The Sadness and Beauty of Paul’s Final Words

Southern Seminary Chapel | Louisville


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

Let’s read 2 Timothy 4:9–22. Then we’ll look at some of the most beautiful and some of the saddest words in the Bible that are intended, I think, to establish you in your mission or your ministry.

Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! 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.

Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus. Erastus remained at Corinth, and I left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus. Do your best to come before winter. Eubulus sends greetings to you, as do Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brothers.

The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you. (2 Timothy 4:9–22)

Sweetness in the Sadness

I think those are words that are sad and words that are beautiful. I think the overall impact that Paul wants them to have — for the Timothys in the room especially — is to inform you that the ministry will be hard, and — in spite of all of its hardness — Jesus will stand by you. That’s what he wants you to take away. That’s the message.

“The ministry will be hard, and — in spite of all of its hardness — Jesus will stand by you.”

He really does show how hard it is. There’s a lot of pain in these verses. The centerpiece, though, is 2 Timothy 4:17–18. This is the sweet part of the text, but you can’t really feel the sweetness of this until you see how horrible some of the rest of this text is relationally.

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. (2 Timothy 4:17–18)

I have about seven observations about ministry and the ministry in the church or the ministry in missions. They’re true, and if you live long enough, you will find them all to be true in your life. But you will find them be true not mainly because you experienced them, but because God said so.

1. Christian ministry is relationally hard.

Christian ministry, whether you’re in a team on the field or whether you’re in a staff or just alone with a small congregation, is relationally hard. I think Paul wants Timothy to see this because he says it so many times. Notice five things:

  • 2 Timothy 4:10: “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” Evidently Demas had been a faithful partner because even in Colossians 4 it says, “Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas.” Now he’s gone — forsaken. Paul is forsaken by Demas.

  • Look at the middle of the same verse: “Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me” (2 Timothy 4:10). Once, there had been this team. Now it’s down to Paul and Luke. There were these great old days with so many of us, and now it’s just the two of us.

  • 2 Timothy 4:14–15: “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm . . . for he strongly opposed our message.” So you not only have loneliness, or smallness, and abandonment on the inside, but you also have this opposition and painful slander from the outside.

  • 2 Timothy 4:16, which may be the saddest sentence in the letter: “ At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me.” I’m going to come back to that, but you’ve got to feel the force of that. Nobody showed up.

  • 2 Timothy 4:20: “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 partnership in ministry. Sometimes seasonal changes make the aloneness all the more difficult.

How are you doing in February? I mean, if you’re from Minnesota, February’s the lowest month of the year. “It’s gotten really long, Lord. We’re ready for March, although March is no better in Minnesota. So, come before winter — because it’s getting long out here.” That’s my first point, that ministry is relationally hard. That was five illustrations of it.

2. Friends in ministry will abandon us.

Friends in ministry can let you down and never care for you again. Second Timothy 4:10: “For Demas, in love with the present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” I don’t know if Demas ever repented. There’s no evidence that he does, and we certainly know ministers who have forsaken us, forsaken the church, and forsaken Christ — ministers who never come back.

Aims at Odds

I think Paul wants Timothy not only to feel the force of this, but to be warned himself about why Demas left the ministry, about why he forsook the team. He says, “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:10).

There is a love for the world that is incompatible with Christian ministry. You either have to leave the Christian ministry because you love the world so much, or you have to change the ministry to be worldly enough to survive in it because you love the world.

So, I want to give you a warning. There are a lot of young, culture-embracing Christians out there, because you have to be culture-embracing to be relevant. There is an embrace of culture — God-ignoring, God-denying, God-demeaning, Christ-distorting product of culture — that is mutually exclusive with a deep love for Jesus. There is a love for the world that is irreconcilable with world-exposing ministry, witnessing-to-world ministry, rescuing-from-world ministry.

Brace Yourself

If your heart is in love with the world, you just love what unbelievers love. You’ll either change your ministry to be compatible with that love, which happens all over the place, or you will leave the ministry like Demas did.

“There is a love for the world that is incompatible with Christian ministry.”

More people leave Christ, more people leave the church, more people leave ministry, and more people leave the hope of heaven out of love for the world than anything else. What was it in Thessalonica? That’s where he was going. It says so: “For Demas, in love with the present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.”

Was there a woman in Thessalonica that he had met along the way? Maybe it was just his home. He just wanted to go home. I’m tired of this traveling. Maybe it was a business offer: “You’re really gifted. You know what? Why are you wasting your life on ministry? You can make a lot of money.”

Or maybe it was just comfortably distant from Paul. He could have been thinking, “Paul is so spiritual. I feel guilty all the time around him — because I love the world.” He left Jesus, and he left Paul. He was in love with the world, and it will happen to you. People will leave you because of a love for the world. Get ready.

