THE ETERNAL GOSPEL
2 Tim. 1:9, 10:—"Who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before times eternal, but hath now been manifested by the appearing of our Saviour Christ 'Jesus, who abolished death, and brought life and incorruption to light through the Gospel."
Second Timothy is the last letter written by Paul. More than that, it was written during the last days of his life. He had fought his fight and finished his course. What had the Gospel he had preached done for him? What was his attitude towards the salvation in Christ Jesus which he had so long proclaimed, now that life was over and he could look back in a detached sort of a way over its whole course? Did it seem to him in those sad disillusioning days as—scarcely worth while?
It certainly is interesting to catch Paul's last thoughts about the Gospel; to learn what that Gospel was and what it was to him as the sands of his life ran out; to compare it with the Gospel he had grasped with such enthusiasm at the outset and propagated with such zeal during the days of his strength and freedom. Well, it is reassuring to find that the Gospel Paul preached at the end was just the same old Gospel he had embraced at the beginning. And more than that, that it was the same to him.
There is even an odd echo in the very language he uses here to describe the Gospel of that which he had employed in the earlier, lustier days. To the Romans he had written that he was not ashamed of the Gospel, because it was the power of God unto salvation. To Timothy he gives the exhortation not to be ashamed of the Gospel but to endure manfully in its behalf, with an endurance measured only by the power of God manifested in the salvation it had brought.
The echo in the language, I say, is oddly close, because there is no direct connection between the two passages; and when closely scrutinized they are perceived to speak of two very different things. In Romans we have an objective statement; in Second Timothy an intensely subjective one. In the one case the contrast is with the scorn of the world. Paul will not be deterred by that; he cannot be ashamed to preach a Gospel in which is enshrined the power of God to save. In the other case, the contrast is with the persecution of the world. Timothy is not to shrink back before the dangers that now hang over the proclamation of the Gospel, but to witness straight on, emboldened by the saving power of this Gospel in his own heart.
One passage is then in no sense a repetition of the other; both are rather embodiments of the same fundamental idea for completely different ends. This fundamental idea is that the Gospel is the power of God to salvation and therefore a thing of which no man with a mind to see can possibly be ashamed, and which no man with a heart to feel can possibly be frightened away from proclaiming. Because it has the dynamics of life in it, it stands immeasurably above all the socalled Gospels that men can proclaim. Nay, because it has the dynamics of life in it, he who has it hidden in his heart cannot fear death.
One sees the enheartening power there is in this perception of the Gospel as the power of God to salvation. We cannot wonder that Paul uses this conception, whether to enhearten himself in preaching it despite the scorn of men, or in enheartening Timothy in preaching it despite the persecutions of men. It is natural then that it should crop out here again, where the Apostle would fain put new courage into Timothy in the sad time that had come upon the Gospel proclamation. The propagation of the Gospel through the Roman world had hung largely on the arm of Paul. But that arm was now stricken down, and Paul was lying in the Roman prison with nothing to anticipate except an inglorious death. Something like a panic seems to have fallen upon the little circle of helpers on whom he was accustomed to depend as on hands and feet in the prosecution of his great missionary task. Though in prison and nearing the fatal issue, the burden of the churches still rested on his stricken arm. He enumerates the disposition of the forces he had made and was making. For the work at Rome, however, he was shorthanded and felt helpless. One of those whom he had depended on for the dangerous work there had fled. Only Luke remained with him; he needed two additional helpers. He turns to Timothy and Mark; and it is striking to see him turn to these two in his hour of need, and with obvious trust and confidence in them. On a former occasion Mark had forsaken him at a juncture of importance. And many commentators have thought that his general tone to Timothy implies that Paul thought him little endowed with the quality of daring. This appears to rest on a mistake; the effort which the Apostle makes to enhearten Timothy for his work does not seem to imply special timidity suspected in him so much as the need of special courage for what he asks of him. At all events, his choice of Timothy for aid in this hour of need and the express encomium which he passes on Mark as one fitted to be his companion in the arduous service asked of him would seem to be a diploma of trustworthiness given to these helpers. We may be sure that he wishes for Timothy and Mark in this sad time to be standing by his side, because he had special confidence in just Timothy and Mark.
