[K:NWTS 2/3 (Dec 1987) 33-41]
Commissioners, wives and other friends–Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I am freshly impressed tonight, and I hope you will be too, with how gracious our loving God is to his servants. You have come to hear reports, to approve budgets, to decide issues, and these are important matters that require all our time and energy and careful attention this week. And yet I believe our merciful God knows what is the primary need of his servants; and I believe he would graciously meet that need tonight, not by the word of man but by his own word.
Hear that word of God from II Timothy 2:8. "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel." This is the word of God addressed to you by the Spirit–and it is not so much an exhortation as it is an encouragement, an encouragement to you, Christ's servant, to serve him with renewed confidence, joy, boldness, faith, hope and love. In the hard times of your ministry, in the toughest times of your ministry, keep on remembering Jesus Christ as risen from the dead, David's greater Son, according to Paul's gospel and following Paul's example.
Encouragement to be Faithful
The New International Version gives as a heading for the entire section from 1:3 through 2:13–"Encouragement to Be Faithful." Actually that could well be considered the theme of the entire letter. And yet, perhaps, that word "encouragement" and our concept of why the minister of the gospel needs encouragement are too weak to convey the apostle's thought here.
The many frustrations, the "can't win" character of the ministry today are well known. The pastor is always a prominent and easy target for petty criticisms and conflicting expectations that can make his life difficult. And the ruling elder faces many of the same kind of unwarranted attacks.
But we would certainly be mistaken if we limited the servant of Christ's need for encouragement to that level. The apostle Paul knew something about real discouragements. He writes this letter to Timothy, his dear son, from a "death row" prison cell in Rome, the capital of paganism. His second imprisonment was evidently far harsher than his first. And this time the apostle knows that he will not leave prison alive. Look at 4:6-8: "the time has come for my departure." And that departure will be by way of an unjust and violent execution.
But this is not the reason for Paul's concern. His burden and his sorrow rather is the fact that that young church for which he has undergone the pains of childbirth to bring forth has fallen upon truly terrible times. Heresy, apostasy and persecution, like the many heads of the hydra, are sucking the very life-blood from the church. And it is against these destructive enemies that Timothy must now do battle.
The false teaching that Paul sees attacking the church at that time is the kind that cuts the heart out of the gospel. It is the kind of false teaching that spreads like gangrene (2:17), bringing death to the body. Some of those who had turned away from the faith were among the apostle's own companions. "You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes" (1:15). And in 4:10 Paul refers to Demas who, because of his love for this world, had also deserted him.
These are the kinds of times when the encouragement of II Timothy 2:8 is so desperately needed. These are the times that try men's souls. These are the times that lay ahead for Timothy. He will see false teachers deceiving, were it possible, the very elect. He may well see some of his closest friends deserting the faith. He will surely suffer persecution, as will everyone who strives to live a godly life (3:12).
And there are the kinds of conditions that many of you face right now. You're hurting. God knows it. Many of you have lost loved ones in your family or in the church family, some so close that you hardly know how to go on without them. And much worse than the loss through death has been the loss of a friend who has departed from the faith. There have been great disappointments in your ministry, failed hopes and dreams that you cherished for the church. The goal of one united, Bible-believing, Christ-honoring Presbyterian church in this country continues unattained–and does it look unattainable?
It's so easy to be discouraged. Every one of you lives to proclaim a message so deeply at odds with the accepted wisdom of our day which blasts forth from every television network, every respected newspaper or magazine, every public school, everything that influences the thought-patterns and values of every citizen twenty-four hours a day–whether that supposed wisdom wears the label of secular humanism or democratic liberalism or, more accurately, of atheistic naturalism. And it's easy to grow weary of the constant battle against this false teaching and to get tired of facing the ridicule of a society in which the pastor is no longer the "parson," i.e., the person, the most respected person in the community, but rather is viewed as a fool or a clown to be either laughed at or ignored.
Elder in the church of Jesus Christ, it is to you that the inspired word of II Timothy 2:8 comes. It is spoken directly to you by the Holy Spirit as a word of encouragement, the kind of encouragement you need when you feel you simply can't go on, the kind of encouragement you need in the morning when you wonder if you can get out of bed to face the day because everything you're scheduled to do that day seems pointless, so totally in vain–whether your study, or your counseling, or your preaching, or whatever–when the words "in vain" seem to you to be written over your whole ministry and your whole life! When you know that mere positive thinking, or possibility thinking, isn't going to cut it for you!
