As people draw close to death, they’re often keen to convey their most important values. Such was the case with Paul: in 2 Timothy, the Apostle wrote with great affection to his disciple, tasking him to pass the baton of faith to the next generation without shame. His charge still resonates today. As Alistair Begg shows us, we can guard the truth of the Gospel by sharing the power of God and trusting in the sufficiency of His Word.
Well, I invite you to take your Bibles and turn with me to 2 Timothy, if you would, and to the first chapter—2 Timothy 1.
Needless to say, it is a wonderful privilege for me to be here once again, and I do not take it lightly; I take it very seriously, and I know that you do too. And I’m glad of the privilege. And we look to the Scriptures together in these opening verses, up until about verse 14 this morning. And I’d like to read these verses in your hearing, if you will follow along with me:
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus,
“To Timothy, my dear son:
“Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
“I thank God, whom I serve, as my forefathers did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. [I’ve] been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.
“So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. That is why [I’m] suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.
“What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”
Now just a brief prayer together: “Make the Book live to me, O Lord. Show me thyself within thy Word, show me myself, and show me my Savior, and make the Book live to me.” Amen.
There is probably nothing like the prospect of death to clarify the issues of life. Those of us who have come close to it, either in receiving a very difficult diagnosis or having sat with a loved one or a close friend as they have faced the end of their lives, will have recognized that it is very quickly apparent that those individuals, provided they’re possessed of their faculties, are keen to convey what is most on their hearts and what they believe to be most crucial for us who are being left behind to know. And indeed, if we were to find ourselves in that circumstance and given the opportunity of writing a final letter, we would surely then—especially if writing to those close and dear to us—endeavor to make absolutely certain that we conveyed the honest and deepest longings of our hearts, and that at the same time we passed on what we believed to be of the most vital importance.
Now, it is precisely that context in which Paul finds himself as he writes this second letter to Timothy. As you will come together, God willing, later in the week to discover his statement in 4:6, he recognizes that his life is ebbing away, and “the time has come for [his] departure.” And in light of the fact that this is the case, he recognizes that in all likelihood he is communicating what will essentially be his last will and testament to this young man who has been both his colleague in ministry as well as his son in the faith. And this second letter of Timothy is largely regarded as the third of these three Pastoral Epistles. They’ve been called the Pastoral Epistles since the eighteenth century, designated in this way because they were written to specific individuals rather than, as other epistles have been, written generically to churches—two of them written to Timothy, and one of them written to Titus.
So Paul, then, facing the prospect of death, writes this letter, his last will and testament—his swan song, if you like—to the young man to whom he is passing the baton of faith that it might be carried on into a subsequent generation. He writes at a time when the church was facing a variety of threats, some of which came from the inside, and others came from the outside. Indeed, the devastating impact of these affairs upon the church were such that the very prospect of there being a Christian community in a subsequent generation was apparently under question. And the prospect of the church existing a few years on from then seemed highly doubtful to anybody viewing it, from a human perspective, from the gaze of a realistic observer. Years before mine, Bishop Handley Moule, describing the context, said, “Christianity … trembled, humanly speaking, on the verge of annihilation.”
So it wasn’t that all was well, everybody was feeling good about everything, the church was in fine form, they were making great gains, society was being dramatically impacted, people were coming to Christ in large droves. Rather, they were under the Neronian persecution, people were defecting in the province of Asia from the things of Christ on a kind of wholesale basis, and the apostle himself, who was such a strategic member of what God was doing, was sitting imprisoned and under the shadow of a potential execution. And therefore he writes with a passionate concern to ensure that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ will be both guarded and then passed on without disguise and without disfigurement into a subsequent generation. And Timothy is to get it into the hands, as we will see, of faithful men who will herald it and proclaim it in all of its fullness.
