(2 Timothy 1:1-14)
Reading this text reminds us of famous parting scenes in literature or film, particularly vignettes in which a child is leaving home for university, war or adventures in another country. Graduation commencement addresses also come to mind, or even speeches and essays that precede an imminent and cruel death.
Consider the familiar phrase, “neither a borrower nor a lender be.” It’s one tidbit of advice from Polonius to his son Laertes, who is leaving Denmark for college in France. Found in Act I, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it is a paraphrase of Proverbs 22:7: “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is a slave to the lender.”
The “advice-before-death” farewell trope is also a common one, and we’ve seen examples of it in recent years – Randy Pausch (The Last Lecture), Steve Jobs (Commencement Address, 2005) or Morrie Schwartz (Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom). Pausch and Jobs died of pancreatic cancer at 47 and 56 respectively, and Schwartz of ALS at age 72.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech seemed to foreshadow with Mosaic clarity an ominous future:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So, I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The next day, he was dead.
Like MLK, the apostle Paul sees the specter of death hovering about him. But perhaps for the apostle for whom “death is gain” (Philippians 1:21), it was neither a specter nor angel of death, but a beam or angel of light that he sensed as he dictated his letter to Timothy, his son in the faith.
To properly understand the aging apostle’s parting words, we need to focus on the context for a moment.
He wasn’t that old, but the sum of his age plus the political situation in Rome was discouraging. He wasn’t stupid; he knew that he was wobbling on the doorstep of death, and that the portal would open soon. “The time of my departure has come,” he said (2 Timothy 4:6b). He sensed that time was slipping away: “I am already being poured out as a libation” (4:6a).
The year is A.D. 67. He’s doing jail time in Rome for the second time under Nero, an emperor whose days are also drawing to a close. Nero would die about a year after Paul in A.D. 68 of assisted suicide. (Afraid to fall on his own sword, he asked a servant to do the deed.)
Nero had been emperor since A.D. 54, and it had not been a smooth ride. The Great Fire occurred in A.D. 64, during which Nero was famously, if not erroneously, accused of “fiddling.” (Fiddles didn’t exist until the 11th century.) At least 70 percent of the city was consumed in the blaze, and the Christian community was an easy target of abuse by mobs seeking to blame outsiders or foreigners for the catastrophe.
Church tradition says that the apostle Peter was a victim of this outrage and was crucified head down. Later, Paul was beheaded, and within three to four years, the young church had lost its two foremost apostles, including its most eloquent and learned voice – apologist and theologian, the apostle Paul.
However, the church was not without leaders. Although Peter and Paul were gone, a second generation of pastors was ready to carry the torch. One of these was Timothy, arguably Paul’s favorite and most devoted disciple. It is Timothy to whom Paul addresses his parting words. Paul knew Timothy’s mother and grandmother. He mentored Timothy in the fundamentals of the faith. Timothy served with him in Ephesus for about three years and was no doubt with him on many of Paul’s travels, including Troas, Philippi and Corinth.
He might have been introverted or uncomfortable with strangers, because in 1 Corinthians 16:10, Paul suggests that “when Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord.” His health was frail, and had he lived in an age of pharmaceuticals, he might have popped a fistful of pills every day. He is the patron saint of those with stomach disorders, an appellation based solely on the medical advice Paul proffered in his first letter to Timothy: “No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Timothy 5:23).
In any case, Paul thought highly of his young protégé saying that “I have no one like him,” and “Timothy’s worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel” (Philippians 2:19-23).
When Paul writes this final letter, Timothy had been pastor at Ephesus for perhaps as long as four years. And like Paul, Timothy would do jail time: “I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been set free” (Hebrews 13:23). Like Paul, he too endured suffering.
Paul’s last words to Timothy in these verses can be distilled into four reminders:
- recharge your batteries
- don’t apologize
- hone your teaching skills
- protect what you have
Recharge your batteries. Paul uses the word “rekindle,” or “fan into flames,” suggesting the flames may have died, or that the fire is running low.
We are in the third year of a pandemic. We understand how energy, passion and enthusiasm can run low. We have all had the experience of passing through days, weeks and months of ennui and lassitude. The spirit is flagging; the fuel is low. We’re going through the motions.
Paul suggests that Timothy find some tinder and light a match. The fire can be restarted by remembering that it first burst into flames “through the laying on of hands” (v. 6). In other words, the community of faith validated the gifts they saw in you, Timothy, and assured you in this rite of ordination, that God was with you.
If Timothy had a weakness, it might have been his insecurity, fear or timidity. “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice,” Paul writes (v. 7). Paul had seen more danger in his lifetime than most of us will ever have to face. Timothy had been a part of some of these adventures.
