Last Words

Chatswood Baptist Church

Last Words 

This morning’s sermon is both a word to Mark, as he officially takes up this charge as a pastor in our church, and a word to all of us as a congregation—the final instalment of a little series in 2 Timothy. We’ve been reading this letter from Paul the apostle to his co-worker and apprentice Timothy, his son in the faith, about the work of ministry—about what it means to be a servant of the Lord Jesus. So we’ve been thinking together week by week about Christian ministry—both in the narrow sense, referring to the work of those whose job it is to labour in preaching and teaching and leadership among God’s people—both in the narrow sense of the word, referring to that job that some of us do and some of us are training to do, and also in the broad sense, referring to the way in which all of us who know the Lord Jesus are called to be his ministers, his agents, his servants. So the passage is perfect for the purpose.

We’ve been reading through 2 Timothy, and this week we reach chapter 4, the last chapter of the letter, which is the closest thing we have to the apostle Paul’s last words. It’s the last page of his last surviving letter, written from prison under the shadow of his execution. 

The fact that it’s his last words adds to the weight of them, doesn’t it. I was a visiting preacher once –years ago now—at a church where the guy who had planted the congregation twenty years or so earlier had just been released from hospital with a few days to live, so that he could go home and die with his family. I was half way through my sermon—I think it was on 2 Corinthians 4—when his daughter wheeled him through the back doors of the church in a wheelchair. I think the entirety of what was left of my sermon fell on completely deaf ears after that. But then a few minutes later when he was wheeled out the front and read the Bible and said a few words before communion, everyone listened to every word, because they were his final words to that congregation. It’s a bit like that with Paul’s words to Timothy here in 2 Timothy chapter 4. 

It’s partly a list of instructions. There are more imperatives per 1000 words—imperatives are those verb forms that you use when you are instructing or commanding someone—in 1 and 2 Timothy than in almost any other book of the New Testament, and a good deal of them are here in 2 Timothy chapter 4. Paul’s writing to Timothy, under the shadow of his departure, and he’s giving him his final instructions. It’s like the last words that the coach gives to the team before they run out onto the field and leave him behind in the grandstand.

But it’s not just a chapter of instructions. If the apostle Paul has consistently said to others—including Timothy—‘Imitate me as I imitate Christ’, then it makes sense that we read this last chapter not only as a series of instructions but also as a kind of written example; we read it not only for the things that he told Timothyto do, but also for the picture we get of Paul himselfat the end of his life, and for what it says about the way that he lived, and the things that he lived by, and the things that he lived for. 

Preach the Word (vv. 1-5)

The chapter starts, in verses 1-5, with a charge, or a solemn command, that Paul gives to Timothy. Verse 1: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

Jesus is coming again, and he will be the judge of the living and the dead. He is my witness as I say this to you, and he is the one who will hold you accountable to whether you do it or not. That’s the gist of verse 1. And the command that Paul gives to Timothy is a command to preach the word. 

It’s worth asking the question: what does Paul mean by that phrase? Normally the language of ‘preaching’ is used in the New Testament not to describe a sermon in church but rather to describe evangelism out in the world. So when Paul says, ‘Preach the word’, is he talking about telling the gospel to non-Christians, or teaching the Bible to Christians

The answer I think is both

On the one hand, we need to make sure that we don’t read back into 2 Timothy some picture from the church culture that we grew up in, where ‘preaching the word’ is all about thirty-minute Bible talks to a bunch of Christians in a church building on Sunday, like the one I’m giving now. The essence of ‘preaching the word’ isn’t pews and pulpits and ministers and monologues. Those are just the conventions of the church culture that we grew up in. 

On the other hand, we make a mistake if we think that the work of the gospel stops when people get converted, when they decide to become followers of Jesus. When Paul sums up how he sees his ministry at the end of Colossians chapter 1, he says that it’s all—the whole of his ministry—about ‘preaching Christ’—not just with the goal of winning converts, but with the goal of presenting people complete in Christ at the last day. 

And here in 2 Timothy in the verses that follow, he makes it clear that if Timothy is going to be faithful in preaching the word, it will include a lot of things in the rest of verse 2 that sound a lot to me like teaching the Bible to Christians. So ‘preaching the word’ means both telling the gospel to non-Christians and teaching the Bible to Christians, and the two go hand in hand—as they do quite neatly in Mark’s job description. 

