11. Strong in Grace

Amazing Grace by John Montgomery Boice 1993

You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. 2 TIMOTHY 2:1-2

Several chapters ago I defined grace as “God’s favor to those who actually deserve the opposite.” There was nothing remarkable in that definition. Thousands of Bible teachers have said the same thing, even in those identical words. But in this new section, it is important to expand that initial definition.

It is important because the Bible also expands it in the sense that it uses the word grace not only to describe the unmerited favor of God in salvation but also to describe the provision God makes to live a victorious Christian life. This is unmerited too. That is why it is called grace. But it is nevertheless a new thing. Nearly all the verses we are going to focus on in this third section of the book use the word in this way.

An example is 2 Corinthians 12:9, the verse we will be looking at

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in the next chapter: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Clearly, that verse is not talking about the grace of God in sending Jesus Christ to be our Savior, which is what we think of almost always when we hear the word grace. Rather it is speaking of the provision of help or strength to carry on in God’s service in spite of some severe physical handicap or limitation. Hebrews 4:16 is another example: “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” In this verse grace is actually explained as God’s provision of “help . . . in our time of need.”

We also need grace in this sense. We need it desperately, because without God’s gracious daily provision of help we will never be able to live the Christian life, not even for a moment.

An Introduction to 2 Timothy

In 2 Timothy chapter 2, the old imprisoned apostle Paul gave his young protégé Timothy the charge: “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (vv. 1-2). It is necessary to understand a little about the epistle.

1. Second Timothy is the last of Paul’s surviving letters.

Paul may have written many letters of which we have no record. But of the thirteen letters we do have, those that have been included in the New Testament canon (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon), 2 Timothy was Paul’s last. It was written from prison in Rome where Paul was awaiting martyrdom. In the last chapter he tells

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how his former friends have deserted him (v. 16), and he asks Timothy, the recipient of the letter, to come to him before winter, bringing a warm coat that he had left behind at Troas, plus some scrolls and parchments.

2. Timothy was a young man in an extremely demanding position.

He seems to have been led to Christ by Paul. That is why Paul calls him “my son” (2 Timothy 1:2; 2:1) and “my true son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2). He had traveled with Paul, and when Paul had left Ephesus for Macedonia, Timothy had been left in charge of the Asian churches (1 Timothy 1:3), just as Titus had been left in charge of the churches on Crete (Titus 1:5).

But there were problems. Some of the problems were external. The leaders in Asia Minor had turned against Paul. Paul reports in the first chapter that “everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes” (2 Timothy 1:15). They were ridiculing Paul to the point where Timothy was tempted actually to be ashamed of him (1 Timothy 1:8). Also the churches themselves were corrupt. The third chapter describes these terrible conditions. To manage a fellowship of churches like that under those circumstances and in the absence of Paul and the position of strength he represented would have been an overwhelming challenge for nearly anybody. It certainly was for Timothy.

In addition, there were personal problems that involved Timothy himself. First, he was comparatively young (1 Timothy 4:12). By this time Paul had been in the ministry thirty or thirty-five years, he was an apostle, and even he was no longer given proper respect. How much less respect would his young protege receive! Second, Timothy was prone to illness (1 Timothy 5:23), as a result of which he could not have made a strong impression or been an imposing presence. Finally, he must have been rather reserved — some would say timid — by temperament. This was not necessarily bad. If we had

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known Timothy, we would say that he had the gentle disposition and consistent thoughtfulness necessary to be a kind and encouraging pastor. But Timothy was no Paul! He possessed neither Paul’s drive nor Paul’s stamina, and yet he had been placed in a position in which he was to guard the gospel and guide the churches of Asia in these spiritually barren times.

This note is a recurring theme throughout the letter, and in the first letter, too. “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care,” says Paul at the end of the first letter (1 Timothy 6:20). In the second letter he tells him: “Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you — guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (2 Timothy 1:14); “continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it” (2 Timothy 3:14); and “I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:1-2). Paul earlier had written: “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:1-2).

Paul had preserved the wholeness and purity of the gospel in his lifetime. He was about to be martyred. So he commits his charge to Timothy, who is instructed to guard the gospel, too.

As I read that charge, I find it extending over four generations: (1) God had entrusted the gospel to Paul, who (2) had entrusted the gospel to Timothy, who (3) was to entrust the gospel to faithful men, who (4) would be able to entrust it to others. That is the way the gospel must be passed on. It is the true apostolic succession. But Paul was afraid it would not happen in Asia,

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and his concern that it might not is the burden of his letter to young Timothy.

