For about a year now, I’ve really been striving during my quiet times in Scripture to read in order through books. In the past, I was fond of skipping around, turning to whatever passages the Lord seemed to be putting on my heart, or that spoke to the particular situation and mood I found myself in. And while such an approach is not always bad, it can lead to an overly subjective attitude towards the Bible, where, rather than being shaped by the timeless truths of the texts we encounter, we instead seek to find a passage that fits our preconceived plans or motives. Not to mention the simple fact that the Bible, like any other book is written in a particular order. Would it make sense to sit down with Dickens’ Great Expectations, and immediately skip to a chapter halfway through the novel?? So I think that Scripture rewards in a special way the reader who is willing to go a book sequentially, carefully absorbing the truths therein, and seeking to understand each verse, passage, chapter, and book in the context of both the surrounding portions of Scripture and the entire Biblical narrative.
With this in mind, I thought that for my latest blog post I would share some reflections from a book I recently read, 2 Timothy. The context for this letter is quite different than Paul’s first epistle to his younger disciple. Composed at least 4-5 years later than 1 Timothy, most Biblical scholars feel that 2 Timothy was in fact the last of Paul’s Biblical epistles to be written. At the time of its composition, Paul was most likely in prison. Yet despite his difficult personal circumstances, Paul manages to produce a letter full of encouragement and wise counsel, as he did earlier while writing Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon during a period of Roman imprisonment. Previously however, Paul was merely under house arrest, and could still receive visitors, but as he is writing 2 Timothy, the great apostle is most likely confined to a solitary Roman cell, and convinced that he will soon be executed (ref. 2 Timothy 4:6-8). Although there is plenty of great material to focus on from this epistle, I wish to look specifically at chapter 2. As I was reading in 2 Timothy, a quote from the commentary in my study Bible really captured my attention: “The second chapter of Second Timothy ought to be required daily reading for every pastor and full-time Christian worker. Paul lists the keys to…a reproducing ministry, an enduring ministry, a studying ministry, and a holy ministry.” These four hallmarks: reproducing, enduring, studying, and holy can be used as gauges in accessing the degree to which a ministry is successful and healthy based on the Pauline, and Biblical models.
So as I read 2 Timothy chapter two, I thought about my own work with Christian Challenge at CU-Boulder, a campus ministry whose joys and challenges have informed so much of what I’ve shared in this blog space. While our ministry still has a lot of growing to do, just as I have personally, I was interested to see, according to 2 Timothy, in what ways did our work, and my own personal walk with God line up to these four criteria. First, as Paul states in 2 Timothy 2:1-2, successful ministries are ones which reproduce other faithful Christ followers: “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” What Paul is describing here is the work of discipleship. And I’m glad to say that discipleship is something that Christian Challenge takes very seriously, to the extent that one could even say it is deeply embedded within the “DNA” of our organization. At the beginning of January, many of our students and staff attended the 2016 Life Impact conference which was held at the beautiful Glen Eyrie retreat center in Colorado Springs. Life Impact is an annual collegiate ministry conference which gathers Baptist campus ministries from around the Western region of America. And it’s always held at Glen Eyrie, which is actually the site of the headquarters of the Navigators, an international Christian organization founded in 1933 by Dawson Trotman. The Navigators have a presence on many college campuses, but first and foremost their focus is on discipleship. On the front page of their website is this statement: “We spread the Good News of Jesus Christ by establishing life-on-life mentoring—or discipling—relationships with people, equipping them to make an impact on those around them for God’s glory.”
