Ambiguous Truth for the Perhaps of Life
Proverbs are generally true. But, not always true in every case and in every moment.
Such Wisdom Literature isn’t limited to the book of Proverbs; we find it in the New Testament, too. Paul writes proverbially in his final letter to Timothy. Like Proverbs, it is a book written from (spiritual) father to son.2 “You then my son…” (2 Tim 2:1)
He calls for strength in the grace that is in Christ Jesus and in a repeated rallying cry to be prepared to suffer, he offers three proverbs to chew over. Reflect on them, Timothy, and the Lord will give you understanding. Understanding can be a grace-gift that follows some chewing on the words.
These proverbs of Paul come as a three:
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. (2 Timothy 2:4-6)
Three images that get some wary. Is this an anti-grace lesson in rule-keeping to win? Hardly - the previous verses are all about grace for a start! No, they’re generally true proverbial sayings that all make the same basic point with some nuance.
• Generally, if you turn your back on civilian pleasures you’ll please your enlisting officer in the army.
• Generally, if you keep the rules you may get to win in your sport.
• Generally, if you get up early and work hard on your land you’ll reap a harvest.
There are exceptions to each of these but proverbially speaking they are true. Similarly the ‘promise’ that the godly get persecuted is more proverb than a promise. Not all godly people get opposed, and not all the time, and not all favour indicates ungodliness… Perhaps.
Paul’s letter to his spiritual son is full of wisdom talk. Timothy is to be wise by contrast to fools who mimic the faith and appear godly. The Scriptures “enwisen him for salvation through faith in Christ.” Knocking the heart into shape, turning us from ourselves to Christ.
And so do these three proverbs in 2 Timothy 2.
• Die to your own pursuits and you’ll live.
• Die to your freedom and you can win.
• Die to your sleep and you can harvest.
Death followed by life. As he goes on to say “I endure… for glory” and “If we die with him, we will also reign with him” and “if we endure with him we will reign with him…”
It’s about union with Christ - if you’re in the plane you’ll get where the plane gets to.3 As for the King, so for his people.
For David and Jesus and Paul and Timothy (and us) the story is one of suffering followed by a crown. Death followed by resurrection.
In view of the resurrection of Jesus we live in death for life in his resurrection. Not as fools, not saying that our “resurrection has already happened.” That sets gangrenous expectations for life. Such an over-realised discipleship can’t handle sin or suffering.
Chewing on wisdom, being led by the Scriptures to faith in Christ, helps us not to be discouraged by the presence of sin or suffering in our lives… nor to be overly victorious in the sunnier seasons.
Christian life is, as Michael Bird observes, both cruciformity and anastasisity. The cross and the crown. This and that, and mostly this but sometimes that.
Having a Proverb in your mouth to chew on helps you in the ambiguity and “perhaps”4 of ordinary life.
1) 2 Timothy 2:26
2) See The New Testament use of the Old Testament (GK Beale) for the observations of allusions to Proverbs in 2 Timothy 2.
3) See, One Forever (Rory Shiner) for more on this.
4) 2 Timothy 2:25