I have one major concern about the “prison” language that we read in this epistle. It is not that this is unnecessary to consider Paul’s plight in the mid-60’s A.D. and the plight of many Christians through the centuries and into our own day. We need to remember their plight. We need to pray often for our brothers and sisters imprisoned in China, Iran, Pakistan, and other places. This epistle speaks volumes of comfort and encouragement to them in their need.
But there’s still one concern that strikes me. We can brush off the powerful instructions that Paul gives, thinking that it is just for those who are suffering imprisonment for the gospel, instead of seeing that he speaks truth for Christians mired by any suffering. Let’s face it. The American mind does not connect very well with Christians thrown into prison for their faith. We do get up in arms about that happening to our brothers and sisters in other countries but we live with the mind that it can never happen to us. Although I do not want to chase that issue at present, we must not think that this could never happen to us. Remember that first century Rome had been rather welcoming of the new Christian religion. Rome had protected Paul’s religious practice until Nero in 64 A.D. needed a scapegoat for his urban renewal project in Rome sparked by a fire that burned for six days and seven nights. Then Christians in the vicinity of Rome became enemies of the state and the target of government ire.
However, this was not the case for Timothy. His city of Ephesus was a long way from the controversy. Paul does not hint that Timothy would soon be in prison (although it did happen at another time; Heb 13:23) but he does indicate quite clearly that Timothy was presently under persecution and opposition for the gospel. That’s why he told him not to be ashamed of Paul as a prisoner and to join in suffering for the gospel (1:8). He also called Timothy to join him in suffering hardship as a good soldier of Christ (2:3). He explained that all who desire to live godly in Christ would be persecuted (3:12). Timothy faced hardship. So Paul wrote, “endure hardship” (4:5).
The hardship might come in a thousand different ways for Timothy, just as it does for us 2000 years later. The point that Paul makes is that the same truth that enabled him to endure in prison is the same truth that buoys our endurance in whatever circumstance we find ourselves. Christians are called to a consistently robust faith lived out in every circumstance of life. Does that seem impossible? How about when a Christian suffers with an unbelieving spouse or unbelieving parents? How about when colleagues shun a Christian or attempt to make the workplace miserable for him? How about when students mock a Christian student and ridicule her faith in Christ? How about when the demands of life squeeze the Christian, making it seem that God has abandoned him? How about when health fails, jobs tumble, and every plan for the future turns the opposite way? Is the gospel still just as powerful? Can you endure with a robust faith in Christ? That’s what we’ll consider as we probe our text under two headings.
I. The Christian’s meditation
Either Paul had a mental lapse by interjecting “Remember Jesus Christ,” or he considered what might seem apparent to be the linchpin to his argument. I’ve sought to take us back to the context each week in our study of this epistle. It is especially important for us in understanding what Paul is doing in this text. Consider that in the last two studies of this passage, both on 2 Timothy 2:1–7, we focused on how the Christian can be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. The apostle sets forth the need for grace in light of the possibility of suffering for and standing for the gospel in a community that gloried in their paganism. Some of the strongest forces opposing Timothy, unexpectedly, were in the church not in the community! Among those that should have been rallying with him for the gospel and proclaiming the truth to those about them, Timothy found false teaching, disunity, immoral behavior, rebellion against authority, and itching ears that had turned from the truth. How could Timothy continue living among such people and ministering to them? He would need grace to endure. How would he find this grace? He would find it in the process of single-mindedness like a soldier, discipline like an athlete, and diligence like a farmer. But how would he be able to endure long enough to be single-minded, disciplined, and diligent? That’s where Paul takes us in verse 8.
1. Focus on Jesus Christ’s person
The command is simple: “Remember Jesus Christ.” The present tense verb calls for this to be a regular, ongoing practice of remembrance. “Keep on remembering Jesus Christ.” The apostle follows his OT counterparts with the idea of remembrance. The Passover served as a vivid meal of remembrance of God’s mercy in delivering Israel out of Egypt. Little boxes with Scripture in them were worn on the head and arms, and little tassels on the ends of the robes as reminders of God’s Law. Twelve stones arranged by the side of the Jordan served as stones of remembrance for latter generations to recall God’s mercy in letting Israel cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land. The many festivals in Israel reminded the nation of particular acts of God on their behalf. We have the same sort of remembrance each time we join together at the Lord’s Table. We remember the death of Jesus Christ until He comes.
