Where is true strength to be found? Since the Fall, human history has been a battle between the seed of the Serpent and the seed of the woman. The world itself functions contrary to God’s good purposes and design, even as it groans in longing for redemption. Within, without, and around, God’s people face a war, a war that has been waged for thousands of years throughout the universe and in both the earthly and spiritual realms.
Warfare requires strength. As the world goes into greater and greater upheaval before our Lord’s second advent, we can expect more and more difficult seasons will break upon the world, as they have periodically throughout history (cf. 2 Tim. 3:1-13). These times will only intensify prior to the return of our Lord. Revival and reformation may come (God hasten them!) but that will only delay, not stop, the increase of the birthpangs prior to His visible appearance in glory (cf. Matt. 24:3-14; cf. Rev. 6:16-17). Somewhere, John Piper has written, “Wimpy worldviews make wimpy Christians. And wimpy Christians won’t survive the days ahead.” In our day, as well the perilous times that are coming, believers need to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might” (Ephesians 6:10). What better time to prepare for this than a new year?
In his last letter, Paul gives Timothy (and all of us) imagery and counsel that will enable us to be strong in grace as we serve the Lord in difficult days.
A. Introduction (v. 1)
In chapter 1, Paul has exhorted Timothy, who battled oversensitivity and insecurity, to not be ashamed of the Lord and His gospel, but to endure in faithful ministry and service to Him. Of course, this would have been very costly in Timothy’s day! John MacArthur writes, “[Paul is] calling for Timothy to be bold and courageous. He’s calling for Timothy to identify with the house of Onesiphorus, people who were faithful, who were not ashamed.” This is why the “therefore” is in verse 1: In light of what he knows to be true about Timothy (not just his weaknesses, but his genuine faith and service to the Lord, 1:5-6), in light of the high calling on Timothy to serve Him without shame, and in light of the godly character of people like Onesiphorus and his family, who identified with God’s people despite great cost, Paul exhorts Timothy to be strong. He will need it—as an expression and application of his personal trust in Christ, and to keep standing for Him in difficult days.
The Greek text is literally “be strengthened.” It is passive—we do not strengthen ourselves—yet it is also active—we are to seek to have something done to us! We are to put ourselves in the way of strength. Paul does not spell it out here, but he does give us a clue: we are to be strong in grace. Grace is not merely God’s favor to the ill-deserving; it is Him working in great power and authority on behalf of His unworthy people to do them good. Grace is effectual. It is dynamic and active and enduring. If we are to received the very strength of the incarnate God Himself (for Paul says the grace is “in Christ Jesus”—He embodies it, dispenses it, and enables it), we are to know, stand in, rely on, appeal to, and yield to His grace.
Only the obedient believer will know the Lord’s enablement, and Paul gives four illustrations of what that grace-enabled obedience (itself the condition for receiving yet more grace) looks like. Do you want to be spiritually strong? Be like this.
B. Teacher (v. 2)
Timothy was likely the pastor-teacher of the Ephesian church, so this exhortation had specific application to him. But it applies to all of us as well. He is to take the truth he learned from Paul—truth that was received and confirmed by God’s people as being the truth of God—and entrust it to faithful men who could then teach others. We live in an unbroken chain of God’s people handing His truth down all the way from the Lord Jesus Himself 2000 years ago! What a privilege!
What does teaching have to do with strength? First, we must be strong to teach. That is, we must know the Spirit’s enablement and empowering, through grace, to teach accurately and effectively. We are teaching to win people to Christ, to disciple believers who have many vistas of unbelief and fleshliness resident and stubborn in their souls. This is not a mere human endeavor and it is not the mere conveying of factual information. We are teaching truth that calls for a decision and transformation of life! Only the Spirit can empower that.
Second, teaching leads to strength. You must first be a learner if you’re going to teach. You must be a humbled, consecrated, broken, Spirit-filled student of the Lord Jesus if you hope to impart what He has taught you to others. You must be able to articulate what you have learned—and that requires strength. How will you stand for the truth of God in a fallen world if you are not enabled by Him to stand? You must be faithful to the truth in your thought and life. (You will be tempted to compromise!) And you must pass on what He has taught you to others—equipping and discipling them for God’s glory.
