He Stood by Me and Strengthened Me for the Sake of the Gospel

2 Timothy 4:9–22

Do your best to come to me soon. 10 For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. 11 Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. 12 Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. 13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.

14 Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. 15 Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. 16 At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! 17 But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, 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 deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

19 Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus. 20 Erastus remained at Corinth, and I left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus. 21 Do your best to come before winter. Eubulus sends greetings to you, as do Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brothers. 22 The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.”

These closing words of 2 Timothy are sad and beautiful and full of broken-hearted hope. And if those words sound incompatible to you — sad, beautiful, broken-hearted, hopeful — then you probably have some hard and helpful experiences yet to live through.

As I have prayed and studied and sought the Lord about what word he has for us in these last verses of 2 Timothy, many things have flooded to my mind. The text itself seems choppy to me. It’s a collection of assorted personal concerns, like "come soon before winter if you can" (verses 9, 21) and "bring my cloak from Troas" (verse 13), and "watch out for Alexander the coppersmith" (verse 15), and "nobody showed up to support me at my defense" (verse 16), "but the Lord stood by me" (verse 17), and "greet my dear friends Prisca and Aquilla" (verse 19) and "Trophimus I left sick at Miletus" (verse 20), and "all the brothers greet you" (verse 21), and “The Lord be with you” (verse 22).

So as I have tried to discern what I should say from all this, the choppy nature of the text suggests it might be all right to have a choppy sermon. So just as Paul has poured an assortment of concerns into these last verses, here’s my assortment of applications to us as a people.

The Main Point: Encouragement

I do think the overall impact that Paul wanted these final verses to have was to encourage Timothy that no matter how hard the ministry is, the Lord Jesus is rock-solid reliable. Verses 17–18 are surely the deepest and most hopeful in this passage:

But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, 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. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

But to get the full force of these beautiful words, we need to see some of the sad assortment of Paul’s burdens that surround these words. So here is my choppy attempt to capture some of the sadness and beauty and heart-breaking hope for us.

1. Christian ministry is relationally hard.

I mean this especially for Paul and Timothy-type vocational ministers and missionaries. But I also mean it for all of you, because you are all ministers to each other and to the unbelievers you know. Christian ministry — Christian living for the good of others — is relationally hard.

Paul seems to want Timothy (and us) to see this. Else why would he give us so many examples of it? Here are five illustrations of how hard ministry is relationally. And there are more in this text.

  1. Verse 10: “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” Demas seems to have been a faithful partner. Listen to Colossians 4:14, “Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas.” But now he has forsaken Paul. Being betrayed or forsaken is hard.
  2. But so is just being alone in the ministry. Verses 10b-11, “Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me.” Once there was such a team! Now it’s just Luke and I.
  3. Verse 14: “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm.” Verse 15b: “He strongly opposed our message.” Ministry is relationally hard not only because of loneliness and abandonment from inside, but from personal and hostile opposition from outside. Every moment of unexpected silence from a friend, and every verbal blow from an enemy, wounds the spirit. Ministry is relationally hard.
  4. Verse 16, perhaps the saddest sentence in the whole letter: “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me.” I’ll come back to this. But for now, just feel the force of it, and how hard ministry is relationally. At the moment of your greatest need, they didn’t show up.
  5. Verses 20-21a: “Erastus remained at Corinth, and I left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus. Do your best to come before winter.” Sometimes strategic deployments take away our friends. Sometimes sickness interrupts a partnership. Sometimes seasonal changes make aloneness all the more difficult. “Do your best to come before winter.”

Paul mentions all these things, it seems, because he wants Timothy to know how hard ministry is relationally.

2. Friends in the ministry can let you down and never care for you again.

Verse 10: “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” No, I don’t know if he ever repented. There’s no evidence that he does, and we certainly know of ministers who have had partners who leave the ministry and the faith, and, as far as we know, never come back.

I think Paul wants Timothy to feel this not only as a preparation for sorrow in his ministry, but as a warning to avoid himself the cause of this abandonment. He tells Timothy why Demas left the ministry. “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me.” There is a love for this world that makes ministry impossible. Either it abandons ministry, or it makes ministry worldly enough to be at home there. Under Paul's leadership Demas couldn’t make the ministry worldly, so he left.

