2 Timothy 4:17–18
But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength to proclaim the message fully, that all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
A few months ago the Council of Deacons voted to grant me a three month study leave. It begins this Thursday, and if you want to know what I plan to do, come to the plenary session this Wednesday evening. I hope to outline my goals and pray with you about them.
What this means about this morning's message is that it's not only the last one I will preach here until August, it's also the last one I will preach before the tenth anniversary of my coming to Bethlehem on July 13, 1980. So it's a special Sunday for me, and a special message. I want to talk about the faithfulness of God in my life and I want to talk about his faithfulness to you while I am away.
An Amazing Testimony of God's Faithfulness
I invite you to look with me at one of my favorite testimonies of God's faithfulness. It comes from the apostle Paul in his last letter, 2 Timothy. He is in Rome and is about to become a martyr for the gospel. He will die in the persecution of Nero very soon after this letter is written. He knows this is coming. That's the meaning of verse 6: "For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come."
He has already made one defense before the Roman court. He calls it his "first defense" in verse 16. "At my first defense no one took my part; all deserted me." He knows that another court appearance is coming and that it will probably mean the end of his life. That is the context in which we read verses 17–18 as he looks back on the first defense and forward to the dangers in front of him.
The Lord stood by me and gave me strength to proclaim the message fully, that all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
I want to take this testimony as my own this morning and as yours for the months to come when I will be away. Each part of it fills me with a sense of overwhelming gratitude to God.
"The Lord stood by me . . . "
This is a wonderful testimony. I hope you all can give it. If you can, find someone soon and say to them in a letter or in person: "The Lord stood by me."
Jesus Christ is a very personal and precious friend. Back near the beginning of the ministry here at Bethlehem, he opened my eyes to John 15:13–15, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you."
I saw that the heart of my ministry was rooted in the friendship of Jesus. The heart of my ministry is to know what the Master is doing—to know what the Master is like—and to make it known. But Jesus says, servants don't know what their master is doing. Only friends know. This was a wonderful discovery. If I am to succeed in this ministry, Jesus must be my friend. And he has been. "There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother" (Proverbs 18:24). And his name is Jesus.
Paul goes on: "The Lord stood by me . . ."
" . . . and gave me strength to proclaim the message fully . . . "
My experience of the faithfulness of God to give strength for the ministry of the Word began the day I was conceived in Ruth Piper's womb. I cannot begin to express adequately my thanks to God for letting me grow up in a home where this strengthening presence of Jesus was believed and lived. And my heart aches for those of you who must struggle against memories of a home where this was not your experience.
My mother and father believed with all their heart that the Lord would stand by us as a family and give us strength in the ministry of God's Word. No matter how hard the financial stress. No matter how difficult the health problems. No matter the ups and downs of my father's ministry. They lived in the radiant confidence that the Lord would stand by us.
In my bedroom at 122 Bradley Blvd. Greenville, S.C., there was a single bed where I slept. And at the foot of the bed there was a painting of a boy standing at the helm of a ship. A storm was raging in the sea. The waves were breaking over the side of the boat. The wind was whipping the boy's hair. His hands were tight on the wheel of the ship. And he was looking straight ahead into the storm. It was a picture full of adventure and danger and challenge. And standing at the boy's side was Jesus, large and strong and serious. His hand was on the boy's shoulder, and he looked very much in charge.
Every night I went to bed with that picture as the last thing I saw. And I came to believe it. The Lord stands by me. In every storm his hand is on my shoulder. And now at the end of almost ten years at Bethlehem I love the faithfulness of the Lord more than ever. The Lord has stood by me. I have felt his hand on my shoulder without fail every week of these ten years.
"The Lord stood by me and gave me strength to proclaim the message fully." The most important work of my life is preaching. It's not more important than being holy, or being kind. But when it comes to tasks, this is the most important one of my life. Other tasks are very important, but this is most important. And here the Lord has stood by me to strengthen me to proclaim his Word. In ten years I have never missed a Sunday morning service because of sickness. This isn't because I don't get sick. I have often been sick during the week. But again and again the Lord has stood by me to heal by the time the Lord's Day comes.
