“Faithful is the saying: For if we died with Him, we shall also live with him: if we endure we shall also reign with him: if we shall deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he abideth faithful; for he cannot deny himself” (2nd Timothy 2:11-13, KJV).
The words which are before us this afternoon form one of those “faithful sayings” taken up by Paul from the mouth of the Christian community and given fresh significance and force by his employment of them to wing his own appeals and point his own arguments to his fellow Christians. It is exceedingly interesting to observe the Apostle thus acting as a member of a settled community with its own standards of belief and maxims of conduct already to a certain degree established; and none the less so that he was himself the founder of the community, who had impressed on it the faith to which it was now giving expression.
The special “faithful saying” he now adduces bears in it traits which point back to his teaching as the germ from which it had grown, but also to the teaching of our Lord Himself, a witness to the wide diffusion of which in the churches it thus supplies. If the phrase, “If we died with him we shall also live with him” is Pauline to the core and takes the mind of the reader irresistibly back to such a passage as Romans 6:8; and the next succeeding phrase, “If we endure we shall also reign with him”, reminds us more remotely of such passages as Romans 5:17; 8:17; the clause which follows that, “If we deny him, he, too, will deny us”, cannot fail to remind us of Matthew 10:33, or rather, of the saying of Jesus there formally recorded.
How this “faithful saying” had been formed in the Church, whether merely as a detached gnome, or maxim, which Christians were wont to repeat to one another for their enheartening and encouragement; or, as a portion of some liturgical form often used in the church service, until its language had become fixed; or as a passage from a hymn that had grown popular, as its rhythmic form may perhaps suggest, it may be difficult or impossible to decide. The way in which the Apostle adduces it appears in any event to bear witness that the words were a current formula in the Church, to which he could appeal as such, and which would, from their familiarity and devout, if not sacred, association, appeal powerfully to Timothy’s heart. Perhaps we may venture to say that the Apostle himself felt the appeal of these devout associations, and employs the “saying” precisely because it had become by use the natural expression of his own strong feelings, at the moment aroused to a particular fervor. He, the great Apostle, yet leans with comfort on the Church’s own expression of its faith.
What a testimony we have here to the solidarity of the Church of God; or, as we prefer to put it, to the communion of the saints. And what an enforcement of the great commands that we bear one another’s burdens, that we neglect not the assembling of ourselves together, that we do not indulge the vanity of living each one to himself. The Church is ever to Paul—the inspired teacher of the Church, in a deep and true sense—the pillar and ground of the truth, on the testimony of which he gladly rests.
The purpose for which he adduces this particular “faithful saying” is to clinch his appeal to Timothy to steadfast adherence to his high duty and privilege of teaching the Gospel, despite every difficulty and danger besetting the pathway. He appears in this context to be urging three motives upon Timothy to induce him to face bravely the hardships of the service he is pressing upon him.
He points him first to the source of his strength: “Remember Jesus Christ as risen from the dead, of the seed of David”; keep your eyes set on the heavenly majesty of the exalted Christ, our King. Surely he who keeps vivid in his consciousness that He with whom, he has to do is the Lord of heaven and earth, who, though He had died, yet lived again, and is set on the throne of universal dominion, should have no fear in boldly obeying His behests.
Paul points Timothy next to the important function performed by the preacher of the Gospel, faithfulness in proclaiming which he is urging upon him as so prime a duty that no danger must be allowed to intermit it. It is by it that the elect of God attain the salvation destined for them in Christ Jesus. Who will draw back when he realizes that he is a fellow-worker with God in bringing to their salvation God’s own elect—those elect whom God has loved from the foundation of the world, for whom He has given His Son to shame and death, and sent His Spirit into the foulness of men’s hearts?
Surely he who apprehends that it is laid on him to carry this salvation to those whose own it is will never weary in conveying it to them. Let us learn how a brute beast may respond to an appeal to share in such a service of good by reading Browning’s “How they brought the good news to Ghent.” Shall we be less responsive to such appeals than even the brutes? Lastly Paul plies Timothy with this “faithful saying”, the force of whose appeal lies in its subtle blending of encouragement and warning: encouragement because it tells us what a glorious prospect lies before him who gives himself to Christ unreservedly here; warning because it discloses to us the dreadfulness of the award that lies before him who is unfaithful here to the service he owes his Lord.
“We died with him, we shall also live with him; if we steadfastly endure we shall also reign with him,” but also, “if we shall perchance deny him, he will also deny us”; though of one thing we may be firmly assured, “though we prove faithless, He abideth ever faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”
Was ever warning and encouragement so subtly blended in a single composite appeal? So subtly indeed that one remains in doubt whether the appeal comes to its close on a note of hope or on one of despair. Is it that God will remain faithful to His gracious purposes of love despite our weakness; that, though we prove untrustworthy, yet He abides ever trusty—is it on this note of high hope and encouragement that the Apostle’s great song sinks down to rest? Or is it rather, that the God who has threatened to deny those that deny Him, will abide ever faithful to this dreadful threat, so that he who disowns Him here need cherish no hope that he shall escape the announced disavowal there—is it on this note of profoundest warning that the Apostle pauses?
