Fight the Good Fight

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This evening we are concluding our series in 2 Timothy with chapter 4 the final chapter. And we've been given the title Fight the Good Fight because Paul is still "fighting the good fight" right up to the time of his death. My headings are just two, first, Paul's Pastoral Commission, and, secondly, Paul's Practical Concerns.

So, first, and without more ado, Paul's Pastoral Commission

Look at verse 2 and Paul's charge to Timothy - with Paul himself in prison and expecting execution:

" preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching."

So the number one need for Timothy is to be a preacher. And that is still the number one need for clergy – to be preaching. But preaching what? The answer here is "the word" which is shorthand for Paul's message about Jesus Christ and all that flows from the facts of Christ's life, death, real resurrection with an empty tomb and teaching. And Timothy believed that word to be true. Why? Because there were witnesses to those facts. Timothy knew that the handing on of the facts of the gospel of Jesus' death and resurrection had been in honest and sensible hands. Timothy hasn't been listening to anybody. He has not been listening to the "weak women" of chapter 3 who were "burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth." No! He learnt, we've been told, from his mother and Grandmother, and from Paul, whose character he knew as sane and sensible. You need to remember that in New Testament times there was not universal credulity. It was not just in modern times that people have learnt to weigh evidence and be critical.

The Jews had law courts and they had the principle of "two or three witnesses" being needed to confirm facts. This is quoted several times in the Bible. And, of course, we today don't just have two or three witnesses to Jesus but four – the four Gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. So it was this true Word, not anything else, Timothy had to preach "in season and out of season" – literally, when the time is good and when the time is bad; that is to say, all the time. But what are the reasons and incentives Paul gives for this desperate need for preaching the truth? First, there is the fact of Christ's judgment. Look at verse 1:

"I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom."

Timothy's message is not to be a message of doom – far from it. It is to be about "our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life," as Paul had said in chapter 1 verse 10. But the hard fact of Christ's judgment is a serious reality and is one of the incentives for Timothy. He is to remember that both his hearers and he himself will one day have to give an account to Christ when he appears. How true that still is today – for you and me! So are you living in the light of that challenge of judgement? That is a challenge from Paul's commission to Timothy. Then the second reason or incentive for Paul's commission is the state of the world around. The times the church will soon face are like today. So there is a vital need for God's truth to be maintained as well as proclaimed and as the 19th century founders of Jesmond Parish Church insisted. Look at verses 3-4:

"For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths."

As G. K. Chesterton famously said, "When people cease to believe in God they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything". And the third reason for Timothy needing to preach is in verses 6-8. It is the fact that Paul is soon to die. Look at verse 6:

"For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come."

Until the Lord returns, it is essential that the church and in particular its leaders ensure that the gospel is handed down to the next generation. That is the concern of Paul and it is the concern of some of us in the Western world at the moment, in the light of the decadence not only in the Western world but also in the Western church. You can't forever rest on the leadership of the preceding generation. The day comes when others must step into their shoes. And for Timothy the day has come. For Paul is convinced his martyrdom is likely soon.

So there are three reasons for Timothy to "preach the word … in season and out of season": the final judgment at the return of Jesus; the times are bad and people are needing sound teaching; and the apostle Paul's passing. But let's look more closely at these verses 6-8. I suppose this is one of the most moving passages in the whole epistle. It is Paul's personal testimony as he awaits death. I referred very briefly to this passage two weeks ago and a funeral I attended. Let me tell you a bit more about that event. If you were not here, I said I can never read this passage without thinking back to a moving funeral service.

It took place when I was on the staff of St George's, Leeds as a minister to students. There were a couple of students who attended the church – keen Christians who married when they graduated and settled down in Harrogate. They immediately got involved in Pathfinders and the young husband led a Pathfinder group. They had only been married a year or two. He worked for the now defunct ICI and had left home on Monday morning to work in Billingham for the week - incidentally with all the following Sunday's Pathfinder class preparation done. On Friday he was driving back home down the A1, when a big oncoming lorry burst a tyre, crossed over the road, and took him off the road into a ditch. He was killed outright.

At the funeral his wife – the young widow - asked if she could say something by way of an address (she was only 23 or 24). It was very moving. She spoke of the resurrection from the dead and the triumph of Christ over the grave and all this meant for those who die trusting in him, as her husband had done. When he died she was confident thoughts of eternity hadn't been too far away. For when she went up to his room on the Saturday – the day after he was killed - she found the notes on his desk for his Pathfinder talk he had prepared for the next day. And the passage he'd got written out to speak on was this very one here in 2 Timothy 4 verses 6-8:

"For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing."

Those were among the very last words her husband had written (outside reports for ICI). And these were among the very last words Paul wrote. They need little commentary, except to note who, Paul says, will receive the "crown of righteousness" along with him. For it is, verse 8: "All who have loved his appearing."

Paul knew that one day all of God's promises in Christ would be wonderfully consummated in the future. And so Christians are to be looking forward to that day of Christ's appearing. It means, therefore, that the return of Christ is not only to be an incentive for preaching, as Paul has been arguing because of the judgement. It is also, not least when times are bad, a ground of glorious hope. So Paul has a wonderful assurance that "there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness." But it will be awarded, says Paul, "not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing." This is not earned as a merit. Of course not. It is the fruit of faith in Christ as the only Saviour who forgives all your sin – but the fruit of genuine faith proved by obedience to Christ. Who needs that forgiveness and assurance tonight? It is literally for the asking.

