The word of God is not restricted
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard or used the word ‘restriction’ so many times in a calendar year.
What are the latest restrictions?
When are restrictions going to be eased?
How are we going to do X at the moment, given the restrictions?
These have been our constant questions.
(In fact, as I write this, I believe the premier of Western Australia has just imposed Apocalypse Level 10 Restrictions in his state because someone in Perth has a runny nose. Or something like that; I might have missed the details.)
And if it hasn’t been ‘restrictions’, it’s been ‘lock-down’, which in one of those strange quirks of the English language means something slightly different from ‘locked up’—although why one is ‘down’ and the other is ‘up’ is hard to say.
In any case, I’m sure I’m not the only one in this season of constant restriction, whose mind has been drawn to 2 Timothy 2:9.
But God’s word is not restricted!
(Or ‘bound’ as most translations very reasonably put it).
The apostle writes these feisty words as he sits in prison, chained like a criminal. His circumstances certainly restrict his ministry, but he is supremely confident in the free-ranging power of God’s word. The word of God cannot be locked up (or down), because it is the speech of God himself. And you can’t restrict God.
All this is a great comfort and encouragement, not to mention an apt description of so much that has happened over the past year. Despite our ministries suffering restrictions of all kinds, God’s word has continued to do its powerful work in people’s lives. This has certainly been the case in the ministries I’ve been involved in—and I’d be surprised if most of you didn’t have your own wonderful stories of how God has continued to work through his word to transform lives.
This sends our mind to other places in Scripture, like Romans 8—if God is for us, who can restrict us? Or to those passages in Acts, where the word of God increases and multiplies, despite the persecution of the apostles. It’s as if God’s word possesses a life and power and dynamism of its own (because it does!). It can’t be defeated or suppressed, because it is the word of the King of kings, who continues to spread his gospel by his Spirit, from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
As I pondered all this, and read 2 Timothy 2 again during this past week, it occurred to me that Paul has a particular reason for being so confident in the unrestrictable effectiveness of God’s word.
In 2 Timothy, Paul knows that the end of his life and ministry is near. His race is run. He urgently wants Timothy to step up and stay strong and carry the ball forward. 2 Timothy is really about all the ways in which Timothy can and should and must do this.
And in chapter 2, with its famous verse 2, we see that a crucial facet of Timothy’s task is not just to receive and protect and proclaim the apostolic gospel, but to recruit other people to do the same:
And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.
The gospel deposit is protected and spread through multiple nodes of transmission. The gospel race is not just Paul’s to run, or Timothy’s. It’s a relay, with the baton being passed from faithful person to person to person, each of them receiving the word and teaching it to others, who receive the word and teach it to others, and so on.
Amazingly, this is how the all-powerful, ruling Jesus Christ spreads his word and his reign.
And I think that this is why Paul is so confident that God’s word will never be locked up or down. Paul might be chained up, but Timothy isn’t—and neither are the faithful men, nor the ones they will teach, nor the ones they will teach. The risen Jesus Christ uses a constantly growing, unstoppable network of gospel speakers to spread his word, each of whom receive the word and faithfully pass it on to others.
The authorities may impose all sorts of restrictions on the ministry of the gospel (for good reasons and bad), but they will never be able to lock up the speech of God, because the risen Jesus will always keep recruiting his people to spread his saving word.
This is one of the interesting lessons of the past 12 months, as I think about it.
In my observation, the ministries that have most successfully adapted to restrictions, and saw God’s word continue to increase, were those that had already developed ‘multiple nodes of transmission’—that is, where the gospel word had already been passed on to multiple people within the congregation, who were trained and equipped to pass it on to others (whether individually or in groups).
I remember writing something along these lines way back in March, 2020. (I’ve just rummaged back through the Payneful archives and found it):
It does seem to me that the current circumstances will provide a stress-test for the quality of the ‘one-another’ culture in our churches. When our normal opportunities for public preaching and teaching ministries are curtailed (as is already happening in many places), the degree to which we have taught, equipped and encouraged our congregations to speak the word to one another will become apparent.
Has that become apparent (for better or worse) in your particular church or ministry? I’d be interested in your reflections, now that we’re nearly 12 months down the track.
It does seem that the worst of the covid restrictions might be behind us, at least here in Australia. But it won’t be long before something or someone else comes along that threatens to restrict the word of God.
But God’s word cannot and will not be bound, because it is the powerful speech of the risen Jesus Christ, speaking through the mouths of his people.
Our challenge is much the same as Paul’s challenge to Timothy—to take our place in the great gospel relay; to pass on the word of God to faithful people, who are in turn equipped and enabled to teach it to others.
Thinking of forming a Christian band? I’ve got the name for you: Nodes of Transmission.
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