Commentary on 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Although there are many approaches to this text, let us read this passage as the author (whomever it may be) clearly wants us to read it. That is, let us read it as a reflection from Paul on the end of his life and ministry. Let us read it in the light of other Pauline texts. Let us learn what it may say to us about how we might think of the end of our lives and ministries.
In the paragraph immediately preceding 2 Timothy 4:6, Paul provides Timothy with a set of strong admonitions about how he is to conduct himself as a minister of the gospel. These admonitions are summarized in the final clause of 4:5, “carry out your ministry fully.” It makes sense for Paul to offer such directives under any circumstances. As 4:6 begins, however, we read that Paul is convinced that his death is imminent. The Lord has established the moment of his release or departure and Paul is convinced that moment is soon.
In 4:6 he speaks of his death as a “pouring out.” The only times this Greek word is used in either the New Testament or the Septuagint, it refers to the pouring out of a drink offering. Hence, the New Revised Standard Version fills out what the Greek text seems to presume. The only other time the Greek verb spendo “to pour out” appears is in Philippians 2:17. There the imprisoned Paul also speaks of the possibility that his life will be poured out as a sacrificial offering. In both cases, Paul wants his audience to think of his life and imminent death is an offering.
The image of a contest or struggle in verse 7, along with a reference to a prior trial in verse 16, may indicate that Paul is to die a martyr’s death. Thus, the idea of Paul’s life as a drink offering poured out to God makes one thing very clear. No authority, not government, no empire can take Paul’s life. They may kill him, but Paul has already offered his life back to God. In such a situation the authorities seek to impose their power on Paul. They presume they can override his agency with their power. In response Paul’s claim reminds Timothy that things are not always the way the powerful perceive them to be.
In evaluating his own life, Paul offers Timothy three interrelated images. First, he has “fought the good fight.” In both Greek and English there is a built-in ambiguity in this phrase. Most immediately, Paul is claiming that he has fought well. That is, he has demonstrated the courage, determination, and effort characteristic of all good soldiers. In addition, Paul can also be claiming that he has fought in good struggles. That is, he has fought well for things well worth fighting for. One can, of course, fight ardently for all sorts of bad causes. That is not Paul’s claim here.
Secondly, Paul has “completed the race.” Paul does not say he has won the race. Rather, he has finished the course set before him. Thinking of one’s life as a goal directed journey or race is fundamental to the way Christians imagine their lives. It is also deeply embedded in most of the moral philosophies that Paul would have known.
Finally, Paul says, “I have kept the faith.” In the Septuagint the Greek word translated as “kept” often describes someone who observes the commandments. The verb also can be used to describe guarding, preserving, or protecting something or someone. Here in 2 Timothy 4:7, Paul certainly wants to give the impression that he has both kept the faith in the sense that his life reflects a fidelity to the gospel and that he has guarded the deposit of faith which he is now passing on to Timothy.
Taking these three assertions together, Paul is offering a robust estimation of his life in Christ. This is confirmed in 4:8 when he expresses the confident view that the Lord, the righteous judge, will award him the crown of righteousness. Not only will Paul receive this crown, but so will all those “who have loved his appearing.” To better understand this clause, we should look to 2 Timothy 4:1. There Paul also refers to Christ’s eschatological judgment that will happen at his “appearing,” when his kingdom is established in full (see 1 Corinthians 15:22-29). Without establishing when this will happen, Paul is confident that Christ will reward him and all those like him who have kept the faith. This form of confident self-assessment may make modern readers uncomfortable. It is, however, quite commonplace in the ancient word, both in Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts.
Ultimately, although Paul makes strong assertions about himself, these assertions only make sense in his equally strong assertions about the justice of Christ’s impending judgment and the Lord’s unstinting support of Paul in all types of circumstances. This becomes clear in the final verses of this reading. In 4:16 Paul speaks about his “first defense.” The Greek term here suggests a judicial proceeding, probably one that landed Paul in jail. This also implies that a second proceeding may be imminent, one that will result in Paul’s death. Regardless of the legal specifics of Paul’s situation, he wants to assert both that his human comrades deserted him and that the Lord faithfully remained with him. Again, rather than dwell on the failings of his fellow believers, Paul focuses on the Lord’s care and sustenance. The point of God’s strengthening of Paul is to advance the gospel among the Gentiles. Finally, this passage closes with a reassertion that the Lord will rescue Paul and bring him into the kingdom of God.
Much in this passage resonates with Paul’s discussion in Philippians 2-3. There an imprisoned Paul speaks of the possibility of being poured out as a drink offering. He is concerned that he may have run in vain if the Philippians are not able to maintain a faithful witness to the gospel in the light of opposition. He seeks only to be “found in Christ,” to attain the righteousness found in Christ, to know the power of Christ’s resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings. In Philippians Paul makes it clear that he has not reached the end. Here in 2 Timothy 4 the end is close at hand. Paul reprises some of the same themes that animated him in Philippians in the light of having reached the end of his journey.