“Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier. And also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules. The hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops. Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.”
These verses come immediately after Paul’s preamble in vv. 1-2 where he made Timothy’s duty abundantly clear. As an individual, Timothy must continue to rest in the strength that is found only in Christ by His grace (v. 1). Any attempt to stand against the coming tide must rest in Christ alone or else Timothy will be pulled under. As a leader and apostolic representative to the Ephesian churches, Timothy must make it his mission to train up men (v. 2). The great commission is on full display here as Paul commands Timothy to entrust faithful men with the same trust that was deposited to him. Hadn’t Paul done this very thing with Timothy? It is now Timothy’s turn to pass the baton.
The following verses dictate and direct the necessary attitude which Timothy must adopt. If he is to stand unashamed of Paul and the gospel of Christ Jesus, then his proactive duty is clear. But this duty must be undergirded with a proactive attitude and this attitude involves suffering. Because suffering is both necessary and unavoidable, Paul reveals three facts about suffering so that Timothy will be well equipped to adopt a righteous attitude and outlook as he joins in Paul’s suffering.
Suffering is Unavoidable (v. 3)
“Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
The command to suffer hardship with me should grab our attention. This is the exact same command (συγκακοπάθησον) found in 1:8. By way of reminder, this compound word is a command for Timothy to join suffering evil. This is the command that drives the rest of these verses.
To be a Christian is to knowingly enter into suffering. There are a variety of angles we could take to prove this statement, but they all lead to the same conclusion: Christian suffering is unavoidable. Scripture is so clear on this.
By way of implication, and argument from the greater to the lesser: “It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household!” (Matt. 10:25).
By way of considering the reality of the call: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’” (Luke 14:27-30).
By way of plainly stating the difficulties in store: “Do not think that I came to 1bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to SET A MAN AGAINST HIS FATHER, AND A DAUGHTER AGAINST HER MOTHER, AND A DAUGHTER-IN-LAW AGAINST HER MOTHER-IN-LAW; and A MAN’S ENEMIES WILL BE THE MEMBERS OF HIS HOUSEHOLD. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it” (Matt. 10:34-39).
These are all statements that Jesus made concerning those who would follow Him. He made no empty promises of glory and riches without pain and suffering. He was no crafty recruiter who failed to mention all of the difficulties involved with a life in submission to Him. He laid it all out on the table. To be a Christian demands that we expect unavoidable suffering. But we anticipate this with honor.
Paul commands Timothy to join in suffering as if he were a good soldier or a noble soldier (καλός) of Christ Jesus. A soldier knows (or at least he should know) what he is getting into. A soldier knows whom he serves and knows the likelihood of difficulties that will hinder his service. It is impossible to serve as a soldier with honor, nobility, and distinction without encountering suffering and difficulty. The same is true of our service to Christ Jesus. This is a call for Timothy to expect and anticipate the unavoidable, and to do so with honor and distinction as befitting his service to Christ.
Suffering is Necessary (vv. 4-6)
“No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier. And also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules. The hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops.”
Paul builds on the picture of soldier and includes two other metaphors to advance his argument for Timothy to join in suffering. In each of these pictures there is an inherent idea of suffering and difficulty, but there is also an element of blessing and reward.
Submit for Christ’s glory (v. 4) – With the opening words, no soldier, Paul turns the picture into a general statement. The primary emphasis is still on Timothy as a noble and honorable soldier of Christ Jesus, but the picture is that of any and all soldiers. The truth about to be presented is immediately applicable to any and every Christian.
Paul’s statement is straight forward, to the point, and impossible to misunderstand: soldiers don’t engage in civilian pursuits. Soldiers leave behind their jobs, homes, and families when they enlist. They are no longer allowed the luxury of pursuing private enterprise or a separate career and are even separated from the families more often than not. Soldiers spend their time training or fighting with blessed little time in between. This is true of professional soldiers from ancient times right up to our modern warriors. The point is simple: A soldier can afford zero distraction and is wholly devoted to the task at hand.
The implication should also be simple: Christians can afford zero distraction and must be wholly devoted to the task at hand. This does not mean that Christians disengage from life or that we must live in communes or as monks. Yet it most certainly means that we flee from anything and everything that gets in the way of our duty. What is this duty? To make disciples (v. 2).
