When a famous or beloved person dies, everyone hangs on their last words. Those words show the accumulated wisdom of a person, the last lesson they want to pass on. The words may be few or as many as can be relayed. When we hear those final words, we listen and apply them because we will never have another chance to learn from our friend.
I recall a funeral where the pastor stood up and said, “I was present at the hospital when our beloved elder died. As he lay on the hospital bed, gasping for his last breath, he handed me this note, and I want to read it to you.” His face turned to ashes as he read, “’Reverend, get off my oxygen hose!’”
Today, we’ll be reading some of St. Paul’s last words. As you turn to 2 Timothy 2, think about the situation Paul is in. He’s in Rome, under arrest. His ministry is coming to a close and he knows it. Those who ministered with him are either off on their own missions, have left the faith for love of the world, or, in the case of Luke, are present with Paul. Only Luke remained with him in these final days. In these circumstances, Paul writes to his son in the faith, Timothy, who is ministering in Ephesus. The entire book is extremely profitable to us. I had great difficulty choosing which portion to read.
2 Timothy 2:1-19 ¶ You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. 3 Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier. 5 Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules. 6 The hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops. 7 Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. 8 ¶ Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel, 9 for which I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal; but the word of God is not imprisoned. 10 For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory. 11 It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; 12 If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; 13 If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself. 14 ¶ Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. 15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. 16 But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some. 19 Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.”
When Timothy received this letter, he knew that Paul was in prison. Paul was allowed only a few visitors and knew he was going to die. I imagine that Timothy read and reread this letter, pouring over it to glean every last word of wisdom from his mentor.
Point 1: We must Persevere (vv. 1-7)
1 You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. 3 Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier. 5 Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules. 6 The hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops. 7 Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.
Paul speaks of three things in this passage: be strong in grace, keep teaching so others may teach, and persevere in the faith.
How can we be strong in grace is a question we might ask. Grace is given to us from Christ. We cannot make it more or less. Being strong in grace means living in the faith you have, trusting God at all times for his mercy. Our strength is not enough to carry us through.
We want it to be. Our pride makes us want to say, “I did this!” and so we try things that are beyond us. However, even Paul reminds us that the things he wants to do, he does not, and the things he does not want to do, he does. The Devil will keep sending us greater and greater trials to take us down. Strong in grace means strong in Christ’s grace, knowing the strength He has given us and made available to us.
Timothy was also charged with making disciples. He was to pass on the faith to others. It isn’t enough that you know you are saved. Part of salvation is recognizing the fallen state of mankind, yourself especially. Being saved, you want to pull others from the fire. Today, we have been conditioned to concentrate so much on the love of Christ that we no longer point out to others his great justice. If there is no Hell, why is God merciful? James tells us that some will save by showing others mercy and others will save by instilling the fear of God in people, pulling them from the flames. Timothy knew his teaching was bearing fruit when his students began teaching.
The third thing here is persevere. We must press on through life to get to the goal. It is not a promise that those who convert to Christianity will make it to the end. Look at the passage just before this chapter. Paul tells of people who ministered with him but have left the faith.
There are some who would say those who leave the faith were never part of it. But I ask if Paul would be likely to make such a mistake? Would he invite to the ministry people who are not Christians? Don’t you think someone who had such an up-close and personal encounter with Christ would know who is and who isn’t?
Beyond Phygelus and Hermogenes, Paul lost others. You can tell when he concludes they have left the faith because he condemns their actions. Those who have gone on in ministry apart from Paul are different. For a time, Luke separated from Paul to minister on his own and another time, he left while Paul was in jail to research the Gospel that bears his name. On the other hand, Demas departed from Paul’s mission because he loved the world. He did not persevere to the end. Unless Demas repented again, he will not be awarded that crown for crossing the finish line.
I am also not including Mark in this. Mark left the ministry for a time because it was hard. It is hard, and Mark jumped in too early. He faltered and tripped, but he did not leave the faith, and he went on a missionary journey with Barnabas a few years after his failure. In fact, at the end of this book, Paul will tell Timothy to bring Mark with him because he is profitable to the ministry.