What was Paul afraid of?

Let’s be very blunt about it. He was afraid that Timothy might quit, the combination of the enormous challenge he faced and his own weak nature proving too much for him. I do not think he ever feared that Timothy would repudiate the gospel itself, as the other leaders in Asia had. Timothy was too well grounded for that. But he might give up. After all, no one had stood with Paul at his first trial (2 Timothy 4:16). Demas, his other coworker and friend, had deserted him and gone to Thessalonica (2 Timothy 4:10). Perhaps Timothy would desert the gospel, too. How would Paul provide for the Asian churches then? Who could he turn to if Timothy should drop out?

It is against this background that we must read our text. “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:1-2). It means: Don’t quit, Timothy. Keep on until others are prepared to hand the gospel on to their successors just as you have been faithful in handing it to them.

Don’t you ever feel like quitting? Quitting the work God has given you? It may be Christian work, but I would not restrict the temptation to that. You may want to opt out of your marriage or some other relationship. You may want to quit a demanding or boring job. It could be anything.

You are not going to profit from 2 Timothy unless you recognize that the temptation Timothy had to quit is also your temptation, since you are no different from him. This is the problem with so much of what is said about Timothy being a weak, timorous person. He may have been. But if he was, he was no different from us, at least at the point where we are pressured to abandon our stand for Jesus Christ. When we call him weak,

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we are thinking of ourselves as being strong. But are we? Are you strong enough not to abandon the gospel or anything else God has given you to do in this life?

The letter mentions several pressure points that were affecting Timothy that could cause him to quit. As we look at them, we must ask ourselves if they are affecting us.

Pressure Point Number 1: Ridicule

The first of these three pressure points was ridicule. Paul discusses it in 2 Timothy 1, where he urges Timothy not to be ashamed of either the Lord, the gospel, or himself.

What a powerful weapon of Satan shame is! A disciple of Jesus Christ may be strong in many ways, able perhaps to stand against the worse kinds of physical threats. We may tell Jesus, as Peter did, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (Mark 14:31). But if even a little servant girl makes fun of us, saying, “You also were with that Nazarene,” a moment or two later we can be found denying we ever knew Jesus or professed the gospel. Peter said, “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about” (Mark 14:67-68). In Asia everyone else had deserted Paul. It would have been easy for Timothy to go with the flow and so dissociate himself from Paul and the gospel he had fully and fearlessly taught.

Notice that the word ashamed occurs three times in chapter 1, in verses 8, 12, and 16. In verse 12, Paul says that he was not ashamed: “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.”

In verse 16, he refers to a man whose name was Onesiphorus, saying that he was not ashamed of Paul: “Onesiphorus . . . was not ashamed of my chains.” When Onesiphorus got to Rome,

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Paul was in prison. Apparently nearly everyone in the Roman church had forgotten Paul, because Onesiphorus had to search hard until he found him. But he did search, and when he found him he was not ashamed of him but rather stood by him and often refreshed him. This must have meant a great deal to Paul in such circumstances. It is why he commends Onesiphorus so forcefully and prays for him.

The remaining use of the word ashamed is in verse 8, and it refers to Timothy. Paul was not ashamed of the gospel. Onesiphorus was not ashamed of Paul. Timothy should not be ashamed either: “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” (vv.8-9). This was no small matter. If Timothy had never been tempted to be ashamed of Paul, Paul would not have uttered this warning. If Paul had never been tempted to shame, he would not have insisted on his own personal stand against shame as strongly as he did (also in Romans 1:16). Instead of being ashamed, Timothy should be willing to suffer for Jesus and the gospel. How can we stand when all about us are going another way and making fun of us for our position? The answer is that God will help us. This is the main point of the letter. In chapter one it is expressed in verse 14: “Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you — guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”

Pressure Point Number 2: Hardships

The second pressure point that might have moved Timothy to abandon his fight for the gospel was hardship, the theme of chapter 2. In the first chapter Timothy was encouraged to suffer for the gospel rather than being ashamed of it. In this chapter,

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one aspect of that suffering is spelled out, not that of ridicule or persecution, but rather of pure physical hardship. It is a recognition that standing for Jesus Christ in a world that is opposed to him and hates him is hard work.

In this chapter there are six metaphors to show what Timothy must be willing to be and do, rather than abandon his calling.

