Today I preached at Grace Church Milton Keynes for the first time, where Bev and I have been going for just over a year. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to share from 2 Timothy 3:10-4:8 on how God’s Word prepares us for endurance and fruitfulness, even when faced with suffering and persecution. You can download the audio here, or read some of my other sermons.
Have you ever stopped to think what would you want your last words to be? We pay particular attention to someone's last words – there are lists and lists of "famous last words", such as Captain Oates' understated words on the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole as he left his tent, "I am just going outside and may be some time".
Some people make one last joke. As Groucho Marx was dying, he made one last quip: "This is no way to live!"
Other people's last words are darkly ironic. Murderer James W Rogers' final request before going before the firing squad was "Bring me a bullet-proof vest". We can take it he didn't get one.
Some look back with regret – apparently Leonardo da Vinci said "I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have" – a bit of an overachiever, perhaps!
Many people's last words are bidding their family goodbye – though apparently when Lady Astor woke briefly to find her family gathered around her bedside, her last words were to ask "Am I dying or is it my birthday?"
Where people see death coming and have a chance to choose their last words, it reveals what matters to them – whether words of love or advice to children, words of faith or doubt, or regrets or fears. The section of the Bible we've just read together is the apostle Paul's last letter, written shortly before he died, most likely executed by Nero in 66AD. This passage reveals some of Paul's deepest concerns, as well as the encouragement he wanted to pass on to those closest to him.
This letter was written to Timothy sometime after the end of the book of Acts, in around 64-66AD. Paul had probably been released for a time and then rearrested. Whereas at the end of the book of Acts, Paul had been under house arrest in his own rented accommodation and able to continue preaching the Gospel, now he is chained like a criminal, abandoned by many of his friends and former supporters.
In this last letter, Paul tells Timothy of his love for him, and seeks to encourage him in his faith. He reminds him of the grace found in Jesus, and warns against false teachers who would distract from or distort the Gospel message Paul passed on to him. He also warns of the challenges ahead. In short, Paul is telling Timothy to "be prepared". Be prepared.
Like Paul and Timothy, we face many trials and challenges. My prayer this morning is that these words with which Paul encouraged Timothy can encourage and equip you too, wherever you are in life, whatever you are facing. As we'll see, these aren't just human words, but words inspired and breathed out to us by God. Scripture prepares us for endurance and service in the face of suffering and persecution.
Prepared for Suffering
Firstly, we are to be prepared for suffering. Last week, Roger preached on the priestly blessing from Numbers 6, encouraging us to pray God's promises, to seek to be blessed and be a blessing, which are wonderful things to seek. We have a good Father who loves to bless us.
But what do we do when times of suffering come, when our lives are full of hardship, when grief and pain strike? I'm sure that many of us are struggling with suffering right now, whether publicly or privately, whether physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. We struggle with hardships, perhaps too with apparent failure – perhaps life hasn't gone the way you planned; what you've achieved seems small compared to the great plans you once had of making a difference for God. And if you don't feel like this now, the chances are you will at some point in your life.
Perhaps you are asking yourself, What's gone wrong? Is this outside of God's control? Am I to blame for not having enough faith? Am I less of a Christian for my struggles, rather than seeing blessing and happiness?
If that's what you're feeling, my dear brothers and sisters, then there is great reassurance offered to you in God's word to us here. In Paul's experiences, we see that far from suffering always being a sign of failure, of lack of faith, it is very often a mark of authentic Christian faith. The Bible reassures us that suffering is not outside of God's control. God is sovereign over every detail of our lives, and has a purpose in it. God works in us both through happy times and hard times. As it says in Romans 8, God works all things for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.
Just before this section in 2 Timothy, Paul has been warning against false teachers; and now in verses 10 and 11, Paul reminds Timothy of the qualities that mark Paul out as a true apostle and teacher. Firstly, the content of Paul's teaching was reliable. Secondly, Paul's conduct and character – his faith, patience and love – was in keeping with what he taught. And thirdly, he cites his persecutions and sufferings as marking him out from false teachers.
