As you know there are three of Paul’s letters that are typically grouped together as the so-called Pastoral Epistles: two to Timothy and one to Titus. In the Bible, understandably, they appear in that order: First and Second Timothy and then Titus. Chronology, however, has comparatively little to do with the order of New Testament books. Galatians was written before Romans or either of the two letters to the Corinthians, Philemon was written before either letter to Timothy, and so on. The Gospels are grouped together, followed by Luke’s second volume, Acts, the letters of Paul are all grouped together, the longer ones first, and so on. Chronologically, the order of the Pastoral Epistles is First Timothy, then Titus, and finally Second Timothy, the last written just before Paul’s death by execution in Rome sometime in the mid-60s of the first century when Nero was the emperor. When Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon during his first Roman imprisonment, the one described in the last chapter of Acts, Paul was suffering a much milder form of incarceration, a form of house arrest, and was expecting release and a return to his missionary labors, which, in fact, is what happened. But when he wrote 2 Timothy, he had been arrested again and this time he had no such hopes. He knew the end was near.
When he wrote Second Timothy, Paul was an older man, older perhaps than the number of his years — whatever they may have been — might suggest. He had packed a lot of hard living into the thirty years or so that he had been a servant of Jesus Christ. Some of you will have visited the Mamertine Prison in Rome in which, tradition has it, Paul was incarcerated before his death. The tradition is hardly certain of course (there is no evidence for it before the 5th century), but it is not impossible that as he wrote this final letter Paul was sitting in that dank, dark, underground cell. As we will read in 1:17, when Onesiphorus, Paul’s friend, came to Rome it took him some time to locate the apostle. He was not enjoying the fellowship of the saints, as before in Acts 28, but was a real prisoner, mostly shut away from the company of his friends. As we will read in v. 16 he was literally in chains and suffering, as prisoners did in those days, from loneliness, cold, and boredom, as is confirmed in 4:9-13 of this same letter. [Stott, Guard the Gospel, 16] “Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas,” is a poignant reminder of his physical circumstances during his last days. His preliminary hearing had already been held and he was awaiting the full trial, but did not expect to be acquitted. Peter, as you may remember, would be executed in Rome as well and at about the same time. Tradition has it that Paul was beheaded — the typical punishment for a Roman citizen, which Paul was and Peter was not — on the Ostian Way some three miles outside the city. These were dark days for all Christians in Rome.
About this same time, as Paul tells us in 1:15, there had been a virtually complete departure from the teaching of Paul, at least in some respects, in the churches of the Roman province of Asia, churches that included those in Ephesus and Colossae! The saintly 19th century Anglican bishop Handley Moule went so far as to say that at that moment, as Paul anticipated his death, as Christians were suffering death in Rome and as other churches were succumbing to heresy, “Christianity…trembled, humanly speaking, on the verge of annihilation.” [in Stott, 21] It is in such circumstances, with such concerns on his mind, that Paul wrote his last letter to his assistant and would-be successor. No wonder then the basic theme of the letter: Timothy is to guard and to proclaim the gospel, even if, as is likely, he should have to suffer for doing so, as Paul was suffering at that moment.
We might think it somewhat odd that Paul would identify himself as an apostle in a letter to a close friend. He might have done so out of habit and he is going to talk throughout the letter about his own ministry, but the last word of the letter (4:22) is “you” and it is in the plural, not the singular. Paul apparently, as with his first letter to Timothy, expected it to be read to the church where Timothy was. It was a personal letter, but it contained exhortations the entire church needed to hear. We have here some justification for our considering it as the Word of God to us as we read it now.
As we said in introducing Timothy at the outset of our study of Paul’s first letter, Timothy was Paul’s child in the faith; he was a man we would say nowadays that Paul had led to Christ.
This obiter dictum, a passing comment, confirms again what Paul explicitly teaches in many places: his faith is Abraham’s faith, Moses’ faith, and David’s faith. If you remember, Paul told Felix, the governor, “I worship the God of my fathers.” [Acts 24:14] Paul never thought that in his preaching of the gospel he was breaking with the past. He was, in fact, standing in the direct line of the saints of old. [Mounce, 467]
Wouldn’t you love to know Paul’s habit in prayer? Did he have morning and evening devotions as many Christians have had and have today? Did he pause to pray at certain hours? One thing is clear: he was a man of prayer and we have the evidence of that throughout his letters. He prayed for many and asked many to pray for him. It is, of course, always easier to secure the prayers of others if they know you have prayed for them.