Nevertheless Paul recognizes that there is very special need of courage and boldness for the service he is asking. And in asking the service he points Timothy to the source of strength. That source of strength to which he points Timothy is, briefly, the Gospel, conceived as embodying the power of God to salvation. He reminds Timothy first of his hereditary faith; next of his endowment with grace by the laying on of the Apostle's hands; but finally and chiefly of the power of God he had himself experienced in the Gospel which he was called on to preach and for which he was to be ready also to suffer. It was not his human strength that was to be called on for this great endurance; haply that might soon be exhausted. His endurance was to be limited only by the power of God, of that God who had saved him and called him with a holy calling, not according to any works of his own, but according only to God's own purpose and the grace that was given him in Christ Jesus before times eternal, and has now been manifested by the epiphany of our Saviour Jesus Christ, in His making naught of death, and bringing to light of life and incorruption through the Gospel.
Surely there is gathered together in this great exhortation everything that could be needed to fill with deathless courage in the behalf of the Gospel even the most timid hearts. Let us try to point out one or two of the things that Paul does here, calculated to enhearten his companion.
First, we shall certainly take notice that he places beneath Timothy the eternal arms of God Almighty. He lifts the eyes of Timothy from himself to God, and says to him in effect, There, there is your strength. And observe the pains Paul is at to impress on Timothy that the relation in which he stands to this God, by virtue of which God becomes his strength, is not, in any sense,— not in the remotest degree, not in the smallest particular,—dependent on Timothy himself, or anything that he has done, is doing, or can do. He would withdraw Timothy utterly from the least infusion of dependence on self and cast him wholly on dependence on God, that he may realize that his weakness is not in question, but the whole strength of God is behind him to uphold him and bear him safely through.
Therefore Paul describes this God on whose power he would throw Timothy back as one "who saved us and called us with a holy calling; not according to works of ours but according to His own purpose"—where the words "His own" are thrown out with a tremendous energy,—"and a grace that was given to us in Christ Jesus before times eternal,"—where the words "was given," not "was promised" or even "was destined for," but actually and finally and unequivocally "was given" us before times eternal, are used with equally tremendous emphasis, to declare that what has appeared in time has been only a manifestation of what was already done, concluded, accomplished in eternity. How could this power of God fail us now because of aught we can do, or fail to do, when its gift to us is so thoroughly independent of everything or anything that we can do? Obviously, what Paul is doing is so completely to take away Timothy's consideration of himself in this whole matter of the Gospel that he will trust exclusively in God and feel that, therefore, there can be no failure—just because it is God alone and not he himself on whom the performance rests.
An appeal to the well-recognized fact that it was thus and thus only that Timothy received his call from God, is nothing other, then, than to cast him back on the Almighty arms and to make him poignantly realize that it is God and not he who is conceived as carrying through the work so begun. "O Timothy," says Paul, in effect, "Faint not! It is not your own strength—or rather weakness— that is here in question; it is the power of Almighty God. Do not you remember how you were brought into relations with this God? Was it of yourself that you were called with this holy calling? Nay, no works of your own entered in. It was of His own purpose that He called you; the grace that has come to you was given you from all eternity. What has come to you in time is only the manifestation of what was eternally done. It is this Almighty God who is using you as His instrument and organ. Nothing depends on your weakness; all hangs on His strength. Take courage and go onward." Thus Paul strengthens Timothy for the conflict before him.
But there is another element in Paul's enheartening exhortation which we must not fail to take notice of if we would feel all the subtlety and force of its appeal. Paul not only throws Timothy back on the eternal arms of Almighty God; he fixes his eyes firmly also on an eternal Christ. For not less clearly than in the prologue to John's Gospel itself is the pre-incarnate Son of God brought before us in this great passage. So vivid, indeed, is the Apostle's realization of the great transaction in eternity; so pointed is his representation of all that has been wrought out in time as but the manifestation of what was already prepared in eternity; that it would be easier to read him as throwing an air of unreality over the temporal acts than as treating the eternal ones as merely ideal.
The use of the word "given," the "grace given" to us before times eternal, is already a mark of his intense perception of the reality of the eternal transaction. But this is carried much further by the other terms emphasized. This grace given in eternity is only "manifested" in time; made visible—the conception being that it was already in existence and is only now brought to sight. And in like manner the Christ Jesus in whom the grace was given us before times eternal, can by no possibility be conceived as existing only ideally in this eternity, as if the notion were only that in foresight of Him and His work, the gift of grace was determined upon and so His historical life on earth was the logical prius and this eternal transaction rested on it in prevision and provision. On the contrary, it is His eternal existence that is the actual reality and His historical manifestation is described as an "epiphany"—a term which distinctly describes a glorious apparition of what already exists and now only breaks forth to the illumination of the world. As such it is elsewhere confined in the New Testament to the second coming of Christ, and when here applied to His first coming as fully implies as in the parallel case that He who is thus manifested exists and has existed beforehand gloriously, and now only bursts on Man's astonished sight like the breaking forth of the sun from thick clouds. The grace that was given us before all eternity, was given us in that eternity in Christ Jesus, as the then present mediator of grace; and as the grace then given has only been "manifested" in time, so the Christ Jesus in whom it was then given has only "appeared" in time. So clear and vital is Paul's realization of the eternal transaction in a word, that the danger would be not that we should read him as speaking of only an ideal eternal pre-existence of His and our Lord, but rather, as giving too little significance to the outworking of the eternal plan in the actual historical realization.
