October 4, 2022
TODAY’S SCRIPTURE REFERENCE:
“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us weak but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony concerning our Lord or of me His prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.” (2 Timothy 1.6-8)
Let’s not be confused and think Paul is declaring that the gospel causes suffering. Yes, Jesus suffered on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for our sin. His “suffering” changed the spiritual reality for the entire world; though the entire world may not seize upon that reality. The disciples suffered loss of life in martyrdom and many in horrible and terrifying ways. Other Christians suffered a similar fate. Some suffered the loss of family, business and community associations because they aligned themselves with the gospel. Jesus declared there would be hardships, even death, put upon believers. He was clear, however, that it was because the world hated Him first (John 15.18f). But, we must clearly understand it wasn’t because of the gospel itself but our faithfulness to the gospel that such suffering became evident. The world is filled with opportunities to hate people, places, things, events and itself. Anything and everything can be blamed. But, it is not those things (as tragic and terrible as they may be) that have the power to create hatred nor inspire hatred producing suffering. The root of suffering is sin. Sin must be recognized, confessed and overcome. It is because of sin that Jesus suffered and died but it was love that moved Him to accept such suffering in order to overcome its real threat of eternal death. Think of all the things that trouble us and cause us to suffer physically, emotional, socially, economically, mentally and spiritually. Where does that suffering come from? It comes as a result of the brokenness in the world which started with the first act of selfishness. Self-indulgence is the progenitor of sin. It is not even the temptation to sin that creates sin. Jesus was tempted and tempted sorely, yet He did not sin. Jesus was the epitome and paragon of righteousness, virtue and thus sinlessness. This is why He was the perfect sacrifice to suffer death as the atonement for all of our sins- past, present and future. Yes, His death covers our sins right up to the moment when “that Day” comes and the age of the Church is closed. Will there be suffering after that day? Yes, but not for those who are gathered up by Christ into His heaven.
So, what does Paul mean when he encourages Timothy to “suffer with me for the gospel by the power of God”? Is he speaking of the imprisonments, the beatings, the shipwrecks, the shunning, the stonings, the verbal threats and taunts as the shared sufferings? Is he intimating that without such experiences the truth of the gospel is less authentic, meaningful or purposeful? I would scarcely believe so. Yet, we know that such things will accompany the decision to follow Jesus as the Christ in this world who is the Messiah of this world. It does so because “the darkness hates the light.” Even Satan understands the impact of the “truth which sets men free.” He most certainly fights against it with the hope of turning off the light or turning eyes away from the light. He absolutely desires to promote the nuances of the lie to make it sound as near to the truth to be convincing and persuasive. There is good reason to teach, as we learned in school, “if one part of the statement is false then the whole statement is false.” The counter to that, “if one part of the statement is true then the whole statement is true” is the lie. And while I have reflected many times on this by going back to the episode told by Moses of the temptation and betrayal of Adam and Eve in the Garden, I would draw our attention to a different story. I would call us to that very conversation which occurred between Saul of Kish, King of all Israel, and the shepherd boy, David of Bethlehem. As a thirteen or fourteen year old boy, David possessed more fear of God than did his brothers, their fellow soldiers and the king himself. When he heard the taunting of Goliath from the valley below their camp accompanied by the supporting cheers and jeers of the Philistines on the opposite side of the valley, he was disgusted and confused. Who were these “mighty men of God called Israel”? How could they stomach the verbal vomit spewed from the mouth of Goliath against them and without question against the Lord God, Yahweh Elohim? Yet, he saw it in their eyes. They were filled with the fear of suffering at the hands of the Philistines. And the King of Israel suffered the greatest of all. He was afflicted in body, mind, heart and soul. He did not leave his tent. Rather, he hid in the darkest folds of the curtains which divided his tent into rooms. And when David turned to look at them they all undoubtedly did the most human of responses- they averted their eyes. They couldn’t even look this shepherd boy in the eyes. His look was accountability enough because in their heart and spirit they knew David was right: How could you stand for this? So, David went into the tent of the king and volunteered for the job of defending the name and honor of God. Saul was so weak that he agreed but with a caveat. That caveat was David would bear his armor. To wear the armor of the king was to declare before all the armies for and against that he was the king’s representative and thus, in the moment, had the power, dominion and authority. But, David refused in a manner worthy of his humility. He responded to the king, “Thank you, but it is all too big for me.” Lest we forget, Saul was introduced into the story of Israel as a man who stood a head taller than any man in all of Israel. To the Hebrews, descendants of Jacob Israel, he was a giant among men. The conflict with the Philistines wasn’t “mano y mano,” whatever it would be in Hebrew, but “gigante y gigante.” Except the giant descended from the Nephilim loomed greater than the “giant” descended from God. So, David girded himself with faith and the willingness to suffer for the gospel of his day- the joy of the Lord is my strength. He was willing to put himself in harm’s way for the sake of not allowing God to be dishonored. He was willing to put his life on the line because he so loved God knowing God so loved him. He believed he was truly prepared for this moment and would suffer any loss to gain the victory that overcomes the world. Goliath represented and fomented the lie and the world seemingly believed it. David represented and advanced the truth and the world would be changed because of it. Well, we know the end of the story for Goliath: he lost his head because he did not believe in the truth. We also know the end of the story for Saul of Kish: he was “killed” in battle because he refused to accept the truth. We know the end of the story of David of Bethlehem: though he suffered, sinned and struggled mightily with his own self-indulgence, he remained faithful, obedient and humbled before God. And in David, the truth won out.
So, there is little left for me to understand in Paul’s words to Timothy apart from “keeping the faith at all costs.” Satan will certainly attempt to loom over the faithful as a mouthy, ungodly giant even if his appearance at times may be more akin to a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He will bring affliction and promote contradiction at every possible turn as he did with Job. But, the suffering experienced between one who has aligned themselves with the truth will never promote the lie. It is the faithfulness in the midst of all suffering that promotes the truth, the way and the life which God purposes and intends for each of us. And such fortitude does not come by faith in ourselves but by faith in God. Faith is the embrace of the power of God on us and us on God. He holds us as we hold Him. He alone is our source of strength, courage, boldness, fortitude, and humility which allows us to promote the gospel powerfully in the world in spite of all circumstances good or bad. It is with that admonition Paul was able to encourage Timothy to “fan the flames.” I can’t help but see the boldness of one who is being threatened by a death with fire so not cry out against it but encourage it to burn hotter to make the testimony greater. Such was the fate of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace. King Nebuchadnezzar had the fire stoked so hot that soldiers near it to force the three men into the furnace were consumed by the heat. But, the three men believed God and trusted His providence. They would not surrender their faith even if it meant surrendering their lives. And this they knew of such fiery tests- what is of God will remain and what is not will be destroyed. And they were of God- the whole of them, even their clothes. They were, we might easily profess, “clothed in righteousness.” This, I believe is what Paul was urging Timothy to embrace in his time of decision to accept the reality of Paul’s passing from life to death to life again. He knew the mantle and the responsibility would be his next. It wasn’t that he feared it but was considering the sincerity and seriousness of it. The presence of his tears, as Paul mentions, would be a keen indicator of that moment of truth in face of the lie. And so it should be for each of us as one of God’s mighty men, followers of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Son and our Messiah, Savior and friend.
Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth and the giver of authentic life and living, hear our prayer as we fan our own flames to burn hotter so that our faith will be stronger. The world may come against us mightily but great is Your faithfulness to all generations and blessed are those whose faith demonstrates the overcoming of the world by the truth of the gospel. We give ourselves fully and totally to the calling to bear good news and bring glory and honor to Your name by the name of Jesus our Lord. AMEN.