Of all the Epistles in the New Testament written by Paul two stand out for their visibly relational ethos. The first is Philemon, probably written around 60 AD to Paul’s dear friend by that name who lived in or around Colossae and hosted a church in his home. The other is 2 Timothy, the last letter ever penned by the Apostle and addressed to his mentee, son in the faith, and successor in the work of the gospel.
Along with 1 Timothy and Titus, 2 Timothy rounds out the Pastoral Epistles which were written to Paul’s apostolic legates Timothy and Titus, located respectively in Ephesus and Crete. Second Timothy is distinct because of the strong emotional attachment between the two men and the Epistle’s emphasis on their long time relationship (1:3-7, 3:14-16, 4:9-13, 4:19-22). In this letter, Paul shares that his life is rapidly drawing to a close (4:6) and so he writes in an attempt to communicate not only Timothy’s ecclesiastical responsibilities but also his affection and need for his dear friend as the end draws nigh.
The letter contains numerous exhortations about the utter importance of staying faithful to the gospel (1:13-14, 2:14-16, 4:1-5), it showcases some important themes about communicating the Scriptures, the reality of suffering for Christ, and pastoral practice in challenging circumstances. Given the changing cultural landscape of North American civilization and the numerous pressures that most pastors feel today, 2 Timothy is well worth our best efforts to preach it both to ourselves and to our congregations.
2 Timothy was written by Paul probably around 65 AD while imprisoned in Rome and waiting for a final audience with the Emperor that would determine his fate (4:16-18). Debate continues to circulate whether this reflects a rather sudden end to his imprisonment spoken of at the end of Acts or an altogether different situation. Church tradition—not the New Testament—argues that Paul was released following his Acts 28 imprisonment, journeyed west to Spain and then retraced his steps to the Eastern Mediterranean where he continued to minister. Then, following the burning of Rome and Nero’s subsequent persecution of Christians in 64-65 AD (see the Roman historian Tacitus for more on this), Paul was re-arrested by imperial authorities in Asia and shipped back to the capital. There he was placed in the notorious Mamertine prison below the streets of Rome, awaiting execution on the charge of being the leader of the Christians.
It was a desperate situation because Paul saw his death as imminent (4:6) and his mission under serious attack by both unbelievers (4:14) and rival, heretical teachers (2:17-18). Moreover, he had been abandoned by some ministry colleagues (1:15, 4:10) and had at least one face-to-face meeting with the notorious Emperor, Nero (4:16-17). There is a strong sense of urgency in the letter, first for Timothy to stand with Paul in suffering for the defense of the gospel (1:6-14) as well as in Paul’s desire for Timothy to come to Rome and minister to him in his final days (4:9, 21).
As noted above, the letter is exceptionally personal, focusing its attention on Paul’s relationship with Timothy and the latter’s pastoral ministry in Ephesus. There is little discussion of formal ecclesiology or family structure ala 1 Timothy or Titus. Paul’s main emphasis is on Timothy’s responsibility to "guard the gospel" even in the face of suffering (1:8-14), ensure its safe transfer to people of reliable character (2:1-2), the need for faithful service to the church in the face of severe pressure to compromise (2:3-26) and last, but not least, the necessity to preach the truth of God’s Word in a clear and relevant manner, regardless of the response or outcome (4:1-5).
Given that 2 Timothy, like all of the Epistles in the New Testament, is an occasional letter, it presents some interesting challenges for preaching. Perhaps the most daunting is how to make Paul’s very personalized instructions to Timothy as the bishop of Ephesus relevant to the lives of laypeople living in the early 21st century. In an effort to do that, I would suggest using one of the following outlines and freely adjusting it according to the needs and context of one’s particular congregation.
A ten-week series that covers the overall content and flow of the book by focusing on the following texts and their application to contemporary life inside and outside of the parish.
