“You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”
In one sentence Paul pulls back the curtain on the link between strength and the gospel (2 Tim 2:1). What can we learn from Paul’s words to Timothy?
The source of strength in this text is grace. Paul affirms here that the journey of the Christian is by “grace alone.” In other places, Paul asserts that we are “saved by grace” (Eph 2-8-10). Here he shows us that we are “strengthened by grace.” The journey begins and continues by grace.
The grace that Paul speaks of is that which is located in Christ Jesus. Here he pushes us toward a gospel-centered understanding of strength. The grace of God is found in the message of the incarnate, crucified, risen and exalted Lord. As we press into the gospel of our salvation, meditate on it, study it, internalize it, speak it to one another, trust it and allow it to permeate our hearts and minds we are strengthened.
The word translated “be strengthened” is the present passive imperative form of a verb that is concerned with being strong (ἐνδυναμοῦ). Paul commands Timothy toward strength and yet, Timothy’s role is passive. Strength is required of us, it is a command. Strength comes to us, it is a gift. Timothy is called upon here to unfurl the sails of faith and position himself to catch gospel wind. The call here is to strategically position ourselves to be reminded of the gospel of God. We are to put ourselves in situations where reading, hearing, speaking and believing the gospel is sure to happen.
Strength comes from the gospel. Weakness must also be gauged by the gospel. Proximity to the gospel determines both strength and weakness. Full battery on a cell phone indicates recent close proximity to its power source, just as low battery indicates distance from its power source. Paul is helping us grasp that weakness is no mystery in the Christian journey. When we are far from the gospel we will certainly be weak. When we are near the gospel we will certainly be strengthened.
Martin Luther once said, “the cross of Christ is the only instruction in the Word of God there is, the purest theology.” For Luther, the cross was far more than a saving event though of course he affirmed that it was central to salvation. His argument went far deeper. He believed that the cross was the central event of theology, the definitive act of God’s revelation and self-identification.
Calvary was a game changer. The Triune God is now and forever the “God of the cross.” As Robert Kolb states, the cross is “where human beings can see what God’s experience, God’s disposition—even God’s essence— really are.” If we would find God, Kolb says we must look in the most unexpected places. We find him as a “child in a crib, as a criminal on a cross, and as a corpse in a crypt.”
Luther based these theological assertions on his reading of Paul, particularly the Corinthian correspondence. Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 1-2 that the cross destroys our perceptions of reality and redefines everything. Wisdom, power and glory are now foolishness, weakness and humility. The cross turns the world on its head.
If the cross becomes our center and we orbit about the Crucified God things will never be the same. We will see with a different lens. We will make decisions that won’t make sense to others. We will value things that are often despised. We will recognize God in places we’ve never seen him before. We will embrace a cruciform existence and in small ways reflect the heart of this humble God.
Names mean something. This was especially true in the world of Christ. Names were carefully chosen and would often set the trajectory of a child’s life. In the Matthew narrative we learn that the naming of Jesus was no different. The text says that Mary and Joseph received divine guidance regarding what they would call Jesus. “You shall call his name Jesus for He will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).
The name Jesus has Hebrew roots, it literally means “God saves.” God the Father makes clear what the saving work of Jesus is focused on…sin. His name indicated the reason for his coming. His name was a constant reminder of why he was born. Jesus came to deal with sin, this is absolutely central to his purpose. In the context it is very interesting to see that the author moves on to state that his name will be called Immanuel, which means “God is with us” (Matt 1:23).
Placing these two names side by side is instructive, something the context also seems to require. God is with us and God saves us from sin. Jesus is the God-man who enters the fray, he comes alongside and is present with us even in our sin. To save us from our sin he must walk with us as we struggle and falter. The saving work of God is not accomplished at a distance. He is uncomfortably present…so much so that “he who knew no sin became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
When we speak of the God who is with us, we mean to say that he is with us in our darkest moments, our greatest sins, our desperation, our brokenness, our weakness, our pain, our grief, our suffering…he is with us in the places where we need him most. Luther was right, God is “with us in the muck and in the work that makes his skin steam.”