I've entitled what I want to say 'Looking Ahead'. I want us to think about what we should expect, or be ready for, as Christian people as we face this coming Church year. And I want us to focus on a passage from Paul's second letter to Timothy. The staff have been studying this letter in their two-day retreat this past week, and we found it very relevant for this present time. But I want to focus this evening on just a few verses: 2 Timothy 2.8-13. And I have three headings: first, The Challenge for Timothy; secondly, The Gospel of Christ, thirdly, The Experience of Paul, and by way of conclusion, A Lesson for Us All. So, first,
1. The Challenge for Timothy
For this we need some background. Paul has been arrested and is in prison in Rome for preaching the gospel and being faithful to God's truth. He is writing to Timothy, his young assistant, who is miles away in Ephesus. And he is writing because Paul is convinced that this time he is on death row. Not unnaturally Timothy is frightened, worried and upset. In fact, 2 Timothy 1.4 shows that he is reduced to tears by Paul's imprisonment. So Paul has to remind Timothy that as a Christian worker God has given him (1 Timothy 1.7)…
"…a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control"
More seriously, it seems, Timothy might be tempted to back peddle a bit, now the heat is on in terms of opposition. So Paul then has to say (chapter 1, verse 8),
"… do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord [i.e. that you are a Christian, believing Jesus is Lord], nor of me his prisoner."
Timothy may have been tempted to be like Peter in the High Priest's courtyard the night before Jesus' crucifixion, and like Peter, to distance himself from Paul, as Peter distanced himself from Christ. Others had already distanced themselves from Paul. Paul writes in verse 15 of chapter 1:
"You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes."
Who knows all about that sort of thing? Some of you will have experienced it. You have taken a stand for Christ in an upfront way somewhere. But so called Christian friends have not stood by you. They have just merged in with, or even joined, the crowd opposing you. I've experienced that in the past, and Jonathan Pryke has been experiencing that recently, in the Church of England. So how does Paul encourage Timothy to stand firm? Well, after stressing that Timothy has the Holy Spirit to give him courage, Paul then supplies the motive for being courageous and faithful. And the great motive is that we have (2 Timothy 1.9-12) a God…
"…who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do."
And as you move into chapter 2, Paul carries on with his encouragement and challenge to Timothy. Look at verse 1 of chapter 2:
"You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus."
So then (verse 3) he can…
"…share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus."
And Paul says to Timothy, far from doing nothing and keeping quiet, because the heat is on, be active and pass on to others who themselves can pass on to others the truth that you have heard from me and for which I am being attacked. Nor is that some private truth from a weird sect. No! It is (verse 2):
"what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses"
It is that you are to …
"…entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also."
Well, that is the challenge not only to Timothy but to us as well, in this increasingly hostile Western World and what we are seeking to do in so many of our different groups in "teaching others also". But then after this challenge, Paul writes about the gospel of Christ and the heart of the gospel that is to be passed on. And that is our second heading:
2. The Gospel of Christ
Look at verse 8:
"Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel."
That is so important. Why does Paul say that? Because it is easy to forget Jesus Christ risen from the dead. I was in a library once of a distinguished Theological Seminary in the United States. Out of 123,000 volumes there were only a few hundred on the Resurrection of Jesus. That challenged me. For all those other Christian books were, and are, theologically valueless unless Jesus is "risen from the dead". As Paul puts it bluntly in 1 Corinthians 15.17:
"If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile"
And notice that Paul in 2 Timothy uses the perfect past tense, when he says "Remember Jesus Christ risen from the dead." That tense in the original means something happened in the past with the effects remaining. You are not simply referring to the past event as in, for example, 'you made a mess last week.' But 'you have made a mess [perfect tense] and you haven't yet cleared it up.' So, "remember Jesus Christ risen from the dead" means, 'remember that Jesus Christ was not only raised from the dead 2000 ago [as a past fact].' But it means, 'he did rise then, but he is very much still alive today and ruling and reigning in this universe of space and time and beyond space and time, the real Lord of Lords and King of Kings.' And risen and reigning he has all authority. Therefore, such authority as all our politicians have - from Trump to Kim Jong Un - derives from Jesus Christ. Among the last words of the risen Jesus to his disciples before his Ascension were (Matthew 28.18):
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."
