Friday 19 June 2015

Commencement (2 Timothy 4:1-8)

Finishing well

“Never be discouraged. Never hold back. Give everything you’ve got.”
Denzel Washington, UPenn, 2011.

“I can’t wait to see everything you can achieve in the years ahead.”
Michelle Obama, King’s College Prep High School, Chicago, 2015.

“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
Steve Jobs, Stanford, 2005.

Words that prepare us; words that inspire us to face the challenges ahead; to pursue our true potential. That’s what we expect from commencement speeches by pop stars and prime ministers. Words that we can live by.

We get something quite different from the Apostle Paul. There is no podium. No crowds. Instead we get words written by a man condemned to die.

In his commencement speech, the Apostle Paul says:

I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.
2 Timothy 4:7

You see, Paul does not focus on how we start but on how we finish. His words help us to end well.

Three points for tonight. What, Why and How. As you are packing your suitcase one last time and trying to fit three years of stuff into thirty kilograms to bring on that flight home, you might pick up each item and ask: What is this thing? Why am I lugging it all the way home? And how is it going to of any use back in Malaysia/Singapore/Hong Kong?

Tonight, I offer you one extra thing to squeeze into your spiritual suitcase to lug home. It is Paul’s reminder to keep the faith. What we are doing tonight is asking these three questions - What is it? Why should we make space for it? And how will it make a difference in the days to come.

1. What

Firstly, what does it mean to end well; to keep the faith? It’s means living to speak the gospel. It means giving your life to speak the gospel.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word.
2 Timothy 4:1-2a

Here is a command for pastors. When a new minister is ordained, you read this text; you give this command: Preach the Word. At which point, most of us are thinking, “I’m glad I’m not a pastor!”

The reason why Paul begins so seriously with, “In the presence of God,” is because the guy he is speaking to is thinking, “I will never be a pastor like Paul.”

Timothy is less experienced and less respected than Paul. And yet, here at the end of the apostle’s life, Paul hands the reins over to this young man. Not to Peter. Not to Apollos nor Barnabas. But to young Timothy.

And what Paul does is remind him of the power and presence of God’s Word. “From infancy,” he says in Chapter 3, verse 15, “you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God”  - so that you - “may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Timothy, this Word is powerful! It is powerful to save you. It is powerful to prepare you. So, preach this Word.

All of his life, others have spoken God’s Word to him. Now, it’s Timothy’s turn to speak God’s Word to others.

What about you?

Three years of CF, of attending CG. On top of this, the crazy ones went for FOCUS, Friday afternoon talks, CICCU Central, student lunches; not to mention Houseparty and Word Alive.

What has God been doing these three years? He has been pouring his Word into you to save you and prepare you. Not to be the next Apostle Paul (or the next John Piper, or whoever!). But to be just as faithful as Paul; just as focussed on the gospel.

For some of us, it might mean full-time ministry - teaching God’s word full-on; full-time. But for all of us, it simply means being prepared. As Paul puts it, “in season and out of season.” God may not call you to be a pastor but I promise you that He will call you speak the gospel at a time that will be neither convenient nor comfortable.

And being prepared simply means saying, “Yes, Lord,” when that happens.

“In season and out of season.” It means, not restricting God’s word to Sunday mornings or Friday evenings at bible study. It means you are ready to respond with the gospel on the plane journey back home. Not putting it off (“Maybe another day”) or passing the buck (“I’ll get my pastor to talk to him”) But, at times, simply saying, “I will try.”

So firstly, what does it mean to keep the faith? It’s more than believing the gospel. It means living to speak the gospel. Taking every opportunity to speak about Jesus.

2. Why?

Secondly, why bother? Or, why should this concern you? Paul gives us a negative and a positive answer.

The negative is found in verse 3.

For the time will when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
2 Timothy 4:3

The number one question I get from students returning home is: Which church do I join? Answer: A church that loves Jesus and loves the bible. Not an easy thing but an obvious thing. It is obvious when a church loves Jesus. In the same way, it is obvious when a Christian loves Jesus and is constantly speaking about Christ. Find a church that loves Jesus and loves talking about Jesus.

