During the American Civil War, the penalty for desertion was execution. But the Union armies rarely executed deserters because their commander-in-chief Abraham Lincoln pardoned nearly all of them. This infuriated Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, who believed that Lincoln’s leniency only enticed would-be deserters. But Lincoln empathized with soldiers who had lost their nerve and who had given in to their fear in the heat of battle. And his empathy endeared him to his soldiers. They loved their “Father Abraham,” and their affection led the soldiers to want to serve Lincoln all the more.
When Paul calls Timothy to join him in “suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3), he calls him to a tough job description. A soldier is to be completely dedicated, hard-working, and selfless. He’s to serve his commanding officer, Jesus, whole-heartedly. But in reality, we sometimes fail to be His good soldiers. We don’t always serve Him faithfully. And so Paul’s opening phrase is important: “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 1). Christ, our commanding officer, is full of grace. He empathizes with our weaknesses and forgives our failures (Hebrews 4:15). And just as the Union soldiers were encouraged by Lincoln’s compassion, so believers are strengthened by the grace of Jesus. We want to serve Him all the more because we know He loves us.