And as I’ve shared before, the motto of Christian Challenge is “changing the world through God-honoring relationships.” So we have a very similar focus in our ministry to that of the Navigators, and often during Life Impact, Navigators staff members will come and speak to our group. But the discipleship focus goes deeper than that even. Christian Challenge, the Baptist campus ministry at CU-Boulder, was started back in 1988 by our current director, Bobby Pruett. He came out to Colorado after having served for several years on staff at the B.C.M at the University of Oklahoma. While at OU, Bobby had been discipled by Max Barnett, who was the longtime BCM director there. Max had a vision of expanding campus ministries to other schools of the then-Big 8 conference. Earlier he had sent former students to the University of Nebraska, Iowa State University, and Kansas State University, to start ministries that proved fruitful and continue today. Bobby established his ministry in Colorado along the same principles—valuing discipleship as a key component to the growth and overall health of a campus ministry. And just as Bobby had been discipled by Max, one of his former students at OU, Derek Gregory, later came out to CU-Boulder to serve on staff with Christian Challenge, where he continues today as one of our associates. So in our ministry, we are very aware of the importance of committing teaching to other faithful individuals who can then pass those truths on down. Every member of our 12-person student leadership team, known as the “Losers” (from Matthew 16:25), is in a discipleship relationship with a staff member. And many of the other students in our ministry are also being discipled by either a staff member, or an older believer, possibly even another student. I’m personally working with 7 guys currently, and will probably be adding at least one more. I meet with these students weekly for a time of mentoring, and as I have shared in an earlier post, this is perhaps my single favorite aspect of working in college ministry—the chance to connect to students in a one-on-one setting. I can hear how God is at work in their lives, we can discuss Scripture and theology together, we can ponder big questions, and look ahead to goals. I also can try to, as much as possible, model for these students the spiritual qualities I am seeking to instill in them. Along these lines, I’m trying to find time with each of my students this semester to not just talk about evangelism, but directly engage in it by meeting up with a third friend who is not Christian, giving us the opportunity to share our faith in a Gospel-centered conversation. I’m also thinking about engaging in service with them, taking the work of our homeless outreach ministry “Compassion in the 303”, as a possible model. Mentoring, and discipling students is one of the most important activities I have the privilege to engage in as a campus minister, and in the spirit of Paul’s work with Timothy, I cherish the opportunity to advise and in turn learn from these young Christ-followers in our ministry!
In 2 Timothy 2:3-13, Paul highlights another quality for a successful ministry—endurance. To illustrate this spiritual trait, Paul uses both a military (2 Timothy 2:3-4) and an athletic analogy (2 Timothy 2:5). The emphasis in both instances however is on a ministry, and ministry leaders who will endure despite difficult circumstances, the cares of this fallen world. Paul then goes on in verse 8 to highlight the amazing truth that is at the center of our Christian belief: “Remember that Jesus Christ, of the seed of David, was raised from the dead according to my gospel” The reality of the Resurrection makes Jesus radically different from all other religious figures who’ve ever lived, and yet this is also the exact truth which becomes a stumbling block for so many who consider the claims of Christianity. Paul certainly experienced this firsthand while preaching in Athens, as Acts 17:32 reveals: “And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, ‘we will hear you again on this matter.” Certainly, living and working in the secular hotbed of Boulder has made me aware of the need to persevere and cultivate a ministry of endurance. It can be discouraging at times to be immersed in a local culture that seems to have no qualms about promoting widespread drug use, worships the idols of lifestyle (especially outdoor recreation), supports abortion and “free love”, while also being committed to a secular, and pluralistic worldview so that any religion making exclusive and universal truth claims, as does Christianity, is likely to be branded “intolerant.” And yet any challenges or difficulties I and our ministry may face in a liberal, post-Christian setting like Boulder still pale in comparison to the opposition faced by so many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world today. In Boulder, and America, we face possible embarrassment or social alienation for our witness, whereas in all too many other parts of the world, imprisonment, familial estrangement, loss of employment, and even death are real possibilities for Christians who live out their faith publicly.. In his own life of course, the Apostle Paul faced similar threats, referencing his troubles in 2 Timothy 2:9-10 in words that nonetheless also speak confidently to his conviction that the Gospel is worth any amount of suffering that may be required to deliver its message: “I suffer trouble as an evildoer, even to the point of chains; but the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” Paul further reminds us in 2 Timothy 2:13—“If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself” Thus the final word on endurance is clear—God’s faithfulness is not what is in question—it’s ours. Will we face any hardship or setback with equanimity, knowing that the Truth of our message will prevail, or will we get bogged down in temporary setbacks, or even worse, become burned out with world-weariness?? These are questions that are always on my mind, because even as a relatively young minister, I’m very aware of the challenge involved in staying the course, serving God for the long haul, and finishing strong. I want to model myself after Paul, a man who up until the end of his life continued to serve with unabated vigor, enthusiasm, and wisdom, thus allowing for a ministerial legacy that would long outlive him.
