Paul's Last Words
We have already considered the words of Saint Peter who was crucified, upside down, sometime between AD 64 and AD 68 in his 60’s. Now we turn to that other great Apostle, Paul, who was likely decapitated at the hands of Emperor Nero sometime around AD 67.
Formerly known as Saul of Tarsus, Paul was extremely well educated and used his great intellect to address the numerous challenges and heresies which arose within the Christian faith. 13 Epistles (letters) are attributed to Paul (though 6 are contested as not being authored by Paul himself.) Likely, the last letter we have of Paul’s is the second letter to Timothy.
As background to 2 Timothy, we must begin with Paul’s visit with the Ephesian elders before his first Roman imprisonment. In Acts 20:28-31, Paul warns the elders that savage wolves would arise, even from among their number, to destroy the flock. It seems that after Paul was released from Rome and then visited Ephesus, this prophecy had already come true. He returns to a tangle of false teaching, and no doubt, some of the elders were propagating it. Two of these leaders, Hymenaeus and Alexander, he disciplines (1 Tim 1:20), then travels to Macedonia leaving Timothy in Ephesus to complete the job of combating false teaching (1 Tim 1:3). At some point, Paul was again imprisoned in Rome. Many believe that Paul was put in prison when Nero began his campaign of persecution, shortly after Rome burned in AD 64. Nero blamed the Christians for starting the fire, and executed many of them with extreme cruelty. It was during this second imprisonment when Paul pens 2 Timothy.
During Paul’s first imprisonment, he was under house arrest, had many visitors, and expected to be released (Phil 1:19, 25, 26; 2:24; Philemon 22). In Paul’s second imprisonment, he had no such hopes. He tells Timothy that he was already being poured out like a drink offering and the time of his departure was at hand (2 Tim 4:6). Tradition says Paul was held in the Mamertine Prison in Rome, awaiting trial and eventual execution. It was essentially a dark dungeon with a hole in the ceiling for light and to drop food. It would have gotten extremely cold in the winter, which is probably why Paul asks Timothy to bring his cloak (2 Tim 4:13). Since Paul was a Roman citizen, he could not be executed by crucifixion, burning, or being thrown to the lions, but he could be decapitated. Tradition says he was beheaded by Nero in AD 67.
This letter is a very personal communication written to Paul’s protégé… his “son” in Christ. Though facing incredible challenges of his own, Paul writes to encourage Timothy to be faithful… to guard and preach the Word amidst false teaching and persecution. It is likely that Timothy, himself, had been jailed for the sake of the Gospel, and was discouraged and in danger of weakening spiritually. And so Paul takes special pains to encourage him to “stir up” his gift, to replace fear with power, love, and a sound mind. He challenges Timothy to not be ashamed of Paul, or the Lord, but to willingly suffer for the Gospel, and to hold on to the truth.
I have often found great solace in this letter to Timothy. While it recognizes that life in ministry (and a life of Faith, in general) is hard… it holds solid encouragement on how to survive… indeed, thrive in the midst of such opposition.
Perhaps of first importance is acknowledging that we have been gifted with a spiritual gift, and to be reminded to fan it into flame. How often we listen to that voice that denigrates us as simply a follower… a tag along. “I’ve not got anything to offer…” Perhaps we should be reminded of Paul’s words, “a spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other.” (1 Cor 12:7) And so we need to identify that gift… and fan it into flame!
Secondly, Paul references the conflict that threatens the well-being of the Church. We have heard this talk before… and yes, it was common. Still is. Bad teaching and flawed doctrine is as common as messed up politics. But Paul is concerned with how Timothy confronts such error… “Guard the precious truth that has been entrusted to you.” (2 Tim 1:14) And:
“Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth. Avoid worthless, foolish talk that only leads to more godless behavior. This kind of talk spreads like cancer, as in the case of Hymenaeus and Philetus. They have left the path of truth, claiming that the resurrection of the dead has already occurred; in this way, they have turned some people away from the faith.
But God’s truth stands firm like a foundation stone with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and “All who belong to the Lord must turn away from evil.” (2 Tim 2:15-19)
Paul wants Timothy to be able to confront error with truth… the Truth of God’s Word. And, to be able to correctly explain the Word of Truth one needs to work hard to learn it, know it, understand it. It takes hard work. But we also need to avoid the endless, fruitless arguing that sometimes characterizes many church conflicts. In 2 Timothy 2:14 we read, “Remind everyone about these things, and command them in God’s presence to stop fighting over words. Such arguments are useless, and they can ruin those who hear them.” John Calvin well described this kind of argument as “seeking to be seen as ingenious…” and not concerned with application or obedience. Splitting hairs. Then again, Jesus would talk about pharisees who would use the law to escape righteous responsibilities by claiming religious obligation (see Mark 7:11-12)… Using God to disobey God. Or using the Bible to hide from God.
Paul strongly cautions Timothy to not only study, but flee youthful passions/lusts and bad company, and to live a pure life.
