Three Metaphors for Seminarians (and Others)
Paul’s last letter introduces an apropos theme for seminarians on the threshold of a new semester. And by seminarians I mean both students and teachers. (Technically I’m among the latter, but I still regard myself as among the former as well.) As a teacher, I train those who are themselves becoming teachers as well. So all of Paul’s counsel in 2 Timothy 2 applies to both sides of the lectern. Obviously the application is far broader—pastors, Sunday School teachers, missionaries, Bible study leaders, and even parents for that matter (Deut 6:6-7). But my immediate target audience is closer to home.
Seminarians need a lot of strength for a long haul—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. That strength comes ultimately from one source: be strong by means of the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 2:1). Why? What is at stake? Why are we doing this? Paul continues: the things you hear, commit to faithful ones who will, in turn, be able to teach others (2 Tim 2:2). That’s what I’m doing in the classroom, and that’s why the students are there as well.
Paul then paints three picturesque portraits in swift succession, with only the barest suggestive lines of application.
You’re a Soldier: Hang in There (2 Tim 2:3-4)
A bit colloquial, yes, but that’s the idea of “endure difficulty.” Paul’s first point is that you never face adversity alone. The verb sugkakopatheo means to suffer adversity along with others. “An army of one” sounds cool for recruiting, but the survival odds of an army of one are roughly equivalent to that of an ice cube in the Saharan sun. You’re not an army of one. You’re not in battle alone. Many have faced the same adversities before you; many will be suffering along with you this year. It may not be much comfort if the boat you’re in with a dozen other people seems like it’s about to sink—unless Jesus is in the boat with you. (Read Mark 4.) Just remember, believers are engaged in a warfare not primarily against people or even error, but against demonic forces (Eph 6:10-12). So, Paul says, keep yourself unentangled, undistracted, focused, devoted to your calling to prepare. Not to be known as a great soldier or a hero, but to hear “Well done!” from the One who recruited you as his soldier.
You’re an Athlete: Compete by the Rules (2 Tim 2:5)
This one is startling, once you pause long enough to get past your familiarity with the verse. We’re talking about sports here—running, boxing, throwing, jumping, lifting. I would expect something like, compete hard! Give it all you’ve got! Strain every nerve! Never quit! But … keep the rules? What are you, Paul, a legalist?! Call it what you will, the Spirit of God directs Paul to make this point: you’re like an athlete competing for the prize, so make sure you abide by the rules so that you’re not disqualified by the Judge. Athletes who cheat, cut corners, ignore the rules of the game, disregard God’s standards of behavior—either to get ahead or because they think they can get away with it—might “win”; but they won’t be “crowned.” Now there’s an apostolic principle to ponder!
You’re a Farmer: Feed Yourself First (2 Tim 2:6)
If you’ve ever flown, you’ve heard the attendant’s instructions: “in the unlikely event of a change in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from a panel above you. Please secure your own oxygen mask before attempting to assist others.” Selfish? Not really. Ignoring that instruction is not selfless, it’s stupid; you won’t do anyone any good if you’re reeling from oxygen deprivation yourself. Paul’s point in this picture is not merely the farmer’s privilege of partaking of his own crops, but the farmer’s necessity (dei) of feeding himself first. A farmer who grows all his food only for others will starve to death out in his own fields. You have to feed yourself first on the truth you harvest if you’re going to feed it effectively (and unhypocritically) to others (cf. 1 Tim 4:15-16).
Now you might be thinking, how about being more specific? What about some application? What kind of “adversity” do you have in mind in that soldier analogy, prof?And just what do you mean by “keeping the rules”? The point isn’t what I mean by it. Paul doesn’t even say what he means by it.
He throws out the images with just enough detail to start moving the mind in a specific direction, and then tells Timothy (and you) to think about it (2 Tim 2:7). Ponder those images for yourself, find ways to implement them in your own situation. Work out for yourself what the Spirit of God had in mind when he directed Paul to those vivid analogies and to those very pointed, suggestive lines of application.
Take some time to think them over, talk to God about them, and the Lord will give you insight into what he means for you to do with them. But do something with them; you must, if you intend to be one of those “faithful ones” Paul is addressing and describing.