And on that basis he said (Matthew 28.19-20):
"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…"
Then came that wonderful, final promise,
"…And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
And that is possible because he has been raised from the dead and the effects are forever. And Timothy must never forget that or disbelieve it, particularly when he is facing opposition for being faithful to Christ and Paul. So are you remembering in your life and work at Jesmond Parish Church and in the world, "Jesus Christ risen from the dead"? For hundreds of thousands of Christians today in Britain are forgetting that Jesus Christ is risen, as the Bible says. On 10th April this year The Times newspaper reported on a poll the BBC had commissioned for Easter. I quote:
"Comres, the polling company surveyed 2010 British adults and found that 31 percent of Christians [those identifying as Christians] believe the Bible's account of the Resurrection. The Rev Lorraine Cavanagh, acting general secretary for Modern Church, which promotes liberal Christian theology, told the BBC, 'An adult faith requires that it be constantly questioned, constantly reinterpreted. To ask an adult to believe in the Resurrection the way they did at Sunday school simply won't do and that's true of much of the key elements of the Christian faith.'"
But there were people like that in Paul's time - that 69% and that ordained theologically liberal woman, who is so wrong. That is why Paul tells Timothy in verses 16-18 of chapter 2:
"avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying the resurrection has already happened [that, of course, is the General Resurrection of us and of others which will only happen when Christ returns]. They are upsetting the faith of some."
That is why Timothy had to avoid some people who claimed to be Christian, and why modern people like Hymenaeus and Philetus have to be avoided with degrees of impaired communion. Obviously you cannot have people denying the empty tomb and the bodily resurrection of Jesus and our resurrection one day. Of course, such people themselves will probably not be attacked as hardly Christian. But to be strong under attack you need to be convinced of the truth of the resurrection of Jesus. For that confirms and proves true, as we've seen, the rest of our faith. And remember, Christ is risen from the dead, with a body that is the same but different and transformed. Sure, it is a mystery. But the tomb was empty and the disciples saw Jesus with a real body but changed. This is how one, not particularly conservative scholar (G.B.Caird) describes the New Testament evidence:
"Sober criticism cannot get behind the Gospel record to a plain, commonplace tale, devoid of the miraculous and the supernatural. The early Christians believed that, in Christ, God had been at work in new and astonishing ways and they had the evidence of their own eyes to support their faith. Luke cannot justly be accused of exaggerating the miraculous element in his narrative … He has sometimes been taken to task for emphasizing the physical nature of the Resurrection since it is in his Gospel alone that the risen Jesus eats and drinks with his disciples. But here too he is simply reproducing with fidelity the sources on which he was relying. For in Acts 10.37-43 he puts into the mouth of Peter an almost credal utterance which is clearly derived from an Aramaic source and which presents the same picture of the Resurrection as we find in the Gospel."
So Paul says to Timothy,
"remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David [that is to say, a real man, born of the virgin Mary, and the promised Messiah'] as preached in my gospel [and Paul preached that he rose after dying for our sins, bearing the punishment we deserve, but is now risen and reigning at the throne of the universe]"
That brings us, thirdly, to:
3. The Experience of Paul
Jesus' Great Commission in Matthew 28.19-20 is to…
"Go and make disciples [make learners] … teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you."
And that is what Paul did in his day, and as we've seen in Paul's case there was suffering. And he underlines that suffering. For when having talked about preaching the gospel, he says, verse 9:
"for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal."
So Paul is in a prison, unjustly imprisoned, awaiting a kangaroo court sentence, as a criminal (which he is not) for preaching the gospel. But he is conscious that while the truth-bearer may suffer, the truth itself 'will out'. There may be, and there have been in history, periods of a general famine of hearing the truth of God's word, which we have now in the Bible. And there may be dire social consequences, such as Paul outlines in the beginning of 2 Timothy 3. But then God, in his time, ends that spiritual famine. Indeed, while (verse 9 of chapter 2) Paul is "bound with chains as a criminal," at the same time, he says, "the word of God is not bound". For among other things false teachers will eventually be exposed as being "corrupted in mind" and (verse 9 of chapter 3) they…
"…will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all."
