Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. So writes Paul to his “beloved child”, Timothy, in the second letter that we have addressed to this co-worker.
(On the reasons why this letter may well not have been written by the apostle Paul himself, but by one of his followers after Paul’s lifetime, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/01/in-the-name-of-the-apostle/)
The letter presents a scenario that sees Paul in prison (1:8; 2:9), in contact with a group otherwise unknown from his letters—Eubulus, Pudens, Linus and Claudia (4:21). As Paul was previously in Corinth and Miletus (4:20) and is in Rome as he writes (1:17), the letter itself suggests a time near the end of his life. He writes, we are led to believe, as a mature believer, imparting wisdom to a younger co-worker.
This assumption is supported by some of the imagery used, with Paul describing his life as “poured out as a libation” (4:6) and stating that he has “fought the good fight” (4:7). We know virtually nothing of this period from Acts; the last description of Paul that we have in Acts (28:30–31) is generalized and non-specific, so we can’t cross-check with anything there.
This letter, like 1 Timothy and Titus, gives indication of disagreement and conflict within the early Christian communities, with varied understandings of faith being present in the place where the recipient of the letter is based.
The opponents envisaged in this letter are described largely with reference to their verbal activity: they utter “profane chatter” (2:16), their “talk spreads like gangrene” (2:17), they engage in “wrangling over words” (2:14) and “stupid and senseless controversies” (2:23); they “captivate silly women” (3:6) and their “myths” are listened to by people with “itching ears” (4:3–4). The author certainly possesses a vivid vocabulary!
The author contends that these opponents are “people of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith” who oppose the truth (3:8), “wicked people and imposters” who deceive others (3:13); they have been “ensnared by the devil” (2:26). The long list of vices (3:2–5) might also be inferred as applying to these people. The rhetoric is aggressively antagonistic.
The one specific identifying mark of these people who have “swerved from the truth” is their assertion that “the resurrection has already taken place” (2:18). Against this, the author refers to the future appearance of Jesus (4:1, using the Greek word epiphaneia, most unusually for Paul). There is also a quotation of scripture to refute the heresy (2:19, citing Num 16:5 and Isa 26:13).
Paul offers clear guidance to Timothy as to how he is to deal with such opponents. He provides Timothy with short, concise summaries of the faith that they share (2:11-13; see also 1 Tim 2:5-6 and 3:16) and advises, Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. So Paul instructs Timothy, whom he charges to be an apologist (one who contends verbally, and vigorously, for the faith).
The apologetic that Timothy is to exhibit is succinctly expressed in the excerpt from the letter set in the lectionary as this Sunday’s epistle reading; Timothy is to rightly explain the word of truth (2:15).
This letter shares an apologetic quality with the first letter to Timothy, in its concern for “godliness” (2 Tim 3:5), “the truth” (2 Tim 2:18, 25; 3:7, 8; 4:4) and “the faith” (2 Tim 1:13; 2:18; 4:7). It provides various indications of the content of this faith: an epitome in three short clauses (2:8), a more discursive exposition of “the gospel” in poetic form (1:8–10) and a five-line hymn (2:11–13), introduced as yet another “sure saying” (2:11).
Paul, the nominal author of this letter, is set forth as a model for Timothy; he is described as having been “appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher” (1:11) who provides “the standard of sound teaching” (1:13).
This “sound teaching” is entrusted to Timothy (1:12), who is exhorted to “guard the good treasure entrusted to you” (1:14). That’s the “word of truth”, direct from Paul. This word, in turn, is to be entrusted to “faithful people” (2:2) who in turn become teachers. So the letter clearly explains the way in which “the faith” is to be passed on from teacher to associate to local leaders. Paul’s authentic letters do not emphasise this line of authority in the same fashion.
In his calling as a teacher, Paul has encountered suffering (1:12; 3:11), but he has placed his trust in Christ (1:12) and Christ has strengthened him (4:17). According to this pattern, Timothy ought then expect to suffer (2:3; 3:12) and should stand “strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2:1).
The imagery used to explain the leadership role entrusted to him refers to the soldier (2:3–4), the athlete (2:5) and the farmer (2:6); these images are consistent with the rhetoric of self-defence which Paul employs (1 Cor 3:8–9; 9:7, 10, 24–25). By contrast, the reference to household utensils (2:20–21) runs counter to the way Paul used similar imagery (“we have this treasure in clay jars”, 2 Cor 4:7).
The author of this letter expresses a firm confidence that he has gained “the crown of righteousness” (4:8) in his eternal destiny. For Paul to write this would be unusual, as he elsewhere uses this imagery to describe other people (not his own destiny) as his crown (the Philippians, Phil 4:1; the Thessalonians, 1 Thess 2:19–20).
As the letter draws to a close, the author asserts that “the Lord will rescue me…and save me” (4:18). This heavenly rescue, assured for Paul, is promised also to those who faithfully exercise their ministry; Timothy, and other leaders, will find themselves in the company of Paul, in the heavenly kingdom (4:8). It is noteworthy that Paul regularly expresses hope in his future fate, without claiming clear certainty about it (Rom 5:1–2; 8:24–25; 1 Cor 9:10; 2 Cor 1:9–10; Gal 5:5).
It is doubtful, to me, that this element of the letter reflects Paul’s regular way of thinking. My reading of Paul’s letters is that he has much more of a concern for the present realities of life, and how the Gospel is at work in the present, than with the promise of a future off in the distance. He does not dismiss the future; but his energy and passion is oriented towards living by faith in the present.
The letter provokes us to ponder what it is that we regard as essential to the word of truth, how we go about rightly explaining that word of truth, so that others will be grasped by the good news and feel welcomed and affirmed within the community of faith.