God’s sovereignty and human response in 2 Timothy

Most years I contribute to the Bible Reading Fellowship’s (BRF) Bible reading notes Guidelines. Some time ago I wrote on 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon, and share my thoughts as the Pastorals, whilst the focus for certain traditions, are neglected by many churches in their teaching. Here are my notes on 2 Timothy; tomorrow I will post the notes on Titus and Philemon.


These three letters, gathered at the end of Paul’s writings in our Bibles, are often neglected but offer us some profound insights into Paul’s thinking and practice. Alongside Paul’s letters to seven churches, it means that (if we include Hebrews as Pauline, which is probably mistaken but was a common assumption in the past), we have in total 14 letters.

2 Timothy and Titus, along with 1 Timothy, are usually labelled the ‘Pastoral Epistles’ because they are addressed to pastors who have oversight of some of the early Christian congregations in their area. There has been significant debate about whether they really were written by Paul, in part because of some distinct vocabulary which is different from Paul’s earlier letters, and in part because of what appears to be a different focus on questions of church order, reflected in Paul’s concern for the appointment of ‘elders’. But, as we shall see, there are many things in these letters which correlate not only with Paul’s earlier concerns but also with those of Jesus and other New Testament writers. Compared with the literature that we know from the second century, these letters look thoroughly Pauline.

Philemon is rather different. A personal letter addressed to a friend and fellow leader, it is one of the ‘prison epistles’ along with Colossians and Ephesians, written by Paul when under house arrest, and never seriously questioned as authentic. Although these three letters are dealing with quite different concerns from his other letters, the portrait of Paul is consistent. In all three, but particularly in 2 Timothy—his last, written knowing that he was near the end of his life—we are offered fascinating insights into his character and thought. Paul, the great theological thinker of the first generation of followers of Jesus and the fearless pioneering missionary and church planter, is revealed as a person of great warmth and tenderness, someone deeply dependent on personal relationships and profoundly hurt by personal betrayal. Together, the letters give us a Pauline combination of passion and wisdom, of victory and suffering, and of both personal and doctrinal insight.

1. The confidence of faith 2 Timothy 1.1–14

Paul’s opening greetings blends together the transformation in his thinking that has come about as a result of his experience of what God has done in Christ, and his tender affection towards Timothy, his ‘dear son’ in the Lord. And in these opening verses, he holds together important themes in Christian thinking that are often set against one another.

The first pair of themes is the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of human response. Paul is an apostle of Jesus ‘by the will of God’ (verse 1) and not of his own choosing. In fact, the whole project of our salvation and sanctification is ‘because of God’s own purpose and grace’ (verse 9), arising out of God’s intention and initiative before time began. Although Jesus’ ‘appearing’ (verse 10) here refers to his incarnation and public ministry, Paul’s personal experience on the Damascus Road reinforces his sense that God’s revelation of himself in Jesus was of his own doing. And yet, for Paul, this elicits not a sense of passivity but of vigorous human response, both for himself and for Timothy. Just as Paul energetically pursued the ministry of being a ‘herald, apostle and teacher’ of the faith (verse 11), so he now encourages Timothy to take action, to ‘fan into flame’ (verse 6) the gift of God—probably the commission to be a minister of the gospel—to respond with energy to what God has called him to. The Spirit does not take control of us, but leads us into ‘self-control’ (verse 7), to the fulness of human maturity and responsibility. We need to bend our will to ‘guard’ the ‘good deposit’ of faith we have been given (verse 14).

This means attending to both the inner life and the outer—to personal discipline and holiness as well as the ‘testimony of our Lord and of me’ (verse 8), meaning either the testimony they offer or the testimony about them. It means experiencing both ‘joy’ (verse 4) in seeing what God has done in our lives and the lives of others, and in the blessing of our new family in the Lord, and ‘suffering’ (vv 8, 12) pressure and opposition just as Jesus did. It means looking back with pride (‘my ancestors’, verse 3) and looking forward in confident hope (‘promise of life’ verse 1). Paul can put up with public shame because he knows he is honoured by the One whose opinion is all that ultimately matters. 