Young (and old) culture-embracing Christians need to ponder this a long time. There is a love for the world — the present age, the God-ignoring, God-denying, God-demeaning, Christ-distorting products of culture — that is mutually exclusive with real, deep love for Jesus. There is a love for this world that is irreconcilable with the ministry of exposing the world and witnessing to the world and rescuing from the world, and, if possible, changing the world.

So, young Timothy, young Bethlehem — remember, more people leave Christ and leave the Church and leave ministry and leave the hope of heaven because of love for the this world than anything else. One wonders: What was in Thessalonica? “In love with this present world, Demas has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” Was it a woman? Was it home — perhaps he grew up there? Was it a business offer? Was it just comfortably and safely far away from this utterly committed apostle Paul? What we know is: Demas did not leave in order to follow Jesus. He left Jesus to embrace the pleasures of the world. That happens to your friends in ministry. And some of them never come back.

3. Good friends in ministry can let you down and still be good friends.

There are two things in verse 11 that are striking in this regard. “Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” First, consider Mark. “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me.” But Mark had abandoned Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. “John left them and returned to Jerusalem” (Acts 13:13). And Paul refused to take John on his next missionary journey. “Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work” (Acts 15:37–38). But now here toward the end of his life Paul says, “Bring Mark with you, for he is very useful to me.” Good friends in ministry can let you down and still be good friends — someday.

Then, consider Luke. Verse 11: “Luke alone is with me.” Luke has been with Paul, it seems, ever since he was in Troas on the second missionary journey (see change from “they”, Acts 16:8 to “we” Acts 16:11). He has been his friend (“beloved” Colossians 4:14), his personal physician (Colossians 4:14), and his biographer (writing Acts). And here he is as Paul’s closest friend in Rome.

But then look at verse 16: “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them!” No one. Now we have to be careful here. Maybe Luke was on a trip. Maybe he was very sick.

But what about the brothers and sisters in verse 21b? “Eubulus sends greetings to you, as do Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brothers.” So here are people who Paul considers faithful enough to send greetings as Christian friends to Timothy; but none of them showed up to stand with Paul in court. They didn’t come through.

And what is Paul’s response: Verse 16b: “May it not be charged against them!” This means, at least, that Paul was not going to hold this against them. He sends their greetings in his own letter. He didn’t say bitterly, “Write your own letter!” Fallen and redeemed human beings let each other down. In ministry. And there are so many circumstances that you know nothing about that might explain why any given person let you down — didn’t show up. We must be so careful not to assume the worst.

After thirty-two years as a pastor here, you know one of my sorrows? There are hundreds of you, who could say, “He didn’t show up. He didn’t come to the hospital. He didn’t come to the funeral. He didn’t come to the wedding. He wasn’t there in our crisis.” Or you might say of your husband, “If he loved me, he could not have said that. Or: he would not have forgotten that day.” Or you might say of your teenage child, “If he had any respect for me, any affection for me, he would not act like this. He wouldn’t treat me like a leper — wouldn’t forsake me.”

On the basis of what Paul does here, and what Christ has done for us on the cross — even for Peter who denied him and for the eleven who all abandoned him — I want to plead with you, Don’t be so simplistic and don’t be unforgiving. It is simplistic to say, “If they were real Christians, they would have stood by me.” Human souls, and human circumstances are not that simple. It is possible to love someone deeply, and let them down. So don’t be simplistic.

And don’t be unforgiving. Say to yourself and God over and over about the believers who have hurt you: “May it not be charged against them!” Not by my heart. Not by God’s heart. Good friends in ministry can let you down and still be good friends. Luke and Eubulus and Pudens and Linus and Claudia did not show up at Paul's trial. And Paul sends their greetings to Timothy.

4. Jesus never intended that the enjoyment of his presence would replace the enjoyment of the presence of Christian friends.

Or to put it another way, When Christ died so that you could enjoy him supremely and forever, he did not nullify the fellowship of believers, he created it. Christ always intended that your friendship with him would be the heartbeat of your friendship with others. His presence would be the central joy of Christian friendship. And the joy of Christ-centered friendship would magnify the worth of Christ as the common treasure.

Where do I see that in this text? Look at verse 17. Even though everyone one else failed to show up at my trial: “Nevertheless the Lord stood by me and strengthened me.” Now, if that’s all we had we might say: See, when you have Jesus, you have one who never fails you, and so you don’t need those fallible, finite, failing friends.