We need reminders because we forget; not maliciously or even intentionally but we forget because we become preoccupied with a thousand other things. Many important matters jockey for our attention but we must learn to“remember Jesus Christ” as the center and priority of our lives.
It’s understandable, in the busy routine of life, to sometimes forget those things that do not seem especially vital to existence. Your teenager calls and asks you to run by a store to pick up a notebook for her. Meanwhile, you’re dealing with major issues at work, you’re troubled about the news of a close friend’s moral failure, and you’re thinking about how you’re going to make a new business contact. You get home and hear the words, “Dad, you forgot to get my notebook!” You realize that it’s not a major crisis but due to preoccupation, you forgot something of momentary importance.
But suppose that you forgot your wife’s birthday or your anniversary? Now the weight of forgetfulness and inattention rises into something of greater importance. Or suppose you forgot about a major assignment for a class? I still have bad dreams about this! Remember!
Notice the object of remembrance for the Christian: “remember Jesus Christ.” He does not tell us to remember ‘your religion,’ or ‘your philosophy of life,’ or ‘your need to heed the Golden Rule.’ Remember Jesus Christ! Think about Him. Think about who He is as the eternal God who created everything that exists (Gen 1:1; John 1:1–3; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2). As God the Son, He had no beginning; no needs; no dissatisfaction; no joyless moments; and no unfulfilled desires. His Being radiated with glory, purity, and majesty; He found perfect satisfaction with the fellowship He maintained unabated within His existence as the Triune God. He did not need a universe to bide his time or humanity to love Him or even angels to serve Him. Remember God the Son.
Remember that this same God who created the universe pursued fallen humanity in order to forgive, reconcile, and restore broken fellowship. But to do this, His justice had to be satisfied. The righteous God could not be unrighteous by ignoring humanity’s rebellion and sin (see Rom 3:25–26). So God the Son entered fully into human existence through the virgin’s womb. Oh remember this wonder! The eternal Son felt the same needs, temptations, emotions, hurts, and longings that every other human being has felt—except that He never acted on temptation to break God’s Law and sin against His Father. Remember that God became a man, so that, in the same person both the divine nature and human nature fully coexist. He replaced the fallen Adam as head of our race, the new Adam, who is forever the God-man.
2. Rely on Jesus Christ’s work
Paul summarizes his understanding of the gospel within this tight little verse: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David.” The middle phrase, “risen from the dead,” encompasses the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ to the law of God, the suffering and false accusations against Him before Pontius Pilate and Herod, the unjust crucifixion at Golgotha, the burial in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, and on the third day, His resurrection from the dead. Remember and rely upon His work!
Let’s think about this together. When we remember the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we’re affirming that there is salvation in no one else (Acts 4:12). We’re affirming that Jesus Christ finished the work of redemption that the Father sent Him to accomplish (John 19:30; 17:4). Since that work of redemption—our salvation—is finished, then whatever circumstance that happens to plague us at the moment cannot rob us of what Jesus Christ has already finished! Think on that. Our circumstances often buffet our thoughts and emotions so that we begin to list toward sinking. But we cannot sink when the foundation of our lives and eternities is in the finished work of Jesus Christ!
The great foe of humanity is death. That’s why we find it taunted in light of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ as the promise and certainty of our resurrection from the dead (1 Cor 15:53–57). “Risen from the dead” utilizes a perfect passive verb, indicating (with the divine passive) that God raised Jesus from the dead and that the resurrection cannot be overturned (shown by the perfect tense verb). He’s still risen from the dead! We have a living Lord upon whom we rely. His resurrection shouts the certainty that whatever difficult circumstance we endure, it is only temporary; the bodily resurrection awaits every believer to move us from the realm of the mortal to the immortal.
The call to remember Jesus Christ risen from the dead implies that we are to learn to live daily in the strong triumph of our Lord. We’re to face each day with the consciousness that whatever befalls us in that day—be it suffering, hardship, disease, tragedy, loss, or death—nothing can diminish our future in Christ. Nothing can overturn the power of the resurrection. Meditate on that truth. Let it work deeply into your mind and emotions. Let it give you fresh strength to persevere and endure.
