Monday, October 4, 2010

The Word of God is not Chained

A meditation on 2 Timothy 2:8-9

October 31, 2010 marks the 493rd anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. One of the many accomplishments of the Reformation is the recovery and the propagation of the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. After being set aside by many for centuries, the powerful Word of God has spread in many parts of 16th century Europe, conquering many hearts with the message of salvation in Christ alone. However, the victory of the gospel has also cost the lives of many faithful believers, including preachers.

It is a fact that when the gospel advances persecution and suffering also intensify. Today, almost 500 years after the Reformation, the gospel of God continues to go out to the nations, conquering many souls for the Lord Jesus Christ. But with this conquest also comes an on-going resistance and opposition. Yet, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God's people and God's faithful ministers continue to labor in proclaiming this glorious gospel throughout the world. There are good reasons why ministers of the gospel are greatly motivated to persevere in this ministry in spite of its accompanying challenges and hardships.

In 2 Timothy 2:8-9, the Apostle Paul presents two living examples of perseverance in suffering for the sake of the gospel. First, he presents our Lord Jesus Christ (v.8); then he mentions himself (v. 9).

First, we have the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. One of Paul's repeated exhortations in this letter is for Timothy to share in suffering for the gospel as a faithful minister of Jesus Christ. In 1:8 he says, “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God,...”

Again in 2:3, Paul urges Timothy saying, “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” This call to share in suffering, of course, is in the context of laboring for the gospel. In verses 4-6, Paul underscores “the need for suffering hardship as a good soldier of Christ with the imagery of the soldier (v.4) being supplemented with that of an athlete (v.5) and a farmer (6)” (George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles, p. 392). These three images (of soldier, athlete, and farmer) convey the idea of disciplined and enduring service that would eventually be rewarded.

Then in verse 8 Paul calls Timothy to focus his attention on Christ. “Remember Jesus Christ,” he says. Paul is urging Timothy here to 'keep in mind' and to 'think about' Jesus as the one raised from the dead and as the one who descended from David. The reason why Paul mentions Jesus Christ this way may not be obvious, especially as it relates to his calling Timothy to share in suffering.

However, if we'll take Paul's word that this is his gospel, that this is the good news that he preached, then we know that the two descriptions of Christ are but a shorthand of the content of the gospel. This gospel centers on the person of Jesus Christ. This gospel should encourage Timothy 'for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes' (Rom. 1:16).

In this gospel Jesus Christ is being preached as the one who has risen from the dead and the offspring of David. In saying this Paul is implicitly telling Timothy of the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. And in remembering the death of Christ Timothy is also reminded of the many sufferings of Christ, especially His death on the cross.

Through His death Christ paid for the penalty of our sin, and in His death He died for sinners, like us. So the underlying truth in this is that Jesus Christ suffered and died before He was resurrected. Therefore “Timothy is to remember that Jesus is raised from death itself, and that triumph is to encourage him when he contemplates suffering hardship for Christ” (Knight, p. 397).

Also by stating that Jesus is the offspring of David, Paul is declaring that He was born from the line of David, thus underscoring His humanity, His royal descent, and His Messianic identity. His death and resurrection as the Christ, the kingly Messiah from the line of David have secured for His people eternal salvation.

Through His death He redeemed His people from their sin; through His resurrection He conquered the power of death and the devil. Paul is telling Timothy, “Remember your risen and ever-present Lord.” He went through suffering. He died but He conquered death. Now He is alive!

We all recognize the motivational and inspirational power of an extraordinary life. Some of us may have been deeply influenced, for example, by the lives of John Calvin, Martin Luther, and many other godly ministers of the past in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition. Although inspiring, these faithful soldiers of Christ can’t help us. They are dead and their bodies rot in the ground. But listen to the testimony of the Word concerning Jesus, “Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession … He always lives to make intercession for [us]” (Heb. 4:14, 7:25). Remember Jesus Christ. He lives and empowers us by His Holy Spirit. He is the essence of the gospel. And this gospel is the message that Paul has preached.

But this gospel was offensive to many people then, as it is now. Not only because of its simple call to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, but also in its exclusive claim, that is, that apart from Jesus Christ, salvation is nowhere to be found. And this uncompromising claim to exclusivity is what makes the gospel so provocative and what gets those who preach it in trouble, especially in our relativistic and pluralistic society today. Certainly this was true in Paul’s case.

So I want to focus, secondly, on Paul's own example. The gospel that Paul has preached centers on the person of Jesus Christ. Paul received this message concerning Christ by revelation (Gal. 1:12). This is the message he preached in public places (Acts 16:13). This is the message he put forth in places of worship (Acts 17:17). This is the message he shared with people in small groups from house to house (Acts 20:20). This is the message he entrusted to others (2 Tim. 2:2).