3. Not all letdowns will last.

Good friends in ministry can let you down and still be good friends. First of all, look at 2 Timothy 4:11: “Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful for me in ministry.” We all know that Mark had let Paul down and had left the ministry, and now he’s useful.

Now look at 2 Timothy 4:16: “At my first defense, no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them.” No one — not even Luke. Didn’t he just say that Luke alone is with him? Now, I don’t want to be too hard on Luke here. I have no idea. He could have been sick, really. He could have been on a trip somewhere else in Italy, but nobody showed up, including Luke.

What about the brothers and the sister? In the middle of 2 Timothy 4:21 he says, “Eubulus sends greetings to you, as do Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brothers.” Here you have Paul greeting Timothy from these folks as though they were his friends, and they hadn’t shown up. But he doesn’t say to them, “I’m not going to greet Timothy from you. You write your own letter. You didn’t show up.”

Forgive in the Failure

That’s not the way Paul is relating to them. Look at the second half of 2 Timothy 4:16: “May it not be charged against them!” That’s amazing. So, failing friends, imperfect friends, sinful friends will let you down, and they can still be your friends.

I hope you’re big enough for that. I hope you’re Christlike enough for that; “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). They all forsook him and fled, and what did he do? He built the church on them.

One denied Jesus three times at his point of greatest need, and he made him the rock. Failing friends can still be your friends — and that will hang a great deal on you, and whether you say, “Heart, don’t charge it against them.”

Merciful Hearts Are Full of Christ

Here’s another turn on that, after thirty-two years now of ministry. I look back, and one of my greatest sorrows is the number of my people who will be able to say, “He didn’t show up. He wasn’t at the hospital, he didn’t attend my child’s wedding, he wasn’t there in crisis, he never called when my dad died.” Hundreds of my people will be able to say that — and yours.

Broaden that out a little more. Today is Valentine’s Day. Some of you will say, “If he loved me, he would never forget things like that, and he did forget. You forgot my anniversary one time. He didn’t show up. He didn’t show up emotionally.” He can still be your lover. He can still be your best friend, he can. Friends fail us; they do.

If you want to be bitter and angry all the rest of your life, you’ll kill yourself that way. But that’s not the way Jesus handled it. So the basis of what Paul does here, in saying that it should not be held against them, is on the basis of what Jesus does in dying for them and forgiving them and then coming back to them.

I would just urge you; don’t be unforgiving and don’t be simplistic. “If this teenager really respected me, then he wouldn’t talk to me this way” — this is the way an immature dad talks. “If she loved me, she would touch me.” All the conditions laid out.

Failing friends, failing kids, failing wives can be our friends — our sweet friends. Luke and Eubulus and Pudens and Linus and Claudia did not show up at his trial, and he embraces them and say not to hold it against them and he greets Timothy from them. Your friends who let you down can still be your friends.

4. Christ-exalting friendships further our joy in Jesus.

Jesus never intended that the enjoyment of his presence would replace the enjoyment of the presence of other Christians. Another way to put it is, when Christ died so that you would enjoy him supremely, he did not nullify the enjoyment of other Christians.

Christ always intended for your friendship with him to be the centerpiece of your friendship with others. The joy of a Christ-centered friendship is meant to magnify the worth of Christ as the common treasure of the friendship, and this deepens the sweetness of the friendship. It does not eliminate it.

Now where am I getting that? 2 Timothy 4:17: “But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me,” even when nobody else did. Now, if that’s all we had, we’d say, “See, Jesus is a faithful friend. Humans, they let you down, but I’ve got my Jesus, and I don’t need anybody else.”

That’s just not the way the text reads. “Do you best to come to me soon” (2 Timothy 4:9). “Do your best to come before winter” (2 Timothy 4:21). He wants Timothy there. Paul does this a lot — right? “I have longed for many years to come to you” (Romans 15:23). “My brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown” (Philippians 4:1). “Being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).

Human beings are fickle friends. That’s true. They are, and Paul cherished them. He longed for those imperfect friendships. Jesus never intended that the enjoyment of his presence would replace the Christ-centered enjoyment of other Christians’ presence. He died to create Christ-exalting friendships, which means he died to create the church. Don’t feel you must choose between the supreme love and delight you have in Jesus and the pleasures of Christian friends.

5. Only Jesus is our perfect friend.

Nevertheless, Jesus is the only totally reliable friend for sinners. He’s the only flawless friend, and therefore the only all-satisfying friend, and therefore the only friend who can make other friendships eternal. So, now we’re at the sweetest centerpiece of the text:

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. (2 Timothy 4:17–18)

As much as you may love your earthly friends or your earthly family, they can’t do this for you. They cannot do 2 Timothy 4:18. They cannot rescue you from every evil deed and bring you safely to the heavenly kingdom. Only one friend can do that. And Demas, in love with this world, walked away from him. That was not a good deal. By all means, plead with your Timothy to come before winter. Seek Christian friendships.