Verses 14-18 in 2 Timothy 2 talk about a studying ministry. Now I must confess, this aspect of ministerial work is the one that perhaps comes most naturally to me. I’ve always enjoyed school and academic pursuits—after all I was in school until the age of 31!! During the years of college, graduate school, and seminary, I could identify with the words of 2 Timothy 2:15, especially in its original King James version: “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” And yet in this same group of verses, we received some other recommendations which show that having a studying ministry is not just about acquiring intellectual knowledge. In verse 14, Paul cautions against “striving about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers.” Then in verse 16 he adds: “Shun profane and vain babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness”, before concluding in verse 23 with an injunction to “avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife.” Boulder, and the CU campus in particular are locales where what I might term as “intellectual jousting” is very much a preferred pastime. In other words being that this is a liberal, politically-active, and well-read university community, it is not very hard to find people who enjoy arguing for the sake of arguing. And while there is a part of me that enjoys such discussions too, I must weigh their efficacy in light of the overall goal of our ministry to make the name of Jesus known on the CU campus. In other words, how productive is it to engage in arguments and debates, even for the sake of the Gospel?? Has anyone ever really been argued or persuaded into the Kingdom of God?? I think Paul clearly answers those questions for us a little later in 2 Timothy 2. But suffice it to say that our time and the focus of our ministry is better served by sticking to the foundations of Biblical truth (v.15), and trying to persuade others to follow Jesus through our love, and the power of our personal experience, rather than expecting to wow them over with intellectual prowess.
As an interesting note to this, I was recently watching a video of Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and a noted Christian apologist, who’s been labelled by Newsweek as “A C.S. Lewis for the 21st century.” In the clip, Keller was having a roundtable discussion with a group of young 20-somethings, all of whom self-identified as religious skeptics. One of these non-Christians candidly asked Keller if he would be willing to ever consider changing his mind about his religious beliefs. Would he be open to the possibility that Christianity isn’t true?? Keller gave a fascinating, two-part answer. He said his belief in Christianity had a rational/logical component to it, and then a side which was more experiential or “existential” as he phrased it. Keller conceded that the logical side of his belief could theoretically be weakened by effective or convincing counter-arguments. However the experiential part of his belief, wherein he had personally felt God’s presence in his life in a real and powerful way is not something that a purely intellectual argument, no matter how convincingly fashioned, could diminish! Keller’s answer reminded me of two things when it comes to intellectual preparation, study, and how we present our Gospel witness in the face of skepticism and logical opposition. First, a purely intellectual approach to faith will probably never be sufficient to either convince a non-believer or for ourselves to form a solid enough foundation for our spiritual claims. By definition, our religious beliefs must be accompanied with faith, a faith that is beyond the realm of logic, and without which, as Hebrews 11:6 reminds us, we can never please God. Secondly, if our Christian convictions do indeed rest upon much more than a merely logical foundation, we should not be afraid then of hearing a skeptic’s best arguments against Christianity. No matter how cleverly they are formed, such arguments can in no way undermine or efface the visceral truth of those moments when we have felt the presence of God, have heard the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking, and have communed in prayer with our Savior Christ. Thus we can afford to be gracious, and even concede the truth or validity of certain points and objections that a non-Christian might make without worrying that we are in danger of losing our faith, or being a bad witness.
Finally, in 2 Timothy 2:19-26, Paul outlines the importance of personal holiness. In verse 19, he warns Christians to flee from iniquity. Sinfulness can impact a ministry in many negative ways, and if the leadership of a ministry falls into sin, the ripple effect from the top-down can have devastating consequences. Elsewhere in his writings, in Romans 14, Paul cautions us to avoid doing anything which could cause our witness to be compromised, or possibly lead another into sin. Romans 14:13—“resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way”. Romans 14:22—“Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.” Of course we all are vulnerable at any point to fall into sin, and so we all must be guarding ourselves. But when we do sin, Paul notes in 2 Timothy 2:21-22, that if we will repent and seek God’s forgiveness we can again be used by the Lord. Personal holiness also means that we are not so arrogant as to assume that we are personally responsible for converting and convincing others to follow Christ. Verse 24 highlights that a teaching gift should be accompanied by patience, to which in verse 25 Paul adds the quality of humility. He goes on to say of non-believers: “God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth” Thus Paul gives a clear answer to my earlier question—has anyone ever been argued or persuaded into the Kingdom of God?? Certainly not! For it is only through the power of God to change and convict hearts that conversions can take place.
It is my prayer that my work with Christian Challenge at the University of Colorado-Boulder will bear these four hallmarks of a successful ministry as outlined in 2 Timothy 2—that we will be a ministry that reproduces disicples, one which endures all hardships, one founded in study and yet not dependent solely on intellectual moorings, and ultimately, one in which both myself, our other staff, and our students value personal holiness. The results and fruits which will come forth we leave solely in the hands of God. He alone can discern hearts and motives, and His power to change lives is the reason that I am in Boulder serving, and the reason that Paul left a legacy of faithful instruction for us and his “true son in the faith” Timothy, all those centuries ago!!