But there is an even more important question that verse 3 tries to answer: What if this ideal church stops being ideal? What is their love starts to wane?

The church in Ephesus was planted by Paul and now pastored by Timothy. It was home to Apollos, a famous preacher (the Don Carson of his day). The Apostle John was there as well, another big name. And in the book of Revelation, the risen Christ addresses the church in Ephesus as the first of the seven churches in Chapters 2 and 3. In other words, this was a church with a reputation. “Come to my church, our pastor, Paul, wrote most of the bible!”

But things had changed. There was false teaching. Members were arguing and gossipping and fighting with one another. And what does Paul tell Timothy to do? Stay. “Stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer.” (1 Timothy 1:3)

Stay. Not jump ship. Not start another church down the road. But stay and remind them of the gospel. Stay and teach them to love the gospel.

That’s the negative reason. Things are going to get tough but that’s why you need to stay put. Maybe the reason why God has put you in that less than ideal church situation so that you can be loving when others are unloving, so that you can be faithful when others have been unfaithful. So that, in time they will learn to love Jesus again.

That is an important to keep in mind, if you are serving as a bible study leader, as a Sunday School teacher, as a pastor in your church: Don’t serve God for man’s applause. You will have to “tan koo koo,” (Hokkien: Wait Long Long).

“They will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” False teachers will always be popular. They will always be in demand. They will not thank you for preaching the gospel, Timothy. But keep on keeping on.

That’s the negative reason. But there is a positive, and that’s verse 8; what Paul calls “the crown of righteousness.”

Now, there is in store for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day - and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing.
2 Timothy 4:8

Paul is saying, there is another graduation, another degree that he is looking forward to. One that Jesus will award to him with honours. Not only to him, but to all who look forward to Jesus’ return.

Paul was a smart guy. Back in the day, he had the qualifications, the charisma to really make it in life; to be the top Pharisee in his community. Yet his uni friends would be looking at Paul right now, and saying, “What happened to that guy? He’s in prison. He has no money.”

“What a waste.”

Paul would answer with the words of Philippians 3:

But whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.
Philippians 3:7-8

Christ is my treasure. Now, when I have forsaken all other treasures - career and comfort. Yet there will come a day, when even my most critical opponents will not be able to deny: God is no one’s debtor. He will grant me the crown of righteousness. He will make all my sacrifices seem like a nothing.

Not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing. What are you living for? Live for Him. If Christ is King, he holds all the crowns. If Christ is Lord, his approval is the only one we need. Live for Him and for His glory alone.

3. How

Finally, how: How do we apply this when we back home in a new place, new job, new church? How do we keep the faith?

But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.
2 Timothy 4:5

Be steady. Get the job done. Not revolutionary. Not rocket science. Kinda boring. Keep calm and get the job done.

Now, Paul actually says this a couple of times in 2 Timothy. He says: The world around you is going to lose control but you need to stay in control. Everyone else will go crazy; but you? Keep calm.

We see this at the beginning of Chapter 3 where Paul says:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.
2 Timothy 3:1-4

Things will go from bad to worse.

While evil men and imposters will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.
2 Timothy 3:13

But as for you, Timothy…

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it.
2 Timothy 3:14

Paul compares and contrasts: What the world will do; and how Timothy should respond. The world will lose control, You, Timothy, must keep calm. So, there must be a difference. But what is this difference?

We tend to think, the difference is bad behaviour and good behaviour. In some senses, that is true. “People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, arrogant,” while Timothy is urged to pursue “righteousness, faith, love and peace” (2 Timothy 2:22). But that’s not the biggest difference. It’s not simply that they will do evil while you should try to do good.

No, the biggest difference is that they will move further and further away from the truth, but you must remain in the truth. You see, after Paul lists that long string of evil thoughts and actions at the beginning of Chapter 3 - without love, unforgiving, ungrateful, treacherous, slanderous, brutal and so on - he sums it up in in verse 5 with this description:

Having a form of godliness but denying its power.
2 Timothy 3:5

Despite all their evil thoughts and actions, they appear godly. They have a form of godliness. What do you call this? It is looking good while doing evil. In this day and age, we have become experts at looking good while getting away with all kinds of evil.

