Yesterday, we began our series in 2 Timothy by looking at the historical background. We found that Paul was writing from prison (probably via Luke, since it’s hard to write while you’re stuck in a dungeon) asking Timothy to come to see him in Rome – and to bring his cloak and study materials. He’s facing death, and this is possibly his last chance to write to Timothy.
So what does he write? Or to put it another way, what kind of letter is this?
There were many different types or “genres” of letters in the ancient world, and each had a different function – a different expectation on the part of the author as to what it would accomplish, and on the part of the reader as to how to understand it. There were letters to introduce people to one another, letters to maintain friendships by distance, letters that authorised someone to act with another’s authority (like 1 Timothy and Titus), etc. What kind of letter is 2 Timothy?
Some say it’s a testamentary letter – a bit of a combo of a will, and writing your own eulogy ready for your funeral. These are Paul’s final words as he hands on the baton to the next generation. (We see this kind of speech in Acts 20:17-38, where he farewells the leaders of the Ephesian church. In it he speaks of his impending death, he reminds them of the way in which his life has been a model for them to follow, and he warns of future troubles – all classic elements of this kind of speech/letter.) But although 2 Timothy contains some of this stuff, there’s enough that’s different – particularly all of the specific instructions and focus on present (not future) issues.
And there’s another type of letter that fits the vibe of 2 Timothy better. The technical term for it in the ancient letter-writing handbooks is a paraenetic letter. Or more simply, a “letter of moral exhortation.” This kind of letter had four key elements, all conveniently beginning with the letter M:
- Memory – it reminded the reader of their relationship with the writer, and what they have learned from them.
- Model – it presented the writer’s life as a model of moral conduct.
- Mimesis – a Greek word meaning “imitation” – it exhorted the reader to imitate the writer (having remembered their model).
- Maxims – rules for living, supporting the exhortation to imitate the writer’s morality.
Now if you really want to nerd it up, you can have a look at a famous paraenetic letter, below. It’s written by the Greek writer Isocrates, passing on moral advice to Demetrius, the son of a close (but recently deceased) friend. Look out for the four Ms as you read some extracts below. OR just skip past it if you’re normal.Isocrates, To Demonicus:
So then, since I deem it fitting that those who strive for distinction and are ambitious for education should emulate the good and not the bad, I have dispatched to you this discourse as a gift, in proof of my good will toward you and in token of my friendship for Hipponicus; for it is fitting that a son should inherit his father’s friendships even as he inherits his estate…
This it is easy to learn from the labours of Heracles and the exploits of Theseus, whose excellence of character has impressed upon their exploits so clear a stamp of glory that not even endless time can cast oblivion upon their achievements.
Nay, if you will but recall also your father’s principles, you will have from your own house a noble illustration of what I am telling you. For he did not belittle virtue nor pass his life in indolence; on the contrary, he trained his body by toil, and by his spirit he withstood dangers…
For the present however, I have produced a sample of the nature of Hipponicus, after whom you should pattern your life as after an example, regarding his conduct as your law, and striving to imitate and emulate your father’s virtue;
First of all, then, show devotion to the gods, not merely by doing sacrifice, but also by keeping your vows…
Consider it equally disgraceful to be outdone by your enemies in doing injury and to be surpassed by your friends in doing kindness…
Mention your absent friends to those who are with you, so that they may think you do not forget them, in their turn, when they are absent…
But to be affable, you must not be quarrelsome, nor hard to please, nor always determined to have your way….
OK, if you ploughed through all that, there is some payoff coming. Trust me. Now read the following extract from the first chapter of 2 Timothy, again looking for the four Ms. Well, actually only three, because the Maxims don’t start until chapter 2:2 Tim 1:3 I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. 6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. 7 For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. 8 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. 9 He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. 12 That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day. 13 What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.
Did you notice the similarities between To Demetrius and 2 Timothy? In fact, one writer goes as far as to say this:2 Timothy is the closest thing we possess in antiquity to the rhetorical handbook’s ideal paraenetic letter and is remarkably close to To Demonicus in its way of arranging the elements of memory, model , mimesis, and maxims. (Luke Timothy Johnson, 1 & 2 Timothy, p.323.)
This kind of letter was all about character – and built on the assumption that character is learned best by imitating people who are good models. In 2 Timothy, Paul presents his own character as a positive example of conduct to imitate; he contrasts this with the false teachers Timothy has been dealing with, who are a negative example of conduct to avoid.
So 2 Timothy fits the ancient category of a paraenetic letter – one exhorting the reader to good character and moral conduct by presenting the writer as a model to follow. Again, we ask, so what? How does this help us read 2 Timothy?
I think it is foundational.
Firstly, this isn’t a letter that tells us, as Christians, what to do, so much as the kind of people we should be. It’s about character.
Secondly, this letter is addressed to a Christian leader. So if a letter addressed to a leader is primarily about character, what does that tell us about Christian leadership? It’s not primarily about skills or personality or learning or passion. It’s about character.
Thirdly, this letter seems to adopt the Greek premise that character is best learned by imitation. So from that we are encouraged to imitate Paul as a model. But we’re also challenged (particularly as leaders) with the idea that we teach first and foremost through our conduct and character. Not primarily through insightful sermons or passionate appeals or leadership strategies we picked up from the latest conference featuring an American. But through who we are, and how we behave.
Again, to quote Johnson:2 Timothy “proposes that ministry is not a career choice, but a call from God to become holy. Neither is ministry a body of lore to communicate or a set of skills to exercise, but a matter of living in a certain manner that expresses one’s deepest convictions in consistent patterns of behaviour…. Ministry, furthermore, is not measured by success, but by fidelity.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, p.330.)
See, I said there’d be payoff. (Maybe not enough to justify making you read To Demonicus, but I’ll leave you to make that judgement.) And we start the letter itself tomorrow!