“A First-Century Memory Verse”

Categories: M. W. Bassford, Sermons

One of the interesting features of modern translations is the formatting they use for the text.  The King James Bibles of 100 years ago set every portion of Scripture in verse-by-verse mini-paragraphs.  By contrast, more recent translations often employ poetic formatting, even in cases where most of the book is prose.

We find an example of this practice in 2 Timothy 2:11-13.  When we see this, our antennae should go up because the translators are telling us that something different is happening.  In this case, I think the translators are right.  This three-verse chunk uses a rigid parallel structure, which makes it extremely easy to memorize. 

My guess is that this snippet is not original to 2 Timothy.  Instead, I think it is an example of Christian oral teaching that predates the New Testament.  Early converts were taught this so they could carry around the essentials of the faith even though they didn’t have Bibles. 

Today, this is valuable to us for the same reason.  We may have Bibles in our pockets everywhere we go nowadays, but more important still is the word in our hearts.  This passage still is easy to memorize, and it offers four priceless spiritual reminders.  Tonight, then, let’s examine this first-century memory verse.

All four of these statements are in if-then form, and the first begins with “IF WE DIED WITH HIM”.  The best Biblical explanation of this appears in Romans 6:3-5.  There are other passages that talk about dying daily with Jesus, but 2 Timothy 2:11 refers to an event from the past.  The only death-and-life event like that in Scripture is baptism.

Notice, in fact, that Paul says that baptism is a death that leads to two different kinds of life.  The first is rising from the burial of baptism to walk in newness of life.  Romans 6:5, though, is talking about something different.  We already have been raised to walk in newness of life, but we will be raised in the likeness of His resurrection.

Thus, even though it never uses the word, 2 Timothy 2:11 affirms the necessity of baptism.  Unless we have died with Christ, we will not live with Christ.  Apart from baptism, we cannot enter eternal life. 

If you find yourself talking to someone who doesn’t believe that baptism is essential to salvation, ask them when they died with Christ.  The sinner’s prayer isn’t a death.  Neither is infant baptism.  Only the baptism of the Bible, the burial in water of the believer, makes the metaphor work.

Our second if is “IF WE ENDURE”.  We get a deeper appreciation of what this means from James 1:12.  James makes explicit an element that is implied in 2 Timothy—the endurance under discussion is endurance through trial.  This doesn’t mean merely that we keep showing up for services for 50 years.  It means that we remain faithful even when faithfulness is difficult.

In the first century, this particularly was about persecution, but for us today, this can be anything that humbles us, anytime when life isn’t going our way.  We’re suffering like the folks on the bottom instead of riding high like the folks on the top.  However, if we keep going, our circumstances will be profoundly reversed.  We will receive the crown of life, and we will spend eternity living like kings with Jesus. 

When I read this passage, I can’t help but be reminded of the hymnal Sacred Selections.  The editor of Sacred Selections, Ellis Crum, was death on premillennialism.  In his hymnal, he deleted every reference to reigning with Jesus because he thought it was premillennial.  However, as we see, the concept of reigning with Jesus is explicitly Scriptural, and it gives us hope in the darkest moments of our lives.

With our third if-then, we move from positive to negative with “IF WE DENY HIM”.  Here, of course, we must go to Matthew 10:32-33.  Sometimes, we use this passage to affirm the importance of confessing Christ as Lord as part of our initial salvation, but that’s not really what it’s about.  Jesus here isn’t talking about acknowledging that He is the Messiah before a friendly audience.  He’s talking about claiming Him as Lord before an audience that isn’t.

Again, this particularly is about reacting to persecution.  It was hard to make the good confession when imprisonment or death would result!  However, Paul offers a stern warning.  Those who deny Christ will be denied by Christ.

In fact, this was a burning issue in the second and third centuries.  What happened to Christians who denied Jesus to the Roman authorities and later repented?  Because of this verse, many argued that they could not be received back into fellowship and were doomed no matter what they did.

Today, we usually aren’t threatened with persecution, but there are times when we are tempted not to acknowledge Christ because of social awkwardness.  However, we must remember that our salvation depends on our willingness to lift up our Lord.  Only if we will share in His shame will we share in His glory.

Finally, this statement explores the consequences “IF WE ARE FAITHLESS”.  This statement reminds me of the warning in Hebrews 12:25.  In both of these verses, notice the “we”.  In 2 Timothy, the “we” has died with Christ.  In Hebrews 12, the “we” has come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, and all the blessings it contains. 

This warning is not for outsiders nor for sham Christians.  It is for those who genuinely have been saved and just as genuinely can fall away.  In the face of such faithlessness, God will be faithful, just as He was faithful in the time of the Old Testament.  He set before His people life and death, blessing and cursing.  When they rejected Him, they received death and cursing, just as He had warned them they would.

This has two applications.  The first is for our discussions with those who believe in eternal security, otherwise known as once-saved-always-saved.  It is entirely possible for Christians to be faithless, and as soon as we deny that, we open the door for the devil.

Second, we must acknowledge its application to us.  Every one of us, no matter how wise or mature, still can fall away.  Bit by bit, we can drift from serving the Lord to serving ourselves, and the consequences of doing so are disastrous!  Always, we must resolve to be faithful and cling ever more closely to Him.