Why is it that persecution and suffering are a mark of authenticity? For one thing, it demonstrates our sincerity as Christians. It showed Paul really believed the Gospel, rather than being in it for personal gain. If he was a con artist out to take advantage of gullible believers, he'd have given up and found an easier grift the moment the heat got turned up.
But there's more. Paul not only is not ashamed of his suffering, he boasts in it, because it shows God's power in him. In 2 Corinthians, one of his other letters, he says that "If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness." In 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, Paul writes: "God said to me, 'my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness'. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."
This brings me to the third reason not to be ashamed of suffering: we are called to follow in the footsteps of a crucified Saviour, who suffered and died for us. Jesus says in Luke 9:23, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me." Now we need to be careful. God uses our suffering for good, but suffering is not something good in and of itself. Hebrews 12:2 tells us that "For the joy that was set before him, he [Jesus] endured the Cross". We can and should pray for God to provide, to heal, and to end suffering. He has promised that in the end he will wipe every tear from our eyes. But as we'll see as we continue in this passage, we live in the tension of the now and the not yet. Until Jesus returns to bring the Kingdom in its fullness, suffering is part of the normal Christian life.
One particular form of suffering that we need to be prepared for is persecution. In verse 12, we have what might be the least claimed promise in the New Testament! "Everyone who wants to live a godly lift in Christ Jesus will be persecuted". This might seem in contradiction to the idea that God wants to bless us, but Jesus turned upside down our idea of what blessing looks like. "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil. Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven". Blessing is not the absence of suffering; blessing is the presence of God with us, and hope in all his promises.
As Christians, we need to be careful not to have a persecution complex. Being disagreed with is not persecution, and we should keep our problems in perspective while our Christian brothers and sisters around the world live in fear of arrest or violence or death for their faith. But pressure is growing as our country becomes more secular and less understanding of faith. There is an increasing strain of intolerance in our culture, which values freedom from offence more highly than freedom of speech. To such a mind, many Biblical teachings are seen as inherently intolerant and bigoted, no matter how respectful and gentle we are. If this intolerance grows in influence, it may become increasingly costly for us to stay faithful to Christ without compromise.
I hope that won't be the case, and God will bring about revival and repentance in our nation. But let's be prepared to face persecution like the early church in the book of Acts, who "rejoiced that they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name" of Jesus, and never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the messiah.
Prepared by the Word
But how are we to be prepared? How can we be equipped to endure suffering and face persecution?
First of all, an illustration. Who here knows what SETI stands for?
It's the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. There are scientists dedicated to scanning the stars for radio waves or other signals from alien intelligences. Now imagine for a moment what would happen if we do make contact with another intelligent race, if we received a message from the stars. It would be a landmark moment in history. We would throw everything we had at decoding and translating that message. Humanity's best minds would dedicate their lives to understanding what the aliens had to say, interpreting it and teasing out every last detail. Another species' knowledge would cause revolutions in our science, our philosophy, our understanding of our place in the universe.
But a far bigger event has already happened. First contact has already been made. I'm not talking about Daleks or Vulcans or little green men. The astonishing claim of this book, the Bible, is that it isn't a collection of merely human book, but is revealed and inspired by the eternal and infinite God of the universe, maker of the heavens and the earth.
The implications of this are even more staggering than a message from aliens. The Bible is more than a cosmic message in a bottle – it is a personal message, in which God reveals himself to be our loving Father, and tells us the incredible efforts he has gone to in order to restore us to a right relationship with him. He has appeared on this earth in Jesus Christ so that we can know him and enjoy a relationship with him. He is reigning in heaven now and will return to restore all things, bringing in the new creation where we will live with him forever, free from all sadness and pain and suffering.
This is how we can find hope, meaning and endurance in the trials of life. We can be prepared for suffering. by knowing the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit, and believing their promises. And the most clear and certain way to grow in that relationship is to be prepared by God's word. Scripture prepares us for endurance and service in the face of suffering and persecution.
