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A Trustworthy Word (2 Tim 2.11-13)

by Stephen Hebert on Friday - 2 April 2010

in Biblical Studies, New Testament

Earlier this week, I briefly discussed the poem in 2 Tim 2.11–13 in my post about parathēkē. Here, I’d like to explore this passage a bit more, line-by-line.

First, let’s set the context. The purpose for 2 Timothy, predominantly, is to encourage a co-worker in Christ to continue to preach boldly the gospel, and to avoid apostasy at all cost. In the midst of this exhortation, Paul1 offers this poem:

2 Tim 2.11–13 (Hebert Translation)
This word is trustworthy:
For if we died with [Christ], we also will live with him.
If we endure, we also will reign with him.
If we are going to deny [him], he also will deny us.
If we are faithless, he will remain faithful,
for he is not able to deny himself.

2 Tim 2.11–13 (Nestle-Aland 27)
πιστὸς ὁ λόγος·
εἰ γὰρ συναπεθάνομεν, καὶ συζήσομεν·
εἰ ὑπομένομεν, καὶ συμβασιλεύσομεν·
εἰ ἀρνησόμεθα, κἀκεῖνος ἀρνήσεται ἡμᾶς·
εἰ ἀπιστοῦμεν, ἐκεῖνος πιστὸς μένει, ἀρνήσασθαι γὰρ ἑαυτὸν οὐ δύναται.

The hymn or poem is comprised of four couplets arranged in parallel structure, two positive and two negative. Each of the couplets is a condition of the first form2 , meaning that these are very simple conditions making suppositions neither about the reality of the condition nor its probabilty. Essentially, we have a logical formula that looks something like this:

If A = B, then C = D.

In this sense, this is the simplest of conditions. The only minor complication comes in v. 12b where the verb arnēsometha (ἀρνησόμεθα) is in the future tense. These couplets yield some interesting theology of great use.

Couplet #1: Die to Live

If we died with Christ, then we will also live with him.

Essentially, this couplet encapsulates Paul’s doctrine of dying to the self,3 which is really a riff on Jesus (e.g., in Luke 9.23–24). Here, Paul is reminding Timothy the gain that is associated with taking part in the death, burial, and resurrection for Jesus. Remember that this is the Gospel according to Paul.4 These themes and ideas are further developed in Colossians 2 and Romans 6.

A competing interpretation understands this death to refer to martyrs. However, because of the aorist tense of the verb in the protasis, and because the condition is a past simple condition, I consider this interpretation deficient.

The beauty here is in the idea of our participation in the death of Christ. The believer has actually died with Christ with the promise that s/he will find life with Christ. It’s a glorious and paradoxical idea — and I am indeed a fan of paradoxes.

Couplet #2: Endure to Reign

If we endure, then we also will reign with him.

Much of the New Testament speaks of endurance. Philippians and James come to mind. However, this idea of reigning with Christ, this royal imagery, feels like a new development to me. Yes, there is discussion of the crown of life in James 1.12 which is connected directly to the idea of endurance, but it feels different to me. “Crown of life” always seemed like a reward, whereas reigning with Jesus feels more like a mission or  job.

Here’s the point, though, endurance is the mark of the believer; s/he endures through all and will find triumph on the other side of all those oppressions. To my ear, it feels much like the radical social upheaval preached by Jesus and especially emphasized by Luke — the last shall be first.

Furthermore, this couplet promises full participation in the Kingdom. We aren’t merely God’s loyal subjects; we are participants in his Kingdom. We have a duty to fulfill, a part to play.

Couplet #3: Deny and Be Denied

If we are going to deny him, then he also will deny us.

The heart of this couplet is in apostasy, a major theme in 2 Timothy. According to Paul, those who turn away and deny Jesus will be denied. This is a difficult passage for universalists. The penalty for denying Jesus is disavowal by God.

The protasis is in the future: “If we are going to deny him.” Is it possible that this only applies to apostates? Is it possible that this doesn’t apply to those who have never had the opportunity to deny Jesus?

I’m not sure. The saying is certainly situated within the context of not turning your back, not falling away, not committing apostasy. So, I do think this is possible.

Couplet #4: Lose Faith but He Won’t

If we are faithless, he will remain faithful,
for he is not able to deny himself.

I do not take this verse to mean that Jesus will remain faithful and restore to him even those who are faithless. Instead, I think the point is this: even in the midst of our faithfulness, God is still faithful to his promise because, unlike humans, he is unable to deny himself.

This is a really interesting idea and may run counter to my own understanding of the Cross in some ways. I am a proponent of a variant in Heb 2.9 that would cause that particular verse to read that Jesus died “separated from God” rather than “by the grace of God.” Good evidence, both internal and external, exists to support this argument. Additionally, this idea jives with Jesus’ own words on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” To me it lends an extra layer of gravity to the proceedings — this is not just Jesus going through the motions; no, he suffered real pain and real separation; his very being was rent in two.

However, in order for this idea of the forsaken Jesus on the Cross to work, it would seem that God would have to deny himself. This verse makes that impossible.

Is there some other way to think about Jesus forsaken on the cross? I don’t know.

The point for Paul here, however, is more about God’s own endurance and faith. Jesus was faithful to the end and remains faithful to the promise of life that he has granted to all of us. Even when we lose faith, even when we deny him, even when we turn our backs and run, he remains faithful because it is utterly against his character to do otherwise. It simply isn’t possible.

Footnotes

  1. I realize there are issues with Pauline authorship. For the purposes of this post, I will simply use Paul as the name for the author in accordance with tradition.
  2. See Smyth, Greek Grammar, §2298–2301.
  3. Read Philippians 3.
  4. Cf. 1 Corinthians 15.

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