Verse 4 is made the more poignant by the fact that, so far as we know, Paul was by no means sure that we would ever see Timothy again. At the end of the letter he urges his younger assistant to “come before winter,” but whether Timothy was able to do so or whether Paul was still alive when we arrived we cannot say. We know there was a close, father-son relationship between the two men. The last time they had parted, Timothy had not been able to hold back his tears and Paul here writes as if there were nothing in the world that would do him more good than to see his young son in the faith once more.
There should be such relationships of affection, dependence, and appreciation in our lives. At this point in his commentary on 2 Timothy, John Stott writes:
“I thank God for the man who led me to Christ [John Stott was an English school boy when he became a Christian] and for the extraordinary devotion with which he nurtured me in the early years of my Christian life. He wrote to me every week for, I think, seven years. He also prayed for me every day. I believe he still does. I can only begin to guess what I owe, under God, to such a faithful friend and pastor.” 
Are you such a person in another Christian’s life? You ought to aspire to be.
Luke tells us in Acts 16:1 that Timothy was the son of a mixed marriage, his mother being a Jew and his father a Greek. His father, presumably, was an unbeliever since Paul never mentions his faith, in fact, never mentions him at all; but his mother and grandmother had been devout, believing women as Jews, even before they became aware of the arrival of the Messiah (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16). They would have belonged to that community of Jewish believers, real believers in distinction from the majority of Jews who had gone over either to a kind of apathetic cultural religion or the self-confident legalism of the Pharisees, the community of real Jewish believers to which Zechariah and Elizabeth and Joseph and Mary — and no doubt many others – had belonged.
Now, just a word on Paul’s interesting way of speaking about Timothy’s faith, the faith “I am persuaded or I am sure dwells in you.” You find this note of mild hesitancy in Paul on several occasions, even in regard to his own faith, as for example in 1 Cor. 9, as if there could be any doubt whatsoever of the living faith in Christ in the heart of the great apostle to the Gentiles or any doubt whatsoever that of all of those who have obtained eternal life the Apostle Paul was surely one. We are to notice and ponder everything we encounter in the Word of God, even the details. You will find among many great Christians this same hesitancy mixed with what we would all take to be a calm assurance of salvation based on massive evidence of true and living faith. On his deathbed, William Wilberforce’s son, Henry sought to comfort his father by saying, “Yes, but you have your feet on the Rock.” To which the great man replied, “I do not venture to speak so positively, but I hope I have.” Wilberforce often spoke of salvation as something he hoped that he had obtained. And, as I said, you can find that same trait in other Christians in history whom we rightly admire and of whose salvation we cannot doubt. It is the speech of someone who has seen a lot of life, it is the mind of someone who knows how easy it is to fool oneself about his spiritual state, and, in particular, it is the way someone speaks who knows that salvation is a matter so serious that it is never to be spoken of glibly and something we are never to take for granted. A lesson for us all! Such a way of speaking doesn’t mean that Paul was any less confident of heaven, as we will learn when we read 4:7-8!
As in the first letter (4:14), Paul seems here to be referring to Timothy’s ordination. We Americans tend to think little of such rituals — it is the man and his abilities that count, we think (we are individualists after all) — but in the Bible ordination – the Lord through the church’s setting apart of a man to the office and the work — is what empowers a man to such a ministry that God will bless. And great gifts without God’s blessing always amount to little or nothing while small gifts with God’s blessing can move mountains!
It certainly sounds, doesn’t it, as if Paul had reason to think that Timothy was facing discouraging circumstances. To have Paul himself, in jail, in chains, at present facing a death sentence, to tell you to buck up must have been bracing encouragement!
