2 Timothy 4:6–8 (NRSV)
6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
2 Timothy 4:16–18 (NRSV)
16 At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! 17 But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. 18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
When we consider the letters that Paul wrote, the ones that were written to individuals are probably the best. I say that not because they are filled with great theological teachings, in fact these personal letters are filled with some of the most controversial words written by Paul. Of course most of those words could be appreciated if we take into account the cultural context of the area and that this is personal advice from a teacher to a disciple to avoid controversy and promote unity in the local meeting. But these letters are filled with passionate encouragement to young ministers from a greatly respected mentor, they are filled with the intimacy of a father to a son.
How many of us read these letters in that way? Paul responds to the frustrations of Timothy, he is frustrated because this church Ephesus is filled with competing ideas and he must constantly bear witness to the hope that he has through various rejections. The people of Ephesus enjoy the largest temple devoted to the goddess Diana, who according to mythology refused the perceived natural norms for women and was empowered to live a life on her own. This played out in the community as well, which caused tension in both the Roman and Jewish world. It was a port city so filled with great wealth, so ideas of wealth and economics came into the church. Concepts of magic, and those seeking signs and wonders all filtered into the church. From all sides Timothy was caught in a defensive mode, while trying to encourage people to follow the true gospel of Christ. Paul knew the struggle because he was also a soldier in the same fight. He knew the discouragement that reared its head in Timothy’s life.
So Paul encourages Timothy to continue to walk in the faith that he knew. Continue to live the life of discipline that he learned from childhood. He encouraged him to continue to read the scriptures, because they are inspired by God and are useful in the teaching and encouragement of others, just as it was in encouraging Timothy himself. Paul tells Timothy to not engage in the wrangling of words as the other teachers did. He says this because when we take the bait of the debate those that listen hear only the argumentative nature and not the encouragement. Paul instead encourages Timothy to teach and encourage those in this city by living a life of faith reflecting the love of Christ in the marketplace, during the dispute, and when providing ministry to others.
As I was studying this week, I spent time rereading these words of encouragement. It reminded me a great deal of the many conversations that I have had with people I respect. While living through a time of great stress where I needed to make a major decision, the words of my mother mimic the words of Paul. She spoke with great love and compassion but maybe not quite as eloquent. The first response from my mom would be, “did you pray about it.” Like Paul, my mom focused on discipleship before anything else. Usually with the urge to pray was some sort of testimony of how God had worked in her life. While playing high school sports, well I should say practicing high school sports since I rarely played in a game, I would often find myself on the opposite side of positive because I loved to play yet rode the bench. My dad would always tell me just to play the game, run my hardest, to keep my eyes on the ball and my hands up. These words resemble that of Paul’s while he encouraged Timothy to remember, and continue. As the discouragement distracted me, my dad would refocus my attention to what was important. Remember what you learned, remember to have fun, remember.
When jobs discouraged me and things were not going the way I hoped, when I was not getting the sales quotas, when it seemed like what I was saying was hitting a brick wall, my parents would encourage me to not resort to trickery, but to just speak clearly and honestly, because people will recognize the value when presented with the truth. The interesting thing is that I rarely missed a goal even when thing looked the worst, and often would end the month as the sales leader when I spent the majority of time discouraged.
Paul reminds us that life is tough, but we should do our best to ease the tension instead of adding to it. How can you as a follower of Christ bring hope into the situation, and are we seeking the Kingdom of God in the situation here on Earth as it is in heaven. I love the words Paul wrote to his young apprentice. They are practical, and help keep us all focused on what is really important. The Meeting is not the place for political stances to take root, it is not a place for debate, it is the place where we can all come together to encourage people for diverse areas of life to remember and continue.
The most inspiring thing about these words are that Paul wrote the words of this letter months if not days before his execution. He says that he is being pour out as a libation, a drink offering. This term we usually attach to the ancient Jewish temple customs but it is used though out ancient cultures. It does not matter if it is pagan or Jewish all religions used this custom. It was where a portion of the wine was poured out either in the flames or on the ground in thanksgiving or oath. But in some extreme cases in pagan rites the one giving the offering would mix blood with the wine to seal the desired blessing. We have seen this sort of thing being done even today, when people buy a drink for a deceased loved one, or when they open a bottle and pour the first bit onto the ground as a way to thank God for blessings.
What Paul is saying is his life is nearly over, his mission is coming to a close. His blood will be spilled to ensure the desired and awaited reward that is his in Christ. You see Paul was executed around 67 AD, and this letter was written within a year prior to that date. All of these words of encouragement were written to this young apprentice while the mentor was facing his greatest trial. This speaks volumes about true discipleship. Paul lived out the words that he taught, when he encourages the church to do nothing out of selfish ambition of vain conceit, he actually lives it out. While Paul was facing the trial that would claim his very life, he was more concerned with encouraging his dear friend Timothy than with gathering character witnesses to speak at his trial. In fact he is encouraging his friend even while he is expressing his farewell.
