2 Timothy spoke with awful new force as I preached on it recently and it helped me to understand more of the terrible challenge facing our sisters and brothers in northern Iraq. If there are any left.
The image over this post, if it is unknown to you, is the letter N, an abbreviation for ‘Nasara/Nazarene’, now being daubed by ISIS on the houses thought to contain Christians, who are being warned to flee, convert to Islam, pay protection money, or face the sword.
Serious bible study leads to deep, hard gold. This is a longer and more technical post than I usually give on this blog, but it is deeply felt, and I’d love you to stay with me. Let me explain, but you need to have 2 Timothy 1 and 2 open in front of you, and to have read it first. Ready?
These chapters contain two major descriptions of the gospel: God… has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (1:9-10) and Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel (2:8) They also contain two major commandments to pass this message on: What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you–guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. (1:13-14) and 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 (2:2)
Linking these four blocks is a single theme: suffering for the gospel. Look first at chapter 1, taken it from 1:8: 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… (I’ve quoted verses 9-10)… And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet 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… (I’ve quoted verses 13-14)… You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes. May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus.
See how it works? Like a blood-red thread weaving behind and in front of a tapestry, so it goes: suffering – gospel – suffering – passing on the gospel – suffering.
And it happens again in chapter two. You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus (I’ve already quoted verse 2) Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs–he wants to please his commanding officer. Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules. The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops. Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this. (I’ve already quoted verse 8) This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.
Suffering – passing on the gospel – suffering – gospel – suffering
What are we to make of all this? Obviously, that believing the gospel will entail suffering. And that we haven’t passed on the gospel unless we’ve communicated that. And that we haven’t trained people in gospel ministry unless they know that too.
But as I was prepping for my sermon I started to look more closely at 2:2 – which is a verse I’ve preached and lectured on many, many times. But I was hit by a new idea, which has increasing and rather shocking plausibility. I may be wrong, and if you’ve a view, please pile in below.
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. Don’t look at anything in that brilliant verse except the word ‘witnesses’. Who are they, and what could they witness to?
Plausibly, they were the people who had heard Paul preach many times, and to whom Timothy could appeal for information and encouragement. Possibly, they were even the people that had supported and spoken for Paul during his various trials, although since Timothy was located in Ephesus at the time of Paul’s writing, he wouldn’t have had access to many of those occasions.
But let me try another idea. The Greek word here is matryron, from which we derive the English word ‘martyr. Now it would be anachronism to translate it that way here: the word didn’t gain that unambiguous meaning until much later. But on three NT occasions it does mean somebody who gave a public defence of the gospel, to the cost of their own life.
Here is Paul, reflecting on Stephen’s death: And when the blood of Stephen your witness (martyros) was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him (Acts 22:20)
Jesus’ letter to the church in Pergamaum refers to Antipas, my faithful witness (martys) who was put to death in your city – where Satan lives (Rev. 2:13)
And Revelation as a whole is ‘from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness (martys), the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood’ (Rev 1:5).
Here’s my tentative suggestion, based on those three verses. The word we normally translate ‘witness’ can simply mean what we mean by that straight English translation: someone who saw something happening, and who would be competent to testify to that in a law court if necessary. But those three passages indicate that in a context of suffering, the word gains the extra overtone of someone who has borne witness to the point of bloodshed and eventual death. In those contexts, the word shades into our word ‘matryr’ – which is how the NIV (which I didn’t quote) translates the verse about Stephen: ‘And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’
Now let’s address 2 Timothy. Are we dealing with a context of suffering? Undoubtedly. Not only is Paul writing from prison (May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains, 1:16) but as we have seen, the opening two chapters are structured around this very issue. That is precise context of 2 Timothy 2:2: And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses (matryron) entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.
I’m now suspecting that what Paul has in mind here is not so much an eyewitness or a legal witness, but a crowd of suffering, blood-soaked witnesses, who have lived out the very message that Paul wants to drill into Timothy, the people he is teaching, and the people they influence as well.
As we watch the sickening tragedy of Mosul, and it is no doubt being played out in the hundreds of small villages whose names we do not know, we see in our sisters and brothers there, those who are living out what it means to be a ‘witness’ in the bloody sense. So let us take on the task of teaching those lessons to ourselves, to our people, to the next generation and beyond.