Strengthening Grace

Grace, ‘tis a charming sound.” But grace is more than just a charming sound – it is a serious matter. Grace is vital for our salvation, but its importance does not stop there. We need grace to serve. And, because service will often take us to places of difficulty and challenge, we need grace to strengthen us, to enable us to be faithful even when the going gets tough.

For Timothy, the going certainly was tough. It is difficult to read Paul’s second epistle to him without feeling sympathy for this young man who had been detailed to stand for God in very difficult circumstances. Timothy may well have been timid, but even the most robust personality would have quailed at the weight of his responsibility and the context in which he has to discharge it. Paul makes no attempt to disguise the scale of that difficulty. “This thou knowest,” he writes, “that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me” (2Ti 1:15 KJV).

Paul does not allow Timothy to dwell long on this defection. With one of the forceful “but you’s” that are a feature of this epistle he turns the focus from the failures of others to Timothy’s responsibility. But first he directs Timothy to the resource that will empower him for it: “Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2:1 KJV).

“Be strong” is literally “be empowered.” It is a passive verb – Paul is not exhorting Timothy to dig deep within himself for innate resources of courage to meet the difficulties that he faces. Rather, he is to avail of a provision that is made for him – to allow God to empower him. This is no ordinary provision. “Empower” picks up on the references to Divine power in chapter 1: “Spirit of power” (v7) and “He is able [literally powerful]” (v12). For the challenges of service, Timothy is to be empowered, not with any arsenal of human assistance but with the power of God, imparted to him by the Spirit of God.

Timothy must “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” While this expression could refer to grace as the location of Timothy’s strength, it is more likely that it describes the means by which Timothy is empowered – “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (ESV). Divine power is communicated by divine grace. Grace is not just a static attribute of God. Grace is God in action, moving to meet the need of sinner and of saint. It is dynamic and enabling, and nothing else could meet Timothy’s need – or ours. And this grace is found, as God’s grace always is, “in Christ Jesus.”

Everyone in Asia had turned away from Paul; they would turn from Timothy too. As he sought to carry out the mandate of this epistle he would be isolated and lonely. But he was not alone; the three persons of the Trinity were joined in empowering him – the Spirit of power [dunamis] (1:7), God Who is “able” [dunatos] (1:12), and Christ Jesus, in Whom is found the supply of grace to empower [endunamoō] him. It was this power – and only this power – that would equip Timothy to “commit” the truth to faithful men (2:2) and to “endure hardness” (2:3).

It is unlikely that we will be called to serve God in anything like the critical circumstances that Timothy was. But the torch of testimony passed to him by Paul has made its way down the centuries to us, and our responsibility is no less than his. Our need, therefore, is just as great. But so too is the provision, for the power of God has not dwindled or diminished with the passing years, and it is still available to His own. In a world of error and of evil, may we feel the force of Paul’s “but you,” calling us to be different, and may we know what it is to “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

The believers to whom Hebrews was addressed were in circumstances different to, but just as difficult as, Timothy’s. They were under tremendous pressure to regress – to abandon Christ and His finished sacrifice for the bondage of Judaism, with its “dead works” (Heb 9:14) and its repetitive but powerless sacrifices which could never “make the comers thereunto perfect” (10:1). Throughout the epistle, the writer emphasizes the supremacy of Christ and the superiority of Christianity with its better things (7:19,22; 8:6; 9:23; 10:34; 11:16; 12:24).

To abandon these would be to “draw back” (10:38,39). By contrast, the writer urges his readers to “go on” (6:1). Stasis was impossible – progress or regress was the choice that faced the readers. We face the same choice – standing still is not an option.

Hebrews is an epistle of movement – forward and back, in and out, up and down (but mostly up). But toward its end, there is a rare moment of immobility: “Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines. For it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace; not with meats” (13:9 KJV). As these pilgrims pressed relentlessly on to heaven, they were to have hearts that were “established” (KJV), “confirmed” (JND), “strengthened” (ESV, NET), and not carried about with “divers and strange doctrines.” In the face of contradictory and confusing teaching, the writer desires that the hearts of his readers would be fixed with an adamantine immobility – “established with grace; not with meats.”

Grace is used in this passage with a different emphasis to 2 Timothy. There, grace was the provision of power for the battle. Here, grace is the battleground, the territory to be defended. The Judaizing that is addressed throughout the epistle manifested itself in the teaching that to secure God’s favor they had to follow the dietary restrictions imposed by the OT (and those restrictions are likely used as shorthand for all that ceremonial Law demanded). To heed this teaching would be to abandon the ground of grace for the windswept wilderness of works, and the calm assurance of a cleansed conscience for the chronic insecurity of relying on our own inadequate efforts.

To be blown off course like this leaves the believer in a constant state of perplexity – and it can happen to us very nearly as easily as to the Hebrew believers. We can easily make Christianity a matter of rule keeping and box ticking. But if we do so, we surrender our peace, our security, and our strength. “Good thing” in this verse means noble, beautiful, and precious. Precious indeed it is, that our hearts be established with grace, and not with meats.