You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. Join with me in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules. The hard-working farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops. (verses 1, 3-6)
Timothy’s calling comes clearly into view once again. Paul urges him to actively engage in the ministry of the gospel, just as Paul himself had done, guarding the message faithfully and entrusting it to others who will do the same. Timothy needs to be strong in order to carry out this mission, but not with strength flowing from his own fortitude and determination. Rather, he needs to be “strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” What a winning command, necessary for any of us, regardless of the specific calling that is on our lives.
But the central command in this passage actually comes in the third verse. “Join with me in suffering.” It’s an invitation overshadowed with the possibility of pain, a single word imperative that Paul has already spoken over Timothy earlier in this letter. “So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God” (2 Timothy 1:8). So crucial is this charge that Paul brings forth three illustrations to drive the point home.
Here they are:
(1) “Join with me in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”We can easily envision the suffering that takes place for a soldier on the battlefield – Paul himself, as he writes, is experiencing the repercussions of spiritual warfare as he is imprisoned for the sake of the gospel. Be willing to join with me, Paul says. But a soldier’s “suffering” isn’t confined merely to the skirmishes of battle. There is also a single-minded focus and devotion, required at all times, that means putting aside “civilian affairs” and staying focused on the will and purposes of the commanding officer. Such wholehearted commitment comes at a cost. Rather than being carried along by one’s own will and desires, we are called to focus on the directives of the commander. Join me, Paul says.
(2) “Similarly … an athlete.” The introductory word gives us the point of comparison in this next illustration. Athletes only succeed if they are wholeheartedly committed to the competition. There is pain and sweat and endless honing of skill and technique, all of it constrained by the rules of the game itself. Only with committed focus, determination, and perseverance will one gain the victor’s crown. Join me, says Paul.
(3) “The hard-working farmer.” The adjective itself says it all – “hard-working.” The word implies toil that leaves one weary and tired and exhausted. That’s the suffering of a farmer! He only gains the reward of harvest after investing hours and days and months of backbreaking toil in the fields. Join me – that’s Paul’s invitation.
But it’s not sheer drudgery. We’re meant to see that this invitation – for soldier, athlete, and farmer – comes with the joyful assurance of future reward. One commentator puts it this way: “Beyond warfare is victory, beyond athletic effort a prize, and beyond agricultural labour a crop” (Barrett). Previously, Paul had spoken of his sure hope that Onesiphorus “will find mercy from the Lord on that day” (2 Timothy 1:18) – so, too, that future day of the Lord guarantees reward for all who labour in Christ Jesus.
Soldiers, athletes, and farmers, like Paul, suffer in their devotion. But the prize is sure.
Lord, focus my sights on you in every aspect of my life that I may live with wholehearted commitment to your will and purpose. Lift my sights with joy to that future day when victory is won, the prize given, and the harvest complete.
Reflect: Take one of these three illustrations and live with it today. Consider how such wholehearted devotion impacts your decisions and actions along the way.