What You Have Heard from Me… Entrust to Faithful Men
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The text for today is our Epistle, 2 Timothy 2:1-2: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:1-2). Here ends our text.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Trust me. After 13 years in the Office of Holy Ministry, I know. Remaining a faithful pastor is not easy. Preaching Christ crucified for sin does not set well in a culture where sin has been dropped from our vocabulary, and the “Christian life” is given priority over the Christ. Proclaiming Law and Gospel doesn’t go over well to a seeker-sensitive audience that prefers its itching ears be scratched with manageable law and cheap grace. Holding to absolute truth in an age of moral relativism and post-modernism is draining.
Not that being a pastor was ever easy. In fact, any difficulties I’ve experienced in the ministry pale in comparison to St. Paul. For the sake of the Gospel, the apostle endured so much suffering it would seem far-fetched as a plot in the latest action-adventure film: countless beatings near to death, five times forty lashes less one, three times with rods, once stoned, three times shipwrecked, in danger from rivers and robbers, Jews and Gentiles, in the city, desert, and sea, suffering sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, cold and exposure, stress and anxiety.
In fact, as St. Paul writes this letter to Timothy, he is in prison and bound in chains for the sake of the Gospel. The apostle knows that his time on earth is short. But before the Lord takes him home, Paul wants to make sure that Timothy grabs the torch and carries it forward, continuing to spread the Gospel, even as he has begun. The apostle places special emphasis on faithfully teaching the Word in opposition to false teachers and rising imperial persecution.
It would seem from St. Paul’s earlier correspondence that Timothy was a timid sort, and boldly proclaiming the unpopular Gospel didn’t come naturally to him. So Paul gives Timothy a pep talk. Preaching the Gospel in an unbelieving world will involve suffering and hardship. Timothy’s sinful flesh is going to balk. Nevertheless, Timothy is to “follow the pattern of sound words” that he had heard from Paul. He is “to guard the good deposit entrusted to [him].” This will require strength—moral and spiritual strength. Much greater strength than Timothy could possibly find in himself. Such strength can only be found in the grace of God that is in Christ Jesus.
Then we get to the particular reason that Timothy must be strong: He is an important link in the chain that provides for the Gospel to continue to be proclaimed. Paul had taught Timothy and publicly affirmed his calling as a pastor. Now Timothy must teach and affirm other men who are qualified for the pastoral office. For the sake of the Church, the Office of the Holy Ministry has been established to preach and administer the means of grace. In a cycle that is to continue to the end of this present age, men who are faithful and able to teach are to be instructed and then entrusted with teaching and proclaiming this Gospel. They, in turn, will teach and entrust other faithful men with the Gospel.
Let no congregation or church body fail to recognize the importance of this responsibility. The Church must encourage and enlist its capable young men for pastoral training. It must encourage those it trains to make faithful use of God-given gifts as they prepare to teach future generations. We must cherish and support our theological institutions of learning and see to it that the professors are faithful men and capable teachers, above all, such who teach the pure, sound doctrine of the apostles. This is the provision that the Lord made for the future. Only when the Church has such a ministry will it effectively fulfill its mission. Only in this way will sound preaching and teaching continue.
Paul uses three proverbs to help Timothy understand this daunting task: “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.”
Stay on task. Follow the rules. Give it everything you’ve got. It sounds like good advice. And it is. But here is where we have to be careful. Taken out of its proper context, this has all the makings for one of those “three simple steps to better Christian living” sermons that you will unfortunately hear in far too much of popular Christianity these days. Call it “gospel lite” or “manageable law.”
But remember, this is the same Paul who also wrote: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).
No, Paul is still focusing on the Gospel, but first he has to lay down the Law. So he encourages young Timothy: “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” Despite the claims of Word/faith teachers like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer, Christians are not suddenly immune to suffering in this life. If anything our Baptism paints a target on us at which the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh will take steady aim. Trust me! This is true for all Christians, and it’s especially true for pastors. That’s why we need your support. As Paul found out first hand it’s during such times that you find out who your real friends are.
This requires persistence and a strong sense of devotion and duty. Paul encourages his young co-worker to think of himself as a good soldier. A good soldier serves his commanding officer with singleness of purpose. He cannot have divided loyalties. Those whom the Lord enlists for service in the Church must be intent “to please” Him who is our head. They must be willing to set aside their own agenda and egos and point to Christ alone.
Paul’s second illustration is that of an athlete. If Timothy expects to win, he must compete “according to the rules,” that is, he must follow “sound doctrine.” The pastor who neglects preaching the crucified Christ and instead becomes politically active or who engages in social reform is in danger of losing “the victor’s crown.” The pastor who waters down God’s Word of Law and Gospel in order to pack more people into the pews may find himself disqualified.
In the third illustration Paul is not telling Timothy what to do but rather the blessings he can expect from his hard and difficult work. “It is the hardworking farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.”