Now, when you think about that for a moment or two, by way of a very sketchy introduction to the letter, you recognize—indeed, you don’t have to be too smart to immediately see—that there are some obvious and direct parallels to the church in our own day. Once again, I would suggest to you, the church in our generation trembles. Whether it trembles before the threat of annihilation, I wouldn’t say, but I do believe that it trembles before the prospect of capitulation, and a capitulation that is both theological and methodological: imbibing both the spirit of the age in all of its syncretism and pluralism, and imbibing, largely, the spirit of the age in relationship to its methodology; failing, at least in certain areas, to recognize the call to be radically different.
The prevailing climate of our generation is one in which being unsure and being vague is far more acceptable than being clear and being certain. Indeed, it is those who are certain, who are convinced, who would appear in any sense to be dogmatic, who are regarded as the most suspect and those against whom we should take great care. The only thing that we can be certain of is that we can be certain of absolutely nothing. And that spirit is abroad in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the notion of an unequivocal voice, of the trumpet giving a certain sound, is something that is not as striking and as obvious as it has been in previous generations. And therefore those who have chosen that we should study this second letter to Timothy have, I think, chosen very well, and prayerfully, and purposefully. We are without question living at time of great confusion. Men and women are confused as to how they ought to behave, and they’re certainly confused concerning what they ought to believe.
Now, it’s very easy for me to reach into the newspaper and illustrate it at the moment. Saturday’s Times—yesterday’s Times—in the editorial section, under the heading of “The Lambeth Way,” without reading it all, testifies to manifold confusion. Whatever else you might wish to describe it as, it is definitely confused. And let me give you just a smattering of it: “The deliberations this year run some risk of being overshadowed by demands by lesbian and gay Christian movements for the ordination of practising homosexuals.” Now, I don’t believe it’s possible to put “lesbian” and “gay” along with “Christian movements,” and that just points to the confusion.
“The Lambeth method,” however—saying, “We’ll get through it”—“The Lambeth method has been to surmount differences by emphasizing what a report before this conference describes as ‘the creative fusion of provincial autonomy and interdependence.’” Now there’s a wonderful phrase that we could spend the rest of the morning trying to understand. The editor goes on to say, “Pluralism has an obvious place in this far-flung Church of 80 million.” And the only thing that it says in the editorial that they have any prospect of unity on is “a united stance on canceling [the] Third World debt.” Now, I don’t know any group that you couldn’t get together who would not be prepared to cancel the third-world debt. Any of us could get together as a group of twelve and decide to cancel all of our debt as well. That is very easy, irrespective on any other considerations.
It points to the need for the pressing, urgent declaration of the message of 2 Timothy. Underpinning all that I’m going to say in these mornings is this conviction: that there exists a crying need among the people of God for a solid, experiential grasp of basic Christian doctrine—doctrine on fire, without question, as it must inevitably be, but nevertheless a solid, experiential grasp of basic Christian doctrine. Those who are the most harmless in our day are those who are the most clueless. And we would not want a carpenter to show up at our house and just start smashing around with his tools without some kind of indication that he knew why he was there and what his plan and purpose was.
And yet in the realm of theology there are people who are crashing and smashing around with all kinds of tools with no obvious indication of what in the world they’re endeavoring to do. And why will they be able to continue to do so? Because of the cluelessness of a generation which is growing up right alongside us. Sinclair Ferguson says, “It is one of the enigmas of our day that in a world of great opportunities, many Christians have less knowledge of Christian doctrine than children [had] at Sunday School … in previous centuries. … It may also be one reason for the [difference] between the quality of Christian character of previous eras and the relatively poor standard of our own Christian lives today.” That bears thinking about.
Now, with all of that by way of background, look at the greetings in verses 1 and 2—the standard greetings, Paul introducing himself and introducing the one to whom he writes. You will notice that he describes himself in quite striking terms: “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus.” Isn’t that a little surprising when you think that he’s writing to someone with whom he is so familiar, with whom he is so friendly, a colleague in the ministry? Well, we have to recognize that while the letter was read initially by Timothy, Paul recognized that it would have a much wider hearing, and especially since Timothy was taking up from where Paul was leaving off, it was imperative that those who became the hearers of the letter with Timothy understood the credentials of the mighty apostle. And etched indelibly in his mind was that encounter on the Damascus Road when he was not only converted, but he was commissioned. Describing his circumstances years later before the Roman authorities, he says that on that occasion he heard the voice saying, “Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared … to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you.” “Ego apostello. I apostle you,” says God. “I bring you to myself and I send you for myself.” And the wonder of that truth was at the very heart of all that Paul did, and consequently of all that he wrote.
