This week’s epistle reading, 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18 offers these poignant words: “At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, 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 “ (vv.16-17). Somehow this text never made it to the list of verses to memorize in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School at First Baptist Church, Muskogee, OK. I have never preached on it, but have tried to understand it as the last communication of the Apostle Paul, summing up his vocation. Perhaps it was his final word from prison as he was awaiting his death. While there is a searing sense of abandonment and loneliness, he continues to profess his trust in the one who had made him “his own,” the living Christ.
Did Paul actually face lions in a Roman arena like other early Christian martyrs? We have no record of that; rather, he most likely is comparing his trials to what the heroic Daniel of Old Testament fame experienced. Tacitus, an early Christian writer, chronicles the horrific practices of pitting unarmed Christians against ravenous beasts in the Roman coliseum. Paul suffered many other life-threatening events, but not that.
Paul’s final testimony is a “jumble of complaint and request,” in the words of James D. G. Dunn. He has no other recourse than to rely on the steadfastness of God—many he had counted on could not persevere through the struggle to bring the Gospel to Europe. This passage is a distillate of all he has taught: God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. By confessing his need in forthright words, he puts himself in a “posture of receptivity,” in the words of the spiritual writer Richard Foster.
In this passage, the Apostle models for us what authentic witness requires. Casting himself upon the Lord, he trusted God to be with him whatever might happen. May we also grow toward this maturity in Christ.
Molly T. Marshall
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