Week 1: 1:1-7: Our Spiritual Heritage and Gifting for Ministry
Week 2: 1:8-12: Our Call to Suffer for the Gospel
Week 3: 1:13-2:2: Ensuring that the Gospel is Given to Reliable People
Week 4: 2:3-13: Enduring in Ministry by Relying on the Resurrected Jesus.
Week 5: 2:14-19: The Importance of Accurate Biblical Teaching in a Church Gone Bad
Week 6: 2:2-26: The Marks of a Godly Leader Who God Uses for Good Works
Week 7: 3:1-9: The Need to Recognize the Nasty Realities of the World System
Week 8: 3:10-17: Some Steps to Spiritual Faithfulness Over the Long Haul
Week 9: 4:1-8: The Eternal Value of Biblical Preaching
Week 10: 4:9-22: Our Call to Seize the Day in Ministering to Others in Need
4 Weeks A – Specific Texts from Each Chapter
A four-week series, drawn from specific sections within the letter, that focuses on relevant topics for a contemporary congregation.
Week 1: 1:6-12: The Need for a Courageous Christian Witness in Contemporary Culture
Week 2: 2:3-13: The Resurrected Jesus as the Model for Endurance in Ministry
Week 3: 3:1-17: Living Counter-Cultural Lives in a Society that Is Unraveling
Week 4: 4:9-22: Seizing the Day to Minister to Those in Need
4 Weeks B – Chapter Themes
A four-week series, with each sermon drawing from a main theme of each chapter (this is borrowed from the main points of John Stott’s commentary on 2 Timothy, Guard the Gospel, and focused on individual and congregational application.
Week 1: 1:1-2:2: The Charge to Guard the Gospel
Week 2: 2:3-2:26: The Charge to Suffer for the Gospel
Week 3: 3:1-17: The Charge to Continue in the Gospel
Week 4: 4:1-22: The Charge to Preach the Gospel
5 Weeks – Theological Themes
A five-week series focused on the key theological themes of the book.
Week 1: God’s Grace, Calling, and Purpose for Our Lives (1:9-12; 3:10-17)
Week 2: The Content of the Gospel, Its Transmission and Impact (1:9-2:2)
Week 3: The Work of Jesus Christ, His Resurrection and Coming Judgement (1:9-12; 2:8-13; 4:1, 7-8)
Week 4: The Christian Life and Its Implications for Believers (1:3-7; 2:22-26; 3:10-17)
Week 5: Personal Ministry Both Inside and Outside the Church (1:13-2:8; 2:14-26; 4:2-5; 4:9-22)
Big Ideas for Preaching
Chapter 1:1-12: Drawing on God’s Spirit, gifts, and power, give yourself to suffering for the gospel because it alone gives eternal life.
Chapter 1:13-2:2: By the grace of God, guard the gospel and give it to faithful, not unfaithful, people.
Chapter 2:3-13: Thru diligent endurance rooted in the resurrected Christ, devote yourself to bringing others to salvation and eternal glory.
Chapter 2:14-19: Prove yourself to be God’s good workman by the way you handle his Word and correct theological error in the church.
Chapter 2:20-26: Live and minister in a Christ-like way so he can use you in the ministry of reconciliation.
Chapter 3:1-9: Avoid religious hypocrites who reflect the corrupt values of a society going from bad to worse.
Chapter 3:10-17: Persevere in the faith because it comes from God and it will make you godly.
Chapter 4:1-8: Fulfill your call to faithfully preach God’s Word because your ministry demands it, people need it, and you’ll be rewarded by Christ for it.
Chapter 4:9-22: Be swift, prudent, and shrewd to protect the church and help your brothers and sisters in need.
One of the major challenges of preaching any book of the Bible is making accurate and relevant application of the text to contemporary life. As noted above, 2 Timothy presents some challenges in this regard because of its focus on Timothy’s unique pastoral ministry in first century Ephesus and his personal relationship with Paul. Nevertheless, given its theology and innumerable exhortations to godly living and good leadership in the face of persecution and church conflict, the letter provides preachers and teachers with some pointed instructions that can help contemporary believers live out the truth of the gospel. Given the pressures many believers feel in today’s materialistic, hedonistic, and technologically obsessed culture, 2 Timothy can be a source of strength and encouragement to faithful and fruitful Christian living. Given that, I’d like to offer the following suggestions for application when preaching this great book.