Now, Paul tells Timothy that living for Jesus requires courage, not cowardice. In today’s parlance, Paul might have told Timothy to put on his big-boy pants, lace up his boots and saddle up.
He might also ask Timothy if he has his keys, the keys to success: power, love and self-discipline. If you have these keys, there’s no limit to the possibilities!
Don’t apologize. This advice comes to us from two unimpeachable sources: Jethro Gibbs and Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles, both fictional characters played by Mark Harmon and John Wayne, respectively. In the TV show NCIS, Gibbs’ Rule No. 6 is: “Never say you’re sorry. It’s a sign of weakness.” The rule is a direct reference to John Wayne’s catch phrase in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: “Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness.”
Personally, I believe if you are wrong, you should apologize. But, we don’t need to apologize for our faith, or about the “testimony about our Lord” (v. 8). To keep this in perspective, note that millions of Americans believe lizard people secretly run the U.S., and that God has a vested interest in who wins the Super Bowl. One study found that a third of respondents couldn’t name a right protected by the First Amendment, and a similar amount couldn’t name a single branch of government. That means there are a lot of uninformed loons out there.
So, no need to be ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ! Jesus was a witness more than 2,000 years ago to the love of God, and His life, death and resurrection was presaged through the testimony of prophets like Moses and Elijah long before Christ was born. So, there’s no reason to cough, choke, turn away or be embarrassed to identify oneself as a follower of Jesus.
We might be ashamed – even mortified – of the behavior of some who call themselves Christians, but so was the apostle Paul, who despaired of those who loved the world more than they loved Jesus, like Demas (4:10).
Timothy must do his best to present himself as one approved by God, to be “a worker who has no need to be ashamed” (2:15). We are not ashamed because we “know the one in whom I have put my trust,” and we know that he is able to protect us in uncertain times (v. 12). There is not much one can be certain of anymore, but we know Someone who is trustworthy, and Someone who will take care of our eternal investment. No need to apologize!
Hone your teaching skills. “Hold to the standard of sound teaching,” Paul writes (v. 13). The standard to which the apostle refers is his own teaching! “As you have heard from me” (v. 13). Four key words in this advice: hold, standard, sound, teaching.
Sound teaching is so important that Paul suggests that it be firmly grasped. You might decide that you can loosen your grip on other things but hang on to sound teaching.
And not just teaching, but the “standard” of sound teaching. Follow the core curriculum in a way that is understandable or makes sense. Know the people. Pre-assess, assess and reassess. Work on your lesson plans. Show how your teaching is relevant to their lives. Make sure that the people understand the learning goals; help them to take ownership of their own learning. Present your teaching objectives in the form of a learning target – which is done in first person.
The teaching or lessons should be “sound,” that is, cogent, rational and intellectually within reach of the average Jill or Joe. Sound teaching for Paul probably didn’t include a prosperity gospel, a therapeutic gospel of self-help nor a “God is my buddy” gospel. Don’t be seduced by theological fads, he might say. To offer teaching that is sound will require persistence, he says later in his second letter. In his teaching, Timothy must “convince, rebuke, and encourage, [and] with the utmost patience” (2 Timothy 4:2). Paul saw that a “time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths” (4:3-4).
Clearly, Paul had his reasons for urging Timothy to sharpen his teaching skills.
Protect what you have. “Guard the good treasure God has given you” (2 Timothy 1:14). What you have is a treasure. Regard it as such. Paul said something similar in his first letter to his young disciple: “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you” (1 Timothy 6:20). What he has is his faith and his pastoral calling, and this is who he is: a person with faith and a calling. Don’t lose it. It’s who you are. It defines you. Paul says, in effect, “Don’t do anything that might compromise it, or set you on a course that veers away from your current bearings. Be aware of your heading and flight plan. Follow your True North, which is Jesus Christ your Lord.
These are Paul’s parting words to the young man who was a trainee, intern and then a co-worker with the apostle. His advice to Timothy was that he should not forget to recharge his batteries. He shouldn’t apologize. He should hone his teaching skills and protect what he has.
His words are a challenge to Timothy to pick up the mantle, to be Elisha to Paul’s Elijah, to live a life of daring discipleship.
Church tradition indicates that this is precisely what Timothy did. He was the bishop of Ephesus for many years. In A.D. 97, at the advanced age of 80, a formerly timid Timothy, often in poor health, tried to halt a pagan festival in honor of the Greek goddess Diana (Roman goddess Artemis), which included a procession of idols, ceremonies and songs. In response to his preaching of the gospel, the angry crowds beat him, dragged him through the streets and stoned him to death.
In his dying moments, perhaps he recalled the words of his father in the faith, who wrote, “Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3). Like his mentor before him, he too had fought the good fight, finished the course and kept the faith (4:7).
May there be more of his kind. Amen.