A Ministry Fulfilled: Paul's Last Days

2 Timothy 4:6-14

 

After delivering to Timothy a soaring call to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ at all times and "fulfill [his] ministry" in the midst of increasing opposition from inside and outside the Church, Paul reflects again on his own fulfilled ministry. He calls to mind those who have persevered alongside him, those who have fallen away, and of his desire to fellowship once more with Timothy as his time on earth nears its end.

Paul writes, "For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come" (4:6). His choice of somewhat conflicting metaphors describes the peculiar situation of a faithful believer in Christ facing imminent death. What for those "who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13) is only sorrow is for believers a bittersweet joy. On the one hand, Paul is missing his friends and suffering as he awaits execution-he is in the process of being sacrificed, poured out on the altar for God's greater glory. On the other, his life of worship and service to the Lord is only just beginning-the Greek behind "departure" here is analusis, "loosing", carrying the idea of untying a ship or a horse in preparation for a journey-he is about to be set free to go further with Christ than he ever could in this life.

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith (4:7). With his departure at hand, Paul looks at the work he is leaving behind and confidently rests in the knowledge that he lived out his call with obedience. He knew that he had, in the words of the book of Hebrews, "run with endurance the race that is set before us" (Heb. 12:1). Paul does not see regrets but the Lord's faithfulness, and rejoices that he was enabled to serve well. This also gives him confidence in appearing before the Lord at his death: "in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing" (4:8). The mention of reward here is not Paul's motivation for faithfulness, but rather is the symbol of his true desire-the Lord's approval and final pronouncement of his righteousness in Christ.

Note that this is not something special to Paul; the "crown of righteousness" is for "all who have loved His appearing." Especially given the context of this letter (emphasizing the power and preaching of the one true Word), Paul is not looking for some special award for "apostleship above and beyond the call of duty," but a joyful acceptance before the throne based solely on His trust in Christ alone. God, "the righteous Judge," will not turn His back on those who are justified by Christ's blood.

In Guard the Gospel, John R. W. Stott points out that Paul's phrasing here may be calling out a contrast between his death sentence at the hand of "the unrighteous judge" Nero and the true verdict of Christ (Stott, 115). The world is resolutely opposed to Christ and His Gospel, and our following after Him and obeying His commands is judged negatively. Sometimes this judgment is small-scale (taking offense, being passed over for friendship and job opportunities), sometimes more pronounced (public ridicule, ostracism), and sometimes persecution backed up by the power of the state all the way to the point of incarceration, torture, or execution. No matter what accusations the worldly authorities bring against us for our faith, as Christians we know that they are not the final judge-we will be ultimately vindicated by our Creator, Redeemer, and King, and will reign with Him for eternity (2:11-13).

Turning back to the temporal realm, Paul asks no small favor of Timothy: "Make every effort to come to me soon" (4:9). A journey between Ephesus and Rome would be nearly 1,000 miles by very dangerous ocean voyage. Paul would not likely have made such a request unless he felt certain that he would not otherwise see Timothy again this side of glory. His sincere plea, in good faith that Timothy would respond, shows yet again the depth of the bond between Paul and his disciple.

Paul then gives a "round-up" of his present and former co-laborers in the truth, almost a roster of central figures of the New Testament: "for Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia" (4:9). Demas, mentioned as Paul's companion in Colossians and Philemon, had now abandoned him, his name forever becoming a by-word for unfaithfulness in churches. I think we underestimate the warning Paul is giving in his lament for Demas, however, by focusing on the word "world" rather than the word "present"-perhaps Demas' great sin was not in flagrant worldliness, but in a failure of eternal perspective. Perhaps, when persecution closed in, he feared men more than God (c. f. Matt. 10:28) and abandoned the faith to save his own neck. To turn away from the truth in order to preserve our own comfort is as clear a rejection of Christ as any more overtly sinful lifestyle.

Of course, many who Paul mentions here have not selfishly abandoned him, but are faithful servants obediently fulfilling their own ministries across the Empire. Crescens and Titus are presumably carrying the Gospel message to these far-flung unreached regions. Some manuscripts read "Gaul" rather than "Galatia", suggesting that Crescens was the first to carry the truth to what is today France. Dalmatia was a Roman province on the Adriatic Sea, covering the present-day nation of Croatia.

Other men are on Paul's mind as well: "Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service. But Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus" (4:11-12). Paul's constant companion and chronicler, Luke, is with him in Rome (either caring for him as a friend and physician or imprisoned with him). Tychicus is en route to Ephesus, presumably bearing this letter and a charge from Paul to look after the church there so that Timothy could travel to Rome. Mark, whose abandonment of Paul & Barnabas as a younger man had led to a split in that first missionary team (Acts 15:36-41), is here called for by name and called "useful"-clearly the Spirit had worked forgiveness and unity in their hearts over time.

Beyond his desire for Christian companions to be with him in his suffering, Paul asks Timothy to bring some select physical belongings to him: "When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments" (4:13). Paul's need of his cloak is obvious, given the less-than-cozy conditions of Roman dungeons in the impending winter (c.f. 4:21). His request for books makes sense as well, as the life of the mind & spirit is the only freedom left to him in prison. Paul is especially concerned for "the parchments", likely his copies of the Old Testament. In a fitting bookend to his letter about the surpassing value of the Word, Paul is eager to continue studying and reading it to the end. He knew that his life was not his own, and continually poured himself out in service to the Lord from conversion to death, leaving us an example of faithfulness to which we can aspire.

Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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