So here we are at the most intimate, and soul laid bare, part of Paul’s letters to Timothy. In these sermon commentaries, we’ve hinted all along about what Paul reveals in these verses—that he’s at the end of his earthly life, abandoned by fellow ministry partners, waiting on his imminent death. The lectionary selection leaves out a number of verses that (a) outline all of the people who have abandoned and betrayed Paul and (b) list items and people Paul wants Timothy to bring to him while he waits for the end. These verses really remind us how human Paul was, don’t they?
The verses that the lectionary decides to focus our attention on, however, serve to draw our attention to Paul’s state of mind. It’s as though the lectionary selection is a guard that keeps us from getting lost in the suffering Paul experiences, and instead transfixes our attention on the source of his strength through hard times.
In Dear Gift of Life: A Man’s Encounter with Death, poet Bradford Smith wrote, “No one has reached maturity until he has learned to face the facts of his own death and shaped his own way of living accordingly.”
I heard that Smith quote in a recording of a sermon on 2 Timothy 4.1-8 by David Watermulder at Princeton Seminary in 1972 entitled “What Death Does to Life.” Among many other memorable things, Watermulder preached, “If we can affirm death as a part of life; if it is something to anticipate rather than something to dread, something to complete rather than something to destroy; then life becomes different. For death does fantastic things to life. The person who doesn’t want to face it can turn into a frantic fool or into a bitter, resentful person. The person who can affirm it and who can embrace death as a part of life, is likely to live a life of victory and of triumph.”
Both Watermulder and Smith capture Paul’s state of mind. As a true disciple of Jesus who had given everything over to the work of the kingdom, Paul was all in. All in. Even before Paul went to court in Rome, Paul knew his death belonged to Jesus just as much as his life did.
Consider the extensive examples from Paul’s letters. Here are just two. In Romans 8, Paul writes “Who will separate us?… For I am convinced that neither death nor life… can separate us from the love of God.” In Philippians 1, he writes, “my eager expectation and hope [is that] Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
Paul’s state of mind, then, at least post-conversion to Christianity, has always included awareness of his death as deeply connected to his life in Christ—just as Jesus’ death was deeply connected to his life. Daily dying and rising with Christ, Paul preached all over the ancient near east, is the call to take off and put to death the old self and to put on the new self, which is Christ!
Consider the power of such a life as well as such a view of death. Like it was for Jesus, Paul’s state of mind regarding his life and death is focused squarely on the glory of God and the revelation of God’s gospel. Paul faces his death as one more opportunity to point people to Jesus’ death and how his death is good news for the world.
Paul’s daily dying and rising transformed his ministry into the effective tool of the Holy Spirit in establishing the church. See how even here in these six verses Paul’s attention to his own story grows to shift the focus on God’s story for all humanity? It turns out that what Paul said earlier about himself is true; Paul is the chief sinner, but also the prime example of God’s great grace on a human life. We see this in two beautiful ways in our lectionary selection today.
First, Paul writes full of hope and trust that he will be welcomed by Christ; the Lord will give Paul a crown of righteousness for finishing the race set before him on the day of judgement. But not only him! Paul is just as warmed and filled by hope because a crown of righteousness awaits “all who have longed for his [that is Jesus’] appearing.” Paul’s whole goal was that more people would come to know Jesus in such a way that they longed for his return. So why wouldn’t he be so passionate and glad to know that they too will be blessed for eternity?
Second, after describing all of the betrayals and abandonment in the excluded verses with such vulnerable honesty, Paul writes “all deserted me. May it not be counted against them!” Yes, Paul is disappointed and hurt and saddened and suffering because no came to his support as he went to court. But his hope for them flows from forgiving them. Paul has decided to not hold their actions against them because he knows that God does the same for him. Though he knows that God is the final judge to whom we can entrust our enemies, Paul’s words connote his intercession that they will not get what they deserve.
These two examples are part and parcel of the witness that Paul gave to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Would that more of us had such hope and love! Such a state of mind is a gift too rare. But where did that gift come from?
We know that it was rooted in Paul’s relationship with the living Christ. And we know that Paul lived by, with, and in step with the Holy Spirit (all of these prepositional phrases are found in the sentences leading up to the Fruit of the Spirit section of Galatians). In other words, the same Spirit that Paul entreated Timothy to rely on for ministry was alive and at work in Paul. And though he doesn’t say so here, the Spirit of God is the one accompanying Paul on this road to death, just as the Spirit accompanied him and empowered every second of his ministry of bringing glory to Christ. In his commentary on the two letters to Timothy and Titus, Gordon Fee writes, “It would have been as natural as breathing for [Paul] to experience the presence of the Lord at such a time.”
It is the Holy Spirit who connects and keeps Paul in the saving work of Jesus. Jesus, the one who Paul knows will rescue him from every evil attack and save him for God’s heavenly kingdom as the resurrected King.
Thinking back to the quote we started with: “No one has reached maturity until he has learned to face the facts of his own death and shaped his own way of living accordingly.” I think that Paul would have said “YES!” to this sentence; but he would have qualified it. Contemplating his own death would have been a powerful moment in his discipleship journey, but even more powerful and shaping was another’s death—that of the resurrected King. Paul might have quoted Smith and then said, “And no one has reached real maturity until they have learned to face the facts of Christ’s death and shaped their way of living accordingly.” For it was Christ’s death that served as the turning point; it was Christ’s death that embodied and gave forgiveness to God’s people; it was at Christ’s death that Jesus’ crown of thorns became a crown of glory.
“To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Historical Point/Illustration Idea
Paul describes himself as “already being poured out as a libation.” This is a very specific way for Paul to say that he views his death as an offering to God. Drink offerings were part of the Old Testament instructions (Numbers 28.7) regarding regular sacrifices and offerings. In fact, they are common among many religions, ancient and modern, including in the Greco Roman world that Paul and Timothy occupied.
The impact of the imagery of a drink offering being poured out has had impressive staying power, finding its way even into modern pop culture. Rap songs talk about ‘pouring one out,’ for a dead friend, and scenes in movies depict people pouring portions of their bottles or cups of alcohol over someone’s grave as they gather as friends to drink and remember their lost companion.
Notice, though, the difference between the way Paul understands the offering and our modern Western view (as depicted in pop culture): one is offered in remembrance of a dead person to God, the other is offered by a living person as a sacrifice to God.
How interesting that we’ve taken the hard part out! It’s fine and dandy to remember someone we’ve lost and to give thanks to God for that person… it’s a whole other thing to offer our own lives and deaths to God like Paul did.
Yet, that’s the crux that makes Paul’s entire life (including his death) and his attitudes so impressive. He was able to forgive, to not hold grudges, to give God extraordinary glory in trying times because he offered his life to God as a living sacrifice. (Romans 12.1-2)
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 27, 2019
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 Commentary