Sketches From The Life of Paul
by Ellen G. White
Chapter 31: Paul's Last Letter
From the judgment-hall of Caesar, Paul returned to his prison-house, knowing that he had gained for himself only a brief respite; his [p. 319] enemies would not rest until they had secured his death. Yet he knew that truth had triumphed for the time, and that to have proclaimed a crucified and risen Saviour before the vast throng who had listened to his words, was in itself a victory. A work had that day begun which would increase and prosper, and which the emperor of Rome, with all his pomp and power, would seek in vain to destroy or hinder.
The apostle's speech had gained him many friends, and he was visited by some persons of rank, who accounted his blessing of greater value than the favor of the emperor of the world. But there was one friend for whose sympathy and companionship he longed in those last trying days. That friend was Timothy, to whom he had committed the care of the church at Ephesus, and who had therefore been left behind when he made his last voyage to Rome. The affection between this youthful laborer and the apostle began with Timothy's conversion through the labors of Paul; and the tie had strengthened as they had shared together the hopes and perils and toils of missionary life, until they seemed to be as one. The disparity in their age and the difference in their character made their interest and love for each other more earnest and sacred. The ardent, zealous, indomitable spirit of Paul found repose and comfort in the mild, yielding, retiring character of Timothy. The faithful ministration and tender love of this tried companion had brightened many a dark hour of the apostle's life. All that Melancthon was to Luther, all that a son could be to a loved and honored father, that was the youthful Timothy to the tried and lonely Paul. [p. 320]
And now, sitting day after day in his gloomy cell, knowing that at a word or nod from the tyrant Nero his life may be sacrificed, Paul thinks of Timothy, and determines to send for him. Under the most favorable circumstances, several months must elapse before Timothy can reach Rome from Asia Minor. Paul knows that his own life, for even a single day, is uncertain, and he fears that Timothy may arrive too late, or may hesitate through fear of the dangers to be encountered. He has important counsel and instruction for the young man to whom so great responsibility is intrusted, and while urging him to come without delay, he dictates the dying testimony which he may not be spared to utter. His soul is filled with loving solicitude for his son in the gospel, and for the church under his care, and he earnestly seeks to impress upon him the importance of fidelity to his sacred trust.
The words of Paul to Timothy apply with equal force to all the ministers of Christ, to the close of time: "I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom: Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine."
This solemn charge to one so zealous and faithful as was Timothy, is an emphatic testimony to the great importance and responsibility of the gospel ministry. The apostle summons Timothy, as it were, before the bar of infinite justice, and in the most impressive manner charges him to preach the word; not the customs or sayings of men, but the word of God; to preach it as one in earnest,—"instant in season, out of season,"— [p. 321] whenever an opportunity was presented; at stated times and occasionally; to large congregations, to private circles; by the way, at the fireside; before friends and enemies; to one as well as to many; whether he could speak with safety or would be exposed to hardship and peril, reproach and loss.
Timothy suffered from physical infirmities, and the apostle, tender and compassionate as he was, felt it necessary to warn him to neglect no duty on this account. And fearing that his mild, yielding disposition might lead him to shun an essential part of his work, Paul exhorts him to be faithful in reproving sin, and even to rebuke with sharpness those who were guilty of gross evils. Yet he is to do this "with all long-suffering and doctrine;" he must manifest the patience and love of Christ, and must explain and enforce his reproofs and exhortations by the word of God.