He recognized that his appointment was not as a result of human ingenuity, but it was as a result of divine initiative. He was added to the unique group of apostles, an unrepeatable group in the foundation of the church who shared a sight of the risen Lord, a divine commission from that Lord, and the inspiration of God’s Spirit. And from that starting point he was then to go out “to proclaim the promised life which we have in union with Christ Jesus.” (That’s Today’s English Version from of old.) In other words, the concern for Paul was that he would formulate the gospel and that he would communicate the gospel. And he is identifying this as he introduces this letter to young Timothy. He is concerned with the promise of life as he sits facing the prospect of death.
How wonderful it is that his letter does not begin with a great whining and groaning and moaning dissertation about the dreadful predicament in which he finds himself. No, he is consumed with the wonder of what God has done in redeeming him and in commissioning him, he is passionately concerned with this issue of the gospel, he is in love with this young man, he wants him to know that even in the shadow of execution he is committed to the news of the promise of life. And Jesus, who said, “I am come that [you] might have life,” he is the one about whom he is going to say he “has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
Now from Paul to Timothy, who is “my dear son.” The lovely way in which Paul refers to this young man throughout his letters is quite striking. In 1 Corinthians 4 he describes him as his “child in the Lord.” In Romans 16 he is his “fellow worker.” In Philippians 2 he says, “I have no one else like him.” So there’s no sense in which he is at arm’s length to this young man. There is an immediate intimacy between them—in the same way that I have this morning in my Bible, nestled in here, a post card that was left for me from last week, from a gentleman who means everything to me in the faith. And I wasn’t surprised to receive his card, but I was stirred to receive his card. And I have it in my Bible, and if I didn’t have it there, I would have it in my inside pocket and I would keep it close to my heart, because frankly, it means absolutely everything to me.
Those are the relationships that God establishes in the gospel. And those of you who are sitting out here this morning would be able to identify similar things: notes, and quotes, and anecdotes, and telephone calls, and dimensions of relationship that are so precious to you. Oh, they’re not apostolic in their relationships, but they are meaningful in the gospel. And it is this wonderful intimacy that is conveyed not only in the greeting, “my dear son,” but also throughout all of the letter.
Now, what makes it so amazing to me is that Timothy was not an obvious choice to be the recipient of this letter or of this charge, at least from a human perspective. Because when you put together the identikit picture of Timothy as you pick it up from the various letters of the New Testament, you discover that he was comparatively young; that’s why Paul told him, “Let no one despise your youth.” Added to that, he was physically frail; that was why he was supposed to take a wee drop of wine for his tummy’s sake. And also, he was naturally timid; that’s why Paul writes to the Corinthians, “When he comes, put him at his ease.”
So you don’t have this picture of some strong, mature individual who is able to walk into circumstances and simply arrest them and take control over them. No. You have the picture of a rather diffident chap who looks too young for what he’s doing, and if truth were told, he has a bad tummy, and the fact is that that’s probably as a result of his diffidence and his sense of timidity; when he gets anxious, it goes to his stomach. And yet, he’s the man.
In other words, the man that God has chosen is the man who would be hard-pressed to get his name in front of the average vacancy committee. As you listen to these wise souls talk about who they want for their church, you wonder if they’re living in the real world at all. I refuse myself the luxury of going down that street; I will harness myself and come back to where I should be.
