The last words someone ever says tend to have added weight and importance. What a person says at the end of their life, whether young or old, tend to be the full culmination of the wisdom they’ve gathered. They can be reconciliatory, encouraging, hopeful, regretful, revelatory, fearful. They also say a lot about a person, because that person has nothing to lose, so they can be themselves.
Needless to say, last words are important. To hear them is a privelege, and a moment of intense reflexion and introspection. I’ve not been given the opportunity to hear them myself, but some of you have. They may be etched in your memory, something that must be taken seriously throughout life. They may be fuzzy, always there on the tip of your tongue, but never remembered completely correctly. Still, they may be completely forgotten, deemed frivolous at the time they were spoken.
There are all the jokes about last words as well. You know, the “I left a million dollars in…” or “The cure for such and such is…”, or better yet “He did it” and you point to someone as you die. But last words are no joking matter, and need to be taken seriously. Some live on in memory from a loved one, and others are forever etched in history in written word. A specific case involving the written word is what I’d like to look at.
Paul’s last words to his spiritual son Timothy are recorded in 2 Timothy 4. Paul starts with a direct command toward Timothy, who would be the pastor of the church in Ephesus, in verses 1-5:
I solemnly 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: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. 5 But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
Paul was getting straight to the point: preach the Word, be able to defend what you know, and use the Word to make a change in other’s lives. Why these commands? Because a time will come when people won’t want to hear the Word, but only such things as are pleasing to them. If you took a look at Christianity today in America, you’d see that Paul’s prediction here is all too realized. Instead of being like them however, Paul urges Timothy to be moderate in all things, enduring, evangelizing, and do well in his ministry as a pastor.
While this letter was written to Timothy, it applies to all pastors today. We are to act in the same manner as Paul is commanding Timothy to act: preaching, able to defend the faith, using the Word to impact others, moderate, enduring, evangelizing, and doing what God has given us to do as our ministry. We are to strive to do what Paul commands here, because we too are living in a time where people only want to be entertained and told what they want, not what they need.
Paul continues along, reflecting on his own life in verses 6-8:
6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8 in the future 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.
Paul knows his time has come. He’s come to terms with the fact that God is calling him home, which is why he so seriously charges Timothy, because Timothy needs to do well once Paul is gone and can’t help him. Paul reflects on his own life, summing it up with “I did well, and there is a crown for me in heaven”. Paul doesn’t impress Timothy with stories of the amazing things Paul has done, or what he’s witnessed, or anything like that. There is no final “glory story”, no “good ol’ days” reflection. It is an honest moment of reflection, that ends with the hope and assurance at death that so many people are looking for. Paul knows what awaits him, so he has no reason to fear, but every reason to look forward to it.
The challenge given, and his own reflection looked at, Paul moves onto current, personal concerns. He first looks at the people around him in verse 9-15:
9 Make every effort to come to me soon; 10 for Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. 11 Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service. 12 But Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. 13 When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments. 14 Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. 15 Be on guard against him yourself, for he vigorously opposed our teaching.
Paul wants Timothy to come to him quickly, because all his other disciples ditched him for sin or are occupied with their ministries elsewhere. Luke is with him, which makes sense. Paul is dying, Luke is a close friend and a doctor. He asks that Mark, the one who left Paul during a missions trip, be brought along as well, so that Paul can send him out and give him that second chance. He asks for his books and his coat, and offers a warning against those opposed to the gospel. Paul, like all of us, wants his friends around him, and to encourage them to continue on.
In sharp contrast to the people Paul has had to deal with, and their failings and absences, Paul turns to what the Lord has done in his life in verses 16-18:
16 At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me; may it not be counted against them. 17 But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that through me the proclamation might be fully accomplished, and that all the Gentiles might hear; and I was rescued out of the lion’s mouth. 18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to [g]Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
The Lord stood with Paul and gave him the necessary strength to preach the gospel to all, that the whole world might know the gospel of Jesus Christ. Everyone else had left at some point; some for sin, others from fear, and still others because of the worries of the world that so easily preoccupy us. But God was always there, faithful and true, a constant, reliant source of energy and help. His past faithfulness gave Paul the assurance to trust Him in the present and future, as Paul dies and goes to be with his Savior forever.
Paul urges that Timothy come before winter, and sends his greetings along with the greetings of others with him to Timothy in the final verses of the chapter, verses 19-21:
19 Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus. 20 Erastus remained at Corinth, but Trophimus I left sick at Miletus. 21 Make every effort to come before winter. Eubulus greets you, also Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brethren.
Nothing exciting or revelatory, just a simple greeting from those with him, tagged on the end of his letter.
A whole chapter, full of commands to keep strong in the faith while strengthening others, fears of the future, the assurance and peace of death for those who know Christ, the failings of his contemporaries, disciples and friends, the immense faithfulness and love of God in his life, hope for the future, and a request to come visit before he dies. All of these final words to lead to this final word in verse 22:
The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.
Paul’s final words: encouraging, warning, reflecting, testifying, urgent, exemplary, loving. Paul put as much as he could into this letter to help Timothy once he was gone, because these would be the final words.