As an aside, let me recognise that these are big, staggering claims about the Bible. I'd love to spend some time exploring all the evidence and reasons for believing that the Bible is indeed God's Word, but don't have time in the space of this talk. The Bible doesn't ask us to have blind faith. If you're not a Christian but want to investigate this for yourself, or you're a Christian and would like to have greater confidence in the Bible's truth, grab me afterwards. I'd love to chat with you about it, and recommend some resources that can help you find out more.
Let's look more closely at what Paul says about Scripture. What does it mean that "all Scripture is God-breathed"? This is massive, but let's dive into a few of the things that this means for us today.
1. Scripture is God-breathed, so it is from the Holy Spirit
In Greek, Breath and Spirit are the same word, pneuma, so lurking just beneath the surface here is the inseparable connection between the Word and the Holy Spirit. God is trinity – one God in three persons, Father, Son and Spirit in loving unity. We get the picture that God the Father is the speaker, Jesus is the word spoken, and the Spirit is the breath that carries the word to its destination.
You can't separate the Scriptures from the Spirit. The Spirit made the Scriptures, speaks through the Scriptures, and transforms us by the Scriptures. 2 Peter 1:21 says that "no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." In this, he was writing primarily with the books of the Old Testament in view, but Peter also writes in 2 Peter 3:15-16 of Paul that he "wrote to you with the wisdom that God gave him", and classes Paul's writing alongside "other Scripture".
In John 16:13, Jesus promised his disciples, those he appointed as his apostles and witnesses, that "when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come". This had a specific fulfilment in the writing of the New Testament, as guided by the Holy Spirit, the apostles and those around them wrote down Jesus' life and teaching, to give this sure foundation of sound teaching to the church.
There is also a broader fulfilment – the Holy Spirit continues to guide each of us as Christians into truth, most clearly and certainly through the Spirit-breathed words of the Bible, and also through conscience, circumstance, the wisdom of other believers, as well as gifts of prophecy, tongues and words of knowledge. By immersing ourselves in what the Spirit says in the Bible, we can better learn to recognise his voice speaking to us in other ways. The Spirit never adds to Scripture with new doctrine or teaching, but guides us in our specific circumstances in keeping with the truths he has already revealed in the Word. What the Spirit has revealed in the Bible gives us our measuring line by which to test everything else.
2. Scripture is God-breathed, so is understood by the Spirit
That Scripture is God-breathed means that we need the Holy Spirit, Scripture's divine author, to give us spiritual life to understand and accept God's word. 1 Corinthians 2 tells us that "The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit." But if we are Christians, then we have "The Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us". We shouldn't be surprised if people scoff at the Bible and refuse to believe it, and persecute us because we hold to it. It takes the Spirit to open our hearts and minds to understand and believe it, to make us "wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus". We need to come prayerfully, asking the Spirit to work in us through the word breathed out through him.
3. Scripture is completely truthful and reliable
God himself is truth and cannot lie, as the Bible says in places such as Numbers 23:19 and Titus 1:2. This is sometimes called the "inerrancy" of the Bible, that it is without error or fault in all its teaching. This is not just in relation to "spiritual" matters like salvation and morals, but also the natural world, history, and so on. You can trust this book.
Don't be fooled or intimidated if people say "The Bible says this, but we now know that…", or "Science has disproved this" or "Archaeology has no evidence for…" The truth of the Bible has been vindicated again and again by new historical findings. Supposed contradictions between the Bible and science often stem from bad science or bad interpretation of the Bible, or from a lack of faith in a God of miracles. We shouldn't ignore those arguments in an anti-intellectual way. You can engage confidently knowing that the Bible can be trusted, even if you don't have all the answers. You can believe this book, build your life on it, even when the world is falling apart around you.
4. Scripture has authority
Because it's completely true, and because it is from the God who made us, loves us, and gave his Son to rescue us, we owe it our belief, obedience and trust. As the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, a useful summary of these truths, puts it, the Bible has:
"infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches:
it is to be believed, as God's instruction, in all that it affirms:
obeyed, as God's command, in all that it requires;
embraced, as God's pledge, in all that it promises."