Positively, it implies that the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ—the power that raised Him from the dead—is the same power that works mightily in the people of God in every situation (Rom 6:4–11). Paul faced the daunting challenge of bringing “about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles” for the sake of Christ’s name. How would he do this? By the same power that raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 1:2–5).
We find the apostle in the most dismal situation of his life. Chained and imprisoned in a damp, dirty Roman prison underneath the surface of the bustling capitol city, we find him deserted, helpless, and needy. Things could not have looked worse for this man of God. But his meditation on the resurrection of Jesus Christ lifted his spirits. He could confess to Timothy, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever” (2 Tim 4:18). How could he be so bold? He relied on the sure and certain work of Jesus Christ.
The death and resurrection of Jesus is not just to take us to heaven when we die. It is the ongoing power of Jesus’ redemptive work present to enable us to live robustly as Christians until the day we die. We live out the gospel as we live in light of Christ’s death and resurrection. Rely upon His work!
3. Connect with Jesus Christ’s story
Lest Timothy think that the Christian message had come along as an add-on or an upstart religious philosophy, Paul adds, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David.” That last phrase connects us to the entire Old Testament narrative, demonstrating that Jesus Christ’s redemptive work at the cross and resurrection was not Plan B for God, but the one-and-only plan purposed before the foundation of the world. When life starts gnawing away at us, when we begin to feel the weight of opposition and weakness and loss, then remember that Jesus Christ is the descendant of David. What does that mean?
If we follow the OT narrative, we find after the creation that humanity fell into sin through Adam. The entire human race plunged into rebellion and fell under divine judgment (Rom 5:12). We see the evidence of this throughout the OT. We continue to see evidence of it everyday in every form of media and just by looking at ourselves in the mirror. But God pursued Abraham, a pagan and unbeliever, that through his descendants, God might bless every people group in the world. We follow the story in the Genesis narrative. Abraham had no son; his wife passed childbearing age. Then God gave Abraham and Sarah a son named Isaac. Isaac’s wife Rebecca was barren as well until God opened her womb to conceive. She bore Esau and Jacob, with Jacob being the son of promise through whom God would continue His covenant and bring about the promised blessing for the nations. Jacob faced an angry Esau but rather than harm him, he welcomed him back even though Jacob stole his birthright. Jacob and his family ended up in Egypt. They faced amalgamation with the idolatrous Egyptians but God delivered them through Moses with many signs and wonders, and eventually led them back to the Land of Promise through Joshua.
The time of the Judges passed. In the tribe of Judah a man named Boaz had no wife or descendants but God raised up a Moabite woman, Ruth, as his wife and the mother of his son Obed. To Obed, God gave Jesse as a son and to Jesse, David. Through David, God promised to give a kingdom and a kingship that would never end (2 Sam 7:16). The historical narratives chronicle the rise and fall of the line of David. The last king before Babylon exiled all of Judah, Zedekiah, seemed to be the last of the line. The prophets called for repentance. God began to raise up a people in exile who returned to the Promised Land. By the time of Zechariah the prophet, many probably wondered if there would ever be a Messiah to bring in God’s kingdom reign. But God promised that in the ruins of the Davidic line He would raise up His Servant “the Branch” (Zech 3:8). Zerubbabel the governor of the exiles, and in the lineage of David, personified the coming Messiah. Ten generations later, Joseph the betrothed to Mary—both in David’s lineage—welcomed the birth of the Messiah Jesus Christ (Matt 1:12–17).
Here’s the point: when you read the OT you are reading the Story of Jesus Christ’s promised coming! Every generation, every festival, every sacrifice pointed toward the fulfillment of God’s promise given to Adam (Gen 3:15), Abraham (Gen 12:1–3), and David (2 Sam 7:16). This connection with the OT affects the way that we read it and perceive its stories. Meditate upon it in light of God’s promise and fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Then take a look at your issues, the problems that seem to be a roadblock toward progress and faithfulness. This same God that worked through every detail in the OT, with the most distressing circumstances, brought about His perfect fulfillment in Jesus Christ. And when facing a difficult circumstance, He’s not going to drop you whom Christ secured through His death and resurrection!
So meditate upon His person, work, and connect with His story so that you might live a consistently robust faith in Christ.