Now in v. 9 he is telling Timothy that because of this gospel he is suffering. It was in the course of advancing the message of Christ that Paul endured suffering (1:8, 12; 2:8); that he is chained and treated as a common criminal. His chains, of course, refer to his imprisonment in Rome. This was a much worse situation than the house arrest of his first imprisonment (cf. Acts 28:16-31). This prison was a pit without normal sanitation jammed with people awaiting execution. Paul's word translated "criminal" here is the same word used for those thieves crucified with Jesus. So we may understand the shame Paul was talking about in 1:8, having been classified by the Roman government in the same way as those he was incarcerated with.

But in spite of his suffering in chains in that Roman dungeon, Paul is confidently sure that the word of God is not chained. The gospel of Christ cannot be bound by anyone. One pastor beautifully puts it this way,

It is true of the gospel enterprise that although the messenger may be fettered, the message is always free. The word of God is not chained. Chain the man and the message circulates throughout the prison (Phil. 1:13). Restrain the messenger and the other saints are rejuvenated to speak the word of God without fear (Phil. 1:14). Incarcerate the man and he writes Spirit-inspired letters which last for all eternity and which God uses to liberate untold millions from the bondage of sin. Isolate the man in jail and he, like Bunyan, writes books which God will use to draw men and women to Himself and to cause the saints to persevere in the way of holiness. Silence one preacher and another will step up to take his place. Burn martyrs like Cranmer and Ridley and God uses their dying words to quicken others to life. Burn Bibles and individual pages of Scripture and memorized verses will spread from house to house, saint to saint. Imprisonment and death in no wise slow or stop the advance of the gospel. It will accomplish the purpose for which God has sent it out (Tom Ferrell).

John MacArthur also says, “Paul affirmed that even though he was imprisoned, the gospel could never be imprisoned. That's an important message for those who say we need to soften the gospel message so we don't lose the freedom to preach it. They say we need to take away the offense of the gospel, but that would rob the gospel of its power (cf. 1 Cor. 1:23-25). Some will respond, ‘If we boldly proclaim an offensive gospel we may be arrested and jailed.’ But if that's where the Lord wants us to be, then that's great! Paul wrote to the Philippians, ‘All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar's household’ (Phil. 4:22). Paul was a prisoner at the time he wrote that, yet many in Caesar's household had come to faith in Christ through his witness in such circumstances. Paul viewed the circumstances of imprisonment as an opportunity to evangelize his guards.”

We know that God may permit his servants to be imprisoned, silenced or even killed, but the truth remains that the word of God is not chained and cannot be chained. And Timothy must be strengthened by that truth. We, too, must be encouraged by that truth today, but most especially when we are facing tough times in the ministry.

Some years ago, my wife borrowed a book from a friend about a man named Brother Yun, a Christian leader of the underground church in China. The book is entitled The Heavenly Man. It is an intensely dramatic story of how God took this young, half-starved boy from a poor village in Henan Province and used him to preach the gospel despite horrific opposition and persecution. Brother Yun is a man who from his youth has suffered prolonged tortures and imprisonments for his faith. However, throughout the book he kept pointing to the character and heart of Jesus.

Many Christians in North America or Europe are casually aware that outside the West, Jesus' followers experience difficulty because of their faith. I am aware that in November many churches observe a Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, but afterward people go on with their lives. You cannot read this piercing biography of Brother Yun, whose real name is Liu Zhenying, and remain unchanged. The recorded experiences show in a concrete way what it is for Chinese Christians to live hard lives of extreme danger because of their faith: police raids in the night, long imprisonment without trial, beatings, forced abortions and sterilizations, starvation, dehydration, isolation, nakedness.

However, from these, God produces lives of commitment to Christ, lives of joy, and intense motivation to carry the message of the gospel around the world, at any cost. After reading this book, you'll appreciate the impact Jesus has on civilization as the West know it. You'll see how dark and brutal civilization becomes without Christ. You'll understand why the freedom and protection you and I, from a free country, take for granted are a treasure. But you will also see how dangerous peace, safety and material prosperity can be to your spiritual health and to your commitment to serving the cause of Christ.

Almost 500 years have passed since Luther penned that famous line in his hymn that goes, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill, God's truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.” Yet in those words we can still hear the confidence of Luther that even though his enemies may silence him, God's word will prevail. And it did, and it does and it will prevail forever.

May we not be disheartened by the many hardships in the gospel ministry but be encouraged by the words of the Apostle Paul to Timothy saying, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead...Remember that I may be in chains but the Word of God is not chained.”

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