He was a young man, and there have been other young men—like George Whitefield. In Dallimore’s first volume on Whitefield, Whitefield records how he had been asked—records in his journal, and then Dallimore records it in his book—he’d been asked to preach at the chapel of the Tower of London. And he said that he went there reticent and fearful. So, he was immediately concerned; he was overawed by the prospect of what he had to do. But was there tremendous encouragement as he made his way? Not at all! He writes in his diary, “As I passed along the streets, many came out of their shops to see so young a person in a gown and cassock. [And one] cried out, ‘There’s a boy parson.’ … [And] as I went up the stairs almost all seemed to sneer at me on account of my youth; but they soon grew serious and exceedingly attentive.” Why? Because he was God’s man. And God delights to pick up men and women—young men and women, comparatively young, naturally weak, physically frail, obviously diffident—and he says, “Now, here! You’re my girl, you’re my fellow for the task to which I have appointed you.” And so it is to a young man more prone to lean than he is to lead that God entrusts this wonderful task.
How Timothy must have drunk in Paul’s greeting, which provided him with a reminder of his resources: “‘God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord’ together,” says John Stott, “constitute the one spring from which this threefold stream flows forth.” (Don’t you wish you could write a sentence like that just once in your life? Incidentally, if you listen to me and you say, “Now, that was remarkable, that last paragraph,” I probably got it from Stott’s commentary on 2 Timothy. And so you’ll be able to find it.)
“Grace” for the trials, “mercy” for the failures, and “peace” in the face of dangers and doubts. There it all is for us. For this morning, what do we need? “Grace, mercy, and peace”—the exact thing that Timothy needed—in every generation.
Now, he goes on from his greeting to remind himself and his readers of the spiritual foundations which were Timothy’s. The opening phrase, again, in verse 3 is striking, is it not? A wonderful illustration of his selflessness; no complaining and no groaning, just his concern for this young man.
Now, consider his care for Timothy in the light of what he tells him in verse 3: “I constantly remember you in my prayers.” It’s good to know that others pray for us. “I long to see you.” That’s not, like, “Maybe I’ll see you,” or “Perhaps I’ll catch up with you,” but it is the longing that I have to see my loved ones when I get the chance to come across the ocean. It is a longing that is possessed of a homesick yearning. That’s the phrase he uses. “I’ve been reminded,” he says in verse 5, “of your sincere faith, and by the way, let me encourage you to stir up the gift that is in you.”
I wonder whether we could say justifiably, then, that in light of this we have the constituent elements in discipleship—in helping another along the journey of faith. Oh, we couldn’t say that we have everything, but we do have some helpful pointers, I believe. All of us in the journey of life are being helped on by those who are ahead, and presumably are encouraging others who are alongside and behind us. Fred Mitchell, who preached from this same place years ago, in one of his memorable little doggerels says, “You [can] never lead souls heavenward unless climbing yourself. You need not be very high up, but you must be climbing.” And as Paul continues to climb, he encourages Timothy to climb along with him.
What are the constituent elements, then, of his urging him along the path of faith? Let me suggest to you that they are four. Number one: faithful in prayer. That’s verse 3: “I constantly remember you.” Number two: warm in friendship. That’s verse 4. Number three—verse 5—encouraging in his words: “[I’ve] been reminded of your sincere faith.” He doesn’t say to him, “Now, Timothy, I know you’re a bit of a disaster, I know you’re far too young, and I know you’re making a hash of things generally, and so I thought I’d write and let you know that I know how dreadful you are, and I’m sure you’re encouraged to know that I know, and everyone else knows, frankly,” and so on. No. Many of us have that capacity; we’re able to make the hearts of the people sink—as in [Numbers] 14, remember, when the twelve came back from checking out the promised land, Caleb and Joshua stood out because they encouraged the people, and it says of the other ten, “and they made the hearts of the people sink.” May the Lord save us and forgive us for the times when we do that. That’s very easy.
But no, Paul says, “I’m faithful in prayer, I’m warm in my friendship, I’m encouraging in my words, and I want to be,” he says, “purposeful in my exhortation.” “In light of this,” he says, “for this reason I want to remind you to fan into flame the gift of God that is in you.”