And what is that word that comes to you in your deep need? "Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descended from David."
The Seed of David
You are to remember (and the present imperative indicates that this is to be the continual focus and orientation of your mind); you are to keep on remembering Jesus Christ–Jesus Christ himself, not simply certain facts or doctrines about him–but Jesus Christ; but Jesus Christ, of course, as he is presented to us in the gospel–Jesus Christ as risen from the dead, Jesus Christ the seed of David.
Now that reference to Christ's Davidic descent might strike us as rather surprising here. If Paul chooses just two elements of Christ's person and work to sum up his gospel, why should one of them be Christ's Davidic lineage?
It is commonly suggested that the reference to Christ's being "of the seed of David" lays emphasis here on the humanity of Jesus against any Docetic or Gnostic tendency in the false teachers. Now it's always dangerous, I believe, to say that a certain application was not in the apostle's thinking at all, and in Romans 1:3 Christ's being of the seed of David is linked with his coming in the flesh. But here in our text there is just one focal point in the apostle's thought, I believe–just as he asks us to have this one focus in our meditation. And that is "Jesus Christ as risen from the dead." And the seed of David reference comes in, I believe, to remind us who this one is who is risen. He is none other than the Messiah of God, chosen before the foundation of the world, foretold by the prophets of old, revealed in these last times for our sake, suffering vicariously the penalty due our sins and raised from the dead by the Spirit of God.
In other words, his being "the seed of David" is here, I believe, not so much a pointer to the humiliation as to the Messianic dignity of Jesus Christ. In his earlier letter Paul had warned against foolish and endless genealogies. Here he points to the only genealogy worth paying attention to, for it validates Jesus as the Messiah.
Raised from the Dead
And, of course, it is all-important who this person is whom God has raised from the dead and what he has done. The coming into the world of a remarkable person, his death, yes and even his resurrection, would be utterly without saving relevance to my life unless that person was the Messiah appointed by God to save his people from their sins. Dr. Cornelius Van Til so often described how meaningless such an event would be: "A man has risen from the grave? What a surprising occurrence! Send it in to Ripley! Believe it or not!"
But the one in whom we trust as the risen and living one is Jesus whom God has made both Lord and Christ–the Messianic King who welcomes his people now to share his kingdom–the one exalted as Lord of the universe and the head of the church, who in a real sense has brought in already for his people, by the Spirit, the new age, the coming age. Yes, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ the supernatural world of God and of the new creation has broken into this created world, so marred by sin and sin's consequences and curse.
Yes, the new creation has really broken into this world, make no mistake about it. When the apostle speaks of Jesus as raised, he speaks of his bodily resurrection, the resurrection on the third day of that which was buried. That's the only kind of resurrection of the Savior of which Paul and the rest of the New Testament speaks.
When the apostle Paul tells us to remember Jesus Christ as risen, he is not playing linguistic games with us. He is not affirming the birth of the church as the resurrection body of Jesus. He is not figuratively describing how the disciples "caught" the contagious freedom of Jesus. He is not merely employing a metaphor from his Jewish eschatological expectation to indicate the trans-historical significance of Jesus as the final revelation of God. No, he is affirming the plain literal fact of God's raising him from among the dead, a resurrection that left an empty tomb.
It is because what one scholar has labelled "the evasions of modern theology" have become so depressingly common that I find so striking and so eloquent some lines from a most unlikely source–an Easter poem by the contemporary novelist, John Updike.
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if there is an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
("Seven Stanzas at Easter," written for a religious arts festival sponsored by the Clifton Lutheran Church of Marblehead, Massachusetts.)
And yet we must not be so absorbed in defending the concrete, historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus, as the raising of that body that was placed in the tomb, that we fail to appreciate the newness and the glory of that new realm of existence into which Christ entered in his resurrection. As Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 15, the first Adam, and all the children of Adam, have known an existence altogether on the level of psyche–natural, this-age life. But the second Adam has been raised to a new realm, the realm of the pneuma, the life of the spirit, of the Age to Come, a new order of existence the nature of which we can hardly imagine given the severe limitations of our present vision.
