Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus (2 Tim 2:3).
Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim 3:12).
The identity of the Christian, which is found in Jesus Christ, includes with it the sufferings of Christ. In other words, to be united to and thus identified with the once crucified Savior means that the Christian’s life in this present mode of existence will necessarily entail suffering. What is in view from the perspective of these verses is not suffering as such, but suffering as a Christian. Furthermore, it is not suffering that a Christian may endure because of his indwelling sin, corruption, or foolish actions that is in view (though that may be in view in other passages). Rather, it is suffering that arises precisely because of one’s identity with Christ who suffered for us.
In the first verse take note of Paul’s metaphor of a soldier. Timothy, in his particular capacity as a minister of the New Covenant, is likened to a soldier. Surely, however, the analogy of a soldier is proper not just to ministers of the Gospel, but to each individual Christian. And not just to Christians as individuals, but to the church corporately in its present mode of existence living in the midst of this present wicked and perverse generation (Phil 2:15). So, the church corporately, as well as each individual Christian, is called to be a soldier. Specifically, Christians are called to be soldiers of Jesus Christ. Christ is himself the captain of the army of the Lord (cf. Josh 5), and believers are his soldiers. Further, the Christian is called to be a “good” soldier of Jesus Christ. But what does it mean to be a “good soldier?” It is, in fact, to “share in suffering.” The goodness of the soldier is qualified in terms of suffering. And specifically suffering that comes in warfare. And the warfare in view is that which comes by enemy opposition.
What it means to be a good soldier who suffers in the midst of warfare is given further expression by Paul in 3:12, the second verse above. And once again, the suffering that is assumed by Paul here is not mere human suffering which is common to all – inclusive of believer and unbeliever. But the suffering that is in view is the suffering that comes to those who “will be persecuted.” Further, the persecution that arises is not opposition from unbelievers as such. Unbelievers may in fact oppose a person – whether a believer or fellow unbeliever – for good reasons (such as lawful cases of legal prosecution, or self-defense, etc). But what is in view here is opposition, persecution (i.e., suffering) that arises in opposition to those who “live a godly life.” In a different context Jesus speaks about those who are “persecuted for righteousness sake” (Matt 5:10; cf. 1 Peter 3:14). But, one more important idea needs to be underscored. Note that for Paul it is those who “desire” to live a godly life who will be persecuted. There is something, according to Paul, about the godly desires and affections of the believer which elicits a counter-response of opposition by unbelievers.
One contextual observation is necessary here. The persecution here may in fact be state-sponsored opposition to the righteous living of Christians. In context, Paul mentions his own persecution in v. 11, in the cities of Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra (cf. Acts 13 and 14). It is interesting to note that the persecution that arose there always came by “the Jews.” In some instances, like in Iconium, “the rulers” are mentioned as complicit in the plot to stone Paul and Barnabas (14:5). Women “of high standing” and “leading men” are mentioned in Antioch (13:50). However, leaders or city officials are not mentioned at all in Lystra. But what is striking for our purposes is that while officials may or may not be involved in the persecution of Paul and Barnabas, it is the general population of the cities, specifically unbelieving Jews, who lead the opposition. In other words, it does not appear to be the state who is the primary antagonist to the Gospel and the “good soldier of Jesus Christ.” In short, the “persecution” here does not seem to come only, or even primarily, from the state. It comes from all manner of unbelievers.
In summary, Paul seems to give here principles of how the Christian is to identify with Christ – principles which are also given by our Lord himself in the Gospels as well as Peter (we could also include the other authors of the NT as well). In other words, part and parcel of the Christian’s identity is that he will be opposed and be persecuted when he acts as a good soldier with a desire to live a godly life (Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you,” John 15:20). Now, that does not necessarily mean the persecution will be as intense as it was in Paul and Barnabas’ instances. It may come in greater or lesser intensity. But it will come – always.
These exegetical observations seem to leave very little room for a triumphalist view of the Gospel and the church vis-a-vis the culture. While certainly God may in fact ordain times and seasons and places where the church is persecuted and opposed less intensely than in others, the lack of evidence of any promise of God that this will happen (either on a local or global scale) is remarkable. Therefore, the church should expect that the default mode of her existence, until the vindicating return of her Savior, will be that of constant warfare. She is always the church militant and never the church triumphant this side of Glory. The church’s present mode of existence is rightly described by the Westminster Standards as the Kingdom of Grace, and not yet the Kingdom of Glory (cf. Westminster Shorter Catechism 102). Now she lives by grace in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), and only after the parousia will she live free of militancy and in a state of triumphal rest.
In the meanwhile, the more we desire to live godly lives the more we should expect persecution. Living a godly life in the midst of this crooked generation is not an option. But rather than think our godliness will transform the world and tame it now, we should expect that it will only all the more exasperate the opposition of the world. Will sinners be converted under our faithful witness? Yes, we should expect they will. Will many be converted under our faithful witness to Christ? Only God knows, but we should pray to that end. But even here we should expect, as happened in Paul’s ministry, the more sinners that are converted to Christ the more opposition the church will face. Conversions, even mass conversions, do not subdue the world’s hatred for Christ, but rather incite it.
Can we hope and pray for a day and an age when the church will live globally in peace, with unbelief and evil generally marginalized? Sure! What a great prayer that is! But if that happens it will happen not because the Bible promises it. It does not. In fact, the promise the Bible gives us is that if we are faithful Christians that means persecution for us. But despite being opposed at every turn, if we are faithful soldiers God will give us the victory. Not a victory of this-worldly triumph (too many Christians hope for too little!). But a greater victory than that. The victory of eternal life in Immanuel’s land where righteousness will dwell forever.