2. Building a people of power 2 Timothy 1.15–2.10

Paul is often characterised as exemplifying ‘muscular Christianity’, not least because of his tireless activity in preaching and teaching and his travels around the eastern Mediterranean—he probably walked around 10,000 miles in his ten most active years of ministry. The metaphors at the centre of this passage reinforce this impression. A follower of Jesus is a ‘soldier’ (2.3, despite the early Christians being uniformly pacifist), engaged in spiritual warfare, not against human forces but against the ‘powers of this present darkness’ (Eph 6.12), language that finds its way into many baptism liturgies. Discipleship involves the training regime of an ‘athlete’ (2.5, though many Jews and Christians saw the Roman games as immoral because of the nudity involved), a metaphor Paul applied to himself as well as others (1 Corinthians 9.27) because he knew that even he had not yet attained maturity (Philippians 3.12–14). And though it is God who sows the seed (Mark 4.3) and who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3.6), nurturing faith in ourselves and others requires the hard work of a ‘farmer’ (2.6). These are images that we must return to and reflect on again and again (2.7).

Yet Paul was no rugged individualist. His gratitude to Onesiphorus, who went out of his way to support and encourage Paul (1.16–18), is typical of someone who was keenly aware of his dependence on others—those ahead of him in faith, those from whom he had learnt much, and those whose support, ministry and partnership he treasured (Romans 16.1–16). If his words about those who have ‘deserted’ him (1.15) sound harsh, this reflects the pain of betrayal felt by someone who was a consistent team player. And so he urges Timothy to be the same—to build a team of ‘reliable’ people, whom Timothy can ‘trust’ and who will share his teaching ministry (2.2). Timothy, like Paul, needs the company of other faithful ‘witnesses’ who will share his testimony.

This twin focus is rooted in Paul’s gospel (2.8), even though the summary here sounds more than succinct. Jesus was fully human, ‘descended from David’, the anointed king who would fulfil the hopes and longings of his people for freedom and deliverance. And he did this through defeating death as only God could do—through being ‘raised from the dead’ and ascended to the Father’s right hand, sharing his glory and power. This combination of human discipline and divine power come together to forge a renewed ‘elect’, the people of God, both for this age and the age to come.

3. The Foundation of Faith 2 Timothy 2.11–21 

The trustworthy word or saying might be something already known which Paul is quoting, or might be a saying of Paul’s. The four-fold assertions, all in the form ‘if…then…’ align with both Paul’s earlier teaching and the teaching of Jesus, and continue the theme of divine and human responsibility.

Firstly, Paul has explained that we ‘die with him’ as we enter the waters of baptism, and then emerge to new life in anticipation of our final resurrection as we emerge from those same waters (Romans 6.4). This symbolises the reality that, when we are in Christ, we are ‘a new creation—the old has gone, and the new has come’ (2 Corinthians 5.17). Secondly, patient endurance is the hallmark of Christian faith, since we cannot enter the kingdom without going through ‘many hardships’ (Acts 14.22). But those whom Jesus has purchased, and who walk his path of suffering will reign with him (Revelation 5.10). The third assertion echoes Jesus’ own teaching in Mark 8.38 (and Luke 9.26) that ‘If any is ashamed of me…I will be ashamed of him’ on the last day. God’s gracious offer of new life is free, but it is not cheap, and accepting it requires costly commitment. And yet (fourthly) God always remains faithful, even when we are not, and his offer of forgiveness is always available for those who turn to him.

These are precious truths which God’s people need to keep hold of if they are to live this new life in all its fulness. Paul has no time for worthless quarrelling about mere words (vv 14, 16) whether that is in theological point-scoring or idle gossip. But Paul knows that words matter, and so longs that Timothy should handle the words of Scripture and of the good news about Jesus like a skilled craftsman who can make a straight cut in a piece of wood (verse 15). This includes the truth about our relationship with God (v 19) as well as sound teaching or doctrine (v 18); the two belong together. (The idea of a secret resurrection is not unlike modern teaching about a secret rapture, and is just as misleading.) There is no sense here of spiritual elitism; anyone who commits themselves to live in this truth can be used by God (v 21).