“Stay in love with God-centered Bible-saturated, Christ-exalting literature until you breathe your last.”

But when they fail — when they don’t show up at your trial, the funeral of your wife, your stay in the hospital — don’t turn on your one friend who will be there. Have you ever thought about how insane and tragic it is, how many people who after being let down by Christian friends use it as a reason to leave the one friend who will never let them down? Isn’t that crazy? I mean, I can name people close to me. I can name people far from me who are walking away from Jesus because of Christians. That’s crazy.

The one being in the universe who will never ever let you down — you’re going to let those who let you down drive you away from the One who will never let you down? I hate the devil. He’s so deceitful, such a liar, such a confuser of people’s minds. Don’t let that happen to you. When your friends fail you in the ministry, fly to Jesus. Get the resources and go back to them and forgive them. Don’t let them drive you away from him.

6. We always need the Bible, as well as Bible-saturated books.

Closeness to God at the end of your life does not remove the need or the desire to read and be spiritually nourished. So, here’s 2 Timothy 4:13: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and also the books, and above all the parchments.” We do not know what these are, but the words scrolls and parchments are both plural, which suggests to me that they’re more than the Bible.

Why Should We Keep Reading?

It could be his own notes for all I know. Maybe he kept notes, and he wanted his notes so that he could be working on messages. Or it could be Scripture, or it could be books about the Scripture, or things he’d written in his journal to help him understand the Scriptures. We don’t know.

What we know is he’s a man who is enjoying sweet, close fellowship with Jesus. Paul can say, “The Lord stood by me. I’ve got the Lord standing by me, and my life is ready to be poured out as an offering. I’m not long in this world.”

Well, at that point I would be inclined to say, “So what’s with the theological education? I mean, you’re going to know, even as you are known, in about two weeks. Why would you want to read anything? You going to see him face to face.” That’s what I would ask. And then I back up, and I think, “That’s what you’re supposed to do with the Bible.”

Books Are Our Backbone

Paul wrote, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7). What are you going to do in your last two days? The doctor says you have a week, maybe. You can call up your wife and say, “Would you bring my copy of Edwards?”

Do you think I’m joking? Nobody, nobody on the planet gets me more in touch with Jesus outside of the Bible than Jonathan Edwards. So I would want to read a sermon from this man who has ministered to my soul like nobody else has ministered to my soul as I get ready to meet my Jesus.

You pick your own favorite helper. My point is, it doesn’t follow to say, “Okay, in a few days I’m going to see him face to face, so I don’t need the book anymore.” You do need the book — the book and books. You need them both because those are the means by which you die well. They’re not superfluous.

“Bring the books, and bring the parchments. I have a few weeks yet to live, and they help me die.” You’re all in school, and that’s a good place to be for a season, and I hope you just stay in love with God-centered, Bible-saturated, Christ-exalting literature until you breathe your last.

7. Earthly possessions are for giving — not storing.

Finally, people with great influence and great authority don’t need great possessions. Second Timothy 4:13: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas.” Seriously? Paul, you are the most influential, the most authoritative, the most widely read Christian on the planet. You can get another coat. They have coats in Rome. Ask a friend for a coat in Rome. What’s with the coat? Strange.

“People with great influence and great authority don’t need great possessions.”

Paul handled a lot of money in his day, and he kept very little for himself. If God has given you the means to make a lot of money as a businessman, or if God has given you a church where they pay you well, don’t keep all of it. Don’t lay up treasures on earth — lay up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19).

Keep it simple, really. You’ll help your people so much. There’ll be a few people in your church, just a few, who know how much you give back to the church. They keep the records. God will know. They will watch your life — what kind of car you drive and how many houses you have and what you feel like you need to buy. John Wesley, I’m told, had a silver spoon left. He’d given it all away when the time of his departure came. He gave a lot of money to the poor in Jerusalem, and he was safe. He didn’t pilfer it.

His Presence Will Preserve You

Let me close with a quote from William Tyndale. This was written a year before he was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536. He was in prison just north of Brussels. He had been arrested for — can you imagine? — putting the Bible into English. He’s going to die for helping people to read the Bible in English. And as he’s in prison, languishing, he writes this. It’s just a beautiful, powerful illustration of what we’ve just said.

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, the Hebrew grammar, and a Hebrew dictionary, that I may pass the time in that study.

Ministry is hard, brothers and sisters. It’s relationally hard. Friends will forsake you and never come back, and other friends will let you down, and then they will be there for you, and you don’t have to write them off. Whether you’re in a missionary team on a field somewhere that’s unbelievably stressful relationally, or whether you’re in a local church or just a family or a single person — it’s going to be hard, and the Lord will stand by you.

I testify that after thirty-two years of experiencing all these things it has been worth it. I would do it all over again. I don’t want to drive any of you away from the ministry. I just want you to walk in with your eyes open, wide open, and to know he’ll be there for you. And his friendship is very, very sweet.