Timothy was a young man, perhaps in his mid-thirties, who had long proved himself a loyal and valued partner in the work, but was much younger, not in great health (Paul refers to his “frequent ailments” in 1 Tim. 5:23); and was perhaps somewhat introverted, though certainly no coward as his previous labors proved. The 19th century commentator, Patrick Fairbairn, put it simply this way: “Timothy was ‘disposed to lean rather than to lead.’” [in Stott, 20] In any case, he was not Paul. So it was natural for Paul to encourage him in this way and to compliment him as he does in vv. 6-7. So far the Word of God.
What we have in 2 Timothy is Paul passing the baton. 2 Timothy is Paul’s counsel not only to his beloved and honored assistant who had shared the work with him for some years; it is further preparation for Timothy to succeed him when he was gone. It had to happen, of course. The apostles weren’t going to live forever. They were a once-only phenomenon; they laid the foundation of the church in the new epoch. It had never been the Lord’s plan to have young apostles replace old apostles generation after generation. Timothy was a transitional figure. There would be only one group of them as well: men who knew the apostles themselves and had some experience of their ministry, but lived and worked into the post-apostolic period.
Later still, such a man as Polycarp, in the next generation, could still have known the apostle John, who seems to have been the last of the apostles to die, as an old man, though most of Polycarp’s ministry must have been conducted after John’s death. Surely there must have been many Christians in those days, as the apostles died one after another, who eagerly sought opportunity to meet and interview an apostle before the last one of them was gone. As important as eye-witness testimony was to early Christianity, the last few apostles must have been celebrities in the church as Christians awoke to the fact that they would soon all be gone. Think of the spate of World War II books, movies, and television programs that were produced a few years ago because people had awakened to the fact that it would not be long before the last eyewitnesses of that great war were no longer with us.
But the Christian ministry had to continue. Take away their personal experience of the Lord Jesus, their being eyewitnesses of his resurrection; take away the miracles and the authority by which they wrote books of the Bible, and the apostles were priests or ministers: responsible for preaching the Word and superintending the church’s worship. Priests had discharged those responsibilities for centuries before and someone would have to discharge them in the years to come. Timothy is, perhaps, the New Testament’s principal example of the man we would call today a Christian minister. He wasn’t an apostle. We know he had never laid eyes on Jesus, becoming a Christian some years after the Lord’s ascension to heaven; so far as we know he never performed a miracle (though he was likely witness to them in the ministry of Paul), but while Paul was alive he did much of the same work of preaching and building the church and after Paul’s death he continued that work, becoming one of the most honored ministers of the church in the next generation. He is mentioned by himself, for example, in the Letter to the Hebrews, not in association with Paul. Timothy too would be imprisoned and then released as we read in Hebrews 13:23.
The circumstances of this transition from the first generation to the second were, obviously, in some respects unique because the apostles were unique. But in another respect this same transition happens and must happen repeatedly as the church moves forward in time. And it often proves problematic. It is, in fact, a perpetually dangerous moment in the church’s life. In many cases the next generation proves not as resolute in guarding the gospel as the previous one had been. I mentioned Abraham Kuyper and his remarkable achievements last Lord’s Day evening. He founded a university, today one of the great universities of Holland. He founded a Christian and Reformed political party. That party eventually prevailed in national elections making Kuyper the prime minister of The Netherlands. He founded a daily national newspaper, a labor union, and reinvigorated the Reformed Church in his day. Imagine if we evangelical Christians today in the United States controlled one of the two major political parties and could elect a president. Imagine that among the media organs that dominate the political and social conversation in our land were some that were intelligently, winsomely and persuasively loyal to biblical principles. Suppose that some of our great universities were outspoken bastions of Christian and biblical thought. Why we would think we had died and gone to heaven! But they had all of that and more in Holland in the late 19th and early 20th century.
But it is all gone today. Kuyper’s church has gone the way of unbelief and is shrinking so fast into irrelevance that no one cares what it thinks about anything. The Free University still has some Bible-believing professors, but has lost its way. The government of Holland hasn’t paid attention to Christian conviction for a long time now and isn’t likely to in the foreseeable future.
