Commentary on 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
What we have here recorded is Paul’s own farewell discourse.
Whether authentically recorded or invented really makes little difference. (For rhetorical clarity, I will refer to the author of these verses as “Paul” through this commentary.) What, however, is important is the function and the character of the verses. With these verses, the admonitions to faithful translation of the Gospel, new in every situation, are sealed by the very witness and pending martyrdom of Paul. The community to whom the letter is addressed, and finally our own community, is included, drawn into the same way, the same race, the same martyrdom, and Paul’s own journey of faith.
Of course, the usual questions about Paul’s self-esteem can be raised. From one standpoint, Paul seems pretty self-assured, surprisingly confident in his good work. We recognize passages from other known Pauline works, where again Paul seems to be over-confident (2 Corinthians 11:22ff for example). Would Paul be like the Pharisee in this week’s Gospel reading, concerned primarily with exalting himself and condemning the other, the penitent tax-collector? Is Paul really that proud of himself and his work?
There certainly can be a moral reading of these verses: we need to strive for perfection in the godly life, we need to run the race, stay on track, do our best to reach the desired goal. However, if that were all we found in these verses, they would be discouraging rather than encouraging; they would evoke regret rather than hope.
For who among us can stay on track all the time? No, what is true to Paul in other passages is true to Paul here as well. Paul is not praising his own gifts, his own abilities, his own good works. What he is, however, absolutely sure about is God’s work and God’s work to stay one track! God will always accomplish what God wants to accomplish, though God does God’s work always through human beings, through creation. Faith is not faith in one’s own abilities but God’s faith planted within us that turns us, despite the upheavals and setbacks and failures of life, into faithful workers in the vineyard.
Certainty it is not to be confused with a self-assured righteousness. The person certain in faith (that is, in God’s faith and work) as “Paul” is here in this passage, that person need not be, and seldom is, very self-conscious or “assured” (in the “I’ve-got-it-all-together” manner so common among us all!). Paul’s certainty is lived in the midst of distress and disappointment; it is lived in prison, in deprivation and suffering, all of which would push any human being to despair. Even some of the faithful have left (as we read in the verses 10-15, which are omitted in the strict parameters of this lectionary reading). Paul understands that God’s work does not depend on his success or failure but he also knows that his life is, at all times, in all manner of ways, a witness to God’s work. In this way, Paul avoids the Scylla of self-promotion and the Charybdis of self-denigration.
Here we recognize the Paul of Galatians 2 (not I but Christ lives in me). Since the beginning of a life in Christ (no matter how that beginning may be defined), the Holy Spirit has been at work conforming the believer to Jesus Christ (and not creating a perfect moral specimen of the human race – because “perfect” would always be subject to self-definition!). All aspects, all circumstances, of our life are in the Spirit’s hands.
This movement towards conformity to Christ is witnessed in these verses. Paul begins by describing his life as an offering, more specifically a “drink offering.” His blood is being poured out. The parallel to Christ is evident. Paul’s life has a different goal than that of perfection or success or a happy retirement. His life’s goal is given already in Christ, in Christ’s death and life, not as objective reality that exists outside of our lives but as Christ’s death and life witnessed again and again in our life.
These verses are filled with hope. Despite the description of a hopeless situation, Paul’s vision is directed to what is often called an eschatological hope. An eschatological hope, however, is not a hope directed towards some future justification (even if Paul refers to his final vindication before the Throne). Eschatological hope is a present hope. It is hope in the present moment that forms, that transforms the “now” in which we live. Eschatological hope is the knowledge that Christ is present today. It “sees” the world with different eyes, with eyes that are not confined by the restrictions of self-interest.
We can now understand more fully the nature of Paul’s certitude. How can Paul be so sure of his righteousness? How can he write these words that can be so easily interpreted as self-promotion? Paul’s certitude is hope. His certainty is the embodied eschatological hope. It is the certainty that God works through him at all times, for the community, in the community, with the community (in this regard, the omitted verses 10-15 are quite significant because they relate the groundedness of this hope in real persons on whom Paul is dependent).
Finally, this hope also gets expressed in words that remind us of the Lord’s Prayer. (What a great opportunity to preach on this final petition of the Lord’s Prayer!) “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom.” This prayer is the prayer of one who relies only on God. Paul knows that it is not his work, not his running, not his effort but only God who will hold him, justify him, and bless him. There is no other help but that which God gives. In this promise, we all are invited to pray.