The Global Message of 2 Timothy
Paul’s second letter to Timothy is a moving letter of farewell to the young pastor in Ephesus. In it we find a message of tremendous significance for the global church: Christians and especially Christian leaders are called to share in suffering as they hold fast to Scripture and to truth while pursuing godliness and encouraging others to do the same. These three themes—suffering, truth, and godliness—are the themes to which Paul returns throughout this letter.
Second Timothy and Redemptive History
As with all of his letters, Paul speaks into a specific historical situation while bearing in mind the drama of redemption that began in ages past and which will be completed one day, at Christ’s return. Creation, fall, redemption, and consummation form the broad framework that Paul works with as he speaks to specific congregations and to leaders such as Timothy.
Salvation past, present, and future. Speaking of the salvation that has rescued those who trust in Christ, Paul says that God rescued us “because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim. 1:9). Paul then moves from eternity past to the very center point of all history: this “purpose and grace” of God “now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus” (1:10). Later in 2 Timothy Paul speaks of Christ’s second coming in the future, referring to Christ as the one “who is to judge the living and the dead” (4:1) and reflecting on the “crown of righteousness” that will be given to Paul “on that day” (4:8; also 1:18).
A story of redemption. Against the broad backdrop of eternity past, the climactic moment of Christ’s appearing, and the future return of Christ, Paul refers throughout 2 Timothy to the story of redemption. He does this not only by mentioning important figures in the history of redemption such as Moses and the men who opposed him (2 Tim. 3:8), but also by describing the gospel in this way: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David” (2:8). Here, in a condensed version of his description of the gospel in Romans 1:1–4, Paul reminds Timothy that Jesus is the long-awaited son of David, who had been promised an eternal throne (see 2 Sam. 7:1–16).
Even in this short, practical epistle about godliness amid suffering, then, Paul presents his remarks against the background of what God has been doing down through history. The ancient promises of a coming Messiah find their fulfillment in Jesus. Hope has dawned in his appearing and kingdom (2 Tim. 4:1). It is as a result of this that Timothy is called to “share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (1:8).
Universal Themes in 2 Timothy
Suffering amid faithfulness. Throughout the letter Paul reminds Timothy that suffering is part of the normal Christian life (2 Tim. 1:8; 2:3; 3:12; 4:5). The apostle reminds young Timothy that he is called to endure such suffering faithfully by God’s grace and power (1:8–9; 2:1, 11–13). The adversity that comes in the normal course of Christian living is not abnormal (3:12; Acts 14:22). As Christians around the world face different kinds of hardship due to their loyalty to Christ, they should remember that they are identifying with the Savior himself, who suffered faithfully on our behalf. Indeed, suffering for the sake of Christ is one of God’s primary ways of spreading the good news (2 Tim. 2:8–10).
Especially poignant are Paul’s repeated words about those who have forsaken him and those who have stood by him. Everyone in Asia has deserted Paul, as has Demas (2 Tim. 1:15; 4:10). Crescens and Titus have left (4:10). Only Onesiphorus stood by Paul in Rome (1:16–18), and now only Luke is with him (4:11). The suffering of the Christian and especially the Christian leader includes the suffering of loneliness despite faithfulness.
Truth and doctrine. Throughout 2 Timothy, Paul refers to “the truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, 18, 25; 3:7, 8; 4:4). He charges Timothy to guard the “deposit” that has been entrusted to him, referring to the gospel as the message that sums up the entire Christian faith (1:14). The apostle clearly views orthodox doctrine that preserves the gospel to be crucial to the life of the church. As believers around the world come into contact with various ideas and worldviews, these must all be tested against the Word of God (see also Acts 17:11; 1 Thess. 5:21). True doctrine matters because it is through truth that we come to see Jesus himself in full clarity.
Wise use of our words. Timothy receives various exhortations from Paul regarding how he can lead God’s people wisely. Today’s leaders in the church can learn from this. Paul especially speaks to Timothy about the use of the tongue, warning him of the danger of being swept up in fruitless arguments and discussions (2 Tim. 2:14–19, 23–26; 4:1–5). Instead, in faith and love (1:13), Timothy must kindly yet firmly correct his opponents (2:24–25). He must “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience” (4:2). Amid the many cultural differences that exist across the global church, not least concerning language, a universal key to healthy church life is wise use of the tongue.
The Global Message of 2 Timothy for Today
As the global church submits itself quietly to the penetrating words of 2 Timothy, we will be chastened and strengthened.
The resounding theme of this letter is that Jesus Christ is our secure Rock, whatever happens to us circumstantially—in the governments of the world, in the volatile economic systems, in the flood of worldliness that threatens to overwhelm our families and those dearest to us. Christian pastors and leaders especially are reminded that the great cause they are a part of is an invincible one. The victory is sure, for “the word of God is not bound!” (2 Tim. 2:9). Jesus has “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light” (1:10). God’s leaders can be strengthened by grace (2:1) through the power of the Holy Spirit (1:14) as they are fixed on the Word of God (3:16–17).
As the global church engages for Christ’s sake with the fallenness of our world, we take the hope of 2 Timothy with us. In working to promote the sanctity of life and the dignity of the individual created in God’s image, we remember that if we endure, we will one day reign with Jesus over the whole earth (2 Tim. 2:12). In seeking to comfort the bereaved and shelter the homeless and feed the poor and resolve conflict both locally and internationally, we look forward confidently to “the crown of righteousness” which God will award to his faithful saints one day soon (4:8). Above all, in pursuing godliness and commending it to others, especially through the hard words of reproof and exhortation that are sometimes necessary, we know that God will preserve us “from every evil deed and bring [us] safely into his heavenly kingdom” (4:18).
God reigns. His kingdom has dawned (2 Tim. 4:1). We take heart, remember the gospel, and get to work.