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Trust God More Than You Fear Death -- Paul's Confidence in 2 Timothy 1:3-14

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

What Jesus has done for us should overcome any doubt or fear we have.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 2 Timothy 1:3-14

Facing the end of his life, Paul gives Timothy one last encouragement—to trust the power of Christ more than to fear his opposition. Timothy has been well-trained and taught by his family and Paul; he has been gifted and sustained by God in the Spirit. Now he must remain faithful and confident in God’s purpose.

So don’t be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, or of me his prisoner. 2 Timothy 1:8

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Golden Years: What’s Most Important?

I had trouble finding reliable survey results for this icebreaker, so you may just want to let your class answer the question: “What’s the most important thing to you when you think about your twilight years?”. Here are some anecdotes I found on 59% of Americans think they will retire between 60-70. 67% of Americans want to retire in a rural environment (!!). For Millennials and Gen Xers, the most anticipated retirement activity is travel; for Baby Boomers, it’s spending time with family. In the Northeast, people are expecting to live in a retirement community. In the south, people are expecting to buy a boat. In the Midwest, people are expecting to buy a pet. In the west, people are expecting to get a part-time job. (That’s all real. I’m not making any of this up.) The #1 state for retirement is Florida (Georgia is #9).

If you go to the “retirement planning” sites, you’ll find several clear trends. It is important (in your later years) to (1) learn how to eat healthy; (2) stay mentally engaged; (3) stay physically active; (4) stay connected with your community through volunteering; (5) stay engaged with your family and loved ones. There’s also plenty about making sure your financial affairs/wills are in order. I couldn’t find a survey which ranked those, which is maybe something your class can rank together. Anyway, the idea behind this icebreaker is to get your class thinking about the most important things for later in life. What we’re going to learn in 2 Timothy is what Paul prioritized for his last years, and it’s mainly

  1. praying for his friends,

  2. not letting the fact that he’s getting physically weaker discourage him from standing for Jesus, and

  3. holding firm to his convictions.

That’s a slightly different take on “the golden years”, and it's powerful! My hope and expectation is that we are all challenged to see that God has something important for each one of us, no matter how old we are. We just need to learn how to prioritize things as God does.

Christian Persecution in America.

Make sure that no one in your class tries to compare the persecution that’s growing in our country with the life-threatening circumstances facing too many of our brethren around the world. That said, it’s self-defeating to turn a blind eye to the things that are happening to Christians in our country. “Persecution” really just means “to harass on the basis of someone’s beliefs”. And so the fines, the firings, the lawsuits, the judgment of public opinion, and the relationships lost are all types of persecution (fines and lawsuits are often against small businesses who refuse to participate in a same-sex wedding). A lot of persecution that is growing around us is not “active”, per se. Rather, churches have been marginalized in our culture, and so when laws or codes are passed, the impact on churches is not really considered. And then we find an environment that is hostile to conservative Christian beliefs. Those things probably wouldn’t have happened in the first place if governments still cared about churches. One way or another, the reality is that they don’t care about churches like they used to. We’re going to talk a lot about persecution later in 2 Timothy, but to get your class thinking along Paul’s lines, ask them, “How do you respond when people oppose your Christian beliefs? Are you afraid? Are you angry?” Paul will help us with this subject.

This Week's Big Idea: Introducing 2 Timothy

You might remember that I said about 1 Timothy: Paul had been released from the imprisonment talked about in Romans and got back to missionary work. Paul had earlier sent Timothy to Ephesus to take charge of that very important (but dysfunctional) church. He wanted to visit Timothy and help him while he was travelling to (through?) Macedonia, but other needs were simply more pressing. Fearing that it might be a while before he came to Ephesus, he wrote the first letter to Timothy in 63 AD, encouraging him to stick to it and giving him lots of practical advice.

