Here is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him.
If we disown him, he will also disown us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.
2 Tim 2: 11-13
Before spell check and other online writing tools I depended on a nifty little rhyme to get my ‘I’s and ‘E’s in the right order. It says,
‘I’ before ‘E,’ except after ‘C,’ or when sounded as ‘a’ as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh.’
Unfortunately, this “trustworthy saying” didn’t help me when I started dating a girl in high school with the last name Weir. Years later, after we married, she took my last name which resolved my spelling difficulty but the ‘I’ before ‘E’ rule continued to be problematic. A friend later suggested that the rule works except “when your foreign neighbor Keith receives eight counterfeit beige sleighs from a feisty caffeinated weightlifter.” If you look into it, you will find that there are at least 925 exceptions to the ‘I’ ‘E’ rule and, in fact, only 44 words in standard English work properly.1
Fortunately, the Apostle Paul has a better idea of what constitutes a “trustworthy saying.” There are five places in the New Testament (1 Tim 1:12-17, 3:1-7, 4:8-10; 2 Tim 2:11-13; and Titus 3:1-8) where Paul seems to take a pause in his discourse to quote lyrical, rhythmic, prose, which some scholars suggest might be quoted from early hymns sung by the church.2
Here in chapter two of Paul’s second letter to Timothy he begins by encouraging him to remain “strong in the grace found in Christ Jesus,”(v. 1) to “endure hardship,” (v. 3) and to “remember Jesus Christ raised from the dead.”( v. 8) And then suddenly, Paul interjects the poetic verse quoted above, recognized by translators as distinct from the surrounding text because of its rhythmic meter. Whether Paul is the actual author of these poetic words, or was inspired to quote from a familiar early Christian hymn, the encouragement found here fits perfectly within the present context of encouragement, endurance and remaining true to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The four lines of poetry found in vv. 11-13 work as two pairs of doublets; the first two are positive while the last two appear negative. Paul’s use of verb tenses helps punctuate the contrast being drawn between us and God:
In v. 11, Paul writes, “if we die with Him,” (aorist) “we will live with Him” (future). In Greek, the aorist verb tense is often used of background action, of things that can be assumed to be complete. Now, Paul is not writing to dead people, but rather to people who have previously been buried in baptismal waters (Rom 6:2-11). Those who have previously “died to sin” and been buried in the water, therefore, can anticipate a life to come, in the future.
In v. 12 Paul writes “if we endure,” (present) “we will reign” (future). Here the present tense is used to bring the action forward. In Greek, present tense is often used of action that is currently incomplete. We are not done enduring—we continue to endure—but the promise remains firm. Just as Paul wrote in Romans 8:17 “if we are children [of God], then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ… we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory.” Our suffering is present and incomplete but the assurance we have been given is certain and full.
Then our poem makes an awkward turn, stating the opposite in bold detail. “if we will deny Him,” (future) “he will deny us” (future). Here both verbs are in the future tense and the action is reciprocal. Our denial affects us both as His denial reflects our own. But this is not a punishment—God petulantly rejecting us for rejecting Him. Rather, Paul makes clear that God does not force anyone into a covenantal relationship. God’s invitation is open; He has made the way clear but our agency is intact. We are graciously invited to new life, but not forced into it.
Finally, in v. 13 our poem continues in the negative with a surprising twist. “if we are faithless,” (present) “he remains faithful” (present). For the first time in this poetic section, God’s action, the second part of the doublet, is brought out of the future tense and placed firmly in the present. Our denial is reciprocated but God’s faithfulness is constant and ongoing. As Paul adds at the end of v. 13 “He cannot deny himself.”
But this last part can be easily misunderstood. Taken from its context, it could be used to suggest that God blesses every behaviour, that God seconds our every motion. It fits nicely on a coffee cup of a Facebook post but if you read this final stanza as cheap grace, the startling theology behind the statement is lost. To quote “even if we are faithless he will still be faithful” out of context would miss the point. The question is, does v. 13 read like a threat or a promise?
If ‘faithlessness’ in verse 13 is a reference to our faltering convictions, verse 12 reminds us that our struggle to endure is rewarded. We can rest assured that Jesus will not give up on us. We are saved by the grace of God and his ongoing forgiveness as we conform our desires to his will – however imperfectly.
But if “faithlessness” in verse 13 is a denial of Christ, a renunciation of the promises that we made when we repented and were baptized into Christ, then the faithfulness of Jesus is a warning that we ought to heed. This kind of “faithfulness” to Jesus is instrumental to our salvation – it is a necessary condition of it, though the ultimate means of our salvation is the faithfulness of Jesus. Either way, the faithfulness of Jesus is both an encouragement that we can trust and a warning that we must to heed.
Our understanding of this hymn-like text is also helped when we consider what Jesus remains faithful to in verse 13. Is God faithful to faithless humanity, no matter what? Or is God faithful to Himself and to His own nature. An interpretive key is found in the verb tenses. The word “remains” (present) in v. 13 connects with the “endurance” (present) mentioned in v. 12. God remains faithful to himself, to His nature. Our endurance might fail, our conviction might falter, but Paul reminds us that in all of this God acts true to His own nature. In dying so we could live, in enduring so that we might reign, Jesus Christ is faithful to God’s nature and our faith rests in the faithfulness of God. Our obedience is instigated by God’s faithful action found in the life and the death of His own Son. Jesus Christ is the reflection of God’s perfect love, His perfect faithfulness.
Here, Paul is encouraging Timothy that even if we are lacking in our conviction, Jesus Christ remains true to His perfect nature. The salvation Jesus Christ offers is faithful and can be trusted, but it must be accepted nonetheless. Paul’s bold pivot at the end of this poetic section is not an invitation to a wishy-washy gospel but rather an encouragement we can trust. We are not saved by our faithfulness but instead by His. As a result, we can truly live because He died, and we will one day reign with Him because He endured.
1 Christopher Ingraham has an interesting discussion of the origin and historical development of the rule in “The ‘i before e, except after c’ rule is a giant lie,” Washington Post, June 28, 2017. Online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/06/28/the-i-before-e-except-after-c-rule-is-a-giant-lie/
2 Mounce, William D. Word Biblical Commentary, v. 46 Pastoral Epistles, Thomas Nelson Publishers (2000), pp. 48ff.