Paul began his letter to Timothy by stating the goal of the church.
“They [the church] should concern themselves with welcoming in and bringing about the Kingdom of God, which is all about faith. Our teaching about this journey is intended to bring us to a single goal—a place where self-giving love reigns from a pure heart, a clean conscience, and a genuine faith.”
The rest of the book has been talking about those things. When we get to the conclusion, Paul gives a bookend that sounds very similar.
You are a man of God. Your quest is for justice, godliness, faithfulness, love, perseverance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith! [Agonize the good agony.] Cling to the eternal life you were called to when you confessed the good confession before witnesses. Before God—the life-giving Creator of all things—and Jesus the Anointed, our Liberating King, who made the good confession to Pontius Pilate, I urge you: keep His commandment. Have a spotless, indisputable record until our Lord Jesus the Anointed appears to set this world straight.
In His own perfect time, He will come—blessed is the only Sovereign, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords. He alone possesses immortality; He makes His home in matchless, blinding, brilliant light that no one can approach—no mortal has ever even seen Him, and no human can. So let it be that all honor and eternal power are His. Amen.
Here’s what you say to those wealthy in regard to this age: “Don’t become high and mighty or place all your hope on a gamble for riches; instead, fix your hope on God, the One who richly provides everything for our enjoyment.” Tell them to use their wealth for good things; be rich in good works! If they are willing to give generously and share everything, then they will send ahead a great treasure for themselves and build their futures on a solid foundation. As a result, they will surely take hold of eternal life.
O Timothy, protect what was entrusted to you![the gospel]. Walk away from all the godless, empty voices out there, and turn aside from objections and arguments that arise from false knowledge. (By professing such knowledge, some are missing the mark when it comes to true faith.) May God’s grace be with you.
I’ll be honest: sometimes, when I read the Bible, I get tired. I know what a good quest looks like.
I grew up reading the stories of King Arthur and His knights (which I even forced on my high school literature classes for a time). As a kid, I listened to the record of Rankin Bass’s The Hobbit, then read the Lord of the Rings every Christmas break during high school. I’ve seen Indiana Jones, The Princess Bride and Guardians of the Galaxy; I know about the pursuit of Superbowl rings and NBA championships and NCAA tournament winners. There’s even that little bird in the kid’s stories who just wants to find his mother.
We all know what a quest is – and we all quest.
Sometimes it’s subconscious – we just end up giving our time, energy and emotion to something we have by default decided is important. It could be people, or relationships, or family, or a job, or leisure. It could be a conscious choice: the environment, healthy living, injustice, poverty, a particular person, our family. When we find a cause we believe is worthy of our time, energy, money and emotion, we will give our life.
When the cause is noble, just, and good, we applaud those who fight no matter the cost. We admire William Wilberforce and Mother Theresa as well as our friends who fight to do life better. It’s the addict who celebrates their first year clean, or the married couple that has gone to counseling faithfully, or the person who has determined to pursue godliness even when those around them do not. It might cost them time, money, comfort and even friends, but we encourage them because the cost is nothing compared with the value of the quest.
When the cause is lousy, we cringe at what great cost is being spent on such an unworthy goal. Watch an episode of the Bachelor or Jersey Shore or Honey Boo Boo and tell me if you don’t just want to weep for the lives that are being wasted. I see interviews occasionally with sports stars or Hollywood celebrities where they are so desperate to gain the world they lose their soul - and often their health, reputation, and friends. If we are not careful, our quest can destroy us.
But there are good quests too, such as “justice, godliness, faithfulness, love, perseverance, and gentleness.” These are not cheap, and they don’t come easily. If you want a pearl of great price you may have to sell everything. You have to fight for it. If you want to find your life you will have to lose it. If you want to follow Christ, you will have to take up a cross. Jesus bids us to come and die before we can truly live.
Paul says that going on a quest for godliness means you will have to fight the good fight.
“Keep His commandment.” This cannot be more clear. You fight the good fight and cling to eternal life through obedience. That is not what saves you, but it’s the only proper response to your claim of faith, and it’s how you fight the good fight. On the one hand, this is intimidating, because we will never do it perfectly, and we can run into the danger of legalism, judgment and shame. On the other hand, there is comfort here.
What if I don’t feel God’s presence? Keep His commandments. What if I am in despair? Keep His commandments. What if my world is crumbling, and life seems hopeless? Keep His commandments. What if I fail? Pick myself up and keep his commandments. That is how we maintain our quest. However, because we will do this imperfectly in spite of our best efforts, we need to....
“Fix your hope on God.” This particular passage stresses that you can’t put your hope in money. You also shouldn’t put it on reputation, power, sex, comfort, health, or good looks. Not on the next job promotion or election. . Not on a happy marriage or children who make you proud or a large retirement account. Certainly not on your ability to keep God’s law. None of those are bad things, but they cannot give you the hope you seek. I used to sing an old hymn: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wondrous face. The things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” To stay true to your quest, you must keep your eyes fixed on the hope of God.
“Be rich in good works.” Does God want you to be wealthy? Absolutely. Wealthy in kindness and generosity. Rich in love and gentleness. Money is not a bad thing, but the love of it is the root of all kinds of evil. If God has given you the kind of gifts and talents that help you make money, make money for the glory of God and the furtherance of His kingdom. Just don’t make it an idol. You can't serve money and serve God. Your quest is not money; your quest is to build up a treasure of good deeds.