Second Timothy is a very different letter. The tone is darker. The content is much more personal. I find it a tough read. According to early church tradition, Paul was re-arrested by Nero around 66 or 67 AD and given a death sentence. Now in prison, and not under the “house arrest” like in Acts but in a dungeon, Paul knows that he will not leave prison alive. Being quite literally cold and lonely, Paul wants Timothy to visit him and bring a warm coat that he left elsewhere in the Empire. And he also wants Timothy to bring his books so that he can continue to study, desiring to learn more about Jesus right up until his death.

There’s a very clear sense of this being Paul’s “last words”. Paul sees Timothy as a key leader for the next generation of the early church, and Paul wants Timothy to remember some key lessons (and pass them on) (I plan on using that as a discussion at the end of the letter, but feel free to use it here). First, don’t be discouraged by suffering and failure. Second, never stop opposing false teachers. The letter includes a tangent about how things will continue to get worse in the last days. But mostly, the letter includes a lot of prayer and praise, reminders of what Paul finds most important.

Note about Paul’s Authorship. The fact that the vocabulary and tone is so different in 2 Timothy has caused several biblical skeptics to doubt that Paul wrote this letter (or Titus). I would hope that the drastic change in Paul’s life circumstance would allow for the possibility of this uniqueness. One interesting possibility has been floated in the past few decades: Luke served as Paul’s secretary during his imprisonment. We’ve talked about Paul using a secretary before (remember that I theorized that Paul had eye trouble, which would have made it very difficult for him to write his own letters). Some of the unique vocabulary has parallels with Luke/Acts, and at the end of this letter, Paul indicates that Luke is the only one with him. But at the end of the day, these letters are too short to make a definitive statistical analysis of vocabulary. These letters are unique because Paul’s situation was unique.

Getting Started in 2 Timothy. Just like the first letter, Paul addresses it to his “dear” (or “beloved”) “son” Timothy. And he starts with a reminder about God’s promise in Jesus, setting a main theme from the get-go. The reason Christians can stand firm under persecution or in the face of difficulty or even failure is that God has made a promise to us. Paul will explain what that promise is throughout the letter, but for our purposes we just need to know that Jesus is the proof of the promise. It’s a very humbling place to start. Think about it: people (we) doubt God all the time; we doubt His provision for us and His plan for us. But when we stop and think about Jesus, how could we ever doubt?

Unlike the first letter, Paul doesn’t get sidetracked by the urgent need in Ephesus before expressing his prayer for Timothy. Instead, Paul jumps right into the beautiful prayer and thanksgiving to help Timothy “keep the faith”.


Part 1: Heritage (2 Timothy 1:3-5)

I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience as my ancestors did, when I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day. Remembering your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I recall your sincere faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and now, I am convinced, is in you also.

This has been such an encouraging verse for so many Christians over the years. He starts by thanking God for Timothy and telling Timothy how much he prays for him. Who wouldn’t love to hear that! (Don’t miss the comment about conscience. Remember that in 1 Timothy, Paul said he was trying to model being a good leader to Timothy, in addition to teaching him the ropes. This is one of those critical lessons: Paul wanted Timothy to have a clear conscience.) And Paul also sets up this idea of heritage. Even though many Jews rejected Christ, Paul knew that many Jews had loved and served God wholeheartedly, and he benefitted from their example. Likewise, Timothy also had a strong heritage of faith in his grandmother and mother. This heritage is something to be grateful for. Likely, Timothy’s father was not a Christian, and that probably led to some tension in the home. But let Timothy be an encouragement to every mom who is trying to raise a child in church without the cooperation of a spouse! It’s harder, but it can work.

Paul also mentioned Timothy’s tears. Whether these are tears of sorrow when Paul had last left Timothy in Ephesus, or tears of frustration at the challenges Timothy faced in Ephesus, the point is that Paul cared deeply about Timothy as a person—he noticed Timothy’s emotional needs. This was a personal prayer, not a generic prayer.