We sometimes refer to difficult parts of the Bible as "problem passages", but actually the problem isn't with the passages but with our hearts, which is why we need the Spirit in us. By the Spirit, we learn to sit humbly under the Word, not thinking that we've got everything right already, but prepared to change our minds and our lives to be more in line with the Word.
5. Scripture is useful
“For teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”. God doesn't give us his word just to fill our heads with knowledge, or to make us feel good, but to equip us for service – "so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work".
If we want to be fruitful in the Christian life, if we want to bless others through acts of service and kindness, righteousness and justice, we need to be filled with the Spirit and rooted in the Word. Sometimes a false dichotomy is drawn between preaching the Gospel and social action. We need both Word and deed, to proclaim God's kingdom, and to seek to receive God's kingdom in peace, justice and righteousness.
6. Scripture is thorough
God's word doesn't partly equip us. God's word doesn't equip us for only some good work. No, Paul says that Scripture thoroughly equips us for every good work.
Every truth that we need to know to love God rightly, every principle that we need to navigate the challenges and puzzles of life, is there for us in the Bible. We can all hear God speaking to us every day – just open your Bible and read. The Bible gives us all we need to be saved, to believe rightly and live to please God. This principle is known as the sufficiency of Scripture.
If we have all we need in the Bible, that where do spiritual gifts fit in? Wonderfully, God gives us far more than just what's sufficient for the Christian life! The Bible tells us in 1 Corinthians 14 to "Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit". But don't forget what an amazing baseline of blessing the Spirit has already given every one of us in the gift of the Word to us all, enough for all we need, and then different gifts given to individuals according to the Spirit's will over and above to supercharge us for building up the body of the church.
Don't be discouraged if you don't have a particular gift, or any gift that seems spectacular or extraordinary. You're not underequipped for the Christian life, not inadequate or a second-class Christian. But immerse yourself in the Spirit-breathed word, and eagerly seek the greater gifts in obedience to his Word.
7. Scripture is God is always speaking to us
A recent article I read online said that, "Complaining about God being silent when your Bible is closed is like complaining about not getting texts when your phone is turned off." Rather, we should be like a giddy lover receiving a love letter, pouring over every word for everything we can learn about our beloved.
When we have the time in the service to share contributions of what God has been doing and saying in our lives, remember that you can share something you have read in the Bible, that God has said to you in your quiet time or Bible study, just as much as a prophecy or word of knowledge. Praise God for when he speaks in special ways, but we should equally treasure and share what he says to us in our everyday ways through the Bible.
What an amazing gift we have in the Bible! How incredible to be able to hear the God of the universe speak into our lives. Are we excited to get to know God better by reading the Bible? Are we diligent in digging into the Bible to unearth deeper truths that will set our souls soaring to new heights of praise and worship? Are we eager to obey every command? Meditate on every piece of wisdom? Pray every promise? Worship at every wonder?
How can we better support and encourage one another in the Word, reading it together, studying it together, speaking its truths to one another, so that we are listening to him and being led by his Spirit?
Prepared for eternity
Finally, Scripture prepares us for eternity. Treasuring God's word is how we treasure God and grow in our relationship with him. When we do this, we lift our eyes from the "now" and to the "not yet". Paul is looking ahead to God's promises, as we see in chapter 4: "In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge."
As we wait, we continue to pray "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." God answers prayer, and through forgiveness and reconciliation and healing and miracles, we can taste that now-and-not-yet kingdom. But until Jesus returns and establishes his kingdom in its fullness, we may for a little time have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. If that's you, cling on. Cling on to God through his word and his promises. Hear him speaking to you by opening the Bible. If you're struggling, please find someone to pray with you, to encourage you in this. We're all in this together as brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Paul knew that the end was near. "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing."
We have the same hope, held out for us in the Word. Scripture prepares us for endurance and service in the face of suffering and persecution. Glory to the Father, to the Son and to the Spirit. Amen.