Yes, the truth will out, because "the word of God is not bound"! In some fields on the Yetholm road, north of Wooler, there is the site of Gefrin. In August I re-read the plaque on the roadside that tells you about it (I quote):
"At this place was GEFRIN, Royal Township of the seventh century Anglo-Saxon Kings of Northumbria. Here the missionary Paulinus in AD 627 instructed the people in Christianity for thirty-six days and baptized them in the River Glen close by."
There was a mini-revival. Then Gefrin was sacked by Cadwallon and Penda and it seemed the Christian faith was threatened with extinction. For Paulinus was the last of the Augustine of Canterbury Italian missionary team. But, no! In AD 635, just eight years later, King Oswald brought the great missionary bishop Aidan from Scottish Iona to set up in Lindisfarne. And there was a new dawn of missionary work and Christian and Church expansion. That's how God works. And so Paul was utterly confident of the truth of his gospel, namely that Jesus Christ was risen and reigning and by his Holy Spirit could change the hardest of hearts, for "the word of God is not bound." So he could say what he said in verse 10 of chapter 2:
"Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect [the elect being people who one day will believe as their spiritual eyes are opened], that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory."
Paul is willing to suffer anything for the sake of men and women coming to faith in Jesus Christ and receiving salvation that comes through Christ alone, and that brings hope of eternal glory. So one of Paul's own great motives was helping people come to what really was for human flourishing and for the glory of God, namely salvation in Christ. What is your great motive for this year?
Can I say, you don't have to be a great preacher like Paul and Timothy for needing to "endure everything" to win people for Christ. And that endurance doesn't have to be enduring persecution and martyrdom. It can include doing regular and routine, and sometimes tiring and tedious, tasks - from being conscientious as a sidesman, to crèche helping, to being on the video and sound desks, to providing tea and coffee and other meals, to being one of the hundreds who help at festival times like Christmas with Carols by Candlelight, to the office staff, to many others, and, of course, to praying privately and with others for the Church and witnessing as you are able. Many types of endurance are needed for people to "obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory." Paul certainly was willing to cope with the less as well as the more glamorous things. As he said in Philippians 4.11-13:
"I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I have learnt how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me."
I must conclude. I do so with:
4. A Lesson for Us All
Look at chapter 2 verses 11-13:
"The saying is trustworthy, for: "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."
Some people think this is a primitive Christian hymn or song that Paul is quoting. Whether that is true or not, the message is clear. There is no cheap grace in the Christian life. For Jesus calls you to take up your Cross and follow him. But at the same time there is a true and glorious fulfilment. Listen to those words again:
"If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him."
So the final word is not death but life, the resurrection and reigning with Christ. For if we share and endure, in a way some of, Jesus Christ's sufferings we shall share his reign, somehow, one day when he returns. However, and with this I close as this song closed - with a warning in verses 12b and 13a:
"'if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful."
Verse 12a is more than an echo but a near quote of Jesus' words in Matthew 10.33:
"whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven."
Those early Christians not only took Jesus' teaching about heaven but also about hell seriously. No one is saved by good works, but they are saved for good works and salvation is evidenced by good works. So the bad work of intentionally denying Christ obviously proves you are not saved. And "if we are faithless" (the second half of this couplet) - if we deny Christ and have no faith and atheistically do not trust in Christ - "he remains faithful". But what does "he remains faithful" mean? Many think most likely it means, 'he remains faithful and true in judgment' (as, of course, he is faithful to forgive when there is confession and repentance). And why? Verse 13b tells you: "for [Paul says] he cannot deny himself". For he is the same, "yesterday, today and for ever" and so faithful not only to his teaching about divine mercy but also to his teaching about divine judgment.