Now, these verses contain a wonderful and necessary reminder of the benefits and blessings of a Christian heritage. From infancy Timothy had been acquainted with the Scriptures; we’ll see that in 3:15. And I stand to testify this morning to the immense privilege and benefit that it is to have been reared in that kind of environment. Years ago, as a teenager, somewhere in West Yorkshire, I was given the opportunity to speak to a gathering of people at some majestic affair like a Daffodil Tea or something like that—or a Dandelion and Burdock Tea, I don’t know what it was. And I remember in the course of what I had to say as a passing line saying, “And I was brought up in a Christian home,” and then I paused and I said, “and frankly, I don’t know whether that’s plus or a minus,” and then I continued with what I was saying. And a man who seemed very elderly to me at the time—he was probably the same age as I am now—grabbed me very quickly and firmly by the scruff of the neck and ushered me round behind a bookstall, and essentially said, “Now, listen here, lad. Thou may not know now—thou may be too daft now to understand—but one day thou’ll know that it is a grand privilege, and never forget that.” And I’ve never forgotten it. And I was stupid to even say that. The benefit of a godly grandmother from the highlands of Scotland who prayed for me from conception, or prior to; of a mother who loved Christ and nurtured me—father, too, but it’s “grandmother” and “mother” here, we’ll just stay with the flow.
I want just to say in passing a word to you, godly grannies: You’re at the forefront of things. You’re at the very knife edge of things, laying hold of God’s throne for your grandchildren, who are growing up in an age of confusion, who many of them are taking on board great chunks of confused thinking and bizarre living. And eternity will reveal the impact of your prayers, even if you don’t see it in time. So, to praying grandmothers and praying mothers: pray on.
Now, Timothy had not only been reared in a godly environment and befriended by a mighty apostle, but he had also been endowed with spiritual gifts. And that’s why in verse 6 and following Paul gives him the exhortation, “Fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you.” I’m inclined to agree with the view of verse 6 that maintains that what Paul is referring to here is simply the authority and power to be a minister of Christ. It may be more than that; I certainly do not believe it is less than that.
What is this “gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands”? The average home Bible study group can stop here for a fortnight as everybody debates it and dialogues over it, and nobody knows what it is, but it doesn’t stop the group from stopping, you know. And the tea’s going cold, and people are leaving, and folks are pontificating on what it is. Well, my best shot at it is that it is the authority and power of Christ to be a minister of Christ. It may be something different. But this, you see, was the necessary reminder. Timothy is frail, Timothy is timid. Therefore it seems only right that he would be encouraged to fan this into a flame.
This wonderful balance between what God does and what we do. The power necessary to fulfill the exhortations of Scripture is supplied to us in the Spirit: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”—Philippians 2:12—“for it is God [who is at work] in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” “Fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you … [because] God [didn’t] give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, [and] of love and of self-discipline.” You see, if the sentence had ended simply “fan into flame the gift of God,” Timothy might have sat there and said, “You know, I’ve been trying to do that, and I haven’t been making much of a go of it. What am I supposed to do? After all, look at me.” And then comes the reminder of the resources.
Now, we have to be very careful of this notion of power, don’t we? “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power.” This is not the power of personality, it’s not the power of persuasive speech, it’s not the power of human boldness. Paul, when he writes to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 4, he says to them, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the glorious power might be seen to be from God and not from us.” When he writes to the Corinthians in his first letter, he is so concerned that he doesn’t press home his abilities and his background. And his desire in relationship to this is in order that the power of God might rest on them, and that they might trust, and their confidence might be in the power of God rather than on the wisdom of man.
And in a generation and at a time when there is so much made of being powerful, and being useful, and so on, let us remind ourselves that it is axiomatic throughout all of Scripture that it is an awareness of our inadequacy, and an awareness of our frailty, and often of our fearfulness that is the environment in which we make the discovery of God’s enduement. So that the very things we run from—trials—are the means of God’s blessing. The very thing that we try and cover up in ourselves—our weakness and our diffidence and our lack of giftedness—is the very foundation that God uses to magnify his Son. And our endeavor to make much of ourselves, or to let people know how powerful we are, or how useful we might be, is the very denial of the experience of that which God longs to give to his children.
