Yesterday, September 12, was my fortieth birthday. I don’t remember my dad turning thirty, but I do remember him turning forty. I remember the black balloons. And I remember the cards that said “over the hill.”
Over what hill? The hill of life, it seems. The first half you go up the hill; the second half you go down. So being “over the hill” means you’re over halfway there — to death. Now you’re on the way down. You are closer to death than to birth. And that’s if death comes in old age. There are no guarantees it will. Especially in a global pandemic.
When we open to 2 Timothy, which is the apostle Paul’s final letter before his death. He is in prison in Rome, and on the brink of execution, and he is very aware of it. He says to Timothy in 4:6–7, “The time of my departure has come.”
Your church, which is people, not a building.
And as a church we now find ourselves in a critical season, as we come into this fall, with what has been the most abnormal six months in most of our lives, with no clear end yet in sight. Many of us are starving for the grace God gives us, the way he feeds our souls, in the regular face-to-face interactions we have as Christians in the church. Fellowship is a vital means of God’s grace. In weekly corporate worship and regular community groups and life groups, God shapes and nourishes and gives stability to our souls.
If you feel spiritually empty, or sluggish, it’s no great surprise. God actually does something for us and in us and through us as we gather together. To one degree or another, we all are feeling the spiritual effects of these six months dispersed. Will we coast? Will we reengage? We’ve come to a very important moment in the life of our church.
And 2 Timothy i is an especially well-timed word for us in this moment, dispersed and fatigued by a global pandemic, with winter bearing down on us. A pandemic brings the consciousness of death to the fore. And every winter is a kind of rehearsal for death. In 2 Timothy, Paul contemplates his own death. And this letter is a bold call for endurance, and holding fast, in the face of affliction and suffering. This letter is just what we need right now as a church.
As we delve into 2 Timothy, we look at verses 1–2. But then I also want us to get a preview of what God may have in store for us all through this letter in this particular season. I want to draw our attention to one truth in verse 1, and another in verse 2, and look at the bigger picture of the letter and get a foretaste of how 2 Timothy maps onto our moment.
Christ promises life beyond this world (verse 1).
Verse 1: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God according to the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus . . .”
In 2020, we are surrounded by voices that tell us overtly and subtly that this life is all there is. Whether it’s conversations with neighbors and coworkers, even family, or the messages on the big screen, small screen, and pocket screen, or what we read online and what we hear on the radio and through podcasts — at every turn we meet the subtle assumption, if not overt message, that this life is all there is. Or at least all we can really live in light of. All we know is what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. So get all you can out of this life, because there is no sure eternity to live in light of.
But here Paul, facing death, begins with “the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus.” Death now looks as real to Paul as it ever has — just as to some of us, death has looked as real as it ever has in recent months. Death is coming. It is certain, and now it is near for Paul. And in that moment, he clings to “the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus.”
He says more in 1:10: the grace of God “now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” What does it mean that he “abolished death”? Jesus has defeated the very thing our world fears most: death. He has emptied death of its power. He has defanged death. And having conquered death, by rising again, he has invited us to be united with him by faith, and to say with him, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).
But Jesus didn’t just abolish or destroy or set aside death. He “brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” In a world scared to death about its mortality, Jesus brought immortality. He brought the answer every living human is looking for. He himself took the death we deserved for our sin, that we might share in the life he has as fully God and perfect man — that is, eternal life.
And oh, how we, and our world, need to hear Paul talk of “the promise of the life” (verse 1) and “immortality” (verse 10) and “eternal glory” (2:10) and Christ’s “heavenly kingdom” (4:18) and the “hope of eternal life” (Titus 1:2).
Now, Jesus does promise life in the present, not only eternal life to come. We saw last year in 1 Timothy 4:8 that godliness “holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Yes, there is life, and life to the full (John 10:10), here and now in Christ. But that’s not the main emphasis in 2 Timothy, as Paul writes from a Roman jail, certain that soon enough they will take off his head. The promise of life now, in this age, is precious. We don’t scoff at it. And the promise of eternal life, in the end, will prove to dwarf the promise of life now.
Christ promises life beyond this world. Let’s not be snookered by our secular society and its propaganda. Everywhere we turn, the assumptions are increasingly secular. God is increasingly ignored in public discourse and polite conversation, if not said to be altogether out of bounds. Without the word of God and the people of God reminding us that the sights and sounds and tastes and smells and textures of this physical world, real as they are, are not all that is real, we will be deceived. This is one of the great deceptions in our day, and perhaps the deepest: that this world and life is all there is. But Christ promises life beyond this world.
Christ provides family beyond this world (verse 2).
Verse 2: “To Timothy, my beloved child . . .”
It is amazing to see how Paul talks to Timothy as his son in the faith:
- 1 Timothy 1:2: “my true child in the faith”
- 1 Timothy 1:18: “my child”
- So also to Titus, in Titus 1:4: “my true child in a common faith”
- Then here in 2 Timothy 1:2: “my beloved child”
- Also in 2:1: “my child”
To be clear, Timothy and Titus are not Paul’s biological sons. Nor are they legally adopted sons. They are more than that. They are “true” sons, he says. Not like sons; they are true sons. Which shows the kind of relationships God means to create and sustain in Christ.
This kind of familial — and deeper than familial — bond is not unique to Paul and Timothy and Titus. Rather, this is the offering, and indeed the norm, for those who claim the one true Lord as their greatest allegiance. Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50). And he said, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29).
In Christ, what we have in common is the single most important reality in the universe. Sharing biology and blood does not compare. Sharing the same alma mater does not compare. Sharing the same neighborhood, the same city, same state, same nation, skin color, subculture, political causes, occupation, or hobby does not compare to sharing Christ.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we share in common the unrivaled, single most important reality in all the universe and in all of history: we have God himself in Jesus Christ. Do you know what potential we have in this room — in Christ — for the most significant, most challenging, most strengthening, most precious relationships on the planet?
Do you have relationships like this? “My beloved child.” “My true child in the faith.” “My true child in a common faith.” My true sister. My true brother. I cannot promise you that this kind of depth, that these kinds of closer-than-a-brother relationships will happen here. They are not automatic; they are gifts from God, to be cultivated over time. But I can promise this: there is no better place to find such friendships. You may not find the relationships you’ve always wanted at the church, but in Christ, there is no better place to look for them.