Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

It is debated whether the apostle Paul himself wrote the Second Letter to Timothy near the end of his life, or a pseudonymous author wrote it after Paul’s death as a farewell discourse or hagiographic work.

Luke 18:14
"[A]ll who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." Photo by Dynamic Wang on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

October 27, 2019

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

It is debated whether the apostle Paul himself wrote the Second Letter to Timothy near the end of his life, or a pseudonymous author wrote it after Paul’s death as a farewell discourse or hagiographic work.

Whichever position is adopted, the letter describes key aspects of Paul’s life and teaching consistently with what is found in the undisputed Pauline letters. It thus powerfully represents Paul, imprisoned and aware that his death is near, exhorting his spiritual son Timothy to follow his exemplary Christian life and teachings as Timothy continues to advance the gospel in adverse circumstances.

This passage presents Paul’s assessment of his life and mission as they draw to a close. He conveys confidence in the Lord and in his having faithfully completed his apostolic mission, even though he is facing death as a result of so doing.

The athletic analogies of verses 2 Timothy 4:7-8 (“fight” can refer to a race or other sporting competition) present Paul as a victor, complete with the wreath or “crown” given to champions. Such imagery often functioned in the Greco-Roman world as a metaphor for the moral life. It thereby indicates that Paul’s victory partly consists of having lived a Christ-like life with integrity until the very end, making him an appropriate example to Timothy.

The statement “I have kept the faith” in 2 Timothy 4:7 may also reflect this sentiment, but it can be understood in at least two additional ways as well. One is that Paul has preserved the sound teaching of the gospel (2 Timothy 1:13), passing it along to Timothy and others, while false teachings abound (2 Timothy 2:16-18; 3:8; 4:3-4). The other is that he has maintained faith in the Lord Jesus Christ throughout his ministry, even amidst his many sufferings and persecutions (2 Timothy 1:8, 12, 15; 2:8-10; 3:11; 4:10, 14, 16).

Indeed, much of Paul’s confidence in the Lord comes from his experiences of the Lord standing by him and strengthening him in persecution and abandonment. Even though the athletic analogies suggest that Paul has in part earned his awaiting “crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8; see also 2:5) because of his faithful life and preaching of the gospel, 4:17-18 indicates that the Lord’s provision and righteousness make this life possible. The statement in verse 17 that God strengthened Paul to “fully” proclaim the gospel seems to affirm that he has completed his mission to the extent God has allowed him, rather than that he has actually preached to “all the Gentiles.”

Paul does not glorify suffering for its own sake. But throughout this letter, he asserts that it is an inevitable part of serving the Christ who suffered and gave his life in faithfulness to his mission. The assertion in 2 Timothy 4:6 that Paul is being poured out as a libation recalls the drink offerings that accompanied sacrifices in the Old Testament (for example, Numbers 15:5, 7). It thus portrays his approaching death as the result of a life given for the sake of furthering the good news of the Lord who gave his life as the ultimate sacrifice for humanity. And mention in 4:16 of Paul being deserted at his first defense (likely a legal hearing) recalls Jesus’s disciples abandoning him at his arrest (for example, Mark 14:50) and his sense of abandonment by God at his crucifixion (for example, Mark 15:34). Such allusions affirm that Paul’s sufferings have come from embracing a life like that of the Lord he proclaims.

Although Christ has rescued Paul from many dangers so that his ministry could continue, 2 Timothy 4:18a does not necessarily mean that he will save Paul from his present imprisonment or impending death. In the context of the whole letter, it implies that Christ will continue to help Paul persevere in faith through all evil in order to attain the eschatological goal of entering the fullness of Christ’s kingdom at his second coming, together with all the righteous (2 Timothy 4:8).

It is common for people who are at the end of their lives, or who are facing an ominous medical diagnosis, to have a sharpened perspective on the significance of life. This text from Second Timothy gives the audience such a valuable perspective from one who has faithfully completed his God-given calling.

It highlights how at the end of a Christian life, what matters is not material wealth or social status, but rather being able to share Paul’s confidence that one has lived a Christ-like life through whatever vocation God has given them. A sermon might thereby call for a reassessment of attitudes and priorities, or for reflection on how many cultural narratives and values conflict with Christian values and ultimate commitments.

The text can also be preached as a way to reframe understandings of, and responses to, suffering. Some Christians do not identify with Paul’s experiences of imprisonment or persecution for preaching that gospel. A sermon on this text could, however, raise awareness of the Christians around the world who do, and call people into solidary with them through prayer or other action. It could also clarify that not all Christians are called to suffer and die as martyrs like Paul, and that violence against innocent people should not generally be construed as sacred. By contrast, the text can call attention to suffering as an inevitable part of life, and encourage people to recognize God’s presence and strength in these times as they persevere through them.

Paul does affirm the significance of the present life in this letter—this is why he trains Timothy to continue the gospel ministry after he is gone. But he also understands that this life is not ultimate, so that Christians can face struggles, and even death, with confidence in the One “who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).