2 Timothy 4:16-18 “At my first defence, no-one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
There are times when people let you down; I let you down, and I suppose there have been those rare times when someone has also let me down. We are disappointed in one another’s behavior. We expected Christian people in particular to stand by us at a time of need and they didn’t. Maybe we later came to understand and appreciate their reasons for keeping their distance, but we might still feel a little sad. Paul is referring here to one particular event in his life, either when he was on trial a year or two earlier for his evangelism and preaching or he’s referring to the first stage of his present trial for that same offence. Whenever it was Paul’s own natural supporters didn’t turn up. When he was brought from prison to the court he looked around the spectators’ gallery for them but there wasn’t a single familiar face to be seen. Paul was on his own. He had no advocate to speak up for him, no witness to say a word in his defense. Every single Christian, even those closest to Paul, was notable by his absence.
I hardly think that many here have experienced that though there is one or two. We’ve had our family to stand by us, the sympathy of our wives, and phone calls from our friends at times of trial; “we know what you’re going through and we believe in you.” But we do remember a time when we’ve been let down by our fellow Christians. We’re not greater than our Lord.
Now what is important about such a providence is that we react as Paul did. You see the contrast in this context, how Alexander the metalworker had done Paul “a great deal of harm” and Paul’s response to him is curt and serious; “the Lord will repay him for what he has done” (v.14). What the world sows is also what the world will reap. If you choose to sow a great deal of harm against those who serve the gospel then you will reap the reward of the wrath of a sin-hating God, a God whose people are the apple of his eye. But that is not what Paul says here concerning the failure of friends to stand by him in an hour of need. What is important is to notice how Paul responds to their seeming indifference. It is with these words, “May it not be held against them” (v.16). It is a great phrase; there was no apostolic bitterness or resentment at all. He was not allowing their grievous treatment of him to put roots of bitterness into his soul. He doesn’t dwell on it. He’s only using the memory of that painful let-down to underline to Timothy the reality of One who never lets us down, who stood by Paul at that time and always stands by us and so will be there for Timothy too when trials come into his life.
Do we hurry over the phrase in the Lord’s prayer, “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us”? Jesus says that this is how you pray, by saying to God that you forgive those in debt to us for how they’ve treated us. Are we consciously forgiving people who have said and done to us hurtful things, or who have failed to show us any affection, continuing to display indifference towards us year after year? Are we failing to put to death resentment and coldness when the divine obligation (under which we’re to live our entire lives) is this, that we are to love all our fellow church members with pure hearts and fervently? Let me ask you, will there be bitterness in the body of Christ in heaven? Not an atom. We will all be loving brothers and sisters. Then why do we tolerate it in the body of Christ on earth for a day? Paul still could remember that sense of desolation he had as he looked around that court and found not a single friendly face, but his response to that was this, “may it not be counted against them.” All the disciples left Jesus in the Garden alone when they saw the soldiers with swords and staves and torches coming to arrest Jesus. Our Lord ended up in the hands of the soldiers. And when he was there, our Lord heard Peter, his closest friend, tell a young member of the domestic staff that “he did not know that blasted Jesus fellow.” Yet on the cross Christ was praying for forgiveness for all those who’ve had any part in his arrest and crucifixion, for the cowardly, fleeing disciples and the cursing, denying Peter and the whipping, crucifying squaddies.
Jesus has left us an example that we walk in his steps. We live like him. Paul lived like him. There was an occasion when Paul was in the midst of an immensely powerful and hostile segment of the world, and it would have meant so much to him to have seen and known that one or two Christians were there for him, supporting, praying for him. But there wasn’t one. “May it not be counted against them,” he prays sincerely without any resentment. He doesn’t ask Timothy to pass on some sort of message to them, “Just one thing . . . next time any of the brothers has to appear in court, don’t do what you did when I appeared in court and conveniently fail to be there . . . Be there!” No. Nothing like that. You must do with your resentful recollections what Shakespeare says in Hamlet, “From the table of my memory I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records.” Those must be deleted from your memories – those trivial fond records.
