Those of us for whom English is our native language, and who rarely immerse ourselves in an alien culture, often forget how hard it is for others to fully appreciate the complexity of the language we have always known and used.
In cross-cultural ministry, and in Bible translation work, it can be hard to explain biblical terms in a local language. Either the concept isn’t familiar in the local culture, or a word requires a phrase to convey the full meaning.
When I was a child, we used to sing a Sunday School song, “25 words in John 3:36,” but there are 52 words in that verse in the main language of Papua New Guinea where I lived from the ages of nine to 15. Few of the local people had ever seen a sheep or a camel, common in the Bible, and it was not easy to express the meaning of words like “propitiation.”
This is where metaphors can help: figures of speech that describe an object or action in a non-literal way but help to explain an idea or make a comparison. A metaphor directly refers to one thing by mentioning another. Paul frequently uses metaphors, and he does so here.
There is the image of a soldier, an athlete, and a farmer: all well-known, virtually universal occupations. Why does Paul drop these three metaphors into his letter to Timothy? He is commending three examples of costly faithfulness in service – examples drawn from settings of everyday life.
Each of these roles, performed well, requires hard work, discipline, focus, risk, and perhaps suffering. Each of these tasks, done well, may have long periods where both the preparation and the work isare boring and monotonous. But stick at it and the results will come.
That’s what the three metaphors have in common, but there is more.
What sets apart the metaphor of the soldier? The aim of the soldier is to win the battle, and to do so he/she must serve well. The key to this is twofold.
Firstly, the soldier must “please the commanding officer,” learning to trust and obey, accepting that the leader is better placed, within the bounds of moral conventions, to guide and direct the troops, and lead them to victory. Secondly, the soldier must avoid entanglements and distractions – either from financial gain, or to relieve boredom – so as to be ready for service.
For us, today, it’s about loyalty to Jesus, our commander, and to those whom God places as our leaders. And it’s about commitment to the cause.
The second metaphor is the athlete, who gets the crown or trophy only through diligent training and – here’s the point – playing according to the rules. The Christian life is described in several New Testament texts as a race (e.g., Rom 12:10; 1 Cor 9:24-27; Heb 12:1f, and here).
Trophies aren’t awarded for random displays of strength or skill, but for “playing fair,” for excellence according to established rules and conventions. For us, this means reaching for exemplary moral conduct and faithful Christian service, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the crown will come.
The third metaphor, equally clear, is of a farmer. The key to good farming is hard work. It may be repetitive, boring, monotonous, but it produces results. Farming rarely has the glory and excitement of soldiering or the glamour of athletic success. But it is arguably more essential than both, and often more rewarding.
For us, thinking with Paul, this implies hard work, diligent work, in pursuit of holiness, prayer, evangelism, and discipleship. Sowing seeds that bring a rich harvest of righteousness. I believe the metaphor also implies the need for diligence in our vocational or career work, for the glory of God.
So, says Paul in these three metaphors, serve well, play fair, and work hard. These three activities, translated into the context of your life, will produce good results and bring glory to God.
Talk 779 copyright © 2022 Rod Benson. Preached at staff devotions, Moore Theological College, Australia, on 31 January 2022. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Christian Standard Bible (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2020).
Image credit: Keene Sentinel