Within his many letters, St. Paul occasionally gives us a glimpse of early Christian hymns and sayings. While he may have been their author, it is more likely that he is quoting or summarizing others. Here are some of the hymns he includes in his letters:
Hymn of Christ and Creation (Colossians 1:15-20)
Hymn of the Humbled and Exalted Christ (Philippians 2:5-11)
Another one occurred in the readings this past Sunday (28th Sunday of the Year) and it is worth a look, as it puzzles some who read it.
This saying is trustworthy:
If we have died with him,
we shall also live with him;
if we persevere
we shall also reign with him.
But if we deny him
he will deny us.
If we are unfaithful
he remains faithful,
for he cannot deny himself (2 Tim 2:11-13).
William Barclay called this “The Song of the Martyr.” Such a title does seem fitting, at least in a general way, although there is also a baptismal theme.
The first strophe seems clear. If we have died with Christ, whether in baptism or martyrdom, we will live with Him. The baptismal theme comes in because the phraseology echoes a passage in Romans:
Are you not aware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We therefore were buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection (Romans 6:3-5).
All of us who die with Christ to this world through baptism and/or martyrdom (bloody martyrdom or the white martyrdom of those who confess the faith publicly despite the cost) will live with Christ.
The second strophe reminds us that we must persevere. This echoes Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew: But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13). This need for perseverance seems clear as well, though many try to appeal to the fact that they were baptized or answered an altar call, forgetting that they must live the daily call of discipleship as well.
The third strophe is a little less clear, at least to some. The Greek word used is ἀρνέομαι (arneomai), and it is properly translated here as “deny.” It can also mean to repudiate, contradict, or say no. There are indeed some (Christ says many) who deny Him or say no to God’s offer; the text says that the Lord will also deny them.
This concept offends some modern readers who prefer to speak endlessly of God’s unconditional mercy. This strophe can be understood as meaning that the Lord affirms or accepts the unrepentant sinner’s denial of Him, His values, and His Kingdom. God will not force anyone to love what and whom He loves. The Lord’s denial of the person is a respectful acknowledgement of the free decision the person made to deny Him.
The last strophe is perhaps the most potentially confusing. It says, in effect, that even if we are unfaithful to the groom of our soul and the Bridegroom of the Church, He will not be unfaithful to us. God will never say to the soul that rejects or hates Him, “I hate you.” The Lord cannot be anything other than Himself. He who is love cannot hate.
However, and more soberly, the text means that Lord, who is truth itself, cannot ignore the fact that someone has freely chosen to deny, contradict, and reject His offer and the faith. God cannot “pretend” at the moment of judgment that an unrepentant sinner has in fact accepted Him and been faithful because pretending is contrary to the truth; doing so would be denying His very nature.
St. Paul follows the “saying” with this caution: Remind them of these things, solemnly charging them to stop disputing about words.
We should consider ourselves reminded; we are charged to hear and heed this solemn warning before going to the great judgment seat of Christ.