Why would Paul have to be “convinced” about Timothy’s faith? Hasn’t Timothy been in charge of a major church for many years? Shouldn’t that have been discussed already? Two options. One, if the “tears” had been of frustration, it’s possible that Timothy was experiencing a crisis of faith, and Paul was simply encouraging him. Two, this could just be about the ongoing theme of “true teacher vs. false teacher”. Paul has said that we know a false teacher by his behavior, and this is simply encouraging Timothy that his life demonstrated the true faith. Since we can’t know anyone’s heart, this is the closest we can come to declaring someone a Christian.

This should start your class on a great discussion about heritage. What traits have you picked up from your parents? (These can be good or bad—just try to keep things from getting uncomfortable.) Who among your family or friends had the biggest influence on your spiritual growth? If you haven’t had a Lois or a Paul in your life, what steps have you taken to find that Christian mentor? And then most importantly, ask your class what sort of heritage they want to leave for their children or grandchildren (or others)? What do they want their children to be known for? What steps are they actively taking to direct their children in that path? If anyone in your class expresses a desire to do this but a frustration at not knowing what to do, let them know that they’re not alone and encourage them to take advantage of the Faith@Home resources.


Aside: What Is the Value of a Clear Conscience?

There’s a great quote, “There is no pillow as soft as a clear conscience.” I think we would all agree, even if we’re not sure exactly what it means. Paul talked about a clear conscience a lot (almost exclusively): he told the Sanhedrin he had a clear conscience (Acts 23:1); he told Felix he had a clear conscience (Acts 24:16); he talked about the importance of his conscience in Romans (9:1), in 1 Corinthians (8:7-12 and 10:25-29), and in 2 Corinthians (1:12); he told Timothy he had a clear conscience (1 Tim 1:5, 1:19, and our passage this week). Hebrews and 1 Peter 3 also mention the importance of a clear conscience. But what did that mean in Paul’s day? The concept of a “conscience” is Greek. It represents our moral awareness (why we feel bad for doing wrong, so to speak). For the Hebrews, there was really no need to talk about the conscience—it really didn’t matter how they “felt” when they broke God’s law; they were not to break God’s law. But as the gospel spread to non-Jews who didn’t have God’s law, Paul used the idea of the conscience to explain how all people innately knew the difference between right and wrong behavior. For the believer, the Holy Spirit amplified the conscience to make it a reliable witness. (The further one strays from God, the more “seared” and thus unreliable the conscience becomes.)

Ask your class this: as a Christian, when you’ve strayed from God, how do you feel? You’ll hopefully hear words like uneasy, disquiet, conflicted, grumpy, etc. That is the emotional impact of our conscience. Hard to sleep when your conscience is weighed down! But when you believe you have done the right thing in a situation, how do you feel? Free, vindicated. What Paul is emphasizing to us is that we shouldn’t worry what people think of our actions; we should worry what God thinks. That’s what our conscience reflects. That’s why it’s important.


Part 2: Gifted (2 Timothy 1:6-7)

Therefore, I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.

The wording here is awkward enough that I give it its own section. I believe that Paul is talking about Timothy’s gift to be a pastor. This could be a spiritual gift (if it is, then God graciously answered Paul’s prayer for Timothy—Paul could not force God to grant such a gift), or this could be a natural gift that was the result of the years of training Paul poured into Timothy, symbolized in that one moment. That’s really not Paul’s point. Paul’s point was that Timothy was at risk for neglecting it. Perhaps part of Timothy’s discouragement was that he had been trying to lead out of his own strength and not relying on the Spirit? That is a great reminder for each one of us. We have all been gifted to serve our church, and God was us to exercise those gifts and make them stronger. But when we neglect them and they die down, they simply need to be “fanned into flame” again. That means prayer and use.

[Aside on Spiritual Gifts. I’ve run out space for asides! Here are the passages you can go to: Rom 12:3-8, 1 Cor 12:4-13, 1 Cor 12:27-31, and Eph 4:4-13. There are gifts related to preaching/teaching (prophecy, teaching, exhorting, wisdom, knowledge, apostle) and to building up the body (serving, giving, leading, mercy, faith, miracles). Every Christian in your class has a spiritual gift, and Paul’s word encourage them not to let their gifts smolder.]