What Paul does in recalling to Timothy his experience of human rejection at that time is to assure his young friend that the blessing Paul had then wasn’t something unique to him, that what Paul knew then – in all its wonderful reality – Timothy would also know. I want to talk to you about the mighty privileges that a sinner knows when he repents of his unbelief and turns and puts his faith in Christ. “What’s in this Christianity for me?” you ask. In other words you are saying, “If I believe in God will that mean a life of keeping rules, and guilt, and going to church every Sabbath, and no fun? Is that going to be my future, because that is what the devil is telling you? What’s in it for me?” Paul tells us in the verse before us that first of all it means this . . .
- THE LORD CHRIST STANDS AT OUR SIDE GIVING US STRENGTH.
Paul is talking here of his Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the one he first met on the road to Damascus, the Jesus who had been born of the virgin Mary, who lived for thirty years in Nazareth, then preached and healed and pastored 12 disciples for three years before the system ganged up on him and arrested and tried him and found him guilty of blasphemy and crucified him. But on the third day he showed his power over death; he was stronger than the grave and he appeared to his disciples for forty days before he ascended into heaven where he lives as our mediator with God and the King of kings. He is our Sovereign Protector, unseen yet for ever at hand. The Bible is full of accounts of his protecting his people.
This Lord was with Sarah, the wife of Abraham and had protected her when at different times two kings had taken her and had put her into their harems. This same Lord had stood by his servants at the exodus as a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire protecting them from being swallowed up on the Arabian desert and leading them to the promised land. In the Old Testament Elisha’s servant had his eyes opened and he saw the evidence of the Lord’s presence between his master and enemy hosts, unintimidated by their number, and Elisha’s servant was strengthened. This Lord went into the burning fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and stood with them in the flames. This Lord Christ stood in the temple and commissioned Isaiah to preach to the people and strengthened him for the task. This Lord Christ stood at the side of John the Baptist. He wouldn’t allow a page of Indian paper to come between them. What John said Jesus endorsed. There was none born of women greater than John, the greatest of all the prophets. Jesus insisted that John baptize him. He was never in the least ashamed of John’s appearance or his diet or his clothing, and certainly not ashamed of his message. He stood at John’s side. And when Peter made the astonishing confession that this Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God, then Christ didn’t say this, “Nah, I’m just an ordinary bloke. Don’t put me up on a pedestal. I’m just a teacher, a sinner like us all.” No. He stood by Peter’s side and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:17&18). Jesus came to Samaria and he stood alongside a much married woman and told her he knew all about her and that he was the Messiah. What strength she received from him to tell others about him. When a brother of two sisters died he went to visit the girls and stood and wept with them and he strengthened them in their sorrow. And when Stephen the martyr was dying under a hail of sharp rocks thudding into his head and rib-cage then Jesus was there so close that Stephen could see him standing there to welcome him to the place he had gone to prepare for Stephen, and the sight made Stephen’s face glow like the face of an angel. Stephen was strengthened.
And this Lord Christ continues to be at the side of his people through all the days, months, years, centuries and millennia that would follow. Where is Jesus today? He is at my side here and your side there, right now. The gospel church is the church of Immanuel, God with us. Of course he is standing at our side by his Spirit, but he is not some poor substitute for the risen Christ standing in our midst but a full and glorious form of his presence. What else can explain the strength of the martyrs in the flames, Cranmer holding in the flame the arm that had once signed a statement denying the gospel, that it might be destroyed first? What else explains the faith of the covenanters, hung, drawn and quartered for the truths they preached? How else did Paton survive in the New Hebrides when he had to dig the graves and then bury his wife and child and then keep going, living out his hope, teaching and preaching repentance and faith in Christ to the cannibals there?
