Short, interpretively challenging, or both
One of the more interesting aspects of my life right now is leading a small community group for our church. Or, well, not so small – though attendance varies week to week according to people’s life circumstances, we have close to 20 regulars. We’ve been working through what I originally called “The Epistles Less Traveled,” getting our heads and hearts around portions of the New Testament most believers just don’t spend much time on. Our journey so far has taken us on an interesting trip.
- 2 Timothy (everyone reads the first letter Paul wrote to Timothy)
- Philemon (this one involves a slave, right?)
- 2 Peter (frankly, I should have included the first one!)
- 2 John (this one involves some lady and her kids)
I’m always amazed by just how much an author can pack into a short space. You want an interesting study? Go through all the epistles and just pull apart the greetings and farewells the various authors offer. The theological depth of these short sections is often breathtaking. (I spent a substantial part of my time preparing for our discussion of 2 John on those first three verses.) Likewise, the prayers scattered throughout make for interesting reading, as well as good models for us. Or, to take a cue from one of tonight’s discussion points in 2 John, what brings the author joy?
One of the real joys of this journey is seeing how consistent the authors of the New Testament really were: Peter and Paul and John were strikingly different men with unmistakably different personalities and equally disparate styles in their writing. Yet the same passions motivated them – profound love of God, care for his people, and a radical commitment to making Christ known and worshipped throughout the world.
Even remarkably brief books like Philemon or 2 John can cover enormous territory, and with more profundity than one would initially suggest. It can be easy to overlook the treasures we have in these books because they are short, interpretively challenging, or both (2 Peter, I’m looking at you). Paul’s deeply personal missive to Timothy, with its reflections on suffering and its call to endurance, is a powerful picture of the power of the gospel to empower real Christian living. Not Christian living of the bookstore variety with its feel-good platitudes and secrets to being a better husband/wife/child/banker/weather balloon maker. Christian living that will endure abandonment, imprisonment, and torture to make Christ known. Nor is this theme restricted to Paul; Peter’s letters bear the same stamp of faith branded into the skin with suffering.
I wonder if we don’t skip over some of these letters not only because of their size or “obscurity” but also because they’re less obviously peppy than our favorites. Philippians has some suffering in view, but it’s far more blatantly encouraging than 2 Timothy. Joy in the Lord is an easier theme to apprehend than Paul’s piercing proclamation that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). It’s certainly more fun to read about.
Nor do we do particularly well with imprecations or descriptions of judgments. Yet, as our small group has discussed, few things are more hopeful or helpful in the face of suffering than the assurance that things will not remain as they are forever. I suspect our brothers and sisters facing persecution value 2 Peter’s description of the judgment awaiting persecutors and false teachers far more than we comfortable westerners.
Too, these books all spend quite a bit of time on false teachers, persecutors, and unbelievers. Given the prevalence of false teachers in the American church, I wish we took all of the apostles’ warnings against deceivers more seriously. Even 2 John, all of 13 brief verses long, dedicates nearly half its text to a caution against heretics. This is not a popular or easy topic; we would all much rather hear another lesson on better marriages than a call to resist false teachers.
Still less are we inclined to like messages on standing fast lest we lose our reward or, worse, prove our faith was never true to begin. Try getting through 2 Peter with a comfortably cozy view of salvation of assurance intact. If you succeed, you’re not paying attention. We have assurance, but it’s a good deal less cozy than comfortable Christians might like. Apostasy and wolves in our midst, or another encouragement to handle your finances in a God-honoring way – which would most of us prefer?
And just for the record, I think following Christ does fill even weather balloon construction with greater glory and purpose, and we should handle our finances in a God-honoring way. Yet I believe God has called us to more and deeper than this. He has called us to self-sacrificial lives that put Christ and his glory at the center – lives that say “Christ is my treasure,” not “Christ is my means to other treasures.” The cost will be high. Again, Paul says it plain: everyone who desires to follow Christ will suffer. But Peter reminds us that our suffering will end, and that the God of justice will reign.
This last point is the one that has encouraged me – and, I think, our community group – most. Evangelicals spend precious little time on eschatology, and most of it focused on minutiae (the time and details of the Tribulation and the Rapture being the main ones, especially in the dispensationalist strain of premillennialism). The big picture, though? We miss that, and to our great detriment. We forget that the point of all the eschatological passages in Scripture is Christ’s final reign over death and evil.
We are waiting, eagerly and hopefully, for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13). And we wait with confidence because God has promised and he never lies; he always fulfills his word.