But what does Paul say? Verse 9: “Do your best to come to me soon.” Verse 21: “Do your best to come before winter.” He wants Timothy’s presence. He longs for it. And this is no exception for Paul. He often spoke this way.

To the Romans, “I long to see you” (Romans 1:11). “I have longed for many years to come to you” (Romans 15:23). To the Philippians, “I love and long for, my joy and crown” (Philippians 4:1). To the Thessalonians: “Being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).

So, even though, mere human beings are fickle, finite, fallen, fallible, failing friends, while Jesus was never-failing, Paul cherished such imperfect human friendship. Jesus never intended that the enjoyment of his presence would replace the enjoyment of the presence of other Christians. Christ did not die to create isolated worshipping individuals. He died to create Christ-exalting friendships. That is, he died and rose again to create the church.

5. Nevertheless Jesus is the only totally reliable friend for sinners. He is the only flawless friend. And therefore, the only all-satisfying friend. And therefore, the only friend who can make other friendships eternal.

The sweetest and deepest words of this text are verses 17 and 18:

But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, 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. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

As much as you may love your earthly friends (and family), they cannot do this for you. They cannot do verse 18. They cannot “rescue you from every evil deed and bring you safely into his heavenly kingdom.” There is only one friend who can do that.

Demas didn’t feel what this “love for the present world” (verse 10) was going to cost him. James, the brother of Jesus, said, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). Demas, only Jesus can “rescue you from every evil deed and bring you safely into his heavenly kingdom.” Without him you will not go to heaven. What insanity is making you walk away?

So by all means, plead with your Timothy to come before winter. Seek Christian friendship. But when they fail. When they don’t show up for your trial, at your hospital bed, in your crisis, don’t turn their failure into a suicidal rejection of the one friend who is always there and will bring you finally into everlasting friendships with himself and the most wonderful, perfected human beings you could ever wish to know.

6. Closeness to God at the end of your life does not remove the need or the desire to read and be spiritually nourished.

Verse 13: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.” We don’t know what was on these scrolls and parchments. The fact that both are plural suggests these are probably more than the Scriptures themselves. Perhaps some of his own notes and writings. But the least we can say is that here is an apostle, an inspired spokesman of the living God, who was enjoying Jesus standing by him in his last days. And this man, in this condition, with this sweet fellowship with the living Christ, wanted to be reading and thinking at the end.

If I am about to die and will see Jesus in a few weeks or days, why should I try to know or relearn or see anything, since I am going to know even as I am known (1 Corinthians 13:12) in just a matter of days?

Because reading and thinking over what you read is how God speaks to you now and makes himself known to you now — both through his inspired word and through spiritual teachers dead and alive.

Because reading and thinking over what you read is how God nourishes and strengthens the soul for living and for dying.

Because reading and thinking over what you read is the way worship is ignited and joy is increased and peace with God is sustained — for the journey and for the final river-crossing!

Form the habit of reading now, and don’t ever think you can do without it. And if your eyes fail you, and all your friends have failed you, take your food money, if you must and pay to have the Bible and good books read to you. “The hour of my departure has come, Timothy, bring the books, and above all the parchments.”

7. Finally, people with great influence and great authority don’t need great possessions.

Verse 13: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas.” Seriously? The most revered and renowned Christian spiritual leader in the world wants his friend to bring his coat from a thousand miles away. Do you not have money to buy another coat? Is there no one who could give you a coat?

Paul handled lots of money in his day. But he kept very little for himself. If God has given you the ability to make lots of money, beware how much you keep. Don’t lay up for yourselves treasures on earth. Invest in Christ’s advancing mission. He will bring you safely into his heavenly kingdom.

A closing story: William Tyndale, a year before he was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536 for giving us the Bible in English, wrote from his prison just north of Brussels, just like Paul:

I beg your lordship . . . that if I am to remain here through the winter, you will request the commissary to have the kindness to send me, from the goods of mine which he has . . . a warmer coat also, for this which I have is very thin; a piece of cloth too to patch my leggings. . . . But most of all I beg and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the commissary, that he will kindly permit me to have the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew grammar, and Hebrew dictionary, that I may pass the time in that study. (David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography, 374.)

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org