So much for Paul's Pastoral Advice. Let's move on now, secondly, to his Practical Concerns. Look at verses 9-18:

"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 defence 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 for ever and ever. Amen."

Having had Paul's wonderful hope, we come now down to earth. For Paul was as human as anyone else. And this is important to remember. It means that these grand words of Paul were not the weird imaginings of someone out of touch with reality. No! For we now see the human Paul in prison and lonely. The Christian faith is a "religion" of wonderful fellowship in the Holy Spirit and with others. But the man or woman of God sometimes is called not only to be morally in a minority of one, but socially alone. And that can be very hard. Here we see Paul just like that. He was deserted by his friends (verses 10-12) and only Luke is left. Naturally he would be feeling down. So what does he do about it? Three things.

First, he simply wants people to keep him company - verse 9: "[Timothy] do your best to come to me soon," and verse 11b: "Get Mark and bring him with you." So here is Paul, a spiritual giant, who loves the Lord and his appearing. But he quite naturally wants friends and he wants company. In the Christian life sometimes you may be feeling down. And you may be tempted to say that what is wrong is something "spiritual", whereas sometimes it is nothing of the kind. You just need to go out and meet some friends. Of course, Christ was spiritually keeping Paul company. At his first defence, verse 16, "everyone deserted me," but verse 17, "the Lord stood by me and strengthened me." He knew that. But he still wanted human company.

Secondly, verse 13, he asks for a cloak: "When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas." In the underground prison it was getting cold. So he wanted an extra cloak to keep him warm. And remember that this is the Paul who says (1.7), "God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power." He really did believe that by faith and the activity of the Spirit of God, "mountains could be moved" and he is about to say in verse 18: "The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed." But he sees no incompatibility with believing that, yet at the same time taking sensible precautions with regard to his physical condition. So he asks for a cloak for reasonable comfort.

Thirdly, verse 13, he asks for reading matter (and perhaps writing material). "When you come, bring … also the books, and above all the parchments." We don't really know what these were. But Paul obviously wanted to get to work on them. He wanted to keep his mind active. Sometimes when people are feeling down, yes, it may be "spiritual". But equally it may well be that it is simply that they haven't enough to do. Their minds and energies are not sufficiently engaged. However, in prison Paul was not only lonely, cold and with little to do. He also was opposed. Verse 14 says,

"Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds."

By the way, you need to note that verb in the last part of the verse. It is in the future tense; it is "the Lord will". It is simply a prediction of what will happen. It is not a vindictive prayer: "may the Lord repay him". We know nothing about Alexander or what his opposition was. But he was opposed to Paul. So Paul was opposed as well as deserted (as we've seen) and unsupported by his friends – verse 16: "At my first defence no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them!" Some were probably frightened of being associated with Paul. But in all this Paul gives Timothy a wonderful example of being, what verse 5 calls, "sober-minded" or "keeping cool". How does he do it? And what can we learn from Paul's example? Again, three things (apart from doing the sensible things we've just seen).

First, Paul realises that the Lord is absolutely in control – and if necessary, supernaturally in control. In verse 17 he is able to liken himself to a second Daniel. We have no idea what precisely he is referring to in his own experience. But he knows that the Lord can, if necessary, rescue him "from the Lion's mouth" as he rescued Daniel in the Lion's den.

Secondly, as he always has done throughout his life, he is able to see that even suffering, if that is God's will, can be used for God's glory. Even when he is in court, on trial for his life, he is able to see this as an evangelistic opportunity. Again, look at verse 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."

Then thirdly, Paul praises God. As he thinks of what God actually is doing and will do, he is absolutely thrilled - verse 18:

"The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen."

The praise of God is a wonderful thing. As you realize that God is the almighty, the great God who "is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think" (Eph 3.20) – when that really captures you, faith is transformed. Abraham, Paul said in Romans 4.20, "grew strong in faith as he gave glory to God." So Paul ends on a wonderful note of praise for his ultimate safety in heaven. Then he concludes this remarkable letter by simply adding a postscript of greetings (verses 19-21):

"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."

Facing death, he still thinks of others. And then he signs off with two prayers in verse 22: "The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you." The first prayer is for Timothy as "your" (in "your spirit") is singular. Timothy has to carry on. He's got a tremendous responsibility – he's got to guard the truth of the gospel safe from all sorts of pressures and dangers. His own Christian life has to be guarded and watched; and in doing this he too will suffer. It will be hard. So Paul's very last words to him are: "The Lord be with your spirit." Paul prays that the risen Lord is to take hold of Timothy's spirit, guiding and protecting him. But then he reminds him as he prays for him and the whole congregation at Ephesus (for the final "you" in "be with you" is plural) – he reminds him and them (and so everyone) of that word "grace""Grace be with you."

Timothy and the congregation are under huge pressure in a hostile world. But they needed to learn and experience the reality of Christ's grace. Who, tonight feels, and is, under huge pressure? Well, Paul personally on one occasion had a hard problem that would not go away. But Christ said to him directly:

"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

May we all experience Christ's grace¸ individually and as a church, as we need it and as Paul prayed for Timothy and the church at Ephesus.

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