He continues to point Timothy to Christ, as he says his life is about to be poured out he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race I have kept the faith.” He is saying to Timothy, do not worry about me I have my reward in Christ, I have the crown of righteousness. This reward is available to all who long Christ’s return. So in essence Paul is telling Timothy again to remember and continue just as he has before. He says look at how I spoke, look at how I lived and remember and continue to do the same continue to speak the hope of the kingdom that is guaranteed by the resurrected Christ.
But Timothy has doubts. His friend and mentor is in chains. His disciples stretch across the Roman Empire and many have turned away and have embraced other forms of faith. Some have begun to imitate the traditions of Rabbinical Judaism, others have embraced angel worship, and some have even become hybrids of pagan rituals interpreting faith as a form of magic while abusing the gifts that God had given for the common good of the community as means for personal gain. Timothy is jaded by those former disciples, those that have left the traditions that Paul established and entrusted to their hands. Yet Paul still encouraging Timothy says, I am deserted and alone as I was in the beginning, but do not hold this against them. Why does he tell Timothy this? Why would he tell this one faithful friend not to hold a grudge against the ones who abandoned their spiritual mentor? Because to hold the grudge would weaken the kingdom of God, to enter into a battle against those who claim Christ divides the church, causes it to look weak and the gospel is void. When we fight against ourselves and allow division; the forces that oppose Christ gain strongholds against us. Our witness is tarnished and the influential mantle we once carried has passed from our shoulders and has been given to others.
Paul tells Timothy, that the Lord stood by me and gave me strength. By telling him this he is saying to Timothy that the same will be true for you, as long as you remain focused on what is most important and as long as you continue to walk the pathways of life with Christ. It reminds me of the prayer that Jesus prayed the night of his betrayal as he withdrew to the garden. He prayed thanksgiving that the words that God wanted to make known to the world were made known through Him. He prayed that those the Father gave to him would continue to carry those word out into the world and that the Gospel would spread and that His joy would be made complete through that. He then prayed that the Father would protect them because the evil one would seek to hinder the words from reaching the ears of those who had not yet heard. Right after he prays that the disciples would have divine protection he then speaks about being one just as God the Father and Son are one, united in Spirit and purpose, united in desire and joy, united in sorrow and hope. Unity is God’s desire for us. He wants us all to focus on what is important in life, and let those things that divide us fall away leaving only one thing. That one thing is the joy of God which is His glorification and the redemption of all of mankind. The return of relationship and the hope of reconciliation.
Paul has tasted that joy, he tasted it because while he was still a sinner, while he was still an enemy of God, one who was persecuting the very people God loved, God revealed to him that Jesus died for him. Jesus died for the enemy, He died for those who reject his ways and he did it because his joy is not complete without the communion He desires with His creation. And He died and rose again to give us that hope that life can be restored.
Do not hold it against them, Paul tells Timothy. Do not hold it against them because they do not fully understand. Yes they might know some of the truth but often we only see dimly. Jesus too made a claim such as then as he hung on that cross, he cried out to God, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Forgive them. Who was Jesus talking about? He asked the Father to forgive the religious leaders because out of their desires to do right they marginalized the very people their laws were meant to protect. He asked the Father to forgive the soldiers who followed the orders passed down from their superiors that were given to protect the peace and people of the empire but also resulted in the death of many. He asked the Father to forgive the Jew and the Gentile, the powerful and the weak. He asked the Father to turn the face of wrath away from them, and us all because we do not know what we are doing. Paul tells Timothy that it would do no good withhold forgiveness because they do not realize what they are doing, just as Paul himself did not realize what he was doing until it was revealed to him. How often we look back on our lives and wish we would have made a different decision at some point; we did not know what we were doing. But there is hope, because Jesus took that cross for us. And on that cross He stood in our place before the judge and said forgive them and let me stand for them.
Remember what is most important. Remember that it is through Jesus that all of creation and all of human history is perfected, that all of it is His and all that we are is a blessing received from Him. Remember that it is through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that we have hope, not through the strength of our own actions. Remember that by faith, by fulling entrusting our lives to him we have our true identity. And we can grow in that identity if we take on the life and lifestyle that Jesus lived: by making it our custom to join together to worship, by withdrawing often to prayer and communion with God in the isolated places, and by ministering to needs of those in the community. Take on the lifestyle of Christ, entrust all that we have to the king of the universe, and rest in His hope.
Paul speaks to his friend in the twilight of his life and reminds him, that in the end the only things that are truly important are the things that God holds as being important. God left the throne of heaven to live among mankind to bring hope and reconciliation to all of creation. Not empires, or careers, but lives of his creatures. He came to restore what was once lost through our rebellion, a rebellion where we thought we could know good and evil. We still struggle with that rebellion we struggle because we fail to remember that God loves. And those who call upon God and are known by his name reflect that nature, and Love looks to encourage the good in even the most unlovely. Paul says I have finished the race, but you are still running, the kingdom is still expanding over all the earth so let us continue our leg of that race: remembering, continuing, and reflecting the love of Christ to others.