptures, like the one at the end of Hebrews that says, ‘Obey your leaders and submit to their authority… Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden.’ And from Philippians, ‘Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure.’
I see from the Scriptures that Jesus’ great desire is for unity – having told his disciples to love one another, he prays in John 17 that ‘they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’ I find unity is difficult – I meet lots of Christians who think very differently from me, whose tastes in music, or worship, or banners, are poles apart from mine. How can we be in complete unity? We can’t all have our own way in such matters, so maybe that’s why there is such an emphasis on looking after the interests of others rather than our own, and to let our leaders lead. I need to learn better how to hold lightly things in this life that are temporary – to enjoy them, but not to hold on to them. And to hold on tightly to things that are eternal – love, joy, peace.
There are times when I have been deeply hurt – not so much by non Christians but by Christians. The temptation is to put up the barriers; yet scripture tells us to ‘bear with one another and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.’ It’s not easy; but that doesn’t give me an excuse to disregard God’s word. After all, that same word says, ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.’
‘All Scripture is God-breathed.’ Let’s read God’s word, and take it to heart. Major Batt from Gresham, whom some of you may remember, was very keen on this. He had committed his life to Christ during a mission. When he was on his way out of the place, a stranger came up to him and said, ‘If you mean business with God, read the Bible every day, do what it says, and let God take the consequences.’ He did that, all his life! Let’s do the same! For the whole point of the Bible is to equip us for every good work, bringing more light and joy and sheer goodness into this world.
The third part of Paul’s encouragement to Timothy to keep going, and keep growing, is this: ‘Keep doing the work of God.’ That work is different for each of us. For Timothy, it meant preaching the word, 4v2, passing on what he had learnt regardless of whether his hearers liked it or not. Paul knew that Timothy would experience difficulty and opposition. Even today many people don’t like to be told that Jesus was crucified for them, and that his death and resurrection are the only means by which we can be reconciled to God – they don’t believe they need a Saviour, or that Jesus is the only Saviour. Still less do they want to believe he is Lord, with rightful authority over every area of their lives. His commands to love God, our neighbours, our fellow Christians, even our enemies, and to take up our cross and follow him – all go against the grain. Wouldn’t it be better to have preachers who will be nice to us, and make us feel good, and not make too many demands on us? Paul told Timothy to keep going, correcting wrong ideas, rebuking wrong behaviour and encouraging the good, as necessary – and to do it patiently and carefully. He knew that it wouldn’t get any easier even if the church grew. Timothy would need a clear head (‘be sober’ is the Greek word), and a willingness to keep going whatever happened.
‘Do the work of an evangelist’, Paul told him. An evangelist is one whose ministry is to share with others the good news of Jesus. The implication is that this wasn’t really Timothy’s gift – but he should do it anyway, working with Christ to bring people into the Kingdom of God. This work of evangelism is central to the church’s life. Archbishop William Temple used to point out that the church is the only organisation that exists for the benefit of non members. Mission, and church growth, has nothing to do with making the church more glorious or respected or powerful – it is only about reconciling people to God, bringing them from darkness to light, bringing them into joy, and joy into them. This was what Jesus came to do, as we know. This is why God sent his Son into the world. This is what the Holy Spirit is doing now – the ‘fellowship’ of the Holy Spirit is usually better translated as the ‘partnership’ of the Holy Spirit: we aren’t just a group of friends having a good time, but partners with the Holy Spirit in the business of God’s mission to save the world. We bring different gifts and responsibilities to the table; but we all have one aim.
Not all of us are called to be preachers, like Timothy. Some of us are – James, for example. We need to encourage him: Preach the word! Keep your head in all situations! Do the work of an evangelist! Discharge all the duties of your ministry! But what about the rest of us? Well, in addition to our general calling to serve and glorify God in everything we do, we all have some kind of ministry that God is equipping us for, and it is helpful to try and identify it. In addition, we all are called at times to share the good news we’ve received, and to endure hardship for the sake of the gospel. And we all have available for us all the resources of the Holy Spirit within us. Peter describes us all in his first letter: ‘You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.’ That’s what we are! He continues, ‘That you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.’ That’s what we’re for!
Let’s keep going, together! Onward and upward!