Eli T. Evans
When authors use illustrations, they invite us to draw parallels between what we know and what they want us to learn. Their examples help us understand their ideas. And the illustrations they choose give us insights into how they see the world and what frames of reference they expect to have in common with their audience.
As someone who grew up in the country, Jesus used many examples from fishing, farming and shepherding. As someone keenly interested in justice, He often turned to stories of courts or bankers. As the King of kings, He frequently spoke about kings and kingdoms, masters and subjects.
The Apostle Paul’s illustrations are decidedly more cosmopolitan. More than any other New Testament author, he draws analogies and metaphors from military and athletic spheres. It’s easy to see why: Paul was locked in a constant struggle against the forces of spiritual darkness that tried to keep him from his mission. His opponents tried to kill him at every turn (and they eventually succeeded). Heretical teachers undid his work. Other “apostles” turned churches against him. Judaizers wanted to add to the gospel. His friends—John Mark, Barnabas and Peter—opposed him. And then there was the battle against his own flesh.
When in need of an illustration, Paul often thinks of combat—whether on the battlefield or in the arena. In his letters to churches and to his spiritual children, Timothy and Titus, the imagery is in full force.
Athletics. The letters to Timothy and Titus can be likened to pep talks between a coach and his star athletes. Paul tells Timothy to train himself spiritually and compete according to the rules so he can receive the prize (1 Tim 4:7–8; 2 Tim 2:5). He says to Titus, “the grace of God has appeared … training us … to live self-controlled” (Titus 2:11–12). In his second letter to Timothy, Paul says that Scripture is useful for “training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). “Training,” “self-control” and “discipline” appear repeatedly among the qualifications for overseers (Titus 1:8; 2:2, 4–6).
These admonitions echo 1 Corinthians 9, where Paul speaks at length about disciplining his body so that he can have the same kind of self-control as an athlete who is training for a race, so that he too may outrun the competition and win the “crown”—not a laurel wreath, but eternal life.
Warfare. In another sense, the pastoral letters are like battlefield messages between a commander and his lieutenants. Paul left Titus in Crete to “put what remained in order” because many there were “insubordinate,” “disobedient” and “unfit” for service (Titus 1:5, 10, 16). Paul charges Timothy to “wage the good warfare” and to “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Tim 1:18; 6:12). He is to “share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ,” not getting “entangled in civilian pursuits” so that he can “please the one who enlisted him,” namely Paul (2 Tim 2:3–4). Paul often refers to other believers as “fellow workers” or “saints,” but he calls both Epaphroditus and Archippus “fellow soldier[s]” (Phil 2:25; Phlm 2). We have only to read Ephesians 6:10–20, where Paul details the “whole armor of God,” to know that he takes preparation for spiritual battle very seriously.
Paul’s ministry is characterized by struggle and striving (Col 1:29; 2:1; 4:12; Rom 15:30). He perseveres through all sorts of hardships, even though he expects imprisonment (or worse) in every city (2 Cor 11:21–28).“But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself,” he tells the Ephesian elders, “if only I may finish my course” (Acts 20:23–24). Similarly, Paul tells Timothy that he has “fought the good fight” and “finished the race,” by which he means that he has “kept the faith,” just as he had earlier charged Timothy to do (2 Tim 4:7; 1 Tim 6:12). Paul then looks forward to his reward: “the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day” (2 Tim 4:8).
There is only one goal in any athletic or military encounter: victory. But the victory Paul teaches is entirely of, by and through Jesus Christ—not our own efforts. Through Christ, Paul says, we are “more than conquerors” (Rom 8:37), and while we receive the prize of eternal life, bragging rights always belong to Christ.
Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).