It is interesting to observe this very complete doctrine of the eternal pre-existence of Jesus
Christ in this epistle, for theological reasons, and more particularly, for biblical-theological reasons. Our interest in it now, however, turns on the use which Paul makes of it for the enheartening of Timothy. By fixing his eyes thus on the eternal Jesus and subtly suggesting that the events of time are (in a sense) but the shadows of the eternal realities; that the salvation wrought out on Calvary was but a corollary (so to speak) of the determining transaction in heaven; the Apostle leads his pupil to attach less importance to the course of affairs on earth in comparison with the eternal things thus vividly pictured before his eyes. The fashion of the earth passes away; the heavenly alone abides. This eternal Jesus—may He not be relied on quite independently of the temporary appearances of the things of earth? For how many ages did He abide above—before He was manifested as Saviour! He may have removed again into the glory He had with the Father before the world was. But is He, therefore, non-existent—unable to help? We have seen his epiphany once, when He burst from the skies bringing salvation. Shall we not see it again? Sufferings meanwhile may come—persecutions, trials—above what flesh is capable of enduring. But as the grace of God has appeared already bringing salvation, shall we not be sure that, in due season, there shall be another epiphany of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ?
Perhaps it is too much to say that the exhortation of Paul bids Timothy to look forward to this second epiphany. But perhaps it is not too much to say that the use of the word here, consecrated elsewhere to our Lord's second coming, and the whole cast of the passage, can scarcely have failed to suggest by analogy this second coming to Timothy. And if so, the remembrance of it would add to the force of the exhortation to endurance. In any case, this vision of the eternal Christ forms a substantial element in Paul's great exhortation.
There is, however, a third element in it that we must be sure that we perceive before we can say that we have appreciated its whole force; it fills Timothy's heart with the sense of an eternal salvation. We have seen that it points him back into eternity for the inception of this salvation. There, we will not say merely it was prepared for, provided for; it was rather, prepared, provided. Before times eternal there was a purpose of God— His own sovereign purpose, independent of all works of man—in accordance with which we have in time been called. But there was also more— even a grace that had been given to us already in Christ Jesus, our eternal Lord. And it is in accordance with this grace also that we have been called with a holy calling and saved; in accordance with this grace, existent eternally, and only manifested in time, when Jesus burst on the astonished view of man and abolished death and
brought to light life and immortality. This salvation, thus manifested, therefore, is an eternal salvation. There was no time when it was not. Can there be any time when it shall cease to be?
What we must, above all, however, see to it that we do is to focus our eyes on what this eternal salvation thus manifested in time consists in. It consists in just the abolishment of death and the bringing to light of life and immortality. Ah, this death that Timothy may have been in danger of fearing—that is the real shadow. This salvation—so long hidden in the heavens—that is the reality. It may again seem to be hidden in the heavens; death—does it not loom before him as a hideous threat of the immediate future? Nay, the eternal salvation, revealed in Christ Jesus, is revealed in this very act—that He has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel. Surely if Paul can quicken and give life and force to this conception in Timothy's mind and heart, his encouragement of him to face persecution and death with him for the Gospel's sake is complete. Then, this threatened death is naught; the Saviour has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light.
In essence, shall we not say, then, that this appeal finds its deepest root in the assurance of a blessed immortality? That it unveils the life beyond the tomb? And puts the heart into us that was in Paul when he declared that he viewed with unconcern the wearing away of this earthly house because he knew he had a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens? It is because the salvation brought thus to Timothy is not only eternal in its inception but eternal in its endurance, that the appeal has such force. Paul is seeking to fill the heart and mind of his follower with the realization of an eternal salvation, and so to lead him to courage in facing temporal trials. Is it not our wisdom to apply his words to ourselves? Shall we, too, not endure as seeing the invisible?