Timothy was handed the mantle of church leadership by Paul and became responsible for the spiritual welfare of hundreds of believers in Ephesus. By the mid-60s, however, external pressure was being exerted on the church by Rome and internal opposition was growing due to presence of heretical teachers. Faced with all this, as well as the imminent death of Paul, Timothy needed to be reminded of his calling and his duty to faithful endurance as Christ’s servant. Thus, the inherent power of God’s gracious salvation given in the gospel of the resurrected Christ should be stressed (1:9-11; 2:1; 2:8).
A second specific application revolves around the need for discernment and wisdom in both life and ministry. While the gospel had clearly impacted innumerable people in and around the city of Ephesus, many of these either abandoned the faith and church in the face of persecution (see 1:15) or corrupted it by false teaching (see 2:17-18). While the church in North America is not facing external persecution, the number of former church people abandoning Christianity as well as prominent teachers undermining the foundations of the faith continues to astound. This requires that preachers make the honest assertion that "those who desire to live godly lives will be persecuted" (3:12-13) and that God has provided all the necessary spiritual and emotional resources for faithful living and perseverance to the end (1:8-11; 2:8-13; 3:14-17; 4:6-8).
A third specific application regards the need for Christ-like living in the midst of cultural pressure and bad examples to do otherwise. Paul not only instructed Timothy in what godliness looked like but personally modeled it for him over the years (2:22-26; 3:10-11). While we often take this for granted in the church, it appears from recent episodes involving both prominent evangelical leaders as well some political leaders that we need to re-assert the non-negotiable need for godly living in Christ-like love on the part of pastors, elders, deacons, deaconesses, and congregants.
A fourth element inherent in 2 Timothy that should be stressed is the never ending need for mentoring, discipleship, and leadership development in the church. Timothy was raised in a godly home, mentored by Paul for years, and finally given leadership in the church (1:3-5; 3:10-11; 4:2-5). This was an intentional strategy on Paul’s part and needs to be communicated in contemporary churches. The absolute necessity of ongoing leadership development at both the lay and pastoral level must be stressed. Timothy was specifically instructed to guard the gospel he had been given by Paul (1:13-14) and then pass it on to other reliable people who could then teach others (2:2). As numerous scholars and teachers have pointed out over the years, there are four generations of leaders here: Paul, Timothy, reliable people like Onesiphorus (1:16-18), and other people also. This is the chain of discipleship and, while it should begin at home, the church must be instructed to carry it out from the children’s ministry all the way to the senior adults.
As noted, this was Paul’s final letter before being martyred by Rome. He was struggling in filthy conditions, increasingly cold, and in need of the Scriptures (4:9-12). But most of all, he was in need of Christian fellowship and so he urged Timothy to come to him quickly before he was executed (4:9, 21). While these circumstances were in many ways unique to the apostle and his life-long disciple, the call to minister to those in physical, emotional, and spiritual need runs thru every generation, especially our own. Therefore, pastors and teachers who preach on 2 Timothy would be wise to stress the need for parishioners to look around for those in need both inside and outside the church and then leverage their resources to meet those needs. This includes the need for food and clothing for the poor and dispossessed, the need for spending time with the lonely and the need for spiritual nurture to all those who come to church.
There are a number of prominent theological themes in 2 Timothy, beginning with a clear and emphatic emphasis on maintaining the truth of the gospel. This is the powerful message of God’s redemption of sinners centered in the person and work of the resurrected Christ who will, at the end of time, come to judge the quick and the dead (1:10-12; 2:6-9; 4:1).