Furthermore, Paul describes them in verse 7, as:

Always learning, but never able to acknowledge the truth.
2 Timothy 3:7

They turn up for bible study but they have never turned to God in repentance. They come to CF. But they have never come to Jesus. It’s scary. Because Paul is saying, evil men don’t look evil. They might look quite good.

No, friends the biggest difference is not simply that they do evil and we need to do good things. The biggest difference is they deny the truth, they wander away from the truth (2 Timothy 2:17), they deny the truth (2 Timothy 3:7) and they oppose the truth (2 Timothy 3:8).

But you, Timothy, need to keep trusting in the truth of the gospel.

Last year, my bible study group did a Skype call to a brother in South Korea. He did his PhD and went home, got involved with his church and even started a new ministry among students on his campus. Everyone wanted to know, “What’s your secret?” and he was confused. Specifically, he was asked, “How are things different now that you have left Cambridge and gone home?” His honest answer was, “Nothing.”

He wasn’t being humble or dismissive. Rather, he was merely doing the very same things he did as a student in Cambridge. He went to bible study. He served in church. And now that he was back home, he continued doing the exact same things.

Paul says, “Continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of.” The gospel you have heard and put your trust in here in Cambridge is the same gospel you need to hold on to and keep trusting in back in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. It is the gospel that has saved you in Jesus. It is the gospel that has prepared you to serve Him wherever he leads you.

Some of you are not Christians and you have been joining us at CF and hearing this message again and again. And God has been repeating this same message again and again. Jesus really is the King. He died on the cross, taking all your sin upon himself. He rose so that you might have new life in Him. There are no hidden extras for you to find out. What you have never done is actually respond to this message you have heard again and again. Perhaps God is saying to you tonight, “Don’t put it off. What else do you need to know except what you have heard in the message of the gospel?” Jesus is Lord. I am sinful. Please forgive me, change me and give me new life.

Conclusion: Nostalgia and amnesia

The message is the same for the Christians here tonight. God has given us everything we need in the gospel to be faithful and to be holy - not to be happy and successful - but to be faithful to him and to live for his glory. Don’t leave the gospel behind. Make sure it is with you wherever you go in every season of your life.

I met a former CF-er just a couple of weeks ago at a baptism. It is a great encouragement to me personally to see a brother still continuing on trusting in Jesus, still continuing on serving Jesus, years after leaving Cambridge. He reminded me of a talk I had given once and I’d like to share the conclusion with you tonight.

It’s about nostalgia. The memories we make here in Cambridge are special and the moments are significant. We rightly want to hold on to them and treasure these memories we have shared with our brothers and sisters in CF.

Inevitably, many CF-er’s do come back to visit to relive those memories. They want to go punting. They want to visit their old church. They even want to see Henry Martyn’s picture again hanging at the back of the hall. And they say to me, “How good was it back in the day! Ten, fifteen years ago, we really heard God’s voice. Ten, fifteen years ago, we were on fire for Jesus!”

When I hear that - I know what they mean; they mean that God was so gracious in using the CF, using StAG and Eden, using the friends they made here to impact the gospel on their lives. Yet, a part of me goes, “Really? The last time you heard God’s voice truly and most clearly was ten, fifteen years ago?” Friends, God is the same God, here or in Malaysia or in Singapore and he speaks to us clearest in the message of his Son, whether it is preached here or in Malaysia or in Singapore. If you told me, after ten years, that the best sermon you ever heard was here in Cambridge, or even here in CF, it would break my heart.

Don’t let spiritual nostalgia turn into spiritual amnesia.

The Apostle Paul wants us not simply to start well but to finish well. To be able to one day say, with honesty and confidence, that we have fought the good fight, that we have finished the race. That we have kept the faith.

It is more than believing the gospel, it is living every day ready to speak the gospel to others.

It is motivated not by human reward - applause, money, respect - but by our heavenly Judge who will judge the living and the dead, who, one day will say to us, “Good and faithful servant.”

God has given us everything we need to be faithful and to be holy in this life for Jesus’ glory. Keep trusting in Jesus. And never stop speaking about Jesus for his glory and his kingdom.

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