In his last letter, the letter of 2 Timothy, the apostle Paul is writing to his beloved disciple Timothy his last words about life and ministry. Every verse of this epistle feels the weight of Paul’s urgency and sincerity. There are no words to waste and there is no time to lose. “The executioner awaits, so consider what I say.”
Perhaps the most prominent theme in this letter is the theme of standing firm in the face of opposition and suffering. Paul wants there to be no doubt in Timothy’s mind that, as he presses on in the gospel ministry, there will be pain involved. “Join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God (2 Timothy 1:8).” Paul repeatedly calls Timothy, and by obvious implication, calls all believers to suffer for the cause of the gospel. Toward the end of the main exhortations of the epistle, Paul makes a challenging statement:
Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. – 3:12
I want to think about this verse for a moment. I am troubled by this verse, not because it talks about persecution, but because it requires persecution. Paul does not give a warning or admonition that applies only to pastors in hostile countries. He does not declare a fact that only affects a handful of missionaries who sail in uncharted gospel waters. Instead, Paul makes a statement that applies to ALL people in a particular group. “Those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus” is the group he has in mind. That includes me, and I suspect it includes you. Now comes the troubling part. All people in that group will be persecuted. But I am not being persecuted. Why am I not being persecuted?
One possible reason that I am not being persecuted is that I think I meet the conditions, when in fact I do not. That is, I think I live godly in Christ Jesus, but I am really kidding myself. I am just pretending. I am playing games. I do not believe that to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21). I am not presenting my body as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). I am not striving to be holy, as God is holy (1 Peter 1:16). I should be nervous if everyone in my spheres of influence, including pagans and the overtly ungodly, speak well of me and are comfortable hanging around with me. If I am not living godly in Christ Jesus, then I will not be persecuted. Satan does not waste his ammunition. Examine yourself (2 Cor. 13:5)! Make an honest assessment and repent if you are being lukewarm or timid or are shrinking back. Ask the Lord to give your faith a fire that merits persecution.
Another possibility is that I am misunderstanding persecution. It could be that I am experiencing persecution, but I do not notice it because my definition of persecution is inaccurate. For example, if I consider only martyrdom or imprisonment to qualify as persecution, then I will miss the more subtle forms of persecution like social rejection, job discrimination, ridicule, being shunned or avoided by others, and things like these. Be alert for more subtle kinds of persecution.
There is a third possibility, and that is that Paul is speaking in hyperbole. What I mean is that Paul is using the word all in the sense that every single disciple of Christ is willing to accept persecution as part of the price to follow Christ. We must accept that being persecuted is normal for the Christian and that others will reject me and hate me solely because I am a Christian.
“Persecution is one of the marks of a converted man.” – J. C. Ryle
SDG rmb 1/4/2021