What is the Lord Jesus doing to us and for us today? Why is he here? It is to do what Paul tells us here, to strengthen us. In other words the implication is obvious, that we are weak and we need strengthening. The strength of the Lord is made perfect – it is shown in all its blessed perfection – when we can only get by by its assistance. Jesus is here to make you strong in faith and strong in love and strong in enduring and strong in forgiving. Are you stronger in trusting him and in patience and in showing mercy and in good works and in the labour of love from having met with Jesus Christ here on the Lord’s Day? He is not here as the great entertainer. He is not here as a cushion for the laidback church. He is not here to make us feel better. He is not here to stroke our affections and to provide private comfort zones for inactive Christians and lazy congregations. He is here to make us strong, to carry our burden, to get under his easy yoke, to turn the other cheek, to go the second mile, to keep forgiving 70 times seven, to bear the burdens of the weak. If you are not getting stronger after being in the Lord’s presence then you are getting weaker. You’re not involved in the work; you’re a spectator of others working. By the time Saturday comes I am longing for Sunday and public worship and waiting on the Lord and renewing my strength so that I can again run and not grow weary, and walk and not faint.
- THE LORD MUST STAND AT OUR SIDE SO THAT OUR MESSAGE MIGHT BE FULLY PROCLAIMED AND THE WORLD MIGHT HEAR IT.
That is what Paul tells us here (v.17). In other words, the Lord is with us for outreach in evangelism, and for strength in service to renew and refresh, to motivate and inspire. He has to be with us for all of that. Our wits will take us nowhere. Consider the state of man. There is no way that sinners, at enmity against God, dead in their trespasses and sins, are going to become alive in Christ without the Lord Jesus doing two things in our assemblies, standing at the side of the preacher as he proclaims the gospel, opening the word to us, making it alive and convicting, and then also standing at the side of the sinner, opening his understanding to hear and receive it. That is Paul’s explanation – as the greatest evangelist the world has ever heard – for any success he’d had; “the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it” (v.17). For full proclamation of the message and a real hearing of the message the Lord must be standing alongside us all not as some motionless statue but doing that work. Do you see why it is not enough for the preacher to have correct exegesis and a biblical theological understanding of the dynamic of redemptive history? Let him have that, of course. But you can have all of that, but unless Jesus stands among us in his risen power there’ll be no powerful preaching and no life-changing response. And we must fear – as much as we fear poor exegesis and fanciful imaginations in the pulpit – anything that grieves the Lord and quenches his Spirit’s work. The nearer the Lord stands by the preacher and the closer he stands by the sinner in the pew the greater will be the impact of the gospel. So every prayer meeting there must be much beseeching that the Lord will be standing at our side giving us all strength on the Sabbath day. He motivates us; he enables us. He is the one who gave a Macedonian call for help to Paul, and he is the one who subsequently took him to Philippi, and he is the one who led him to the riverside where women met for prayer. He was the one standing with him as he spoke and he also stood by Lydia and he opened her heart to hear and receive the gospel preached by the apostle.
So Paul in this text is reminding Timothy of a great trial he had to endure all by himself, when he was facing the death sentence in court, and no Christians turned up to encourage him. No one came to his support; everyone deserted him. But that loneliness resulted in Paul having to cast himself entirely upon the Lord Christ who never let him down. So that trial was immensely productive for Paul. He learned again that the Lord is no man’s debtor. That he will always be there for us. Paul having to go it alone in Rome was not just an unfortunate incident. It was an occasion in which the apostle had a new vision of Jesus’ all sufficiency. He used Paul’s aloneness to produce in the apostle greater peace and righteousness. Then Paul wrote to Timothy and all the readers of the Bible about this sad experience and the blessing that came from it, and the whole Christian community ever since has been encouraged by these words. In other words, this experience of Paul was one way in which the Lord Jesus equipped the whole church for the next 2000 years to trust in the Lord at lonely times, and he had us too in mind, our congregation today.
