Work hard and suffer?! (2 Tim 2:2-10)

Yesterday, we began the second chapter of 2 Timothy, which is all about loyalty. And we asked the question, what does it mean for us to be loyal to God?  Today, we’ll look at a couple of ways Paul gives us, and tomorrow, we’ll look at another two.

Work hard (like Paul did)

Firstly, says Paul, work hard in God’s service, just like I do. Follow my example: keep going, even if it’s difficult. And he uses three analogies that were very common in the first century when you were encouraging hard work and discipline: that of a soldier, an athlete, and a farmer. This starts in verse 3:

2:3-4 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.

According to at least one historian from the time, Roman soldiers weren’t allowed to marry or have a business on the side during their period of military service. Their sole focus was to be on the job at hand. That’s how Paul wants us to be when it comes to serving God – not “entangled” with the things of this world that ultimately don’t matter; but with all of our focus & energy on pleasing God.

2:5 Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.

What rules? It’s unlikely in this context he’s talking about the rules of the contest. He probably means the rule of self-discipline & training. At the ancient Olympics, competitors had to swear an oath before the statue of Zeus that they’d kept the rule of training for 10 months prior to the games. So to put it simply: you don’t get the gold medal unless you put in the hard yards at training. And stay off the Stilnox, unless you’re happy with silver. Again, Paul’s calling us to dedication & focus in our service of God. Just like an athlete.

2:6 The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops.

Hardworking farmer. Are you starting to get the idea?

2:7 Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.

Well let’s do that for a moment, then. What does this mean?

Firstly, let’s talk about what it doesn’t mean. I don’t think it’s simply a call to be “busy with church.” After all, that’s pretty easy to achieve. Many Christians do. ‘Cause there’s always something that needs doing – or at least, someone, somewhere thinks it needs doing. Particularly in our consumerist culture, there’s always some customer – I mean, member of the congregation – who thinks their needs aren’t being met. There’s always some hole on the roster that needs filling. Jobs that need doing to keep the place ticking over. Don’t get me wrong: these are important – but is this really a call to be even busier with that sort of stuff?

In those three analogies – soldier, athlete, and farmer – it’s not about being “busy.” There’s an element of focus. A soldier only obeys his commanding officer’s orders, not everyone else’s. A successful athlete targets their training to that which will give the best payoff in competition. A farmer prioritises jobs that will contribute to higher crop yields. It’s focused, disciplined activity – with the end in mind.

In God’s service, am I focusing my energies correctly, or just doing what’s urgent? Am I following God’s lead in what he’d have me do, or am I just trying to please the people around me? Am I contributing to things that have eternal significance, or only to the things I enjoy doing?

There are plenty of people in churches who are prepared to be busy for God. But what about those who are prepared to do the hard, unrewarding stuff? Looking after people who need long term care; whose problems aren’t the sort that can be “fixed” but that have to be endured, maybe for the rest of their lives. A commitment to evangelism at work over the long haul, where there doesn’t seem to be any prospect of results. A dedication to ministering with children or youth that isn’t a year-by-year proposition, but part of the fabric of your life maybe for a decade or more.

These things aren’t glamorous. They’re not always fun. Success is measured intangibly and over long periods of time. But they’re important to God. And that, more than anything, is the definition of loyal service.

Work hard for God; focus your energies where it counts.

Suffer for God (like Paul did)

And be prepared to suffer hard, too. Loyalty brings reward, but it also can bring suffering. Particularly when your patron becomes unpopular. In Paul’s case, to the point of imprisonment.

2:8-9a Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal.

Paul’s example of loyal service isn’t just limited to hard work; it’s also expressed in being prepared to suffer. For him, it meant physical suffering; literal chains. For us – not so much. But the temptation to be disloyal in the face of opposition is still there. When sometimes it’s just easier not to mention you’re a Christian. When it’s tempting to leave church out of the list of things you did on the weekend.

Footy fans will sometimes keep a low profile the day after an embarrassing loss. Do you feel like doing the same when a church leader has spoken out about something, and they’re getting hammered for it in the media? You know, keep your head down, hope no-one remembers you’re a Christian? Or do you engage in the debate? Either defending them if they’re right; or, if they’ve said something a bit foolish, at least pointing out that not all Christians think that way. Do you continue to stand up for Jesus and his reputation when things get a little tough?

That’s where loyalty is tested. Not when things are going well, but when there’s a cost to being associated with Jesus.

It’s when we need to be reminded of God’s power. That just as he will be vindicated, so will we. As Paul goes on to say, despite being in chains:

2:9b-10 But God’s word is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.

God’s word can’t be chained by Roman prisons. It can’t be chained by the sneers of the media or the academic world. It can’t be chained by the hostile reactions of your workmates. And it can’t even be chained by the ungodly actions of people who claim to follow Jesus yet abuse others, or cover up that abuse. God’s word is not chained.

And so we endure the hostility. The ridicule. The shame, sometimes, of being associated with his name. Because we’re loyal. We stick by him, because we want the whole world to know what he’s really like. Because we want others to come to know him too. That’s loyalty.

Be prepared to suffer for God; to suffer for his unchained gospel.

To think about

Are you working hard for God – focusing your energies where it counts?

Are you prepared to suffer for this “unchained gospel”?

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