When wrong seems right, and right seems wrong, consult an unchanging source.
The fog comes
on little cat feet,
It sits looking over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
Unlike the Carl Sandburg poem, our fog in 2020 has not quite moved on. There are a number of things still out of the ordinary. In fact, we’ve normalized them. Some aren’t so great. On a personal note, I’m embarrassed to say I have established some new normals in snacking, that have led to new normals in my weight. I’ll bet you have similar kinds of failures, too.
Not only so, but the Christian public has acquired a lot of new habits and customs over the last six months. A certain percentage of believers has dropped out of church during covid-19, and will probably not return. Also, the numbers actively reading the Bible have dipped below pre-covid levels. All of this shows that unclarity has not only enveloped us, but has managed to get into us as well.
We wonder how to get out of this fog. For perspective, I want to tell you about another fog at another time that descended upon a young Christian named Timothy. This is the Timothy of scripture, the young ministry apprentice with the Apostle Paul.
Paul was thrown in jail, leaving Timothy in a state of personal confusion. It was as though he was suddenly deprived of a parent. At a time when the challenges to his ministry became severe, he had no one left with which to converse, Timothy lived and labored in a highly paganized part of the Roman Empire–what we call Asia Minor, or, modern day Turkey.
In his city, Ephesus, Timothy began running into insurmountable problems, and so Paul sent him a letter (2nd Timothy). In the fourth verse of it, the apostle referred to Timothy’s tears, indicating his young understudy had reached such a high level of frustration, he had stopped in his tracks, and wept.
Paul writes Timothy in verse 8, telling him, “do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor me, his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.” And so we learn about the effect of the fog enveloping Timothy. A new normal was trying to come into existence–an attitude of shame, not only about Christ, but the testimony about Christ, the gospel.
Different teachings were beginning to emerge in the Christian community (c.f. 1 Tim. 1:3, 4:1, 2 Tim. 4:3). These were a conflation of Greek philosophy, new heresies, opinions of various sorts, and Jewish mysticism. All created a pressuring front against Timothy, making him feel like the odd man out, the lone radical. When Timothy taught Scripture, he approached it adopting a Christological emphasis, that is, by bringing out the truth of the person and work of Christ. He also had a soteriological emphasis that keyed on salvation. In other words, he did exactly what he saw his mentor, Paul, do. Timothy made the centerpiece of his ministry the Person, work, and full salvation of Christ.
But the pressure from the Ephesians was more than likely making Timothy feel he wasn’t sophisticated, or mystical, or educated enough. They may have conceded, We’re for the gospel, too, Timothy, but they were turning it into a junk drawer of sorts, adding to it anything good, or thoughtful, expedient, or religious. Young Timothy was beginning to feel the temptation to be ashamed of his christological and soteriological approach to the scriptures.
He was also in danger of being ashamed of Paul. Imagine the whisperings all around him from the Ephesian crowd. Even the Romans don’t throw people in jail for nothing. He must have gotten involved in some kind of political controversy. Or stole something. Paul therefore had to remind Timothy that he was a prisoner of Christ, not Rome. His being in jail was not because of shoplifting, or being a tax cheat. It was a typical part of the sufferings that come from faithfully following Jesus.
The elderly apostle was concerned about Timothy, because once shame becomes a new normal, a believer will take a step back, wondering if he or she is sacrificing a little too much for all this “religious stuff.” Paul therefore encouraged the young man to share in suffering for the gospel, receive it, accept it, participate in it, and do it “by the power of God.”
He went on to describe this power, as being from the God who, “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works, but because of his own purpose and grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher, and apostle, and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do.”
Paul endured all he went through by the power of the God who had done all these things, and then he adds, “but I’m not ashamed.” He had clarity, and could say, “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me” (v. 11b).
Well, that was Paul.
What about Timothy?
Paul told him, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, and the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (vv. 13-14).
Paul was essentially telling him, Brother, if you ever start to feel confused, follow the pattern of these words, and guard the deposit of them. You’ve heard me teach, and seen me live and suffer on behalf of those words. Walk the same way, and I promise you won’t get lost.
It’s like a pilot who described a plane trip he took back in 1925. The man said he boarded the plane with his young son and took off from Detroit. He got up to about eight thousand feet and entered the densest cloud he’d ever been in. Back in those days, there were no gyroscopic turn instruments in aircraft, so he didn’t know whether to dip his wing, or raise it. “I couldn’t get out of there,” he said of the enormous, enveloping cloudbank.
The awful realization came over him that he was going to die, so he turned to take one last look at his son. But just as he did, the pilot caught sight from the corner of his eye, a hotel sign whipping past the airplane. Instantly, he knew he had almost clipped the building. He was also familiar with the hotel, which immediately gave him perspective–his position, as well as his altitude. The pilot regained his bearings, and leveled out underneath the cloud, where he found himself right over Detroit streets. Badly shaken, he flew across fields, and landed in Toledo.
Often in the Christian life, murkiness settles to the extent that we have no idea what to do. We don’t know whether to pray or watch fourteen hours of Netflix, whether to read the Bible, or walk the dog, or eat two pounds of chocolate. They all seem to blur together.
Thankfully, we have a recognizable landmark–the pattern of sound words given to us right there in our New Testament. During this confusing year, perhaps you had to make some big decisions, or maybe you will have to make them, and you’re not really in a frame of mind to do it. Just like the old saying, “Never go to the grocery store when you’re hungry,” well, Never make a big life-changing decision while you have no spiritual clarity. Don’t dip your wing, or you might fly your aircraft straight into the ground. We need at that moment to consult the pattern of sound words. For instance, verse 9 tells us God saved us and called us. We may want to ask Him, “Did you call me to this?” or even more importantly, “Is this holy?”
Another possibility has to do with the pervasive anger of 2020. We’re tempted to dig deeper into grievances, where there seems to be more offense by the inch. It can get so bad, you may come to a point when you see public figures on television and wish them dead. In such a state, ask the Lord if those feelings come from the grace He gave before the ages (v. 9), and whether you should indulge in them.
Another huge issue this year has to do with fear, stimulated of course, by Covid-19: fear of getting sick, fear for the education of our children, fear of losing jobs. If you’ve felt these, you’re not different from anybody else.
We all have imagined personal end-of-the-world scenarios, and might compromise our faith, to some extent, in order to protect ourselves. That means we need to return to the pattern of sound words that tells us about the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death, bringing life and immortality. This gives us a serious alternative to believing all might be lost.
Anyway, if Christians followed the pattern of sound words given to them in the New Testament, a great many issues would be settled in the church, overnight.
Unfortunately, rather than follow the pattern, we have a terrible habit of ignoring it, and even worse, trying to change it. Think how it would be if the cartographers at Rand McNally decided to change all their roadmaps to match their personal preferences. Suppose they even altered the signal coming from the satellites to your GPS. What if they said, “It’s not fair that Florida has all the good beaches, so we’re going to move all of them up to New England. And while we’re at it, let’s move all the beautiful autumn foliage in Vermont down to Phoenix, Arizona, so they can enjoy four seasons. And that nice, warm winter in Phoenix? We’ll move the desert up to Duluth, Minnesota.”
Of course that scenario is ridiculous, because it would only be changing a map around, not reality. Those involved would look like fools.
That is exactly why Paul tells Timothy, and by extension, us, to follow the sound words and to guard the good deposit.