And along with “power,” “love,” which is a vital prerequisite in a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. Surely and hopefully, as life goes by, the older we get the more we understand this in ministering to one another: that there are more flies caught by a jar of honey, as Spurgeon said, than by a bottle of vinegar. And some of us have got the vinegar face and the vinegar ministry, you know. We wouldn’t be described as a honey pot—certainly not by our wives. If you’re a pastor here today, do your people know you love them? I don’t mean that in some kind of buy-yourself-a-teddy-bear squishy sentimentality. Do your folks know that you love them? By your self-giving to them, by your opening up of the Scriptures to them, by your life amongst them? For that’s what God has entrusted to his servants: not only power in order that we might be useful, but love in order that we might be approachable.
And “self-discipline” in order that we might fulfill all the duties of our ministry. You see, the missing element in many of our lives is simply self-discipline—that we are chaotic. And we might make a joke about the average pastor’s study, but it’s unacceptable. And it’s often a picture of the individual’s life.
Now, at two minutes to eleven we’ve come to the word “So.” Seems highly appropriate, don’t you think? (Two-letter words are important in Scrabble, incidentally—especially if you get them on one of those star things, whatever they are. Especially if you’ve got a Z. Although how you would have a two-letter word beginning with Z, I don’t know. But I’m sure one of you does. And I’ll be glad to know what it is later, thank you.)
Okay, let me just crash on for a little longer. “So,” he says—and incidentally, pastors, we always in our preparation should have two words written up beside our Bibles: So what? So what? Because that’s what our people are asking. They’re asking, “So what?” “So what, in light of my recent bereavement?” “So what, in light of the challenges of my employment?” “So what, in relationship to my teenage children?” “So what, in relationship to my singleness?” “So…”
Now, the application that he makes here is not so much for the “What are the implications for us?” but “What are the implications of this for Timothy?” Well, first of all, don’t be ashamed: “So do not be ashamed.” You would think after he’d written all of this that the last thing in the world he would write is, “Do not be ashamed.” He’s just told him, “You’ve got power, you’ve got love, you’ve got self-discipline, you’ve got a godly heritage, you’ve got good friends, you’ve got me going for you.” You might have thought he’d say, “So preach the Word.” No, he says, “So do not be ashamed.” That’s a great encouragement to me, I don’t know about you. Because it is so easy to be ashamed—to be ashamed of the Master, to be ashamed of the Master’s men, and to be ashamed of the Master’s message. “Do not be ashamed,” he says, “to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner.”
You see, vague talk about religion, vague talk about God, about spirituality, is largely tolerable in a pluralistic culture. What is unacceptable is a clear, humble, unequivocal declaration that there is salvation in no one other than Jesus Christ, “for there is no other name under heaven given [among] men by which we must be saved.” Let me tell you what you can say in a pluralistic culture: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Not a problem! Just don’t add the second part of the verse: “No one comes to the Father but by me.” And in our generation we can make all kinds of vague and sentimental statements that are loosely akin to the gospel without them being the forceful declaration that the gospel truly is. And when we are prepared to be unashamed and unequivocal, then the word of Paul to Timothy will be a word for us: “Join with me in suffering for the gospel.” What a word this is, and what a strange word to our day. And yet Jesus in Mark 8 says, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
Now, loved ones, we’re gonna have to work this out, it seems to me. The invitation that Paul extends here to join in the privilege of suffering for the gospel is not an invitation that will be responded quickly to by the faint-hearted. It frankly is a troubling invitation to the triumphalism of so much of our day that seeks to present Christian living in glowing colors always, and in powerful and in transcendent ways.
And one of the missing elements in evangelicalism, I think, is a well-thought-out theology of suffering. We sing, “I am the Lord that healeth thee,” and we want to confirm and affirm the fact of God’s power to heal. But both the Bible and human experience tells me that in the vast majority of cases, leaving aside death as the ultimate healing, those for whom we have continued to pray and have claimed—sometimes in outlandish ways—all kinds of promises of God still suffer from multiple sclerosis, still “see through a glass, darkly,” still are devastated by emotional concerns, and still live in the midst of difficult days. And it is a failure on our part to realize what the Bible says concerning the nature of suffering that leaves us dumbfounded before the questions of our generation. Because our triumphalism isn’t true, and then we’ve nothing left to say. And we don’t write songs about heaven anymore, because apparently nobody’s concerned to go, because we’re liking it so much down here. And after all, we have apparently brought all that is going to be up there down here, if truth were told. So why would you need to go? Why not just stay?
