Good Soldiering

“Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.”

– 2 Timothy 2:3-7

To be a good soldier is to suffer with others. Getting “entangled in civilian pursuits” is to avoid suffering with others. Paul languishes in prison (2:9) and is persecuted by mobs in various cities (3:11), and those he should be able to trust to be by him leave him behind (4:10)  and he is deserted when facing civil judgment (4:16). Paul is telling Timothy to be a good soldier by not seeking the city’s approval in city pursuits, but by suffering with Paul the city’s reproach.

The crown is reserved for those who have finished the race (4:6-8) and Paul is noting that the crown goes to those who play by God’s rules. We think sometimes that “running so as to win” is referring to some “spiritual discipline”. I don’t think that is terribly wrong, but the specific point that Paul is making here is that of suffering with him. To play by God’s rules is to be suffering for His Kingdom. Christ suffered and was then crowned with glory and honor and immortality, so we must suffer with Him if we are to be so crowned. The race we run is the via dolorosa. The rules are God’s, and He has ordained that it was “fitting that He, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”

The hard-working, long-suffering farmer receives the first of the crop. Paul and Timothy’s generation were God’s first-fruits of the harvest. The worker of God’s field should suffer for the sake of that field that he might share in the first of his harvest. If he pours himself out for the sake of the crop then he should reap what he sowed in God’s world. This is the same Paul that is getting “poured out as a drink offering”, “filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ for the sake of the body”. He is saying that Timothy (and through Timothy, all believers in their various ministries in the church) should himself share in these sufferings if he desires the fruits of God’s harvest.

What does this mean to you and me?

When people suffer around you, especially persecution, do not let yourself get entangled with your reputation, but suffer with them. To suffer in this sense might be to “bear reproach” with them. We should be encouraged, quite literally be courageous, when a brother is brought under some form of shame. Sometimes this could be to share a meal with a tax collector, befriend the (deserved or not) unfriendly, or publicly share someone else’s public ridicule or shame. If you think such opportunities are rare, then you aren’t any different from me, but I challenge you to think on that more and consider the various opportunities in one day where your fear of being “misunderstood” outmaneuvers your soldierly attitude for the Kingdom. We fight this fight by God’s rules or there is no progress. You aren’t growing in your faith because you are “practicing the spiritual disciplines”. You grow when God tests you and you persevere. Paul is teaching us here that the test doesn’t have to be our own, and therefore our growth is not limited to our personal experience, as you can suffer with others. Not only can your solidarity with your brothers and sisters in Christ help you grow, but it is the task of suffering with others that is the sum of what it means to be a good soldier of Christ. The creational and redemptive grain of the universe is such that perfection is through suffering for or with others is the means by which God crowns us with His favor. The farmer relies on God’s faithfulness to the hard-working when he pours himself out for his crops and we should be encouraged that the effort that we exert in the flesh to die to ourselves for others’ sake will be ultimately beneficial, as we will taste the fruits of our labors in the Spirit, if they by for the sake of His body.

    • Peter
    • August 21st, 2012

    “The race we run is the via dolorosa” – very poignant. I have been puzzling over those saying about which Paul says “think over what I say.” And I think your application has some merit to it. I think the passage can have application to suffering persecution in general, but I think also that there might be a specific situation going on here that is worth investigating. I appearsthat the “sharing in suffering” would refer back to 2 Timothy 1:8, to share not in suffering in general, primarily, but in Paul’s specific situation as a pastor of the church suffering for the gospel both as a prisoner on trial in Rome and in light of false teachers who oppose both Paul and his message.
    There is a general principle that can be derived no doubt. Especially in light of 2 Timothy 3 where we find that all who desire a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted in the fierce times of the last days (do we agree on that time period?), and therefore all Christians will share in suffering. But what do you think? Is “share in suffering” referring first to a specific situation? Am I splitting hairs?

    Thank you for your thoughts, as always.

  1. Hello Peter,

    I agree that the context to Timothy is exactly what you said, and that is why I emphasize suffering as persecution or societal reproach/shame. Part of, maybe the “worst” part of the suffering is the “shame” of being “outside of the gates” with Jesus; cast out of the synagogues, meeting in catacombs, etc. Of course, I don’t believe that every generation will have to deal with civil persecution or religious persecution, and so I would apply these verses to hardship or suffering more generally in those cases.

    I wanted to make sure that my more “exegetical” section was clear about the actual meaning in light of Paul’s context, but the application had to be derived from that. And I realize now that I didn’t make absolutely clear that the suffering we share with others would be not just “neighbors” but brothers and sisters in Christ, who have put themselves or been placed in positions of public shame (public need not be a huge stage, but can refer to a smal unit of society e.g. a group of friends, etc.)

    Thank you for your thoughts Peter!

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