“Walk away from all the godless, empty voices.” Of all the topics in this book, Paul is relentless on this particular one. Don’t forget that ideas have consequences. You must cling to truth. There have always been godless voices, but I think we face some unique challenges today. Thanks to technology, we have access to soooo much information, and we can read and process it by ourselves. This is not necessarily a good thing. We need a community of the church to help us do this so that we don’t unintentionally begin to absorb ideas that will shipwreck our faith.
This is Paul’s final plea to Timothy. It’s the last thing to remember. This is a big deal. In the spirit of Paul’s admonition and my having a role similar to Timothy’s, I must offer this.
There is a recent book that has swept through a lot of Christian circles. As your pastor, I feel I must tell you that William Young’s The Shack full of distortions about God, sin, salvation, human nature, and eternity. [i] I understand that parts of the book are profoundly moving to many people, especially as it relates to processing why God allows pain and suffering. Yes, there are parts of The Shack that offer good things (a focus on the goodness of God, forgiveness, etc). But being moved is not the only thing that counts, and the good things are surrounded by bad theology. Lest you think I am making too much of this, just hear me out.
In the forward to C. Baxter Kruger's book The Shack Revisited, Young wrote, "Please don't misunderstand me; The Shack is theology. But it is theology wrapped in story, the word becoming flesh and living inside the blood and bones of common human experience." It’s not just fiction; Paul Young is trying to change your theology. His recent book Lies We Believe About God makes his theology clear.
- He denies the classic Christian teaching of human depravity. “Yes, we have crippled eyes, but not a core of un-goodness….blind, not depraved is our condition.”
- He insists that God is not sovereign, but that he “submits rather than controls and joins us in the resulting mess of relationship…”
- He believes in universalism. “God does not wait for my choice and then ‘save me.’ God has acted decisively and universally for all humankind. Now our daily choice is to either grow and participate in that reality or continue to live in the blindness of our own independence. Are you suggesting that everyone is saved? That you believe in universal salvation? That is exactly what I am saying!”
- He thinks the Cross was a mistake. “Who originated the Cross? If God did, then we worship a cosmic abuser, who in Divine Wisdom created a means to torture human beings in the most painful and abhorrent manner. Frankly, it is often this very cruel and monstrous god that the atheist refuses to acknowledge or grant credibility in any sense. And rightly so. Better no god at all, than this one. The alternative is that the Cross originated with us human beings. This deviant device is the iconic manifestation of our blind commitment to darkness. It is our ultimate desecration of the goodness and loving intent of God to create, an intent that is focused on the human creation. It is the ultimate fist raised against God.”
- He says hell is in the presence of God. He quotes Romans 8:38-39 which says nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God. Therefore, hell cannot be a place where we are separated from God. Rather, Young says, hell is God. It is "the continuous and confrontational presence of fiery Love and Goodness and Freedom that intends to destroy every vestige of evil and darkness that prevents us from being fully free and fully alive."
That’s hard for me to write, because I know that book has been meaningful to many people, and because it has provided a means by which many people who feel like God is disant and uncaring are reminded that God is personal and near. Is it possible that God can draw people to himself through this book? Sure, but it will be in spite of much of its distorted theology, not because of it. There will need to be some corrective teaching so that the trajectory of distorted theology explored in The Shack will not lead to the blatantly false theology of Lies We Believe About God.
So I have to say something, becaue Timothy’s challenge is my challenge. I cannot walk away from it. If we want to quest like Paul challenged Timothy, we must reject the voices that can potentially shipwreck our faith with bad theology, even if the means by which the message is presented moves us.
So I know what a quest is, and I also know what it costs, and so sometimes, when I read the Bible, it makes me tired. No wonder Paul wrote in Galatians 6, “Don’t grow weary in doing well.”
That’s why I like that, after all the advice in this letter to Timothy, and after telling him that he is going to need to fight for and cling to his faith, Paul reminds him why that quest is so good, so important, and why it is the only one that matters in the end. Why should Timothy do all these things over and over again? Why should Timothy never give, never grow weary in pursuing godliness? Because the God He is pursuing in his ultimate quest is awesome.
At this point in the letter, it’s almost as if Paul just can’t help himself. In the middle of instructions, he suddenly branches off into extravagant praise:
Blessed is the only Sovereign, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords. He alone possesses immortality; He makes His home in matchless, blinding, brilliant light that no one can approach—no mortal has ever even seen Him, and no human can. So let it be that all honor and eternal power are His. Amen.[ii]
There is no cause other that Christ that deserves our worship. Only Christ gets that ultimate allegiance from us. Only Christ deserves the fullness of our heart, soul, mind and strength. As we close this series, I want to close the same way Paul does, with a time of reflection and worship of the awesome God we serve.
[i] Here are some recommended resources for The Shack (and Young’s latest, Lies We Believe About God).
JESUS CALLING is another popular book that is worth reconsidering, not so much because of its content but because of the precedent it sets about how God speaks to us.
[ii] I find it fascinating how Paul both borrowed from his culture in teh service of preching the gospel. In his address on Mars Hill he quotes several Greek poems and plays; Adam Clarke points out in his commentary that he believes Paul’s language here reflects a knowledge of his cultural contemporaries as well. Like he did on Mars Hill, Paul takes the language others used in praise of false gods and turns it to the True God.