The language is flexible to either sense; the context leaves the way open to either; the appeal would be alike strong under either interpretation; but it is strongest of all, doubtless, under the subtle blending of the two, to which the phrasing of the whole “faithful saying” seems to invite us.
For this “faithful saying” has the characteristic pregnancy and subtlety of all its fellows, which is the hall-mark of all true popular sayings that have passed from mouth to mouth until they have been compacted into the thought of a whole community. For its interpretation we should confine ourselves primarily to its own narrow compass and remember that the context in which it comes to us is not its own original context, and can help us to its interpretation only so far as the propriety of its adduction here is concerned. So looking at it, it is clear that much of the current exposition of its clauses falls away of itself.
For example, it seems obvious that the “dying with Christ” here adduced is not physical dying with Christ, martyrdom, but forensic dying with Christ, justification. It is clear that our fragment is a fragment of a piece in which the main theme is Christ’s work of redemption. It is especially clear that we have no right to supply “with Christ” with the second clause. It is not endurance “with Christ”, but “steadfast endurance to the end” alone that is intended, and the conjunctive preposition is left off of this verb just to advise us of that. Nor may we omit to note and give effect to the changes of tense: first the aorist, then the present, then the future, then the present again; all of which changes are significant.
Lastly, a careful observation of the consecution of the clauses will certainly bid us pause before we fall in with their division into two pairs, the first encouraging, the last warning; a division far too simple to do justice to the subtlety of the whole thought, or even the surface considerations derived from the sequence of the tenses and verbs. Let us look at the saying then a moment in its own light and then ask how it lends itself to Paul’s purpose in adducing it here.
We perceive at once that the passage consists of four conditional sentences which stand, therefore, in a certain formal parallelism with one another. The first of these sentences declares that sharing in Christ’s death entails sharing in Christ’s life.
The idea is a frequent one in the New Testament and must, indeed, in all Pauline churches at any rate, have become long ere this a Christian commonplace. The language in which it is expressed is the same as that which meets us in Romans 6:8, and stands in express relation with that of, say, 2nd Corinthians 5:14. It would be most unnatural violently to separate the statement here from the ordinary connotation of the language. This is reinforced by the fact that the aorist tense is employed, and thus a dying with Christ already accomplished by every Christian who took this language on his lips, most naturally suggested. It is most unnatural, therefore, to understand here a dying with Christ not yet accomplished, perhaps never to be accomplished; the language implies rather a dying which has been the invariable experience of every Christian heart.
Are we to say that the passage teaches that only if we share in Christ’s death in the sense that we like Him die for the Gospel, are we to share in his life? Or, are we to say that the meaning is rather that every faithful Christian that dies shall live again? The latter is too flat a sense to be attributed to our passage; the former, obviously too narrow. The reference is neither to martyrdom, not yet merely to a Christian death. The death here is obviously ethical or rather, spiritual, and yet not quite in the exact sense of Romans 6:8, but more in that of 2nd Corinthians 5:14.
The simple meaning obviously is that he who is united with Christ in His death shall share with Him His life also; that all those “in Christ Jesus” as they died with Him on Calvary, as that death which He there died, since it was for them, was their death in Him, so shall share with Him in His resurrection life, shall live in and through Him.
The appeal is clearly to the Christian’s union with Christ and its abiding effects. He is a new creation; with a new life in him; and should live in the power of this new and deathless life. For there is a stress laid also on the persistence of this life and a pointing of the reader to the deathlessness of the life in Christ. “Know ye not,” says the Apostle in effect, “that if ye died with Christ ye shall also live with Him, and that the life ye are living in the flesh ye live by the power of the Son of God, and it shall last forever?” The pregnancy of the implication is extreme, but it is all involved in the one fact that if we died with Christ, if we are His and share His death on Calvary, we shall live with Him; live with Him in a redeemed life here, cast in another mold from the old life of the flesh, and live with Him hereafter forever. This great appeal to their union and communion with Christ lays the basis for all that follows. It puts the reader on the plane—sets him at the point of view—of “in Christ Jesus”.
Now, the second and third clauses present the contrasting possibilities, emerging from the situation presented in the first clause, and belong as such together, as positive and negative statements. He who is in Christ may by patient continuance in well-doing abide in union with his Lord, and he shall not fail of his reward. The metaphysical possibility remains open, however, that he may deny his Lord, in which case, he shall, himself, in accordance with our Lord’s own express threat, be denied by Him.