What was Paul’s chief concern for the city of Ephesus where Timothy was the pastor-preacher? He tells us here, that in Ephesus “all the Gentiles might hear” the message, and it is the same divine concern that God has for all 20,000 people in our small town, that they might hear that he so loved the world as to give his only-begotten Son. “All the Gentiles” he says, and when we hear that phrase we mustn’t think that it is referring to Kenya and the Pokot and the Rendille people, not to some different groups of people living 5,000 miles away across the sea, but the Welsh Gentiles, the people on our street, in our hall of residence, the boy on the school bus, the woman in the next desk in the open plan office, the man on the Shrewsbury train, all those people, some living in sight of our building, and the Christian Book Shop. All the Gentiles surround us at this moment, and we know that they all have moral principles, and assumptions, and hunches about the meaning of life, and certain attitudes to death and to God, and those ideas are extremely varied, often perplexing and complex, and often we feel we have no answer to some of the things they say because they are very far away from the beliefs and practices of our church. Going to them, listening to them and answering their questions is quite daunting. We feel very inadequate and every attempt seems to have its problems, but in this passage before us now we are being told of the provision God makes for us as we do get engaged in this work, that the Lord comes with us and he stands at our side and he gives us real strength. One of the great reasons Christ died as he did and was buried and rose again in the power of an endless life was to be engaged today in this activity in Aberystwyth, to stand at our side and become our strength, that Welsh Gentiles – in all their diversity and daunting differentness – could hear and could understand the message we bring. There is much open hostility to Christianity today, but that is the feature of all these last days stretching for 2000 years. Samuel Rutherford said centuries ago in Scotland, “Christ no sooner picks up his trowel to build his church than men pick up their swords to fight him.”
So we must think of Christ’s promise to be where two or three gather in his name, and we must realise that he is standing here at our side to strengthen us, and that his presence with us is essential and the invigorating work he does indispensable to our growth and usefulness and any impact we might make on the people of this town. I tell you this by reminding you that in the book of Revelation Christ is portrayed as standing not inside but outside a church, standing at the door of this particular congregation that is closed to him. He is knocking and he is asking for admission, promising that if the church door is opened to the Lord Jesus Christ of the Bible, the Son of God, that he will come in and stand at our side and his presence will make us a strong church. What keeps Jesus outside a congregation? That is a great question. Greater love for some rival to him? Squabbles, jealousies, the lack of a warm, positive, attractive, joyful holiness, a quenching of the first love, self-satisfaction, the absence of a welcoming fellowship that will readily embrace the prodigal who has returned home – Zaccheus would never feel at home in such a church. Mary Magdalene would never be comfy in such a church. But, think! Is such a church our church, and am I the one who is so unlike my Saviour, yet so unaware of my lack of weakness and abundant talents, that I’m not crying to him to come in, and give me the strength that he alone can give? Then I need to repent of my lukewarmness and pride. I need to cry to God as Moses did at Sinai, “If your presence does not go with us, then don’t carry us up from here.”
If we do not have the Lord standing in our midst and strengthening us then we must ask why. Is there some Achan-like sin in the camp? Have we left our first love? Have we quenched the Spirit of Christ by defiant unbelief? Let us open the door of our lives to him again, individually and as a congregation, and do our first works and experience again the passion of our first love. And let us pray like the early church prayed, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephs. 3:16-21). What encouragement we have to believe that such prayer will be answered. See what Paul says next . . .
- THE LORD STANDS AT OUR SIDE AND RESCUES US FROM EVERY EVIL ATTACK.
Paul says, “I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack” (v.18). He is looking back, and the consciousness of God’s love and protection in the past makes him sure as he looks ahead that the future will be just the same. He had been delivered from the greatest peril; he refers to it as the ‘lion’s mouth.’ It is not referring to being thrown to the lions in the Coliseum because Paul was a Roman citizen and no Roman could suffer that fate. It is probably a reference to Caesar because when the Emperor Tiberias died in the year 37 Josephus tells us that the message reached Herod in a code that said, “the lion is dead.” So that might be the reference here, but there were other possible threats and dangers too. Whatever it might be if the Lord was powerful and loving enough to have delivered him from such a powerful and merciless danger then certainly he would rescue Paul and Timothy and you and me “from every evil attack” (v.18). We need to let that promise sink in and understand its implications. It doesn’t mean we are not going to have suffering, accidents, and car crashes, or trip and fall and break bones, or that our marriages won’t survive and we won’t have to pass through a divorce, or our children won’t be handicapped in some way or another, or that we won’t die. There are no promises in the Bible that tell us that we’ll be saved from all or any of the pains that a groaning world knows. We will have thorns in the flesh, but from every attack of evil that would destroy our trust in God and take us to hell we will always, inexorably and eternally be rescued. If Christ has died under our condemnation, if we have been made alive by the Holy Spirit, and if God is working all things together for our good – even the attacks that we endure will be for our good – then he will not allow us to perish eternally. As Toplady says
Yes I to the end shall endure as sure as the earnest is given;
More happy, but not more secure, the glorified spirits in heaven.
