Saturday, June 2, 2012

Contentment & Competition (part 2 of 2)

As we continue to consider the talk of riches and the desire to obtain them, substituting the love of money for the love of neighbor, we can go on to hear Paul say that if you must engage in competition, “Compete well for the faith and lay hold of that eternal life you were called for and made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (6:12).  It is when these words are heard as part of a call to be a counter-cultural witness, that surely they are better understood.  Paul takes no issue with those that possess wealth, nor does he desire Timothy or other believers to look down upon them as part of the cosmic role reversal that takes place as the church rightly images out the tenets of its Lord.  Rather, as we should expect from Paul, he desires that encouragement and edification be the order of the day, with self-sacrifice and preferential treatment coming to the fore as the practice of love. 

We can hear that expectant tone when we travel a few lines further in the text and hear “Command those who are rich in this world’s goods not to be haughty or to set their hope on riches, which are uncertain” (6:17a).  Why?  “For we have brought nothing into this world and so we cannot take a single thing out either.”  Rather, they are to set their hope “on God who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment” (6:17b).  Yes, it is God that should be looked upon as the ultimate patron, provide all things (not Caesar).  For this reason, and to their own benefit, “Tell them to do good, to be rich in good deeds” which are works of public benefaction, “to be generous givers, sharing with others.  In this way they will save up a treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the future and so lay hold of what is truly life” (6:18-19).  They will lay hold of what is truly life, rather than the fleeting and fickle notion of public honor, which is normally the measure of a man, as he goes about providing a firm foundation for himself and his family, that his honor may go on and on.  This pales in comparison to that which honors Jesus.

As we conclude this study, we do well to consider the substantial counter cultural elements in Paul’s letter to Timothy.  Paul has instructed Timothy (and by extension the household congregations in which Timothy has a hand) in an engagement that stands against the prevailing culture, doing so for the purpose of transformation spurred by the witness of service and sacrifice.  Understanding this, we rightly marvel at the subtle genius of the cosmos encompassing, restorative and often paradoxical plans of the God of creation.  We are reminded that while yes, we are commanded to come out and be separate, that separation is only a portion of the preparation for a full engagement with this creation that groans for the revelation of the sons of God and the re-creation heralded by that revelation. 

Considering the cultural engagement part of the universal penetration of the kingdom of God (as the realm of God’s existence overlaps with the realm of human existence whenever Jesus is proclaimed as Lord in both word, and equally importantly, in deed), as part of our look at these words to Timothy, we notice a counter-imperialism.  We must see the apostle taking up the language reserved for and applied to the Caesar, and appropriating it to the true Emperor of the eternal empire of the Creator God.  The conclusion of Paul’s letter circles back to a counter-imperialism first put on display early in the letter.  This is foundational to a counter-cultural movement, as governments, through their deity-aspirant brokers of power, almost invariably attempt to shape the culture around themselves, desiring to orient the lives of their citizens towards the needs of the state (creating a patron/client system in which the government, or a single entity, becomes all in all as the locus of power). 

If we were to look back to the first chapter, we would hear Paul refer to Christ Jesus as the one who strengthens and saves, while exulting in Him as “the eternal king, immortal, invisible, the only God,” who was deserving of honor and glory forever.  This was how the worshipers of Caesar (and of Rome) spoke of the one that say they saw as the savior of the world.  Throughout the letter, and right up to its end, as he writes about contentment and competition, Paul does not let Timothy forget that the first and foremost claim of the church is the universal Lordship of Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Messiah, whose sovereign rule encompasses all kings and all kingdoms; and that this rule is demonstrated by the compassionate, kingdom of God affirming activities of those that acknowledge themselves to be the body of Christ (His hands and feet).  To accomplish this reminder, Paul builds on his directive of keeping away, pursuing, competing, and confessing, inching towards the close of his letter (though the instructions concerning the rich will intervene between these words and the final close) in much the same way that he basically began, with a Caesar parodying doxology. 

He writes, and we let the words echo in solemn contemplation of our charge: “I charge you before God who gives life to all things and Christ Jesus who made his good confession before Pontius Pilate, to obey this command without fault or failure until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ---whose appearing the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, will reveal at the right time” (6:13-14).  Paul makes it clear just who it is that truly rules the world, contrary to the claim of the stewards of Rome’s far-flung but ultimately miniscule empire, adding “He alone possesses immortality and lives in unapproachable light, whom no human has ever seen or is able to see.  To Him be honor and eternal power!  Amen” (6:16).       

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