Observe the precise justice of the contrasting expressions employed in these alternatives. The tense changes first from the aorist to the present, because not the act of incorporation in Christ, but the process of steadfast endurance, is in question. The verbs in the apodosis are also varied to meet the exact case; we begin as sharers in Christ’s life; if we continue steadfastly in that life we shall share in its glories. The thought is precisely that of Romans 8:16, 17; if we are God’s children, we are heirs, joint heirs with Christ, “if so be that we suffer with Him, that we may be glorified with Him also.” Only in our present passage the matter is not conceived so distinctly as suffering or as suffering with Christ; in preparation for the companion clause yet to come the idea of “with Christ” falls away here. The two cases rest with us—abiding steadfastly or disowning. The “reigning with Christ” is an advance on “living with Christ”; it throws the emphasis on the reward: if we have died with Him we are sharers of His life; if we abide in this life we shall inherit with Him the Kingdom.
The companion clause presents the other possibility. The “deny” corresponds to “the steadfast endurance” and Christ’s disowning us corresponds to the “reigning with Him”; both as opposite contrasts. The tense is changed in accordance with the new nature of the case. It is not a matter of continually disowning Him; it is a matter of breaking the continuance of our steadfast endurance. This is done by an act. Hence the future, expressing the possibility of the act: “should we disown Him”—if we shall disown Him, why then, He (emphatic), also will disown us!
This is the dreadful contingency; all the more dreadful on account of three things: (1) the simple brevity of its statement as a dire possibility to be kept in mind and steadfastly guarded against; (2) the express reminiscence of our Lord’s own words in Matthew 10:33 carrying the mind back to the most solemn of associations possible to connect with the words; (3) the emphatic “He” thrusting the personality of Christ for the first time upon the consciousness of the reader; as before, He is only gently kept in mind by the implications of the “with”.
This emphatic “He” is partly due, of course, to the change of construction, by which a new subject is needed for the succeeding verb; though it would be, perhaps, better to say the desire for emphasis is the cause of the change of construction. We might have had a passive verb, “If we deny we shall be denied,” with or without the “by Him.” But the personality of Christ is too strongly felt here for mere suggestion or even for relegation to the predicate. The change to the active construction and the expression of the subject and its expression by the demonstrative “He”, all pile emphasis on emphasis; “If we disown, HE, too (not merely He, but HE, too), will disown us!” This is the climax of the sentence and a fitting pause is reached. “If we died with Him we shall also live with him; if we steadfastly endure we shall also reign with him; but if we shall ever, by any possibility, deny Him, He, too, will deny—us!”
The thought is complete with this. Both alternatives are developed. And the effect of the whole is a powerful incentive to abide in Christ. Patient endurance— nay, bold, steadfast, brave endurance—has its reward—reigning with Christ. But if we fall from this and disown Christ, do we not remember His dreadful threat: “He, too, can and will disown—even us!”
Surely there is nothing required to enhance the terror of this situation. The poignancy of the appeal to steadfast endurance seems scarcely to need heightening. But on the other hand there would seem need for a closing word of encouragement to weak and faltering Christians. And there would seem a way open for it. For the very sharpness of the assertion that if there is disowning on one side there will be disowning on the other, too, seems to hint something else. The contrast between the present tense of the second clause expressing continuance and the tense of the third clause expressing an act, calls for consideration: “If we continue to—”, “If we shall perchance ever—”. Nothing is said of the continuance of the disowning on either side.
Disowning begets disowning. True; but is that all? Shall one act of even such dreadful sin divide us from all that we had hoped for, in a long life of endurance? What shall poor weak, faltering Christians do in that case? It does not seem impossible, to say the least, that the last clause comes in to comfort and strengthen. There is hope even for the lapsed Christian! For “though we prove faithless, He (emphatic), HE, at least, abides faithful: for deny Himself He cannot!” Deny us He may and will; every denial entails a denial. But deny Himself, He cannot. Our unbelief shall not render the faith of God of none effect.
If this be the construction, the whole closes on a note of hope. The note of warning throbs through even the note of hope, it is true, for He who cannot deny Himself must remember His threats also; and no Christian holding this wonderful “faithful saying” in his heart will fail to note this. But the note of hope is the dominant one, and I take it this last clause is designed to call back the soul from the contemplation of the dreadfulness of denying Christ and throw it in trust and hope back upon Jesus Christ, the faithful One, who despite our unfaithfulness, will never deny Himself—will never disown Himself,—but will ever look on His own cross and righteousness and all the bitter dole He has suffered, and will not let anything snatch what He has purchased to Himself out of His hands.
In this view of the matter, then, the arrangement of the clauses is not in a straightforward quartet—two by two—but rather this:
If we died with Him we shall also live with Him;
If we endure we shall also reign with Him;
If we shall deny, He too will deny us. If we are faithless, He abides faithfully, for Himself He cannot deny.