Yes, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, this world in which we live is not the only world. And this is not the only age. And with the resurrection of Jesus Christ the end of this age has already begun. The future is now!
Truth for Encouragement
And this is the truth that will carry you through the toughest times in your service of the Savior. Why? You know why, but let me simply remind you by way of four points quickly made. (1) The resurrection set a seal upon the truth of all Christ's claims and all Christ's promises. Upon his claim of equality with God the Father, upon his claim to be able to save to the uttermost all who come to him in repentant faith. When asked for a validating sign, this was the one sign he offered. The one who could claim power to lay down his life and take it again, and then make good that claim, is worthy of your complete trust. You can trust him to be the Way, the Truth and the Life–if "he is risen as he said!"
(2) The resurrection of Jesus Christ was his deliverance from the power and curse of death to which he had become subject as the representative covenant head of his people and the bearer of their sins. As long as our head remained under the power of death, sin and Satan remained triumphant. But now is Christ risen from the dead. The sentence of condemnation has been annulled. God's justification has been pronounced upon the second Adam, and yes–praise God–upon all those united to him by faith.
By raising Jesus from the dead and exalting him to his right hand, God the Father has declared that the penalty due your sins has been fully paid and the power of death forever broken. By the resurrection, God the Father added his "Amen!" to the words of Christ on the cross, "It is finished!" As the apostle Paul rejoiced earlier in our letter (1:10): "our Savior, Christ Jesus, has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel."
And this brings us quickly to the next point. (3) The resurrection of Christ is the guarantee–no, more than the guarantee, it is the beginning of the resurrection of those that are Christ's. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." The firstfruits were not merely a pledge but the actual beginning of the harvest–with the certainty of much more to follow. And just like Christ's, yours too will be a resurrection to an utterly new, transformed existence, your lowly body made like his glorious body (Phil. 3:21).
This is what your Lord promised: "Because I live, you also will live." No one can be in any way dead who is united with the risen Christ.
And this brings us to the final point. (4) You who are in Christ Jesus have a1ready been raised with him (Eph. 2:5,6). While the resurrection of your outer man is yet future, the resurrection of the inner man is a past event and a present reality. Christ has already rescued you from this present evil age and it is in the power of the risen Christ–his life living in you–that you are to live the Christian life right here and now.
The Heart of Our Gospel
Yes, it's true. We do not yet see all things subjected to him. The last enemy has not yet been abolished. We live in that "not yet" in which we must often weep, even as our Lord himself wept, in the face of death and bereavement and the pervasiveness of sin and evil. But in union with the risen Christ–by faith–are all the resources you and I need to live to his glory today.
As Paul reminds us in our text, this was his gospel. And you must make sure, brothers, that it is the heart of the gospel that you preach. Not filed away in your study notes or in the back of your minds, as a foundational truth that you assume and that you assume your hearers assume as you proceed to preach on themes which are supposedly more "practical," such as interpersonal relations and right attitudes and social action. It is the preaching–in the power of the Spirit–of the good news of Jesus Christ risen that will promote the growth of the church.
You must give your hearers something to believe in. Since you call on men, women and children, not to have faith in faith, but rather to have faith in Christ, you must present the Christ in whom they are to trust, the Christ who was delivered over to death for the sins of his people and who was raised to life for their justification. Following Paul's example, you should live to proclaim that gospel, enduring everything–everything (look at v.10) for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.
This is your calling, as a servant of the risen Christ, and could a higher calling be imagined? This past semester a Westminster alumnus serving in Uganda spoke in chapel of his need to remind himself–as he looked at the work of the engineer who lived in the hut on the one side of his, and at the work of the agriculturist who lived on the other side–of the incomparable importance and the eternal significance of the work committed to him as a preacher of the gospel and a trainer of preachers.
And so, dear servant of the Lord, look again at this second chapter of Paul's second letter to Timothy. These are the commands that your God gives to you by the Spirit: v.1, "Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus;" v.3, "Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus;" and v.8, "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel."
Preached at the opening worship service of the Fifty-fourth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, June 11, 1987, at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Westminster Theological Seminary in California