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Not ashamed so count me in

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God. (2 Tim 1:8)

The letter of 2 Timothy is a great place to glean doctrine and theology, particularly if you are a pastor.

But I don't think Paul was writing this "book of the Bible" primarily as a seminary outline for pastoral training, or to lay out a systematic theology of...well, anything. What we might think of as "the book of second Timothy" was originally a heartfelt love letter from a spiritual father to his beloved spiritual son. What Paul cares more about in this letter than anything else is the state of Timothy's heart.

More specifically, the temperature of Timothy's heart.

The main reason Paul writes this letter to Timothy is to urge him to "fan into flame the gift of God" (2 Tim 1:6). The heat of this flame - perhaps the same heat of the Spirit who lit it - is Timothy's heat, his core, his starting point.

Everything we do as believers radiates from the temperature of our flame, and that flame burns according to whatever extent we avail ourselves of the power and presence of God's abundant and generous love for us. Out of his love - which burns hotter and longer than the sun itself - we live. There is no legitimate "doing" for God that does not originate from what he is doing in us, presently. There is no legitimate "serving" others that does not originate out of God's ongoing servant-love for us. And there is no legitimate "ministry" of the gospel that does not originate out of the gospel's fire lit, stoked, and burning hot in our hearts, today.

The flame comes first, and is to be, above all else, the first priority in every act of ministry and service to Jesus.

But what comes next on Paul's list? What's the first "therefore", the first outcome to be expected in a life powered by a well-stoked flame?

It's a simple three-word command.

Don't. Be. Ashamed.

What is there to be ashamed of? The Bible doesn't shy away from the answer: a lot.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor 1:18)

God has intentionally, specifically designed his method of salvation to be "folly" in the eyes of those who are not seeking what he has to offer. God is offering eternal life in his love to sinners who are dying because they reject God. That love, in itself, defies logic. But God's method for demonstrating that love and providing a means for eternal life to sinners is even more unbelievable:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15)

Jesus is referring to a story in which a bunch of people got bit by poisonous snakes and were dying from it. God told Moses to craft a serpent out of bronze, hold it up, and anyone who looked at the bronze serpent would be healed (Num 21:4-9).

This sounds so easy. Just look at the toy snake.

But if you were dying in your tent from a snake bite and someone said, "Hey! Moses has a snake he made during craft hour and he's saying that anyone who just looks at it won't die" - well, what would you think?

I'd say, with whatever strength I had left, Don't mock my pain.

How is just looking at a pretend snake going to heal me from a snake bite? That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. And by the way, Moses, how cruel. If there's anything I don't need to be reminded of right now, it's a snake.

Likewise, simply looking at a man dying as a condemned criminal on a cross is about the last thing you or I would devise as a means to save ourselves from sin and death. The sight of a man forsaken by God, bleeding, mocked, and scorned, is about the least encouraging sight a human could imagine to convince themselves that God is on their side.

And yet, this is the gospel we proclaim. It's foolishness. We are asking people to simply look at what God has provided in the humility and sacrifice of Jesus, and to believe that just looking at death in his body will result in life in ours (2 Cor 4:10).

It's crazy.

That's why Paul tells Timothy, don't be ashamed of it. Furthermore, he says, don't be ashamed of the suffering that your faith will inevitably bring.

Suffering is, to the earthly mind, evidence of failure. "Where is your God?" is the Old Testament equivalent to this, where outsiders look on the suffering of God's people and shake their finger in our face and say, "Ha! You claim to have answers?" Or, as they said of Jesus on the cross, "He saved others, now he can't even save himself!"

And our hearts tell us the same thing. To our logic, we suffer because we've made the wrong move. And there is some earthly wisdom in this, for example, if you run a red light you are likely to cause an accident. But the gospel works differently, and by design, the gospel is a paradox of weakness and power.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Cor 4:7-10)

We are not ashamed of the cross because the cross is the path to never-ending life.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die...Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 11:25-26; 12:24-25)

We "share in suffering for the gospel" because we are not ashamed. We are not ashamed because we understand what suffering means. It means eternal life at the end of the path.

Sharing is the opposite of shame. Shame curls inward, but sharing reaches out in every direction. Sharing emerges out of a sense of identification, a desire to be counted in, a recognition of the worth of investment. The events of the past year are starting to show this. I see and hear believers coming out of the woodwork. Their flames are being stoked by realities that have been exposed through the 2020 pandemic, racial tension, and various political debates, economic hardships, and questions about our religious freedom. At first, there was a lot of confusion. Then, discussion, some of which wasn't always completely helpful. But lately, as we've now had six months or so to process what's going on, I'm hearing people starting to say something that makes sense.

Christians are starting to remember the gospel. We're starting to share, to come together in suffering and affirm its eternal worth. We're seeing buds of faith and love sprouting where once was only fatigue and a dreary sense of religious duty. We're not ashamed anymore, because the gospel now stands against a very dark backdrop of worldly failure, and we're more willing than ever to sharing in the sufferings of Christ, because we finally see the wisdom of the cross.

There's a lot of hype on social media about 2020 drawing to a close, as if somehow the cosmic forces will turn a page on the spiritual calendar and start something over. Not so. Nothing's going to change from December 31, 2020 to January 1, 2021. (Does anyone remember Y2K???) Not one thing. We're still going to be lurching forward in the momentum that 2020 has given us. Let's not be too eager to move on from the suffering God has provided. Let's take it into the new year full throttle, and be propelled into the glory of new creation that God has already begun in us, right in the center of this broken, hungry world.

Are you in?

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