4. Spiritual leadership 2 Timothy 2.22–3.9

Martin Luther once defined sin as ‘Cor incurvatum in se’—the heart turned in on itself. Here Paul encourages Timothy to live a disciplined life in order to fulfil his responsibilities as a Christian leader—but it is a life turned, in a disciplined way, not in on itself but outwards towards others. Christian leadership involves being ‘kind to everyone’, avoiding unnecessary conflict, firmly focussing on good teaching, and being winsome to opponents. The point of teaching the truth is not to win arguments, but to win people, so that those who are in error might themselves ‘come to their senses’ (v 26) and also come to live in the truth. For Paul, it seems, there is always hope, even for those who are ‘opponents’ of the gospel; even they have the possibility of repentance held out if they ‘come to their senses’, the phrase Jesus uses of the prodigal son at his turning point in Luke 15.17.

This is a spiritual and not simply a practical or pastoral task—the winning over of others means engaging in spiritual conflict and rescuing them from ‘the devil’s trap.’ So ‘fleeing the passions of youth’ probably does simply refer to sexual temptation (as is often thought) but includes having the maturity to avoid snap judgements, score points over others, or get carried away with power. Timothy needs a wise and steady head on his young shoulders.

This is all the more pertinent because of the character of ‘the last days’. Although there are hints at some intensification of evil towards the end, the ‘last days’ actually began with Pentecost (Acts 2.17). Paul lists 18 vices in no obvious order, though with some overlap with the list in Romans 1.29–31—but in striking contrast to the fruit of the Spirit listed in Gal 5.22–23. The power of true godliness is in the transformation that leads to holy living. This distinctive life is like the difference between Israel and Egypt at the Exodus; ‘Jannes’ and ‘Jambres’ are the legendary names of the magicians opposed to Moses and Aaron (Exodus 7.10–12). Just as God’s deliverance then became clear, so the difference between true and false godliness will become ‘clear to everyone’.

5. Apostolic confidence 2 Timothy 3.10 to 4.5 

This supremely pastoral letter here reaches its climax, as Paul makes his final charge to Timothy before his very personal signing off, setting out three features of apostolic ministry.

The first is that of relationship and fellowship, of shared ministry with others who life that distinctive life and whose teaching he can trust. It is entirely consistent with Paul’s ministry throughout the NT that he can appeal to Timothy by highlighting the qualities in his own life that has been fashioned after the example of Jesus, just as he did with the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11.1). But Paul is not unique in this; Timothy also knows the way of life of ‘those from whom you have learned’ the faith, including his family. The second is that of suffering. Paul still recalls the hard time he had on his ‘first missionary journey’ in Iconium and Lystra (Acts 14), and repeats here what he said there: ‘through many persecutions we must enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14.22). His language here echoes Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (‘Blessed are you when people persecute you…’ Matthew 5.11) and the theme of suffering forms the centre piece of Paul’s defence of his apostolic ministry in 2 Corinthians 11.21–29.

The third feature is faithfulness to the teaching of the Scriptures. Paul treats his Scriptures (the Old Testament) as a reliable testimony to the acts of God in and amongst his people, and he constantly refers to them in communicating the truth about Jesus, the climax and fulfilment of God’s action in the world. These now include New Testament, since the gospel writers saw themselves as continuing this reliable testimony (Luke 1.1–4, John 20.31–31), and because others soon saw this in Paul’s writings too (2 Peter 3.16). These scriptures, breathed out by the Spirit of God, are able to teach what is right and correct what is wrong in understanding, and train right action whilst rebuking wrong action (3.16) just as is the apostolic message which aligns with it (4.2). So Paul urges Timothy to be unstinting in proclaiming the word of God, not just because of the presence of God and Jesus in which they both live, but because of the hope of his appearing (this time referring to his return) at which he will ‘judge the living and the dead’, a phrase now incorporated in the creeds, and when the kingdom at last will be fully present.

6. A life poured out for others 2 Timothy 4.6–22

In this extraordinary ending to his final letter, Paul touches on many of the themes he has already explored, but does so against a brimming sense of confident personal hope. As he has poured himself out for others and for the sake of the gospel in life, so he is now being poured out in death— ‘till death Thy endless mercies seal, and make my sacrifice complete’ (Charles Wesley). For Paul, death is not the end or a loss, but a ‘releasing’ into God’s future, the literal meaning of the word translated ‘departure’. He is confident, not just because he has indeed remained faithful to his life’s end (compare 2.13) but supremely because of the faithfulness of God who will bring his work to completion in Paul (compare Philippians 1.6).