* in season and out of season

What follows next is a series of three things Paul tells Timothy about howhe is to do it. First, verse 2, he’s to be ready to do it ‘in season and out of season’. When it’s convenient; when it’s not convenient; when it’s easy, when it’s not easy; when the time is favourable and when the time is not favourable. Timothy is to be always prepared, always ready, always willing. There will be times when people just come up to him and say: “Please explain to me about what you believe. Tell me about how I can become a Christian.” There will also be times when the opportunity will be there but there will also be resistance and opposition and hostility and apathy—it will feel like the gospel is out of season, like there’s no one wanting to buy it. Take those opportunities too. 

If you’re anything like me then you need to hear that word. I think that I’m much better equipped than I was ten years or twenty years ago to take the opportunities to preach the word when it’s in season—when someone comes up to me and says, “tell me about this”, or “help me understand that”, or “come and give a talk on this…”. But I’ve still got such a long way to go when it’s one of those situations where the word feels like it’s out of season. And it basically comes down to boldness, doesn’t it—or more precisely, as Paul says in Colossians 4—the ability to be boldand graciousat the same time.  (The two go together, actually—they’re not opposites—and the enemy of both of them is self-interested fear.) Be prepared in season and out of season. 

* with application

Second, Paul tells Timothy in the middle part of verse 2, preach the word with application. “Correct, rebuke and encourage.” If your job is to be a preacher or a Bible study leader or a Sunday School teacher, don’t be content just to give people accurate information about what the Bible says. Apply it to their life and to your own. 

Sometimes that requires an edge of critique; sometimes faithfulness to your charge will require you to correct or to rebuke. Don’t be afraid to do that. 

And don’t forget to encourage, too. Exhort, encourage, urge people on; help them not to be afraid or disheartened. The Christian life is hard, and we need help from each other just to keep going—even those who might outwardly look like they’re strong and self-sufficient. So don’t just correct and rebuke; encourage as well.

And as Timothy does all these things, the ministry that he’s doing is still, at the heart of it, a ministry of the word of God. They’re all facets of what it means to ‘preach the word’. You see that at the end of the previous chapter: the kind of things that Timothy has to do in his ministry (‘correct, rebuke, encourage, instruct’) are precisely the kind of things that the word of God is useful for (2 Timothy 3:16)—“teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”. So preach the word, preach it in season and out of season, and preach it with application.

* with patience

And thirdly, preach it with patience. People don’t change in a hurry. If you were going to compare gospel ministry with an art form, I think it would be sculpture not digital photography. You don’t just press buttons and get results. There’s a lot of chipping away at rock involved. People are full of inconsistencies. They grasp the gospel and make really courageous decisions to live it out over in this part of their lives; and at the same time over in this aspect of their lives they seem so slow to change. Ever notice that? That’s what you and I are like. So keep at it. Keep chipping away.

An unpopular ministry

The kind of ministry that Paul is urging Timothy to be committed to—the kind of ministry that we need to be committed to—that kind of ministry is always going to be an unpopular ministry. Verse 3, Paul says: sound doctrine is never going to be a crowd pleaser. People go to where the teaching is what their itching ears want to hear. People would rather hear a myth if it matches up with what they want to believe than the truth, if it feels a bit uncomfortable. People would rather live with a fictional version of God who doesn’t expect them to change than be confronted with the real God who does. 

So the chances are that if you are Bible-driven rather than demand-driven in what you teach, then you may never really be a crowd pleaser. Your ministry may well be an unpopular ministry compared to the places where they just tell people whatever they want to hear. And that is not a sign of failure. Populist ministry, like populist politics, flourishes in the short term, like the weeds in the garden. But it is ruinous in the long term. Don’t go down that path.

A faithful ministry

If you resist that temptation your ministry may not be a popular ministry, but more importantly, verse 5, it will be a faithful ministry. “But you,” Paul says to Timothy, “keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” Don’t just do what people want you to do; don’t just say what people want you to say; don’t just be dictated to by the preferences and priorities of others; instead, set your direction by the commission that God has given you. Keep your head; keep focussed on your job description, and do it properly and faithfully and consistently—the hard bits as well as the easy bits.

Faithfulness (vv. 6-13)

And then in verses 6 to 13 the accent shifts from Paul’s instructions to his example—in particular, to the way that Paul is an example of the kind of faithfulness in gospel ministry that he is urging Timothy to have. 

Looking back on a finished work

In part—verses 6 to 8—we see Paul’s example as he looks back over the finished work of his life. Verse 6: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8Now there is in store 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 longed for his appearing.”

