Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Was Timothy Timid or Fearful? (2 Timothy 1:7)

The normal picture people have of Timothy was that he was timid, a picture largely centered on 2 Tim 1:7 — “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self–discipline” (TNIV). When combined with the fact that he was young and evidently sick much of the time (1 Tim 5:23), many have a constructed an image of Timothy that would hardly be emulated.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Timothy was one of Paul’s right-hand men. When Paul had difficult situations, fraught with danger and conflict, he shows no hesitation in sending Timothy into the fray. Ephesus was an established church full of entrenched, sinful management. Paul sends Timothy. The persecutions in Thessalonica were intense. So who did Paul send? Timothy. Of no one else does Paul say, “For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare” (Phil 2:20).

This should alert us to a problem. Perhaps “timid” has been misunderstood.

How do you determine the meaning of a word? Etymology can point us in a direction, but ultimately it is how the word is used in other contexts. This gives us the range of meanings possessed by the word, and then it is up to the immediate context (2 Tim 1:3) to determine the specific nuance of meaning.

If you check out my commentary, you will see a listing of the uses of deilia. Nowhere does it mean “timid.” In fact, I am a bit at a loss to know where “timid” came from. The word means ”fearful,” “cowardice.” BDAG lists the gloss, lack of mental or moral strength, cowardice. This is why the ESV reads, “for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (emphasis added).

Is Paul saying that Timothy is fearful, a coward? That seems impossible. Nowhere in our understanding of Paul or Timothy is there a place for cowardice. And look at the entire verse. Is Paul actually saying that Timothy should not be fearful but should be characterized by power, love, and self-control? Would this mean that Timothy was not characterized by power, love, and self-control? That seems hardly possible as well.

So what is Paul saying? Things are not always as easy as we would like them to be. I believe that “fear” is merely a literary foil to emphasize that Timothy’s life is to be characterized by power, by love, and by self-control. In other words, Paul is not saying that Timothy is fearful or cowardly — this makes no sense in light of what we know about Timothy, and merely being young or physically sick does not mean that you are a coward. Rather, these are qualities that Timothy already possessed, and Paul is encouraging his young co-worker (and best friend, I believe) by reminding him of what Timothy knows is true.

2 Timothy 1 is a model of encouragement. It is helpful to walk through the chapter and count all the ways in which Paul is encouraging Timothy. It is a good checklist for us to use in ministry; are these the kind of things we say to our co-workers? Do we affirm what we know to be true of them, and by doing so encourage them to persevere in those very qualities? Do we remind them of their spiritual heritage and how precious it is (v 5)? Do we recall our times of joy together (v 4)? Do we remind them that our position together before God is not due to our own efforts but to the work of Christ (v 9)? Do we remind them that despite suffering, God is faithful (v 12)? Do we remind them of the gifting of the Spirit, and how through his working we are powerful, loving, and self-controlled?

These are the words of a seasoned follower of Jesus. May they be our words as well to those with whom we minister. We’re not cowards! We’re not fearful! We have the power of the Lord!