II. The Christian’s motivation
Sometime it is difficult to stay motivated to accomplish the hard things. It doesn’t take much motivation to eat; but it takes a lot of motivation to fast. It doesn’t take much motivation to use your eyes to entertain yourself; but it takes a lot of motivation to use your eyes to train and discipline yourself. It doesn’t take much motivation to talk about someone’s faults; but it takes a lot of motivation to affirm someone or to speak the gospel. Every day is made up of the easy and difficult things. Easy stuff needs no motivation. Difficult things require various levels of motivation.
Take Timothy as an example. He was to join with Paul in suffering for the gospel. He was to suffer hardship as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. He was to remind the obstinate members in the Ephesian church about the petty sins in their speech. He was to flee from the youthful lusts so prevalent about him and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace. The easy way would treat these things passively. If they happened, fine. If not, no worry; just offer a little prayer of confession and continue on trying to passively live out the gospel.
But that doesn’t work. We’re called to take the high road of faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Yet sometime to walk on that high road requires some motivation. That’s what we find in verse 9. Notice how Paul motivates Timothy and us in two ways.
1. The “now” cannot eclipse the “not yet”
The grammatical antecedent of “for which” points to Paul’s phrase “according to my gospel.” Because of the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ—the apostle suffered imprisonment. “Remember Jesus Christ . . . according to my gospel, for which I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal.” Did he say this with bitterness or fear or regret? Absolutely not! The very reason that Paul landed in prison was also the very means that he could endure such humiliation and hardship. He was treated “as a criminal,” which was technical language for a burglar or murderer or traitor or some other enemy of society. This holy man had been lumped in with murderers and thieves! His character assassinated, his ambitions tarnished, Paul would have been the one that the locals talked about as the instigator of the fire that burned Rome. Yet that wasn’t true but still he found himself under those horrible accusations with no way out. How do you get motivated to live with joy and triumph in that kind of setting? You remember Jesus Christ, His resurrection, and His great story throughout the Scripture. You remember that because of what Jesus has already accomplished for you, whatever is happening in the present cannot eclipse or override the future assured by the resurrection of Christ.
Do you think upon this when you face the daunting challenges of life in a fallen world? Even when you see your own weaknesses or when you’re hammered by enemies of the cross or you’re broken by distressing circumstances, the now cannot eclipse the not yet because of what Jesus has done for you with finality. Let that motivate you!
Paul looked around at the chain that bound him to his prison. He realized that the gospel that he lived for was both bigger than him and more powerful than his distressing situation. He might have been falsely accused and imprisoned as a criminal, “but the word of God [the gospel] is not imprisoned.” I think he has two things in mind.
(1) The gospel keeps on ministering to those who believe in Jesus Christ. In the next verse he tells us, “For this reason I endure all things.” For what reason? Because the gospel is not imprisoned! Even when he realized that all had deserted him, he found reason to cheer because the gospel is not imprisoned (2 Tim 4:16–17). A number of years ago, my friend Fred Malone wrote a note to several of us telling about his wife’s breast cancer. His comment changed the way that I thought. He said, ‘The gospel is becoming sweeter and more real to us than ever.’ There was no promise of healing or no sickness from the treatments or no hardship ahead. Yet just the promises in the gospel were enough to cheer their hearts and motivate them to endure. That’s what the gospel does!
(2) The gospel keeps proclaiming good news to those who have not believed. The gospel cannot be bound! Paul found motivation because the gospel had been unleashed long before he trusted in Jesus after the confrontation on the Damascus Road. The perfect tense of the verb—“is not imprisoned”—implies that the gospel never has and never will be bound! When tyrants and dictators have tried to rid their countries of the gospel, it only makes it spread even more! I remember using the term “closed country” when our friend who now teaches at Southern Seminary was visiting with us. He corrected me. “There are no closed countries. Just that some are a little harder to get into.” The reason the countries are not closed is because the gospel cannot be bound. It gets into the most astounding places and reaches the most unlikely people. That ought to motivate us! Our labors are not futile. Seeds of the gospel planted long ago still have fruit-bearing power.
You and I can live consistently robust Christian lives when we meditate on Jesus Christ’s person, work, and story, and when we find our motivation in the effective power of the gospel. Remember Jesus Christ!