Fan into flame (2 Timothy 1:6-8)

Continuing in 2 Timothy, we’ve made it past the opening thanksgiving, in which Paul urges Timothy to live up to Paul’s example, and to his own spiritual heritage. Today, we get what is probably the theme statement of this letter:

2 Timothy 1:6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. 

Paul’s example and Timothy’s family heritage (vv3-5) are the reason Paul gives for his reminder to Timothy. (Although it’s phrased like a gentle “reminder,” in this kind of letter from a superior it functions as a command.) And his instruction is to fan into flame the gift of God. But what does this mean?

Years ago, I lived in a house with a log fire. But most of the time (and given my level of practical scouting skills) I’d just turn the electric heating on – because log fires require constant work to keep them going! Paul uses the metaphor of a fire, telling Timothy to fan into flame, or “rekindle” (NRSV) the fire. It doesn’t mean Timothy’s fire had gone out. In the ancient world, fires were often kept smouldering, then fanned back into life when the flame was needed. And the Greek tense is continuous (“keep fanning into flame”), implying ongoing effort, rather than a one-off hit of Jiffy firelighters. This seems to be a call to enduring effort over time, rather than a quick hit of enthusiasm.

And the fire he’s to be fanning is the gift of God which Timothy received – the spiritual gifts of teaching and leadership given when he was set apart for his calling. Live up to your calling! is the message here.

To think about: What’s your calling in God’s service? What gifts has he given you? Are you tending the fire, so to speak, or are the embers just smouldering?

Paul then gives the main reason for this kind of effort-filled endurance:

2 Timothy 1:7 For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. 

I’m not a huge fan of the translation here in verse 7. I think the NRSV is more accurate: “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” This translation is as ambiguous as the Greek: are we talking about the Holy Spirit here, or simply a “disposition” – which is how Paul uses it in e.g. Romans 8:15 (“a spirit of slavery”), Romans 11:8 (“a spirit of stupor”), and Gal 6:1 (“a spirit of gentleness”). Although the downside is that people can take this language to mean that there are actual evil spirits behind any of these negatives (e.g. a “spirit of cowardice” which needs to be exorcised by following the steps found in the latest book on deliverance ministry available at your local Christian book store.)

At any rate, the point is: God has given us power, love, and self-discipline (which, of course, comes through the Holy Spirit anyway). And this should be more than enough to overcome any disposition towards timidity or cowardice!

But what would be the cause of such timidity or cowardice? Look at the next verse:

2 Timothy 1:8 So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.

A young boy is walking home from school. A a car pulls up next to him and the driver says “if you get in, I’ll give you a lolly.” The boy ignores him and keeps walking. The car follows him and the driver says, “how about a lolly and I’ll take you to McDonald’s, if you get in the car.” Still the boy ignores him. The driver starts getting more annoyed and says “OK, a whole bag of lollies, all the McDonald’s you can eat for a week, and a new iPhone, if you’d just get in the car!” The boy stops, looks exasperated at the driver, and says, “Dad, it was your decision to get the Volvo, now you’ve just got to live with the consequences.”

My first car was a 1974 Volvo. Not the easiest thing to deal with: I couldn’t be out driving after 11pm on the weekend without getting random abuse from complete strangers. Being a Volvo driver can be a shameful thing.

So, too, is standing up and being counted for the gospel* – being associated with those who bear the name of Jesus. And this was particularly acute for Timothy, since Paul was summoning him to Rome. There would have been the temptation to be ashamed of Paul’s imprisonment – since being in gaol was considered shameful, just as it is today. (In the first chapter of Philippians, Paul seems to be dealing with this potential among his readers – rehabilitating being imprisoned for the gospel as honourable, and a great evangelism opportunity!) It would have been safer and simpler for Timothy to avoid being associated with Paul in any way, let alone visit him in prison!

But Paul urges him to not be ashamed – he’s the Lord’s prisoner (not Rome’s!). God is in control. And he should join with Paul – iMitating his suffering as a Model.

To think about

Do we distance ourselves from those who suffer today for the gospel? (Mostly in our context it’s the suffering of one’s reputation, not physical suffering. But that’s a significant factor in Paul’s suffering, too, in a society which valued personal honour above wealth, health, and life itself.)

If so, why? Do we do this out of timidity – or are there other reasons?

Timid Timothy?

So was Timothy actually being timid, or even “disloyal.” Had the fire almost gone out, and was Paul having to write to him to get him to “man up” (in this context, “man of God up”) and do what he was called to do? The “timid Timothy” interpretation has more recently been called into question. We’ll look at that tomorrow.

* For my preaching students: yes, this breaks the rule that there shouldn’t be a big mismatch between the seriousness of the illustration and the seriousness of the point being made. But hey, I like the joke.

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