This picture mainly emphasizes the suffering and difficulty associated with the devoted lifestyle of a noble soldier, but there is blessing and reward in here as well. What is the chief motivating factor for the soldier? The pleasure of his superior. If pleasing Jesus Christ is not enough motivation for devotion, then I urge the reader to stop here. Nothing else will motivate a true believer more than knowing that his King will one day say, “well done.”
An attitude that embraces suffering as a necessity will submit to the righteous rule of Christ without hesitation or reservation and seek to please Him and Him alone.
Persevere for Christ’s Promise (v. 5) – This second picture is also plainly spoken but is more balanced than the first. The suffering of an athlete is necessary if he is to be competitive. Paul again opens this analogy to any and all Christians when he says, if anyone competes…
What makes this picture a little different is the perfect balance between the suffering and the reward. To be a professional athlete is to suffer physically every day. He must push himself to bring his body into condition fit for competition. But that is always done with the prize in mind, and in this case the crown of victory.
The crown mentioned here (στέφανος) refers to the laurel wreath given to the winner in any of the numerous Greek games. It is a reward for victory rather than a sign of authority (διάδημα). There is no way that an athlete will ever be crowned a victor unless he competes lawfully, or according to the rules. If he gives up halfway in the race or starts too early, or goes off course, he will be disqualified and never stand a chance of receiving this crown.
The reward for the Christian is extended from our Savior’s pleasure to a crown of victory that accompanies the words, well done My good and faithful slave. But this will never happen unless we subject ourselves to the rigors of training and the close adherence of God’s holy laws. This reward awaits our completion of the course. But what about our time in service now? Is there reward in this life?
Labor for Christ’s Reward (v. 6) – Here the balance has been tilted in the other direction. The soldier is focused primarily upon the suffering that is associated with soldiering while only implying a reward. The athlete is a balanced view of present suffering and future reward. Here, the farmer is focused on current reward while only implying the current suffering involved in his task.
The farmer’s suffering is implied in the way he is introduced, as a hard-working farmer. The verbal root (κοπιάω) speaks of work or effort until the point of exhaustion. If the farmer labors hard, it is because he knows that he will be first to receive his share of the crops. No one gets to cut in front of the man who labored to produce the fruit. His reward is in keeping with his toil and is a present reality.
To Timothy, this refers to the fruit of his toil. Just as in agriculture, it should be common knowledge that ministry is tiring, exhausting, all-consuming work. Calling in sick is never an option. Postponing the work is inconceivable. No matter what, the sheep must be fed. Yet the minister of the word has tremendous blessing and reward that only he enjoys. In his studies, it is he who is the first to taste the fruit of God’s Word. In his counseling, it is he who is first to see the fruit of the Spirit alive and active in the lives of the sheep. In his prayers, it is he who sees the hand of the Almighty move through the body of believers. This is his reward and his alone because it is he who toils tirelessly.
Suffering is Possible (v. 7)
“Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.”
Paul concludes this part of the argument by calling Timothy to consider or give careful thought to all that he has just said. The idea is not that Paul’s metaphors are complicated or hard to understand; far from it. They could not be more simple or clear. The point is that Timothy must carefully consider how these obvious truths implicate him. Is he suffering as a good soldier would? Is his goal to please Christ? Does he suffer with an eye on his final prize? Is he partaking of the fruits of his labors and being nourished by them? Take some time and apply these truths to yourself, Timothy.
Yet Paul encourages Timothy by assuring him that the Lord will most certainly give to him the necessary understanding in all that Paul as said. Again, the point is not that special revelation is necessary for Timothy to grasp the basic pictures here. The point is that God will most graciously give Timothy the necessary spiritual insight to apply these truths to himself and his ministry.
Suffering comes with the territory of being a Christian. To desire Christ in this life apart from suffering is like wanting to learn scuba diving without ever getting wet. It ain’t going to happen. But more than being an unpleasant and unavoidable aspect of Christianity, suffering is necessary. Through our suffering we can please our King, endure to our future prize, and enjoy the fruits of our labors now. But more than that, we suffer knowing that we can do so with understanding. We do not suffer needlessly, and we are confident that the Lord will fill in the gaps of our understanding so that we can please Him in all respects.
A Christian who is not prepared to suffer is as useless as a distracted soldier, a cheating athlete, or a lazy farmer. None of them will be successful and all of them will cause more harm than good. We have been saved from death into life for the purpose of service. That service assumes suffering. But that suffering comes with its own rewards. Until we adopt this attitude of suffering we will remain paralyzed and be rendered unable to perform our duty.