How did that happen? How was so much squandered so fast? Well, the transition from one generation to another was badly made and the men who replaced Kuyper’s generation were spiritually and theologically weaker. When the pressure was applied they first sagged and then gave way. And now the country that a century ago had Abraham Kuyper as its Prime Minister is the outspoken enemy of virtually everything Christians stand for. The gospel wasn’t guarded and it was lost and everything else together with it. And it took only two generations, two transitions for that great beginning to be completely squandered!
But of course this generational transition does not occur only in the Christian ministry. On a far larger scale, the same transition happens in every Christian home and family. As you noticed Paul speaks about both in these opening verses of 2 Timothy.
He is going to tell Timothy to “guard the gospel (1:14),” faithfully to nurture the faith and life of the church in his preaching and teaching, and to set an example before the church of godly living and fruitful service. In other words, Timothy’s ministry and influence is to be a faithful continuation of that of the great apostle himself.
But that same task of preparing the next generation must as well be undertaken in the Christian home, as it had been in Timothy’s home. As we will read in 2 Tim 3:16, Timothy had been taught the Word of God from his infancy. And not merely “taught,” as if it were some kind of exercise of meaningless memorization, without the engagement of the heart and without the intention to formulate a truly faithful and godly life in the young. Timothy’s mother was a believer before Timothy and his grandmother before his mother. Real faith had deep roots on his mother’s side. (As to why such a Jewish believer was married to an unbelieving Gentile, we cannot say; but marriages were arranged in different ways in those days than they usually are today.) But Paul’s point is that Timothy was prepared for a consequential Christian life by the spiritual nurture he received as a child. As Calvin delightfully puts it:
Timothy was raised “in such a way that he could suck in godliness along with his mother’s milk.” [NT Commentaries, X, 292]
All he, his mother, and his grandmother had lacked, apparently, like those early Jewish Christians in Ephesus of whom we read in Acts 19, or like Joseph and Mary or Simeon or Anna years before them, was the news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit: the news they could not have learned from the ancient Word of God. And as soon as Timothy heard that good news, he believed it and he enfolded it in his already existing faith in Yahweh, in Israel’s God.
That was not Paul’s personal history as we know. He was not raised in a godly family, as Timothy had been. He was a convert from the Judaism that had long since lost touch with the great message of divine love and redemption found in the Old Testament. When he says in Philippians 3:8 that he had suffered the loss of all things for Jesus’ sake, almost certainly he is referring in part to his family, perhaps even a wife, more likely his parents and siblings, who never accepted what they took to be his betrayal of Judaism by becoming a follower of Jesus Christ. That is the likeliest reason we never hear of Paul visiting his family during his various missionary tours or for his never making any reference to them in his letters. The Christian faith was not simply the culmination of all that he had already believed as a devout Jew, as it had been for Timothy; it was a revolution in his thinking, indeed in principle a completely new religion, however true to the faith of the Old Testament, that Paul embraced on the Damascus Road.
Now, as I mentioned, those were dark days when Paul wrote his last letter to Timothy and dark not only for Paul. The churches in the province of Asia were slipping away from the apostolic teaching, or seemed to be. Thankfully, time would prove them eventually more loyal to the gospel than seemed to have been the case in the mid-60s, since some of those churches are mentioned among the seven in Revelation 2-3 and all were orthodox at that time, near the end of the first century. The Christians in Rome itself were living in fear of their lives; their leaders were under arrest and facing possible execution. No one was likely to imagine in the mid-60s that the church of the Lord Jesus Christ would soon rule the Roman world.
None of this bad news, of course, led Paul to despair. He knew very well that the church would suffer ups and downs but that the gates of hell could never prevail against it. He had seen often enough in his own ministry great obstacles melt away before the will of God. As he will remind Timothy in 2:9-10, Paul might be in chains but the Word of God never is and those whom God has chosen will certainly continue to come to faith in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, it was his duty to prepare Timothy for life and ministry without him, as it is the duty of Christian parents to prepare their children — as Lois and Eunice had done — for a life of consequential Christian service, so that when they are gone the gospel and the kingdom will still go forward.
