2 TIMOTHY 1:9-14
The letter of 2 Timothy, regarded by many as the last of Paul’s letters, functions as a farewell letter to his son in the faith, Timothy, engaged at that time in leading the church of Ephesus.
It is a realistic letter about the challenges of ministry, and at times the realism might seem to convey sometime more like pessimism. However, as I have read this letter several times over the last season of ministry I have been struck by Paul’s optimism – an optimism that is striking considering his own location (prison), his expectation about his own death (imminent), and his consciousness of the threats (inevitable and plentiful).
The source of Paul’s ministry optimism can be found, I believe, in six verses in the middle of 2 Timothy 1. In verses 9-10 we see the first source of Paul’s optimism – the significance of the gospel within all of history and eternity. The saving grace of God predates the history of the universe, as it is given before the beginning of time (verse 9). The saving grace of God then appears within human time and history through the life and ministry of Christ Jesus (verse 10). And that saving grace then connects believers to an eternal future as death is destroyed and immortality brought to light. The grace that existed in Christ before history, enters history, and transforms history into eternity. What greater cause of optimism could a gospel herald and teacher have than to know this history of the gospel! It means that suffering for the gospel leads not to shame but to humble confidence (verse 12).
The second source of Paul’s optimism is his knowledge of God as the one who will guard the gospel. The phrase in verse 12 requires a little work to unpack – “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.” The day that Paul has in mind is clearly the day of judgment and Christ’s appearing (see 1:18 and 4:8), so what is it that Paul has entrusted, and God is able to guard? Suggestions are many, but the key to understanding is to notice that Paul uses the same two words (‘guard’ and ‘entrusted’) in verse 14, where that which is to be guarded is the gospel itself. Paul entrusts the heralding and teaching of the gospel for the next generation to Timothy (verse 14), but he has already entrusted that transmission of gospel proclamation to God, and God is able to guard it. Even as he exhorts Timothy to “guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you” Paul is optimistic because he knows that God is the one who will himself guard that gospel until the day of Christ’s return.
What a comfort this must have been for Paul at the end of his life and ministry, in chains and witnessing some of his co-workers abandoning him and the gospel (verse 15). God guards his gospel, and he will do so until the day Christ returns.
This is a good encouragement for those of us who might be inclined to worry that faithful gospel ministry is in grave danger beyond our own generation. Are we not prone to believe that we are more central to God’s plans for the gospel than we actually are? We certainly must play our part, but God himself is deeply committed to guarding the gospel and ensuring that it is passed on from one generation to the next. We guard the gospel, just as Timothy was called upon to guard the gospel, but we know that behind it all the God of history and eternity is working his purposes out and guarding that which Paul had entrusted to him.
We must not feel the pressure to add or subtract. We guard what has been handed down to us from the apostles, and because God is the guardian in chief of his own gospel, we are guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us (verse 14).
Of course, being a steward and guardian of the received truth might sometimes feel less exciting and prestigious than being an innovator. There is creative work to be done for sure, but it is not the work of reinventing the gospel, but rather of thinking through how the unchanging gospel applies to our ever-changing world. As Jonathan Griffiths has written in his excellent short commentary on 2 Timothy, “As we seek to be fresh and even prophetic in our application of the word to our new day, we must be those who stick faithfully to believing and proclaiming the never-changing Word entrusted to us.”
GAVIN PERKINS, BOWRAL