A related theological theme is the absolute necessity of godly character in those who possess leadership in the work of God’s kingdom. Paul modelled this and called Timothy to emulate him, even in the face of severe pressure to compromise his teaching and his faithfulness (1:6-8; 2:3-5; 3:10-17). Moreover, godliness is the essential quality of character to be sought in those seeking to possess and communicate the truth of the gospel (2:2).
A third theme concerns the nature and practice of church ministry. This is not a career chosen at whim but a calling from Christ that must be whole-heartedly embraced. It requires the pastor/teacher/leader to live a certain way and fulfill the responsibility to care for God’s church to the best of one’s ability (1:3-5; 2:14-26; 3:10-17; 4:6-8). It also involves a prophetic witness rooted in the truth of God’s Word, even in the face of a culture that seeks to go its own way spiritually and morally (2:18-19; 3:1-9; 4:3-5).
A fourth theological theme is centered in the inspiration, truth, and redemptive power of Scripture (3:15-17; 2:14-15; 4:2-5). All Scripture is inspired by God (theopneustos = God breathed), thereby carrying explicit authority for all matters of faith and practice. Thus, the Bible is to be clearly taught and fervently preached so that false teaching can be combatted, orthodoxy ensured, and our lives transformed into Christ-like character. Due to the inherent sinfulness of humanity, the faithful, Spirit-led exposition of the Scripture is absolutely necessary for the health and vitality of the church.
My Encounter with 2 Timothy
I have read, studied, and meditated on 2 Timothy since I was a junior in college, now over forty years ago. I have also preached or taught thru all or parts of the book on at least three occasions over the past few decades in church, para-church, and seminary settings. What continues to amaze me about this letter is its insistent emphasis on the power of the gospel, the truth of the Scriptures, and the ability of godly people to influence both the church and the society thru their endurance, humility, and faithful preaching of God’s Word. Depending on what ministry opportunities present themselves to me in the future, I hope to do at least one more preaching series out of this wonderful little book.
My guess is that when he first received it two millennia ago, Timothy jumped on the first ship he could find and raced to Rome to minister to Paul (4:21). Having walked with him down the Appian Way to see him receive the crown of glory (4:8), he then returned to Ephesus where, according to tradition, he faithfully served the church according to the call he received from God and the guidelines given him by Paul until he too was martyred for the LORD.
While there are a number of outstanding and substantive commentaries on 2 Timothy, the three I have found to be most helpful for discerning authorial intent and then assisting with preaching are the following.
John R. W. Stott, Guard the Gospel (Downers Grove: IVP, 1973).
As evidenced by his long ministry over the decades, Stott was a masterful scholar of the text as well as an experienced preacher. This volume is full of valuable exegetical and pastoral insights. Moreover, Stott’s research on this last letter of Paul’s provides numerous homiletical gems that can be leveraged to add some sparkle to our preaching.
Walter Liefeld, The NIV Application Commentary on 1 & 2 Timothy/Titus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999).
The great strength of this commentary is its clarity and accessibility. Following the format of the NIV Application series, each section of the biblical text is divided into a) the Original Meaning, b) Bridging Contexts, c) Contemporary Significance. Liefeld’s commentary provides not only solid exegetical work but some helpful suggestions on preaching the text in a relevant way.
Philip H. Towner, 1 & 2 Timothy & Titus (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994).
Towner provides numerous insights into the general flow of the apostle’s thought. While readers may not agree with every conclusion he draws, he forces us to wrestle with the meaning of the text in light of the situation in which it was composed.
I also want to include a fourth "semi-commentary" (my term), Called To Lead: Paul’s Letters to Timothy for a New Day (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012) by Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall. This is a volume of practical pastoral theology on the two Epistles to Timothy with four chapters devoted to 2 Timothy. The authors work hard to navigate the distance between Timothy’s context and our own while offering some helpful suggestions on how the text can be communicated and lived out in our day.
Scott Wenig is associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and author of Straightening the Altars.