In Mark’s stumbling, we see another lesson. What the Devil means for evil, God can use for good. When Barnabas wanted to bring Mark the second time, Paul refused. Satan meant for this thorn to destroy the missionary team and keep both of them home. Instead, they shook hands, wished each other well, and went out as two missionary teams! Double the evangelism, double the converts, double the new churches. Mark stumbled, but came back, and Paul recognized that the young man was persevering for the faith.
Just like the warnings here, the book of Hebrews was also written as a warning against people leaving the faith. It isn’t everyone who runs that gets a reward; it is those who finish the race.
For those who teach that the saved will always persevere, I understand where they are coming from. I used to be one. However, the warnings of Scripture are too many to conclude that God is only addressing a hypothetical. I don’t warn people to be careful of things they can’t do even once. Much less do I repeat that warning! Why would God so many times say, ‘be careful to stay in the faith’ unless leaving the faith is a real possibility?
This concept of leaving the faith is called apostasy. That’s a Greek word, that means “falling away.” The Hebrew equivalent is very descriptive. It means “to turn away from repentance.” That’s a scary thought. The prophet Jeremiah has a very descriptive passage giving the Lord’s opinion of those who turn from repentance.
Paul reminds us that when we sign up for Christian service, we have to obey. Lip service isn’t enough. Just like a soldier has to obey his commanders and a runner has to compete according to the rules, we have to live according to Gods’ rules. Imagine a runner who repeatedly cheats, trips the other runners, and takes shortcuts being awarded a prize. That’s exactly what once-saved-always-saved asks us to believe when they say one who is truly saved can live like anything and enter Heaven.
Don’t misunderstand. Neither I nor Paul are saying that works are required for salvation. Like James, we remember that works grow out of salvation. One who is truly saved will show it in their living.
Paul ends this section with a command and a promise. Consider what he has written because the Holy Spirit will bring you understanding.
Point 2: We must Endure (vv. 8-13)
8 ¶ Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel, 9 for which I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal; but the word of God is not imprisoned. 10 For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory. 11 It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; 12 If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; 13 If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.
Jesus warned us that the world would hate us and come against us. If they killed Him, why wouldn’t they try to kill us. Around the world, everyday, Christians are killed simply for being Christians. Others are jailed.
It is hard to get valid numbers of how many are martyred in a year. However, we can estimate that 2/3 of the Christians alive today live in dangerous situations with fully half of them living and worshiping in countries where it is illegal to be a Christian. It had been the case for as long as there have been Christians. Of the twelve apostles, only one died of old age. The others were executed by the governments where they ministered for their faith.
We use the term martyrs, today, to refer to those who have died for their faith. Another term is used for those who have suffered great hardship and imprisonment without dying, confessor. For the first three centuries, all Christians lived with the threat of execution and persecution. Beginning with Emperor Nero there would be five major rounds of persecution in the next 70 years. Times of persecution would ebb and flow for the next two hundred years, but it was not until Constantine in the early fourth century that Christianity would be named a legal religion in the empire.
Fifty years after Paul wrote this letter, a time of severe persecution began in the region of Bithynia (today’s northern Turkey). The governor, Pliny the Younger, required that Christians curse Christ or die. It is not known how many lapsed in that time, but it is known that some did. At this time, even the most respected men of the church did not escape persecution. Some went into hiding, but if found, they stood firm in their beliefs. I will read the public trial of Cyprian of Carthage which has been preserved entirely.
Galerius Maximus:”Are you Thascius Cyprianus?” Cyprian: “I am.” Galerius: “The most sacred Emperors have commanded you to conform to the Roman rites.” Cyprian: “I refuse.” Galerius: “Take heed for yourself.” Cyprian: “Do as you are bid; in so clear a case I may not take heed.” Galerius, after briefly conferring with his judicial council, with much reluctance pronounced the following sentence: “You have long lived an irreligious life, and have drawn together a number of men bound by an unlawful association, and professed yourself an open enemy to the gods and the religion of Rome; and the pious, most sacred and august Emperors … have endeavoured in vain to bring you back to conformity with their religious observances; – whereas therefore you have been apprehended as principal and ringleader in these infamous crimes, you shall be made an example to those whom you have wickedly associated with you; the authority of law shall be ratified in your blood.” He then read the sentence of the court from a written tablet: “It is the sentence of this court that Thascius Cyprianus be executed with the sword.” Cyprian: “Thanks be to God.”