And even more wonderful for me is that in these ten years of preaching I have never come to Sunday morning without a message that I believed to be from God and that I was eager to deliver. This too is not because I am never dry or never down. There have been many times of spiritual destitution and discouragement, but the cries of desperation have always been heard as Saturday and Sunday pressed in on me. The Word has opened before me with light and glory. And the message has come. And so I want to say with the deepest gratitude and with the highest respect, "The Lord has stood by me and has given me strength to proclaim the message fully."
Paul goes on with his testimony: "The Lord stood by me and gave me strength to proclaim the message fully . . ."
" . . . that all the Gentiles [nations] might hear it."
God taught me in a very powerful way in the fall of 1983 that the power of the presence of Jesus standing by me is given for the purpose of world evangelization. The Lord did not stand by Paul merely for the sake of his own peace, or merely for the church in Rome. The Lord stood by him and strengthened him "that all the nations [panta ta ethne] might hear." Perhaps the tribunal was full of people from all over the Roman empire when Paul gave his defense. Or perhaps Paul preached that last time in a way that would challenge some younger men and women to take the gospel to all the unreached peoples.
Whatever the case, Paul knew that the reason the Lord was standing by him was to give him strength and zeal and vision for world evangelization—"The Lord stood by me and gave me strength to proclaim the message fully, that all the Gentiles [panta ta ethne] might hear it."
Utterly unplanned and unanticipated by me when I came to Bethlehem in 1980, the Lord has not only taught us this truth, but he is making it a wonderful reality: he stands by us with his precious friendship to strengthen us for world evangelization. His friendship is given to forgive our sins, and heal our wounds, and make us whole people, that's true—but the reason he stands by us to give us forgiveness and healing and wholeness is that we might multiply our joy in reaching "all the peoples of the earth."
"SPAN the Nineties"—S. P. A. N.: Spreading Praise to All Nations—is a living testimony to this truth: The Lord has stood by us to give us strength to make his Word known not only here but to all the nations. The missions budget has quintupled; the goal of 90 by '90 was reached in 1988; the missionary nurture program has over 60 people in it. And many of you are dreaming your own dream of new ways of personal involvement in finishing the Great Commission—because the Lord is standing by you, and that's the way he is.
Paul goes on at the end of verse 17:
"So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil and save me for his heavenly kingdom."
Notice very carefully what this rescue means. "He will rescue me from every evil and save me for his heavenly kingdom." What evil would threaten to keep Paul out of God's heavenly kingdom? What evil must the Lord rescue Paul from in order that he make it to heaven? Not death. Death will be a doorway to the heavenly kingdom. Paul isn't saying that the Lord will rescue him from death. He says in verse 6 that he fully expects to die in the near future: "the time of my departure has come." What then will the Lord rescue him from? What can threaten his entrance into the heavenly kingdom?
The answer is: The evil work of unbelief can threaten his entrance into the heavenly kingdom. When Peter says (in 1 Peter 5:8) that "Satan prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour," he means that Satan threatens to destroy professing Christians by attacking their faith. When Paul says that he was rescued from the lion's mouth and that he will be rescued from every evil work, he does not mean that he escaped death and will escape death. He means he was saved from unbelief; he was saved from apostasy; he was saved from loving the world like Demas (v. 10); he was saved from cowardice; he was saved from throwing it all away for a few more years of freedom and comfort.
This is the great preciousness of having the Lord standing by us. It means that the Lord will cause us to persevere to the end and save us for his heavenly kingdom. This is why we must break forth with the apostle Paul at the end of verse 18 and say,
"To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen."
Why? Why should the Lord get the glory for Paul's enduring to the end in faith? Because it is the Lord who rescues him from the lion's mouth and from every evil that would bring him to ruin. God causes Paul to persevere in the fight of faith. Therefore: "To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen."
A Closing Exhortation
That brings me to the great confidence I have for you while I am away. May I close with a very affectionate and loving exhortation? While I am away, I urge you to give faithfully to the work of Christ at Bethlehem; to attend the services with hope and joy; to pray for the ministry; to fulfill your gifts; to witness with courage; and most of all—as the foundation for all—to BELIEVE THIS PROMISE:
The Lord will stand by you, he will give you strength, he will rescue you from every evil, and save you for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.