You need the strength of God for this! And you need to obey in tis way to know greater and stronger manifestations of His grace, which will further strengthen you.
C. Soldier (vv. 3-4)
Soldiers were hardy, hardened, strong personalities. They knew suffering and pain. They were among the best of the best, as far as endurance and commitment were concerned (generally, soldiers in Paul’s day signed up for a twenty-year minimum stint!). And if all of life is war between the kingdom of man and Satan and the kingdom of God, then God’s people must be fighters!
We cannot suffer well if we aren’t strong. And we will suffer. It is only through many tribulations we enter the kingdom (Acts 14:22). That requires our faithfulness and obedience. We must cling to Him.
The great commentator J.N.D Kelly translates this phrase, “Take your share of rough treatment.” We ought not be surprised at the fiery trial. God has appointed some for us.
Faithful soldiers were single-minded: They wanted to please the commander and win the war. You couldn’t do one without the other, of course. We too must have a single-minded dedication to fighting the war, and winning. Only as we give ourselves to this can we know the smile of God and be fully pleasing to Him (cf. Col. 1:10). We fight the world, the flesh, and the devil—in ourselves, in others, and in the world around us. God has called us to different assignments and roles/ranks in that war, but all of us must make it our aim to be faithful. Only then can we know His enablement and accomplish great things thereby!
D. Athlete (v. 5)
Perhaps the most obvious example of discipline in Paul’s day was the athlete. Like the soldier, the athlete’s whole life was preparing for the games. It required total dedication and focus, not to mention grit and discipline. (How sad in our day we have believed the lie that these things are somehow incompatible with, or worse the antithesis of, grace!) Paul uses this imagery to exhort Timothy to another aspect of fidelity and strength. Paul wants Timothy to finish the race. I take that comprehensively—he does not merely want Timothy to know reward, or have a faithful ministry; he wants him to go to heaven! He wants him to win the prize of eternal life (cf. 1:18, “find mercy on that Day,” 2:12, 4:8). It is best to take winning the prize as encompassing all of those things.
The point is he will not win the prize if he does not demonstrate an athlete’s endurance and dedication. Paul, as godly as he was, knew he had to keep his body under subjection lest he fall away (1 Cor. 9:27). We have a fight of faith to fight—and win! Only as we fight to keep trusting, and thus obeying, the Lord, will we know His blessing in this life and heaven in the next.
This does not undermine or contradict the eternal security of the believer, for God’s grace and power enables us to meet the conditions He sets forth—not as merit, but as the power of Christ flowing from His favor to us rooted in His imputed righteousness! How can Timothy win the prize with the world, flesh, and devil accosting him? How can we? Only as we know the Lord’s strength and enablement in His perfect and all-sufficient grace.
E. Farmer (vv. 6-7)
Paul modifies the term for farmer with an adjective that carries the idea of toil to the point of exhaustion. It’s relentless, hard, often exhausting work. 1 Timothy 4:10 says this stems from hope in the Savior whose blood is sufficient for the whole world and can be offered to all people. We need strength to do this kind of plowing, planting, watering.
Paul underscores the blessing that comes to those who so spend themselves in the work of God: Lit. “it is necessary that” the farmer be the first one to taste the fruit. Faithfulness in little—for that is the imagery here; it’s persevering, daily, meticulous, constant labor without the immediate results of the solider or the athlete—reaps the greatest blessing. You will know God’s lavish blessing upon your service to Him, both now and in the future. But only as you spend your life for it! For those that do, it is only right they are first in line to reap the benefits. And as they do, they will receive more seed to sow into others and the world, and know greater and greater returns thereby (cf. James 3:18).
The point by now should be clear: If we are to be strong in God’s work, we must understand these aspects and images of our ministry to Him. And moreover, we need His enablement to do any of these things—yet these things are themselves the pathway to greater and greater outpourings of His grace, power, and blessing!
Yesterday began a brand-new year. There will be many trials, blessings, and new opportunities for service as well as continuing faithfulness in the next 364 days. Have you sought Christ for His personal enablement of your work for Him? Do you realize apart from Him you can do nothing? Have you committed yourself afresh to serving Him for the purposes of His kingdom and glory? May you consecrate your heart afresh to Him, and may you know His personal empowering of great things for His glory and your joy!