Once again, Paul is acutely aware of the impact of relationships. There are those who have failed to stay the course and have deserted both Paul and the gospel—Demas (v 10) and Alexander (v 14). But just as he has taught others to do (Romans 12.19–20), he does not seek revenge but trusts to God as judge of all. And Paul continues to the end to value those who have worked alongside him, particularly Luke, whose friendship explains the close relationship between Paul’s theology in his letters and Luke’s in his writings. Perhaps the most poignant mention is that of Mark—the same Mark who bailed out of ministry at an important moment (Acts 13.13), and whose involvement became a serious point of contention between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15.3640). Paul not only taught about the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5.16–21); he lived it out in his own life.

Paul’s concern for reading the Scriptures endures to the end—the probably meaning of his request for Timothy to bring ‘scrolls and parchments’, though this could also include some of his own writings. But he ends on a note of continued trust; he knows God has delivered him in the past, and is confident that God will deliver him again—not necessarily from suffering and death at the hands of his enemies, but into the kingdom of God’s perfect, heavenly reign. For Timothy, his final wish is for the presence of God to guide him; the grace of God to surround him; and for the glory be to God in all things. It is a fitting end to a life well lived.

7. Reflection

This fascinating final letter contains many striking and challenging ideas. Perhaps one of its most notable features is the way it holds together different aspects of Christian living and thinking which are often either separated or traded off against each other. It is going too far to call Paul’s thinking ‘dialectic’, but the ideas which he holds in tension or relation to one another are things which, on their own and stripped of their counterbalancing partner, easily become heretical.

The first pair is the idea of God’s sovereignty and human response. Paul is clear that salvation is not only God’s gift, it is God’s initiative from the very beginning. But this leads him neither to a determinism about who is saved nor complacency about human action. God’s initiative calls for—demands even—human response, not just as an initial reaction but as an ongoing focus. This interaction between the human and the divine finds expression in the person of Jesus, who holds together in himself divine action and human response.

The second pair is the importance of both the personal as well as the corporate. Paul is clear that each person needs to make a personal response to God’s invitation, but is equally clear that this then leads to a new corporate identity within the body of Christ. It is reflected here in Paul’s encouragement of Timothy to personal discipline on the one hand, and Paul’s own focus on the importance of relationships with others, something he also wants to see in Timothy. This is a reflection of the way Paul holds together the subjective and the objective; the gospel is about personal experience but it is also about truth; it is about feelings but also about facts. We never find Paul arguing that one of these has priority and the other then tags along.

Lastly, we note Paul’s twin focus on understanding and action. He wants people to fully understand what God has done for them in Jesus—but then wants to see their lives change by this, so that the difference is evident to all.

Do encourage your congregations and friends to engage in regular Bible reading; BRF’s notes are really valuable in encouraging thoughtful reflection and application.

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4 thoughts on “God’s sovereignty and human response in 2 Timothy”

  1. I hate the term “pastoral epistles”. I don’t see how they are any more pastoral than any other letters Paul wrote. Timothy and Titus were not “pastors” either; they were mobile members of Paul’s apostolic team despatched to fix problems, appoint teams of local leaders and move on as soon as practically possible.

    • Does it really matter? As you say “pastoral epistles” is a term. If you don’t like it then call them what you choose to; it does not change the important thing — God’s message to His people.

      Enjoy a bit of Saviour Shalom; it eases the frustration and leads to love.

    • I think the point is that they are written to individuals, rather than to communities.

      Wikipedia helpfully summarises: ‘They are given the title pastoral because they are addressed to individuals with pastoral oversight of churches and discuss issues of Christian living, doctrine and leadership. The term “pastorals” was popularized in 1703 by D. N. Berdot and in 1726 by Paul Anton.[1] Alternate nomenclature for the cluster of three letters has been proposed: “Corpus Pastorale,” meant to highlight the intentional forgery of the letters as a three-part corpus,[2] and “Letters to Timothy and Titus,” meant to emphasize the individuality of the letters.’

      The term is probably as unhelpful as calling the circulars ‘Catholic epistles’!


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