Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles, was about to die. He had fought the good fight; he had run the race; he had kept the faith. The crown of righteousness was awaiting.
But he had a few final instructions to pass on to his main man Timothy. One of the most important ones went as follows:
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains like a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory (2 Tim 2:8-10, ESV).
It’s hard to imagine such a mature Christian needing to say something so apparently frivolous. How could Timothy possibly forget about Jesus? Isn’t Jesus the reason he became a pastor? Isn’t Jesus the one who put the “Christ” in “Christianity”?
But Paul knows what we so often ignore, that one of our primary temptations as Christians is to forget Jesus. Especially when it comes to studying the Bible.
Isn’t it so easy to think we needed Jesus before we become Christians, but now we need more discipline? We delight in Jesus and his saving work that rescued us from our past sins, but now we live as though it’s up to us to please God.
We come to the Bible as a book of hope for sinners who can find eternal life by knowing Jesus. But over the years, we change. We begin treating the Bible as a book of rules, and we bludgeon ourselves and others into following those rules out of a sense of guilt or duty. We bind the word of God, and we burden the elect with ethical or doctrinal chains.
I’ve already written about the importance of interpreting every Bible passage through the lens of Jesus. Now, I highlight the importance of remembering Jesus even in our application.
When studying a Bible passage, you might make a theological connection to Jesus, but your work is not yet done. Your application must also connect to and derive from Jesus and his saving work: “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them” (Heb 13:9).
In other words, nothing gets up your gumption for serving the Lord more than grace, grace, and more grace. You can’t drum up more faithfulness from the inside. You must be broken by God’s unbelievably high standard, and you must rest in Jesus’ death in your place and obedience on your behalf. Every day. Then, you’ll walk the straight and narrow. And before you know it, you’ll be ready to pass the torch to a new generation.
Here’s what I mean. Once I served as an elder in a church that hired a young new pastor. This guy was a fine preacher, and he had been well-trained to preach Jesus. He got in the pulpit his first week and preached with boldness and clarity.
But he made a few mistakes. He stumbled over his words. He got nervous and said a few things that, frankly, were pretty naïve. After the service, he was discouraged by his failures, and he expected me to hammer him for them. After all, preaching is important business. You can’t mislead God’s sheep, or you’re in big trouble.
We evaluated the sermon together, and he braced himself for some well-earned criticism.
I did not ignore the mistakes. I didn’t approve of them. But I reminded him that Jesus had already died for them. Because the gospel was true, this guy was free to make mistakes, even big ones. I encouraged him to make more such mistakes in the future. I preferred that he give it his all, making a few mistakes in the process, than that he hold back out of fear of imperfection. He was free to live his calling as a preacher with confidence that he was accepted by God and already approved.
He had learned all about how to interpret the Bible with a focus on Jesus, but he had to practice applying it with a focus on Jesus.
So, let’s study (and especially apply) the Bible with such great confidence in Jesus that we can “sin boldly,” as Martin Luther advised his student Philip Melanchthon:
Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.