Paul knows that he is going to be executed soon. In terms of the imagery of the Old Testament sacrifices, his life is going to be poured out like a drink offering to God. And as he looks back at the end of his life, he doesn’t see a track record of sinlessness—in another place he calls himself the chief of sinners—but he can look back and see that ever since Jesus took hold of him, he hasn’t let go of Jesus, and he hasn’t given up on the work of the gospel. He’s fought the fight to the end, and he’s run the race, and he’s kept the faith. 

Timothy in Ephesus, reading verse 7, would almost certainly have remembered the time when Paul said goodbye to the elders of the church in Ephesus—Luke records in in Acts chapter 20—when Paul was on his way to Jerusalem. He knew that this was a dangerous journey to make, and people had urged him not to go, but he continues, and in Miletus he meets up with the elders of the church in Ephesus and he says to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. 19I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews. 20You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. 21I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. 22And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.”

And now in Rome, in prison, he looks back and he is glad that he didn’t shrink back or give up or drop out of the race half way. He’s glad, and he says: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8Now there is in store 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 longed for his appearing.”

Looking ahead at an unfinished work

But the race isn’t quite finished yet. He’s under the death sentence, and he can measure his life in months not years, but he still looks forward as well as back. He still knows that there’s a few months left that he can use to serve Jesus. 

So he says to Timothy, verse 9: “Do your best to come to me quickly, 10for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. 11Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. 12I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. 13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.” 

Winter is coming soon, and he needs his cloak. But he also needs the scrolls and the parchments. He still has work to be done. It reminds me of William Tyndale, condemned by the bishops and the king of England for trying to get an English translation of the Bible into the hands of ordinary people, languishing in a prison (in Belgium, actually) waiting to be executed for treason—and he writes to a friend and says: Try and get me some paper and a Hebrew dictionary—there’s still a bit of Old Testament that I can translate before they kill me. And in fact when he died, he left behind the bit from Joshua to 2 Kings, which he had translated in prison. 

That’s what faithfulness looks like, isn’t it. Even when you’ve finished the race, if there’s a bit more air in your lungs you can still run another lap or two; and so Paul writes to Timothy and says: see if you can get me some scrolls and parchment.

Unfaithfulness (vv. 9-16)

There’s a picture of faithfulness in these verses. There’s also a picture of unfaithfulness. There’s Demas—verse 10—who loved this world. That’s a sad verse, isn’t it, and a scary one. There’s Alexander the metalworker, and Paul doesn’t say: see if you can pursue him and get him punished for what he did—bring his grey head down to the grave in blood. This is not like David’s last words to Solomon. He relinquishes retribution and hands it over to God; he says: “The Lord will repay him…”—and you watch out for him, because he opposed the gospel and fought against it. In fact, verse 16, there’s pretty well everyone who abandoned Paul when he was dragged before the authorities. There’s a whole list of examples for Timothy not to be like; a whole list of people who have walked away from the faith and given up on the work of the gospel and abandoned Paul. 

Faithfulness (v. 17-22)

But the final note is not about the unfaithfulness of people but about the faithfulnes of God. Verse 17: “But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. 18The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” 

How will the Lord rescue Paul? Ultimately it will be in death, and he will bring him home safely to his heavenly kingdom. Whether he lives or dies, Paul knows that God will remain faithful and so he gives glory to him—and at the end of the letter, verse 22, he commends Timothy to God, and to his grace. 

It’s a powerful example, isn’t it, of how to live your life. It’s about living for God till your very last breath. It’s about being prepared to bank your life on the faithfulness of God—being willing to let your life get poured out like a drink offering in the work of the gospel, because you are so confident that in the end God will bring you through into his heavenly kingdom. 

When you’re running a long race, it helps if you can visualise what the final lap will be like—what it will be like when you cross the finish line and hit the tape. It’s the same with the Christian life. It helps if you can ask yourself from time to time: How do I want to finish this? What do I want the last chapter of my life to look like? Do I want to finish like Paul does here in 2 Timothy 4, or do I want to get to the end of my life and realise that I have spent the greater part of it on trivialities, running round in circles after things that are really of no eternal consequence?

You get to the end of 2 Timothy, and it makes you think about what it will be like to get to the end of your life—when the fight is finished and the race is run—the day when, as Paul reminded Timothy at the start of the chapter, we stand before God our maker and Jesus our judge. Mark, I want to say to you this morning, keep that end in view. Keep fighting the good fight; keep running the straight race. And to all the rest of us the challenge is much the same: keep encouraging him along in that, and keep encouraging Larissa and the family, and join alongside them in the same fight and the same race, as God gives you strength.