Yesterday I spoke in church about some stuff at the end of Paul’s 2nd letter to Timothy- it was the last in a series of talks on that letter that’s right near the end of the Bible. I had to miss some bits out, and someone asked whether my talk would be available on my blog… so here it is. Any bits that don’t make sense as you read them need to be understood as if spoken out loud by a bald, slightly hyper guy
and if you’re wondering where the bit about my brother is, it wasn’t in the written script… so here is some of what I said yesterday morning, and a few bits that I didn’t…
The entire letter has been written to encourage Timothy- we need to have that in mind. So how is the passage we’ve heard this morning supposed to be encouraging? The section we heard follows on from comments about those who live evil lives, and at the end Paul returns to this idea- people will not always want to hear the Gospel, will not always want to trust and have faith in God. Before we dismiss that idea as being irrelevant to our time, we need to know that in the last 10 years 1million Christians have been killed in what is termed a ‘situation of witness’- ie they were there because of their faith, and that today 80% of all acts of religious persecution are directed against Christians… we live in a time when people do not want to hear the Gospel, and when Christians are being persecuted and killed for the sake of the Gospel… (source for these stats: article here on the Spectator website). But Paul encourages Timothy to continue in what he has learned, to be prepared in season and out of season, and to discharge all his responsibilities. There isn’t a clause ‘except if someone tells you not to’.
Alongside these terrible truths of suffering and persecution we also need to realise this: In China, following the people’s revolution, Chairman Mao’s government declared Christianity illegal. All foreign Christian workers had to leave the country, Chinese church leaders were arrested and executed, Bibles were banned and destroyed. This systematic persecution was an attempt to destroy the church, to destroy Christianity. But it didn’t quite work. The church went underground, and believers seem to have held on to what Paul was teaching Timothy- don’t give up, don’t let your faith die out… now that its once again legal to be a Christian in China there are some credible numbers available: church attendance is over 60million a week (that’s more than in the whole of Europe although still only 4% of the population).
What caused this response, this turnaround? The realisation that trusting in God, that trusting in God’s word, makes all the difference. The Christians in China, along with those who have suffered persecution before and since, had faith that God is God, with all that means.
They had faith in the promises of God, the gifts of God, and most of all for our passage today, the word of God. They were able to prevail against great opposition because of that faith. Today, in our own lives, we need that too. The persecution we face is not the same- being told you can’t wear a cross at work or that you can’t teach children the unique truths of the Christian faith is not the same as facing imprisonment simply for believing, but it is what we face. Far harder still is the mantra of ‘tolerance’- which for the most part really means silence. Don’t offer a challenge, don’t share something true, don’t invite me to know God’s love… because if you do the implication is that my life is less than perfect, that you know something I don’t, and that I’m wrong.
How do we have the confidence to know that we’re right without smacking of arrogance? How do we know that our faith in Christ is justified? Patience, gentleness and kindness are really important virtues and can’t be overstated here.
We use many ways to think about this- we rationalise things and use logic (the Christian teaching works and is the best available), we hark back to traditions (its what our country is founded on and my nan says it worked for her), or we rely on experience of ourselves or others (so you say prayer can work? I’ll give it a shot). The bottom line, however, is how we feel about Scripture- the Word, the Bible.
2 Tim 3.16- all Scripture… a really important verse, often quoted, strangely positioned at the back end of the last letter of Paul… he’s writing it because in Timothy’s situation he needed to be reminded- this is how we know how to live. All Scripture is… its not saying its clear and simple and easy to understand. What does it mean to be ‘God-breathed’? opinions on this vary from the ‘inspirational’, to the divine penholder with the writer almost in neutral… for myself I understand this to mean that God is the inspiration of Scripture- what an artist looks at before they begin a piece of work, and also commissioning the writing of Scripture, as someone might commission a painting from an artist.
If we try to live solely by any single one we are in trouble… Scripture is always understood with reason, in the light of tradition (whether consciously or not) and through our own experience…
Wherever you start, the most important thing to grasp is that the Bible has life within it, and is filled with the Holy Spirit. And its that life, that power of God, that makes the Bible so much more than just a book, and has made the Christian faith so important to believers like us that they cannot turn their back on it.
The challenge we face is figuring out what are the really important things that might be ‘watered down’ by those who won’t put up with sound doctrine, and what are the things where differing understanding can actually bring life and growth? Paul disagreed with Peter on how new Christians should live and he was shown to be right, he disagreed with his own mentor Barnabas on where they should go to share the Gospel, and both of them were right… For us it might be those things that we see causing disagreements within the church at the moment- whether women can be in authority over men in the position of overseer or bishop, whether those who live in same sex relationships can lead the church… though really both of these are minor things- they are about those who lead the church, not the nature of our faith and the purpose of Gods people. More significant are disagreements over the miracles of Jesus, over his resurrection, about whether God still heals today or if the gift of the Holy Spirit was only for a few Christians in the early church… or things that start small and become huge- Can I pray directly to God? Does the Holy Spirit come from God the Father or from the Father and the son? (those last two were in part causes of the splits of the Roman church from the Orthodox church and the reformation).
How do we keep ourselves strong and united whilst being ourselves? By allowing the Word of God to teach us, rebuke us and encourage us. God speaks to us all, and speaks to each one of us individually. If you’ve not found that to be the case, then I’d recommend you prayerfully start to read your Bible more- and do so expectantly. Why? So that we may be prepared for every good work.
Overall Paul says: don’t forget the gifts you have, serve God each day, keep the Word of God close to your heart… and don’t give up.
Paul is encouraging Timothy to prevail in the face of the difficulties he faces. Prevailing is not the same as being stubborn. Its end point is growth and victory rather than staying still and a draw. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Prevailing has hope at its heart, while stubbornness is caused by fear.
Being a people who will prevail… why? Because we trust God. Because we trust in his Word and we trust in his plan. Because we trust in his promise that we are part of that plan. And so we will prevail.