Now all of this is more apropos our present circumstances in the United States of America in the early 21st century than you might at first think. Our days are pretty gloomy as well and, frankly, they are likely to get gloomier as the years pass. The Lord may do some great thing to reverse the spiritual decline of the church and the fortunes of the gospel in our land, but until he does the likelihood is that things will get worse, perhaps much worse, before they get better. I hope when I say such things you are not thinking that you would rather hear happier, more upbeat messages.
It is absolutely essential, given our circumstances, that Christians nowadays face facts and prepare accordingly. We need to be spiritually determined, even relentless, in the parenting of our children, vigilant in the calling of pastors, and supportive of all Christian people and institutions that are faithful to the gospel and useful in fostering loyalty to it. We cannot by ourselves change the culture, but by our faithfulness, we can certainly ensure that there will be more faithful Christians and more faithful pastors in the next generation than there would have been without us.
Think of this simple theological mathematics. My parents were two. They raised their children to love and serve the Lord, doing what first Lois and then Eunice had done, teaching us to revere the Word of God from our earliest days and exemplifying a loyal and happy Christian life before their children. They had four children all of whom walked with the Lord in their adulthood. Those four children had sixteen children of their own, all of whom, God be praised, are walking with the Lord, a number of whom are by now well into their adulthood. Two in a generation and a half has become sixteen. For you math hounds, that’s 2 to the third power. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that hidden in that equation is the secret to domination of the world by the kingdom of God.
But there is a problem. There is the same requirement in the Christian home that Paul is fulfilling here in his second letter to Timothy. There must be first generational faithfulness, faithful parental nurture in the home, faithful preaching in the ministry, or the 2 doesn’t become 16 in a generation and a half, but may, alas, become 0 instead! If Christian ministers do not produce faithful pastors to succeed them; if Christian parents do not make faithful Christians of their children, the death of the kingdom of God in a country or a culture is only a matter of time, and not very much time at that.
The unhappy fact is that the numerical size of the evangelical church in the United States is shrinking, not growing. Large mega-churches may mask the overall decrease in size, but it is now common knowledge and confirmed by every measurement of American religious affiliation and practice.
You perhaps have read, as I have, pundits who, with whatever measure of approval or disapproval, predict that there will be many more Christians (or Muslims, or conservatives, or whatever) than western secular types in years to come because Christians are reproducing at a greater rate than secular-minded Americans. That may be true. It may even continue to be true. But it won’t matter, if the children of those homes do not grow up to be convinced, ardent, devout Christians themselves, committed to the gospel and the growth of the kingdom of God. The fact is our own Presbyterian Church in America ought to be growing much faster than it is, simply on the basis of its average family size. But we are losing far too many of our children.
I don’t know why this is so hard for evangelicals to grasp — perhaps because it is taught more comprehensively in the Old Testament than the New — but evangelism has never provided the majority of Christians in any place or time, apart from those comparatively rare times when the gospel first reaches a people or an area, or when the gospel first takes wing among a people. The first century was obviously such a time and so the New Testament bears witness to adult conversion more than it does to the spiritual nurture of children. Perhaps that is why Christians seem not to be as aware of the strategic role of the Christian family in the advancement of the kingdom of God.
Even in Reformed paedobaptist circles, where you might expect more understanding of the importance of the Christian family as a vehicle of church growth, you still hear virtually nothing about it and it is often made to seem, however unwittingly, as if evangelism were the only way to grow the church. But the brute fact is that while virtually all Christians in apostolic Christianity were converts, very soon that ceased to be the case and, even in that great age of evangelism, the first four centuries after Pentecost, the largest number of Christians were produced by the Christian family. As I have reminded you before, almost all the men a well-read Christian would recognize from early Christian history, were raised by one or more Christian parents. There are some exceptions — Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Cyprian, for example, come to mind — but Polycarp, Origen, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, and many others, imbibed the Christian faith first at home, just as we would expect from reading the Bible.