You see, we’re not telling the truth. “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come.” That’s the truth. And there are still more to come. “’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will take me home,” you see. That’s how he can speak with conviction under the shadow of the guillotine. There’s no silly talk from Paul, no bizarre unrealistic claims; theological substance that stirs the heart and transforms the life.
Now, the only way that we will be able to do this in joining in the suffering of the gospel is by the power of God. And it is God “who has saved us,” and you come to a wonderful section here on the nature of salvation. Let me just run right through it.
How have we been saved? “Not on account of anything desirable in us but on the basis of God’s own purpose and grace”—a grace that “was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.” The undeserved favor of God reaches into the eternal councils of his will. You stay up and drink a lot of coffee and try and work that out.
I found a friend, O such a friend!
He loved me ere I knew him,
And he drew me with the cords of love,
And thus he bound me to him;
And round my heart so closely twined
These ties that naught can sever,
For I am his, and he is mine,
Forever and forever.
And where did that begin? In the eternal counsels of his will. What is that? That’s the doctrine of election. And where did you get that? Out of the Bible. And how are you to use it? Not as a bomb to be dropped, not as a banner to be waved, but as a bastion for the soul in the midst of difficult and sometimes doubting days. “I could never keep my hold, He will hold me fast!” What a wonderful truth! What a necessary truth for a young man facing such a prospect in his day!
(Incidentally, did you like that? “Not a bomb to be dropped, not a banner to be waved, but a bastion”? It’s got a ring of Stott to it, hasn’t it? It was Eric Alexander!)
Now, lest any of this should appear to be rarefied theology, Paul shows that the purposes of God are bestowed in the person of Christ. “Given us in Christ Jesus”; that takes you to Titus 2:11, which in the Anglican lectionary is one of the selected readings for Christmas Day: “The grace of God that [brings] salvation [has] appeared to all men,” the Epiphany! What is this grace? How does this grace come to me? If it is in this mysterious way that God has ordained it, how do I meet it, how do I greet it? Well, it comes to us in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. And he is the one “who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
What a word for our day! The only pornography left at the end of the twentieth century is death. That’s the only dirty word that you can’t say: death. That’s the only subject you mustn’t introduce at a party: death. But the statistics are in: one out of one dies. And people try and distance themselves from it, nowhere better than America. The folks when they’re dead look a lot better than when they were alive over there. The first time you ever saw them with their glasses cleaned, you know? They got a big fountain pen in the front of their pocket. What are they saying? They’re trying to say, “He’s not really away.” Yes, he’s away! And you’ll be away, too. Therefore, “It’s better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of laughter,” because in the house of mourning we will reflect upon this. And who has anything to say to a society that is consumed with death and has no answer? The Christian, who knows Christ, who knows that in Jesus there is life and immortality that has been brought to light! We’re not simply gonna have some kind of “soul existence.” We’re gonna have the whole shooting match! “When I get to heaven, I’m gonna put on my shoes, gonna walk all over God’s heaven,” right? Isn’t that what the Negro spiritual said? Go out and tell people, “God’s not dead, he is alive.” Sounds like a chorus, doesn’t it?
Now, his testimony in verse 11, he says, “And [it’s] of this gospel I was appointed a herald,” bringing the King’s announcement, “an apostle,” as we’ve noted, “and a teacher” to explain and apply the truth. “And incidentally,” he says, “if you think that I’m living in the Holiday Inn, and getting picked up in a big car, and being driven around, and I’m swanky, I’ve got news for you: that is why I’m suffering as I am. Now, I am a preacher and a teacher of the gospel, and you’ll find me in the jail.”