1. A soldier (vv. 3-4).

The Christian’s life is a warfare, and it is not only against earthly enemies like those who may have been ridiculing Paul and Timothy but also “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). This is an unrelenting battle to the death. What kind of a soldier is needed for it? Obviously one who is trained for combat, obedient to orders, and hardened by rigorous military discipline. Verse 3 mentions hardships especially. In verse 4 Paul says that the good soldier will avoid “civilian affairs” or, as we might say, nonmilitary entanglements.

2. An athlete (v. 5).

An athlete does not put himself in harm’s way, as a soldier does. But his course is no less rigorous and demanding. He exerts himself thoroughly in training, and in the contest he presses to the limits of his ability and strength to win a victory. Paul describes himself in these terms in 1 Corinthians, saying that he beat his body and even made it his slave so that he might attain the victor’s prize (1 Cor. 9:24-27). In 2 Timothy his emphasis is on competing by the rules (v. 5).

3. A farmer (v. 6).

Two things immediately come to mind with this image. First, farming is hard physical work. It takes strenuous effort to prepare a field for planting — to plant, care for, and then harvest a crop, often in bad weather. Second, there is a lot of time between the

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work of sowing and the joy of harvesting. So a farmer must be patient. On the other hand, if he is hardworking and patient, the farmer will reap a harvest. Paul seems to have this in mind here, for he speaks of the farmer receiving “a share of the crops” and interrupts the flow of these metaphors to bring in the example of Jesus who died but who also rose again, assuring us that “if we endure, we will also reign with him” (v. 12).

4. A workman (v. 15).

A good workman knows his materials and can cut, fashion, or mold them to make the object he wants. In Timothy’s case, the material to be used is the Word of God, the Bible, and the work is to teach it clearly. The Greek text of verse 15 (“to cut straight”) means a bit more than any of the translations seems to convey, since the true meaning is probably to be measured against the errors of Hymenaeus and Philetus, whom Paul mentions. They had “wandered away from the truth” (v. 18). That is, their teaching had gotten off the straight track. It was faulty. Consequently, anyone who followed it would go astray and miss the right destination. The Bible teacher who is “approved” by God does not deviate from the straight path of Bible teaching and therefore does not lead his listeners astray.

But that takes hard work. To begin with, the teacher has to understand the Bible itself, and that is not easy, since God’s ways are not our ways nor are his thoughts our thoughts. To become a “Bible man or woman” means to have our whole way of thinking reordered. Second, the teacher needs to concentrate on things that are central rather than peripheral. This requires judgment honed by long hours in the Word. Third, he must work to develop true godliness in his listeners, for that he must himself be godly. Finally, the teacher must seek approval of God and not that of other human beings. To seek human approval is a very great danger.

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5. A household vessel (vv. 20-21).

The image of a workman or artisan probably suggested Paul’s description of a Christian worker as a vessel used in large house, since workmen make vessels, and a vessel alone of these metaphors is an impersonal object rather than a profession. Yet the image adds something new. It enables Paul to distinguish between impure vessels and those that have been cleansed for “noble purposes” and “good work” (v. 21). He means that the worker must possess personal godliness or holiness.

6. A servant (vv. 24-26).

The idea of a clean or pure vessel carries over into the last of Paul’s six images, for he speaks of the worker being a servant in verses 24-26, and his emphasis here is on the servant’s gentle, godly, and helpful character. Paul might have emphasized the hard work a slave was called upon to do, but he has already emphasized that sufficiently in the earlier metaphors. Here he is saying that the good servant must be like his good master. That is, we must be like Jesus Christ.

So how are we to be like this? And how are we to be able to endure the kind of hardness this chapter describes? In this case the answer is at the beginning of the chapter in the verse that mentions grace. It is by the help the God of grace supplies (v. 1). It is only in the Lord’s strength and protected by his armor that we can fight these spiritual battles and be victorious (cf. Eph. 6:10-20).

Pressure Point Number 3: Sin in the Church

The third chapter of 2 Timothy is the chapter best known to most of us because of its description of the Bible as “God-breathed” and as “being “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting

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and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The Bible is useful because it is “God-breathed.” That is, it is unlike any other book. That is worth saying. B.B. Warfield argued it well many years ago.

But this is not all 2 Timothy 3 speaks to, and, in fact, it may not even be the most essential thing, since Timothy was certainly not questioning the Bible’s character or truthfulness. He knew the Bible was the Word of God, just as we do. That was not his problem. The problem was: Is the Bible able to meet the needs of the hour when “evil men and impostors . . . go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (v. 13)? Will it suffice? Will the ministry Timothy was given as a teacher of the Bible prove effective in the long run so that he can continue in it and not quit? Or do we need something else, something more relevant or attractive or more powerful? Should Timothy abandon his position to those who are more attractive or entertaining?