The Bible treats us to many more successions in grace than Lois, Eunice, and Timothy. Think of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and Joseph. Or think of Boaz, Jesse, David, and Solomon. Or think of Zechariah and Elizabeth and their son John, or Mary and her son Mark. Consider the names that we are given in the hall of heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. If we know enough to say anything about those individuals, we can say most every one of them had believing parents. And as soon as the apostolic period had come to an end and the church was, as it were left on her own, Christian families added daily to the number of those who were saved. Polycarp, one of the earliest Christians we know of in that early second stage of post-Pentecostal history, was the child of Christian parents. There are vast numbers of first generation Christians in Africa and China today — and we rejoice in the mighty work of the Spirit of God calling so many out of the world into the church — but already a great and ever growing number of the believers in Asia and Africa are the children of these first generation Christians. And we know this for certain: if that first generation of converts does not hand on their faith to their children, the promise of Chinese and African Christianity will die before it has been well and truly fulfilled.
It is still more the case in the western world today, as additions from evangelism have continued to decline over the past generation. But what is greatly to be feared is that, at least according to my reading and observation, when the church’s evangelistic influence declines, so typically does her growth from the covenant God made with her to be her God and the God of her children. The spiritual and cultural conditions that so powerfully influence the success or failure of evangelism likewise bear a mighty influence on the effectiveness of a Christian family as a transmitter of the faith. We have so many Christian families nowadays who are failing to nurture their children precisely because of the pernicious influences of this secular culture.
However true that may be for the Christian church as a whole it doesn’t need to be true for us! The fact is, in times of spiritual doldrums, even in times of overt persecution or spiritual retreat, devout, committed, determined Christians have been able, by the promised grace of God, to raise their children to love and serve the Lord. Grace in the lines of generations has always been God’s program and when God’s people, no matter the circumstances of their time and place, embrace it in faith and obedience he blesses the spiritual nurture they provide their children.
It is always God’s grace when anyone is saved, to be sure; sovereign grace indeed. But God has bound himself by his promise to us to be our children’s God and, therefore, the church ought always and everywhere to grow and if she does not, she has no one to blame but herself! “You took your sons and daughters whom you bore to me,” God said to Israel, “and sacrificed them to idols!” No, no, a thousand times NO! Not here; not us; not ever!
Who knows what lies ahead? But should, as may seem more likely, there be darker rather than brighter days, should we find ourselves in such a difficult time of transition, as appeared to be the case when Paul wrote 2 Timothy, we will still have these two great responsibilities and still have the spiritual wherewithal to fulfill them: first, to ensure that the church’s ministers hand on to the next generation the gospel of Jesus Christ and the pattern of a godly life; and, second, that we parents and all of us with them do the same for our children. What did Lois and Eunice do? As we read in 2 Tim. 3:16, they taught their son the Word of God from his infancy, taught him the Word as the living truth of God and then they lived before their son a life that exemplified the truth of that word. That is the calling of every Christian parent, the first calling and the greatest need of the church as it moves from one generation to the next.
This past Thursday I sat through a seminar on church leadership sponsored by the Metro Northwest Church Planting Network and led by a PCA pastor from Florida. It was a stimulating few hours. You know how in our culture corporate people as well as church people talk about vision statements and purpose statements and so on. Committees work for years, consultants are hired, and much money is spent developing such statements. As you may have guessed, we’ve never done that. We don’t have a vision statement or a purpose statement here at Faith Presbyterian. Whether that’s good or bad is for you to judge. But in the seminar I heard what I thought was the best definition of what people ought to mean when, in such conversations, they throw around the term “vision.” “Vision” is a common term in management and marketing but there are as many definitions of the term as there are consultants. The other day “vision” was defined — I had never heard this definition before — as “the ideal picture of the future.” Surely there is some real value in our thinking about what we want to be true of our church in following years and all the more on this anniversary Sunday. If we were to ask ourselves, what do we want to be true of Faith Presbyterian Church thirty years from now, forty years, fifty, sixty, seventy years from now, surely two of the first things we would say, or should say is this: 1) We want this pulpit to be occupied by a man who cherishes the faith once and for all delivered to the saints and preaches Jesus Christ unashamedly as the only savior of sinners and the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And 2) we want those who are children in the church today to be her faithful members and able leaders tomorrow, as deeply committed to the Word of God as we are or more so, still more ardent advocates of the gospel of Jesus Christ, believers in its power to bring salvation to the lost, and still more committed to doing all they can to foster the growth and prosperity of the kingdom of God. That’s our vision!