Why do we tend to neglect our spiritual gifts? I would think it’s either a fear of failure, discouragement from lack of result, or distraction. Paul’s words speak to each one of those. A Christian who has been redeemed by the Savior of the World doesn’t have to be afraid of failure or impotence and doesn’t have to get distracted by lesser “powers” of the world. He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world. Paul just wants us to remember it. If anyone in your class has grown stale in their service or spiritual life, Paul reminds them that they can rekindle it all today. Why wait?


Aside: “Through the Laying on of My Hands”

Let’s be honest—this is a strange statement. What gift did Paul give Timothy through the laying on of his hands? Many churches have decided that whatever it is, it is important enough that laying on of hands is a required part of the services of ordination, baptism, healing, blessing, and confirmation. You have to read the fine print for each individual church as to what exactly they think happens when hands are laid. For example, for Catholics, laying on of hands by a proper bishop literally transfers authority to the person being ordained. For some Pentecostals, laying on of hands is how the power of the Spirit goes into the person who needs healing. For others, laying on of hands is how people receive the Holy Spirit at baptism. Southern Baptists more and more use this physical action as part of certain ceremonies: baptism, ordination, commissioning, and someone in need of healing. How do we explain it at our church? We see it as a powerful symbol of our interdependence. Just as Jesus didn’t need to touch a leper to heal him, by doing so, Jesus created a human bond. Our physical touch is a visible symbol of support, cooperation, and commitment.

So that’s all well and good. But what did Paul mean in this statement in our passage? Well, it’s clearly a callback to 1 Tim 4:14, “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.” By the context, it seems likely that this “gift” is Timothy’s calling/gift to be a pastor. This could be the spiritual gift of being a pastor (certainly, that’s what the Catholics believe is the purpose of the ordination service). But I don’t believe that spiritual gifts are ours to give. In Acts 8, Simon the Sorcerer tried to buy the ability to give the Holy Spirit at the laying on of hands (something he saw the apostles do) and was reprimanded. If it is a spiritual gift, it’s a reminder that the Apostolic Age was different than today; Paul having that authority doesn’t mean that we do too. But it could also be a “gift” that was a culmination of years of mentoring, summed up in that physical act of laying on of hands. I’ll be honest: Paul’s language is very strong. Perhaps he did give Timothy a spiritual gift. But even if he did, that doesn’t mean that we can still do that today. Regardless, the purpose of mentioning this was to encourage Timothy.


Part 3: Unashamed (2 Timothy 1:8-12)

So don’t be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, or of me his prisoner. Instead, share in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God. He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began. This has now been made evident through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald, apostle, and teacher, and that is why I suffer these things. But I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day.

Now Paul gets into some heavy hitting. These are things that many of us don’t want to hear, and the prosperity gospel (that we talked about last week) teaches things directly contrary to this. Here’s the Matt-speak version: “Timothy, you’re going to suffer different things when you share the good news about Jesus—ridicule, opposition, even imprisonment like me—but that’s nothing to be ashamed of. The same God who raised Jesus from the dead is now working in you. The same God who planned Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection since before time began also has a plan for you. That plan isn’t based on if you’re “good enough to do it” but purely on His own purposes. And you can trust God’s ability to accomplish His purposes through you. All the proof we need is in Jesus, who conquered death. I know this because He appeared to me personally and told me to spread His good news. And I believe that He will make sure that I accomplish everything God has for me while I still live. I trust Him to do that, and you should to.”

Of course, the way Paul says it gets really, really deep. Not only our salvation, but also our calling as Christians was planned by God long before He created time. That is not supposed to spark a predestination debate—Paul is saying this only to give Timothy (and us) confidence and not to be afraid or ashamed. Usually, when Paul talks about Jesus’ “appearing” he means the Second Coming. But in this case, it’s the Incarnation. When Jesus came into this world, God’s plan of salvation went from a future hope to a thing accomplished. What do we have to fear from this world when death itself no longer has power over us? When we close our eyes in death, we will just open them again and look through eyes that will never decay on a world that will never be corrupted. With that promise and hope, there should be nothing in this world to bring us low. And Paul makes it real: if we have fears and shame, what are we saying about God? Do we not trust God to (1) preserve us until we have accomplished His perfect purpose for us, or (2) keep our soul from destruction until the final Judgment Day? No—we can trust God and His plan and His purpose for us. For even if we receive bad things in this life, the life to come will wash away any bad memories.