Let’s begin by noting that the days about which the apostle was warning Timothy are our days, or are at least indistinguishable from them.

Paul calls them “the last days” (2 Timothy 3:1). That can mean either of two things. It can mean the very last days, those immediately before the return of Jesus Christ. Or it can mean the period of time that will elapse between his first and second comings. I could argue for either. But I am most concerned to see that the characteristics of these days, wherever in time they are to be located, aptly describe the days in which I live.

We do not call the characteristics of our time by these words, of course. We rename our vices, as sinners regularly do.

Lovers of themselves? We call that the “new narcissism.” We have even made it a virtue to which we cater in our mass advertising appeals. “I know it’s expensive, but I’m worth it.”

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There is nothing nice or attractive about this vice. It is self-love, the root of all sin.

Lovers of money? The biblical word is greed, but we call it simply “materialism.” Our economic system is based upon it. In our system men and women sell their souls and perish forever for the sake of material goods that do not even last for a lifetime.

Boastful, proud, abusive? We call this “self-esteem,” but there is nothing worth esteeming in these terms. The first one actually refers to braggarts, the second to haughty people, the third to blasphemers. These persons think so highly of themselves that they look down on all others and despise God particularly.

Disobedient to parents? We call this the “generation gap” and so make light of it. But the Bible has harsh words for children who fail to respect their parents, as well as for all who reject authority.

So it continues. It is hard to think of a more apt or comprehensive description of the times in which we live, unless it is the more devastating catalogue of vices found in the latter half of Romans 1.

But there is something about this that is even more frightening than the vices Paul has listed, and that is what he says in 2 Timothy 3:2-4. For having described this evil future culture by the words ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, and lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, Paul adds what is surely the most shocking of all these statements, namely, “having a form of godliness but denying its power.”

What does that mean? a “form of godliness” must refer to those who are pretending to be godly, and since this cannot describe pagans, it must describe those who are within the church. In other words, the problem is not that the world will be like what Paul is describing but that the church will be. It is that

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the church will be indistinguishable from the world and be equally corrupt, at least when you look beneath the surface.

What a problem! No wonder Jesus asked his disciples, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8).

What is young Timothy to do when he is faced with such a tremendous problem? Is he to look around for some new strategy? Is Paul going to reach down into his bag of ministerial tricks and come up with a new and secret weapon to fight this end-time apostasy and calamity? It is significant that Paul does nothing of the sort. Instead of something new, he tells Timothy to keep on with what he has. The Bible is all he needs because the Bible is from God. It is “God-breathed.” Therefore it contains within it the power of God, and it accomplishes the will of God. Timothy is to be assured of this, and because he is assured of it, he is to continue to teach the Bible faithfully and with confidence. He is not to quit.

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14-15)

It is another way of saying what we have read several times earlier. Paul means, “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

Stand Firm Then

The last chapter brings the entire letter to a moving climax. In this chapter Paul does not describe another “pressure point” but rather gives Timothy a final, solemn charge.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of

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his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

What a tremendous charge, especially in light of the situation in the church and world that Paul has described earlier! How could Timothy possibly hope to carry it out?

As I read this, it seems to me that there are three answers.

First, this is God’s charge to Timothy and the charge of the Lord Jesus Christ, not merely Paul’s charge. It is why Paul begins as he does, saying, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom.” The work may be hard, but it is God who has given it to us. We cannot take his commissioning lightly. We must be faithful to the end.

Second, others have done it. Paul had an even more difficult time of ministry than Timothy, but Paul had come through having “fought the good fight,” “finished the race” and kept the faith.” When we are tempted to quit, let’s remember that “no temptation has seized you except what is common to man” — even the temptation to quit — and that “God is faithful; he will not let [us] be tempted beyond what [we] can bear” (1 Cor. 10:13).

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And there is this too: “he will also provide a way out so that [we] can stand up under it,” which leads us to the next point.

Third, God will provide the grace we need to be faithful. This is what the end of 2 Timothy says. It looks like mere personal notes, as in most of Paul’s letters. But it is far more. It describes the situation Paul is in. Demas has deserted him. Everyone but Luke has departed. Alexander the metalworker did him great harm. At his first trial, no one came to his support. But the God of grace was with him. “The Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth” (v. 17).

There it is! If you determine to stand for God without quitting, you find that God will stand with you. He will rescue you from every evil attack and in the end bring you “safely to his heavenly kingdom” (v. 18).

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