To us, the most surprising charge is that early Christians were labeled irreligious and atheists in their trials. This is because they refused to worship any God save the Lord and refused to make even a pinch of sacrifice to the emperor. The Christians who died for their faith clung fast to these verses we just read:
It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; 12 If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; 13 If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.
We can turn our backs on Him, but He will never turn His back on us. Because of the final line, it was allowed that those who faltered in a time of trial could return to the church after a time of penance and repentance. These are questions that the early church faced that we do not. For us, persecution might be bullied at school or denial of a promotion at work. Our culture is getting to the point where Christians will be persecuted more openly. Though in good news, the 10 Circuit Court has ruled that a Minnesota law requiring Christian videographers to video same-sex weddings is unconstitutional.
When Paul wrote this letter, he had already been under intense persecution and knew he was about to be executed for his beliefs. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-33 he describes the times he has been persecuted for his faith: whipped, beaten with rods, stones, shipwrecked, in prison, cold, hungry, thirsty, barely escaping with his life. He wrote what he knew.
One may be unfaithful without fully leaving Christ. To our dismay, sinning doesn’t stop at the altar. Because of that fact, we will at times wonder if we have been unfaithful enough to abandon Christ. This feeling is a gift of God! Listen to me, here.
When we are first converted, we have felt the need for repentance, and we repent of those actions and attitudes we recognize as sinful. As we grow in Christ, He reveals more things in our life that need to be rooted out. In those times, we will actually feel like we have regressed in the faith because of these things we now recognize.
But God is faithful! He has shown you where you have failed and, by His promise, He will bring you up from it.
Point 3: We must be Diligent against False Teachers (vv. 14-19)
14 ¶ Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. 15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. 16 But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some. 19 Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.
Paul comes to the finals section of our sermon today, reminding Timothy to not argue about empty chatter because that just leads people astray. He does not want Timothy to gossip and waste time talking about things of the world. Instead, Timothy is to study the Word of God and be ready at all times to preach and teach. If Timothy continues in his walk, he will show himself a workman, approved and unashamed. The only way this can happen is to study what God has revealed.
While Paul warns against empty chatter and vain words, he does say that some things are worth arguing about. The Christian must live a godly life and all conversation must be godly. He warns that heresy can spread like gangrene and must be dealt with.
One man I’ve met believes in just letting heresy grow and letting God sort it out. Even when the heresy is a matter of salvation in which those who believe wrongly can spend an eternity in Hell. I say no. God says beliefs matter. Those who lead astray others are to be removed from fellowship. Paul’s example here is two men, former Christians, who taught that the resurrection had already taken place. Hymenaeus had been handed over to Satan because he insisted on leading people astray.
False teachers will never go away. Sometimes the preacher of the truth must confront them. There is an old saying, “A lie can run around the world while the truth is still getting its boots on.” False teachers will lie by diluting the truth, distorting it, or simply saying God’s Word no longer applies. Each of these lies must be corrected with the truth. God’s Word is never shaken and will never die.
What final words have you ever been the recipient of? They may have been from a spouse or relative. The words of Paul to Timothy and then to Titus are full of wisdom and meaning. In a situation like that, you don’t waste words. Every single one of them is an opportunity to make a difference. It isn’t just because you know they are your last words, but the listener knows it also and will pay attention.
Paul’s final letter to Timothy teaches us that we are to persevere, endure, and be diligent. These are not three easy tasks. In fact, they will require your whole life. It required His life to make it possible for you. When trials come, you must persevere. When temptation comes, you must endure. When false teachers come, we must be diligent in our struggles against them.
These three actions will be needed in every Christian life. Paul’s final words would not be fluff or applicable only to a few. As inspired by God, he would write words that mean the most to both Timothy then and to all believers afterwards.