Jean-Leon Gerome, The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer(1883)

Jean-Leon Gerome, The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer(1883)

“Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but take your share of suffering for the gospel, in the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace he gave us in Christ Jesus……For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher and therefore I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.” (II Timothy 1: 8 -9, 11-12)

We are all more sensitive to public opinion than we like to admit,” says John Stott, “and tend to bow down too readily before its pressure, like reeds shaken by the wind.” (Guard the Gospel, p32) So, too, must Timothy have been. Why else would Paul have urged him, “Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord…”? But can’t we all understand Timothy’s temptation? After all, in that day to speak and stand for Christ, or just to identify as his follower, was not only to run afoul of public opinion but to risk calumny and real persecution.

Timothy had either heard of or experienced  this reality  everywhere Paul had travelled and everywhere he had travelled with Paul. Even a cursory reading of Acts leaves one amazed at the calumny they faced:

In Philippi-  “They seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers…’these men are Jews and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice’… The magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods.”(16:19-22

In Thessalonica- “And when they could not find them (Paul and Silas), they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities shouting, ‘These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.’

In Corinth – “But when Gallio was proconsul in Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal saying,  ‘This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law’…”

In Jerusalem – “The Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him crying out, ‘Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place…’”

Who would not shrink in the face of such public malignity, particularly with Paul now paying the ultimate price of that ill regard – hard imprisonment and impending execution? Nevertheless, that is exactly what Paul expects Timothy to do –  openly witness to Christ and be willing to “take his share of suffering for the gospel.”

But how? What could overcome the force of such public opinion? Simply this, the conviction that no matter what the world said, the gospel was the truth and that Jesus was the Way, The Truth and The life. Also, the real conviction that all power in heaven and on earth is behind this gospel and that in the end all will come to kneel, some unwillingly, before the Lord the Gospel presents. As Paul himself said in Romans, perhaps as he faced his own temptations, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel: it is the power of God for salvation for all who have faith!” (1:16) Here in II Timothy it is the same conviction that is to overcome public reticence, belief in “Our Savior Christ Jesus who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light” and belief in his ultimate victory: “I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.” Moreover, Timothy is to depend on the present power of God to overcome anything still lacking in his courage. He is to be fortified by the Holy Spirit: “take your share of suffering for the gospel in the power of God.”

I might also add, and not as an afterthought but as a central motivating factor for Timothy to “not be ashamed of testifying to our Lord”, personal loyalty to the one who had done everything for him. Timothy is to take his share of suffering for the gospel in the power of God who saved us and called us with a holy calling.” It is as Paul said in another place, we are to “live for him who died for us.” How could Timothy deny the one to whom he owed everything?

We live in an age when it is increasingly easy to be ashamed of the gospel, not because the gospel is false but because for the time being the winds of public opinion have shifted against it. Increasingly those who follow Jesus are regarded as “reactionaries or has-beens” (Os Guinness) Moreover, we increasingly face the false accusation, the calumny, that the Christian faith is the enemy of human happiness and fulfillment. Of course, the opposite is true, but not in the eyes of public opinion. With that in mind, could anything be more timely or relevant to us than these words of Paul to Timothy? We now are called as he was then to turn our back on public opinion, realize the truth and power of the gospel, remember the one whose love and salvation we cannot deny, and boldly testify to our Lord gladly taking our share of suffering for the gospel.

The shame that we fear should not be shame of the gospel but the shame of shrinking from witness in the light of public opinion. We must not live to please the crowd but to please the Lord. Os Guinness puts this beautifully in his new book, Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle For The Soul of Civilization :

“As followers of Jesus we are called to live before one audience, the audience of One…There is only one voice that matters for us – the voice of God, and not the voice of the people or the voice of the times. And certainly not the warm embrace of popularity, the soft whisper of our own desires for comfort, the siren lure of being ‘on the right side of history’, or the mean faces of the bullying activists and the social media mob. Equally, there is only one judgment that matters and one word of approval that counts in the end: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’” ( p 28)