He will keep us during those attacks, when the fiery darts are being hurled at us, he will protect us from them. When temptations come fiercely and relentlessly, he will give us a revulsion for the sin, he will make a way of escape, he will disturb the assault, he will humble us through them and give us the blessedness of evangelical repentance so that we turn with new gratitude to the great constant forgiver. He will rescue us from every evil attack, when we are at our wit’s end, when we think we can’t keep going we’ll keep going, when the way ahead seems all darkness there will be a little light, when all around my soul gives way he then is all my hope and stay. He will rescue me from attacks on my relationships, attacks on my finances, attacks on delayed answers to my prayer, attacks on my health or the health of my loved ones, whatever the attacks may be God is the great lifeguard and security officer and keeper and Sovereign Protector of every one of his people, the most backsliding Christian, and the youngest lamb in the flock – the Good Shepherd won’t allow him to perish. None shall pluck him out of his hands.
- THE LORD WILL BRING US SAFELY TO HIS HEAVENLY KINGDOM.
This is what Paul assures Timothy (v.18), with all Asia Minor deserting the apostle and his teaching, with heretics going about denying the future day of resurrection, with Timothy’s enemies despising his youth and saying patronisingly, “Oh, he’s a young man. He’ll learn . . .” Timothy was still safe. All God’s promises were his. God would keep Timothy and all he had committed unto him against that day. Hadn’t God given to Jesus all his covenant people before the foundation of the world for him to save them by his life and death and he would keep them and present every one of them blameless to the Father in that great day? Not one would fail to be there safe and sound. The most backsliding one, the weakest one, the one just saved by the skin of his teeth – he would be there. Hadn’t he begun a good work in Timothy and so how could he leave it half done? He would complete in the day of Christ what he had started. Nothing was going to separate Timothy from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Hadn’t Jesus prayed these words for him and for every Christian, “Protect them by the power of your name” (Jn.17:11)? Hadn’t Jesus said that none had the power to pluck them out of my Father’s hands or my hands? Will your wits be enough to take you safely into the future? Will your theories and hunches and hopes and ideas take you safely to the place you want to go? It is not too late for you to make a bundle of your dreams and desires and thoughts and set them all alight and run from that bonfire to the living Jesus Christ! He will bring us safely to the place where now he is reigning in glory, to a new heavens and earth and there he will deal with what is left of your doubts and imaginations and guilt and grief. He will deliver you from all of that and make you holy and loving and good, through and through and through, so that not a single cell of unrighteousness will be left in your body untransformed, and every brainwave will vibrate with love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control. The Jesus who preached the Sermon on the Mount, the good and faithful prophet of God has said it will be so. You set out on this voyage with the hand of God protecting and guiding you and he will take you safely to his eternal heavenly kingdom.
“To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” Not ‘to me’ be the glory. Not to man. Not to Marx. Not to Freud. Not to Darwin. Not to the politician, the scientist, the psychiatrist, the millionaire, the matinee idol, the sportsman, the writer, the composer be glory for ever and ever. No. To the Lord Jesus Christ the great teacher, the one whom the winds and waves obeyed, the one who turned water into wine, the healer of ever disease, who raised the dead, who loved with a pure heart and was loved by the common people joyfully, to him be glory in the 21st century and the 22nd and 23rd – if he tarries – and then for ever and ever. Let us cast the crowns given to us by the world for what we’d achieved – let us cast them at Jesus’ feet. “To him be the glory” Let us say it, and cry it with a loud voice, and live by it and with our latest breath glorify and praise and honour and worship him alone, our Lord and Saviour who is standing with us today, and is taking all of us to his eternal kingdom. Amen.
24th July 2016 GEOFF THOMAS