To hate and reprove sin, and at the same time to manifest pity and tenderness for the sinner, is a difficult attainment. The more earnest our own efforts to attain to holiness of heart and life, the more acute will be our perception of sin, and the more decided our disapproval of any deviation from right. We must guard against undue severity toward the wrong-doer. But while we should seek to encourage him in every effort to correct his errors, we must be careful not to lose sight of the exceeding sinfulness of sin. While there is need of Christlike patience and love toward the erring, there is constant danger of manifesting so great toleration for his error that he will consider himself undeserving of reproof, and will reject it as uncalled-for and unjust. [p. 322]
Ministers of the gospel whose characters are otherwise almost faultless, frequently do great harm by allowing their forbearance toward the erring to degenerate into toleration of their sins, and even participation with them. In this easygoing way they excuse and palliate that which the word of God condemns; and after a time they become so blinded as even to commend the very ones whom God commands them to reprove. The only safe-guard against these dangers is to add to patience godliness,—to reverence God, his character and his law, and to keep his fear ever before the mind. By communion with God, through prayer and the reading of his word, we should cultivate such a sense of the holiness of his character that we shall regard sin as he regards it.
Godliness leads to brotherly kindness; and those who do not cherish the one, will surely lack the other. He who has blunted his moral perceptions by sinful leniency toward those whom God condemns, will erelong commit a greater sin by severity and harshness toward those whom God approves. Viewed through the perverted medium of an unconsecrated spirit, the very integrity and faithfulness of the true-hearted Christian will appear censurable.
By the pride of human wisdom, by contempt for the influence of the Holy Spirit, and disrelish for the humbling truths of God's word, many who profess to be Christians, and who feel competent to teach others, will be led to turn away from the requirements of God. Paul declared to Timothy: "The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves [p. 323] teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables."
The apostle does not here refer to the openly irreligious, but to professed Christians who have indulged inclination until they are enslaved by their own ungoverned passions,—"led away with divers lusts." Such desire to hear doctrines that will not interfere with their sinful course, or condemn their pleasure-loving propensities. Hence they are offended by the plain words of the faithful servants of Christ, and choose those teachers who will praise and flatter them instead of rebuking their sins. These teachers "they heap to themselves" as special favorites. Even among the professed ministers of Christ, there are many who do not preach the word, but the opinions of men. They have turned away their ears from truth. The Lord has spoken to them in his word; but they do not care to hear his voice, because it condemns their practices.
In his ten holy precepts, God has given a rule for man's life, a law which Christ declares is not to abate one jot of its claims upon men through all their generations, to the close of time. That law is still the believer's rule of life, the sinner's condemnation. That law Christ came to magnify and make honorable. He showed that it is based upon the broad foundation of love to God and men, and that obedience to its precepts comprises the whole duty of man. In his own life he gave men a perfect example of obedience to the law of God. In his sermon on the mount he showed how its requirements extend beyond the outward acts, and take cognizance of the thoughts and intents of the heart. That law, [p. 324] obeyed, will lead men to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live "soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world."
But the enemy of all righteousness has taken the world captive, and has led them to make void the law of God. As Paul foresaw, the people have turned away from the plain, searching truths of God's word, and, having itching ears, they have heaped to themselves teachers who present to them the fables that they desire. These teachers trample under their feet the fourth commandment, and instead of the day which God has blessed and sanctified, they honor a day which he has not commanded, and upon which he did not rest. The first day of the week, whose sacredness rests wholly on the authority of the papacy, "the man of sin," is observed as a holy day by Catholics and Protestants alike, instead of the day which God has set apart, and upon which he has placed his blessing. Thus the Creator of the world is insulted, and Satan laughs in triumph at the success of his devices.
With the growing contempt for God's holy law, there is an increasing distaste for religion, an increase of pride, love of pleasure, disobedience to parents, and self-indulgence; and thoughtful minds everywhere anxiously inquire, What can be done to correct these alarming evils? The answer is found in Paul's exhortation to Timothy: "Preach the word." In that word are the only safe principles of action. It is a transcript of the will of God, an expression of divine wisdom. It opens to man's understanding the great problem of life. It will prove a guide to all who heed it, so that their lives will not be wasted in [p. 325] misdirected efforts. God has declared his will, and it is absolute madness for men to change or even question that which has gone out of his lips. After Infinite Wisdom has spoken, there can be no doubtful questions for man to settle, no wavering probabilities for him to adjust. All the interests of time and of eternity are involved in a frank, earnest concurrence of the mind and will of men with the expressed will of God. Obedience is the highest dictate of reason as well as of conscience. Those who choose to listen to other voices and to follow other guides, will be turned unto fables, and, trusting to these, they will in the day of God meet with infinite loss.