Aside: JFK on Negotiations

In his inaugural address, JFK stated the truism, “We dare not tempt [the USSR] with weakness”, but he went on to say much more: “So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.” I think JFK was trying to articulate what Paul had already said in our passage: when we are afraid, we make mistakes, we make compromises, and we make errors in judgment. But when we know we are in a position of security, we can stick to our plan, hold to our convictions, and not worry about the outcome. That’s how Paul wants Christian leaders to operate—not afraid of their opponents, but secure in their identity in Christ. Surely you’ve seen this play out on both sides, in business, in politics, and in sports (“scared money don’t make money”)! Behind all of this is simple humanity: God wants us to thrive in this world, not afraid of our enemies, and not afraid of failure.


Part 4: Loyal (2 Timothy 1:13-14)

Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit through the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

And thus, everything that Christ has done for us leads to two responses from a Christian leader: (1) hold on to what you’ve been taught from Jesus; (2) guard the truth by the power of the Holy Spirit. Really, that applies to every Christian. There are a lot of false teachers out there with catchy and popular ideas. We must not chase after them. Instead, we must stay fixed on the true doctrine and behavior that Jesus passed on to His disciples and that have been passed down to us. But we don’t try to do it in our own strength and will—we rely on the Holy Spirit (via our conscience) to warn us when we’re straying and to give us the strength and endurance to face whatever trial the world has for us.

This is a great “personal inventory” lesson for your class. What gifts has God given your class members? What “mission fields”? What passions? What responsibilities? Have them think over their recent past—opportunities, neighbors, church positions, whatever. And then ask them if they’ve been faithful to use their gifts where they are passionate. Every Christian hits a “rut” or a “dry spell” where we don’t think we’re accomplishing anything or we feel far from God. Perhaps Timothy was there. Paul’s words are for all of us: go back to the basics. Do you believe that God is in control? Do you believe that God has a plan? Do you believe that the Bible tells us the truth about Jesus? Do you believe that the Holy Spirit lives inside and empowers all Christians? The answer should be yes to all of those. If so, then don’t get bogged down by how you “feel” but focus on what you believe. Let your knowledge trump your emotion. Pray for that kickstart.


Closing Thoughts: Early Christian Martyrdom

Steven was the first Christian martyr at the hands of the Sanhedrin. James soon followed, and eventually Peter and Paul and most of the first generation of Christian leaders. If you were to Google “early Christian martyrs”, you’d find a powerful list. In Paul’s life, the idea of the Emperor being a kind of god had taken root, and “emperor worship” became part of common pagan festivals. Indeed, not participating in emperor worship was seen as disloyal and even treasonous. You can see how this became a problem!

When Rome burned in 64 AD, Nero blamed the Christians, and thus began the first wave of major persecution—the wave that resulted in Paul’s final imprisonment we read about in 2 Timothy. His words in this letter inspired many Christians. Here are two powerful stories.

Polycarp was one of the second generation of church leaders; he studied under John and had many conversations with people who knew Jesus personally. His preaching was powerful and convicting, and he was instrumental in leading the early church. Eventually, the Romans caught up with him. When he was 86, he was burned at the stake for failing to worship the emperor. When given the opportunity to recant, he refused—how could he deny the Savior who had done so much for him?

There was also the aptly named Justin Martyr who was one of the first to argue with Roman philosophers about the supremacy of Christian theology. He, too, refused to burn incense to the emperor, and was threatened with torture and beheading if he did not recant. Justin replied that his conscience would not allow him to deny his Savior, and he would rather be tortured for Christ than live without him.

How would Paul’s words impact you if you were faced with such persecution?


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