If you keep yourself pure, you will be a special utensil for honorable use. Your life will be clean, and you will be ready for the Master to use you for every good work.
Run from anything that stimulates youthful lusts. Instead, pursue righteous living, faithfulness, love, and peace. Enjoy the companionship of those who call on the Lord with pure hearts. (2 Tim 2:21-22)
There are so many temptations in this life, and many are directed at younger people… Money, power, popularity, possessions... pleasure. And, sometimes, our company leads us down wrong pathways. Bad company corrupts, good company encourages.
…Wait!... Does this mean that we shouldn’t have non-Christian friends, and we should retreat from the “world”? No… but it does mean we should be cautious, wise with where we let our guard down. Who do we allow to build us up? Those who value the same things as us? Or those who hold out “forbidden fruit”?
Repetition is an important indication that we should pay attention to something. So, when Paul once again speak about how we should conduct ourselves in the midst of conflict, we should take note that it is important:
Again I say, don’t get involved in foolish, ignorant arguments that only start fights. A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth. Then they will come to their senses and escape from the devil’s trap. For they have been held captive by him to do whatever he wants. (2 Tim 2:23-26)
Arguing… debating… is futile. There is a difference between teaching, even correcting and rebuking. Those all rely upon open and willing hearts. Debating and arguing happen with people whose minds are already set. It serves no good purpose.
Paul then warns his young apprentice that the future will be difficult. Often we are told that it’s going to get better… that the best is yet to be. But Paul (and other Scripture) plainly tells us that hard times are coming. Isn’t that depressing? Shouldn’t there be better encouragement? The point is, we need to know where our courage comes from. It’s not from success, or popularity, or good health, or good friends. Our hope can only be found in God… but sometimes it seems like the wicked will flourish…
But you, Timothy, certainly know what I teach, and how I live, and what my purpose in life is. You know my faith, my patience, my love, and my endurance. You know how much persecution and suffering I have endured. You know all about how I was persecuted in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra—but the Lord rescued me from all of it. Yes, and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil people and impostors will flourish. They will deceive others and will themselves be deceived.
But you must remain faithful to the things you have been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you. You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. (2 Tim 3:10-17)
In the final chapter, Paul continues to urge young Timothy to continue the hard work of ministry… patiently teaching, rebuking, correcting… all the while keeping a clear conscience.
The last words of Paul in this chapter are heart wrenching… yet hold also hold great comfort:
Timothy, please come as soon as you can. Demas has deserted me because he loves the things of this life and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus has gone to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Bring Mark with you when you come, for he will be helpful to me in my ministry. I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, be sure to bring the coat I left with Carpus at Troas. Also bring my books, and especially my papers.
Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm, but the Lord will judge him for what he has done. Be careful of him, for he fought against everything we said.
The first time I was brought before the judge, no one came with me. Everyone abandoned me. May it not be counted against them. But the Lord stood with me and gave me strength so that I might preach the Good News in its entirety for all the Gentiles to hear. And he rescued me from certain death. Yes, and the Lord will deliver me from every evil attack and will bring me safely into his heavenly Kingdom. All glory to God forever and ever! Amen. (2 Tim 4:9-18)
Paul details how everyone has left him… he has been deserted. A faithful life can feel very lonely and can leave us feeling rejected. Certainly Jesus had that experience. And Jesus reminded his followers that what he experienced they should also expect. Again, this sounds like such a depressing thought… People leave, people betray. We should not, cannot, count on people. This does not mean that everyone will leave or betray… rather it means that they cannot be made our security and our hope. Because, in our humanity, we are weak and fickle.
This is where we find the true “secret” to Paul’s faith: “But the Lord stood with me and gave me strength…”
This is sound advice for young Timothy who will also be facing strong opposition… the Lord will stand with you and give you strength… so you can accomplish what the Lord has called you to do.
“Yes, and the Lord will deliver me from every attack and will bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.” (v18)
I think it needs to be pointed out here what this text does not say. It does not say that the Lord will deliver me from every attack and will keep me safe in this life. It does not say that the Lord will deliver me from my enemies and make me successful and prosperous.
What it does say is that the Lord will deliver us and bring us safely into his heavenly kingdom. We might just lose our lives in this… But we will never lose our souls. We avoid a lot of things in this life because we are afraid of death. But I wonder if we sometimes fear death so much that we never live?
So, writing in desperate circumstances, knowing that time is short, Paul writes to his beloved “son” to encourage him. Life is difficult and will likely get worse, he says. But guard the gospel which you have received. Study and know it… cling to it. And patiently and gently teach it… entrust it to faithful people. Gather with those who will help you stay true. And know that even when they abandon you, the Lord will never leave you… nor forsake you, but will strengthen you and give you aid.
I think Paul gives some great last words for us to hold on to… but let us end with his benediction… His good words:
May the Lord be with your spirit. And may his grace be with all of you. (2 Tim 4:22)