How does a pastor receive the firstfruits of his work? Paul is not speaking of financial or earthly benefits, although in his first letter to Timothy he had encouraged churches to support their pastor’s physical needs. But the chief fruits of the pastor’s labors are spiritual. His parishioners will certainly receive spiritual fruits from his faithful preaching and teaching. However, as the pastor studies the Word and prepares a sermon or Bible study, he will also reap a rich harvest for himself in spiritual growth and strengthened faith.
Stay on task. Follow the rules. Give it everything you’ve got. Paul’s admonition to Timothy is sound advice for affirming the pastoral ministry. But it is not the core of Christian life. It will not save you. It is the Law, and in our fallen state we are not able to keep the Law well enough to please God. The Law threatens God’s wrath and punishment. The Law does not bring life but kills. The Law does not make us better people, but only serves to show us our wickedness.
Therefore the message of this text is not: “If you kick it in gear and really apply yourself, then God will be pleased.” Rather, it’s “Confess your sins of distraction, inaction, and rule breaking, because Christ has died for these, too. By His forgiveness, Christ sets you free from the curse of the Law. He sets you free from the slavery of sin. He sets you free to do His will.”
That’s why the rest of this text is just dripping with Gospel. For the Gospel, which Timothy must entrust to faithful men that they may teach others, must first be experienced by Timothy. And so Paul points Timothy to God’s grace: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” In other words: “Remember Timothy, where your sins might accuse you of your weakness, Christ has died for your sins to strengthen you.”
Notice how Paul tells Timothy about Jesus’ forgiveness and presence before he even gets to these three proverbs. And what does he say after the Law? More Gospel! “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my Gospel.” The Gospel must predominate.
You see, as Timothy hears that Law, there could be two nasty results. He might say, “This is too much for me—I’m going to quit being a disciple of Jesus.” In which case, Paul says, “Remember that your salvation isn’t in how well you do, but that Jesus has done well for you." As we said last week: “It’s not about you! It’s about Christ for you!” Christ has already lived the perfect, obedient life for you. He has already suffered and died for you. And He’s already risen from the dead and ascended to heaven for you! He’s your strength! Trust in Him!”
The second possibility is that Timothy might heed Paul’s commands, but start to think: “Now I’m really a Christian because I’ve overcome distraction, inaction, and discouragement. Look at me, Lord! I’ve got my act together!” But Paul declares, “Remember the source of grace and strength—not your actions and attitudes, but Jesus who has died and is risen for you. Your commitment and dedication will waver, but Christ remains wholly committed to you.”
Finally, Paul proclaims this trustworthy saying that shows the relationship between suffering and glory: “If we have died with Him, we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful—for He cannot deny Himself.”
When did we die with Christ? What does it mean to live with Him? “We were buried with Him through Baptism into death.” With Him our “old self was crucified.” Thus joined to Christ and His death by faith, we also live with Him now in the newness of life. And we share in His resurrection to life eternal.
That doesn’t mean it will always be easy. The Christian’s life in this world calls for endurance. To Christians facing persecution, the living and exalted Lord promises, “Be faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Revelation 2:10). But even if you are faithless, the Lord remains faithful to His promises. He cannot deny Himself. He does not change. He’s made you His, and He’ll keep pursuing you with grace for the rest of your life.
Let’s be clear: you are saved by grace, not works. Heaven is yours because Jesus has done all the work of living for you, dying for you, rising for you, and ascending for you. He’s done all the work of giving you forgiveness and faith in the water and Word of Holy Baptism. And He continues to forgive you and strengthen you in His Word and Supper. That’s the Gospel. It’s all His doing.
In a perfect world, Adam and Eve were created for blessed labor. As one clothed in Jesus’ perfect righteousness, you’re created in Christ Jesus for good works. Saved by grace, you’re set free from sin to serve. Not because you have to serve, but because you get to serve. You get to serve your neighbor. You get to serve God. You get to support your pastor and the work of the Church.
Stay on task, yes. Follow the rules, of course. Give it everything you’ve got, always. But always remember this, too: you’re not saved doing these things; you are strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.
You’re not saved by your courageous faith or bold witness in the face of suffering, trials, or persecution. You’re saved because Christ is the High Priest who is not unable to sympathize with your weaknesses, but has been tempted every way you as are, yet was without sin.
You’re not saved because of how well you’ve supported your pastor or our seminaries, or because you’ve encouraged young men to consider the pastoral ministry. You’re saved because Christ has established the Office of Holy Ministry that His Word might be preached and His Sacraments administered among you.
You’re not saved by your ability to stay on task or to persevere despite great obstacles. Salvation is yours because Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem and His cross and died for your sins there.
You’re not saved by following the rules, even if you’re doing better at it than you were five years ago. You’re forgiven because Jesus has already kept God’s Law perfectly, and He gives you the credit for His doing.
You’re not saved because you never get discouraged or disheartened or downright depressed. You’re saved because for the joy set before Him, Jesus endured the cross and scorned its shame.
Christ has done it all to make you alive, to give you salvation. That’s why you rejoice to confess your sins, knowing His grace is sufficient. That’s why you rejoice to labor and serve, because He’s already set you free to do just that. You have nothing to prove, nothing to earn, it’s all yours by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, because for His sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.