Paul continues his charge: "Watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry." Now that Paul is called to finish his course, he would have Timothy supply his place, and guard the churches from the fables and heresies with which Satan and his agents would in various ways endeavor to seduce them from the simplicity of the truth. He therefore admonishes him to shun all temporal pursuits and entanglements which would prevent him from giving himself wholly to this work; to endure with cheerfulness the opposition, reproach, and persecution to which his faithfulness would expose him; to "make full proof of his ministry," by employing to the uttermost every means of doing good to the souls of men for whom Christ died.
Paul had never been afraid or ashamed to confess Christ before men. He had stood in no doubtful position, but under all circumstances had unhesitatingly committed himself upon the side of justice and righteousness. His own life [p. 326] was a living illustration of the truths he taught; and herein lay his power with the people. The voice of duty was to him the voice of God. Cherishing in his own soul the principles of truth, he never shrank from maintaining them in full view of the world. His soul was ever pervaded with a deep and abiding sense of his responsibility before God; and he lived in close and constant communion with Him who is the fountain of justice, mercy, and truth. He clung to the cross of Christ as the only guarantee of success. The love of Christ was the omnipotent, undying motive which upheld him in his conflicts with self and the power of Satan, in his struggles with spiritual wickedness in high places, in his life-long labors, as he pressed forward against the unfriendliness of the world and the burden of his own infirmities.
What the church needs in these days of peril is an army of workers, who, like Paul, have educated themselves for usefulness, who have a deep experience in the things of God, and who are inspired with earnestness and zeal in his service. Cultivated, refined, sanctified, self-sacrificing men are needed; men who will not shun trial and responsibility, but who will lift the burdens wherever they may find them; men who are brave, who are true; men who have Christ formed within them, and who, with lips touched with holy fire, "will preach the word" amid the thousands who are preaching fables. For the want of such workers, the cause of God, languishes, and fatal errors, like a deadly poison, taint the morals and blight the hopes of a large part of the human race.
As the faithful, toil-worn standard-bearers [p. 327] are offering up their lives for the truth's sake, who will come forward to take their places? Will our young men accept the holy trust at the hand of their fathers? Are they now preparing to fill the vacancies made by the death of the faithful? Will the apostle's charge be heeded, the call to duty be heard, amid the incitements to selfishness and ambition which allure the youth?
Paul concludes his letter with various personal messages, and again and again repeats the urgent request that Timothy use all diligence to come to him soon, and if possible to come before winter. He describes his loneliness from the desertion of some friends and the necessary absence of others, and lest Timothy should still hesitate, fearing that the church at Ephesus demanded his labors, he states that he has already despatched Tychicus to fill the place of Timothy in his absence. And then he adds the touching request, "The cloke that I left at Troas, with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments." At his second arrest, Paul was seized and hurried away so suddenly that he had no opportunity to gather up his few "books and parchments," or even to take with him his cloak. And now winter was coming on, and he knew that he would suffer with cold in his damp prison-cell. He had no money to buy another garment, he knew that his end might come at any moment, and with his usual self-forgetfulness and fear to burden the church, he desired that no expense should be incurred on his account.
After describing the scenes of the trial already past, the desertion of his brethren, and the sustaining grace of a covenant-keeping God, and [p. 328] sending greeting to faithful fellow-laborers, Paul closes by commending his beloved Timothy to the guardianship of the Chief Shepherd, who, though the under-shepherds might be stricken down, would still care for his servants and his flock.Click here to read the next chapter: "Martyrdom of Paul and Peter"