This is history to us; God knows whether it will become reality to a subsequent generation. I do believe if we’re prepared to stand firm on the issues of human sexuality and on the issues of the absolute particularity of the person of Jesus Christ, pluralism will eventually do to us what it did to the Christians in the Roman Empire. Pluralism only accepts pluralists. As long as we’re prepared to put our Christ in the pantheon amongst the other gods, they will tolerate us. But to the degree that we are prepared to stand up and say, “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” they say, “We’ll put your head in the ground and we’ll set fire to you and pour tar on you.”
“I’m suffering.” The offense of the cross. “But I’m not ashamed, because I know whom I believe. I might be a prisoner, but I’m not a prisoner on account of fraud, or manipulation, or worming my way into people’s homes, or seeing godliness as a means to financial gain. No, I’m here on account of the gospel. Therefore, Timothy”—verse 13—“what I’ve been telling you, I want you to keep it. Keep it as the pattern. Let it be the model to you. Don’t fiddle with it, don’t try and reconfigure it. This is it. Guard it. It’s a good deposit, it’s a beautiful deposit. How should you guard it? Not in a bombastic way! Guard it with faith and love.” Some of us are good at guarding it in a very obnoxious kind of fashion—very unattractive. He writes to Titus, he says, “Make the gospel of the Lord Jesus attractive in a generation that doesn’t believe.” So when we guard it, we do so with faith and with love. And the means provided is by “the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”
Father, out of an abundance of words we pray that we might hear your voice. We pray that you would speak in the stillness, and as the rain falls upon the roof of this tent, so we pray that you will come and rain upon your people renewed convictions concerning the sufficiency of your Word, the centrality of Christ, the necessity of the Spirit’s power, and the immense privilege of joining with others in the cause of the gospel. Hear our prayers for the hours of this day that follow as we commit ourselves afresh to you, in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me.”
 Handley C. G. Moule, The Second Epistle to Timothy: Short Devotional Studies on the Dying Letter of St. Paul (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1952), 18.
 2 Timothy 2:2 (paraphrased).
 “The Lambeth Way: The Anglican Communion Must Hold Fast to Its Core Beliefs,” The Times, July 18, 1998, 19.
 Sinclair B. Ferguson, Know Your Christian Life: A Theological Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 7.
 See Acts 9:1–18.
 Acts 26:16 (NIV 1984).
 2 Timothy 1:1 (GNT).
 John 10:10 (KJV).
 2 Timothy 1:10 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 14:17 (paraphrased).
 Romans 16:21 (NIV 1984).
 Philippians 2:20 (NIV 1984).
 1 Timothy 4:12 (paraphrased).
 1 Timothy 5:23 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 16:10 (paraphrased).
 Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: Evangelist of the 18th-century Revival (London: Wakeman Trust, 1990).
 George Whitefield, George Whitefield’s Journals (1737–1741), ed. William V. Davis (Gainesville, FL: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1969), 57.
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of 2 Timothy: Guard the Gospel (Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 26.
 Attributed to Bishop Walsham How in Edith Mary Gell, The More Excellent Way: Words of the Wise on the Life of Love—A Sequence of Meditations (London: H. Frowde, 1898), 209.
 Joshua 14:8 (paraphrased).
 Philippians 2:12–13 (KJV).
 2 Corinthians 4:7 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 2:5 (paraphrased).
 C. H. Spurgeon, “Bells for the Horses,” in C. H. Spurgeon’s Works as Published in His Monthly Magazine The Sword and the Trowel, vol. 1 (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim, 1975), 189. Paraphrased.
 Acts 4:12 (NIV 1984).
 John 14:6 (paraphrased).
 Mark 8:38 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV).
 John Newton, “Amazing Grace” (1779).
 James G. Small, “I’ve Found a Friend” (1866). Paraphrased.
 Attributed to Eric Alexander. Source unknown.
 Ada R. Habershon, “When I Fear My Faith Will Fail” (1906).
 Titus 2:11 (KJV).
 Ecclesiastes 7:2 (paraphrased).
 Thomas A. Dorsey, “Walk over God’s Heaven” (1954). Paraphrased.
 Philippians 2:10–11 (paraphrased).
 Titus 2:10 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.