Over the next three weeks we’ll be working our way through Paul’s second letter to Timothy. In prison and facing imminent death, these are some of the last words Paul ever wrote… or are they? This is the background issue we begin with today, before we get to the letter itself on Wednesday.
The dearly departing…
The big question about Paul’s circumstances when writing the letter is whether this was his final imprisonment before his martyrdom in 67AD when Emperor Nero decided he now didn’t like Christians very much. (Unless they were really on-fire.) You’d think so, reading this bit:
2 Timothy 4:6-8 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store 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 longed for his appearing.
Except it’s not quite as clear-cut. The word for “departure” has the same two meanings as it does in our culture. It’s a common metaphor for death. (The word is literally “untying”, and refers to the untying of the mooring ropes of the boat that takes you across the River Styx to the afterlife, in Greek mythology. Your fun trivia fact for the day.) Paul uses it in that sense in Phil 1:23 (“to depart and be with Christ is better by far”). But it could also simply mean his departure from prison – the untying of his chains, so to speak. So was he about to die a martyrs death? Or was he about to be released from prison, having been “poured out like a drink offering” as he defended himself and the gospel in front of the Emperor?
Some think that he’s about to be released, meaning that 2 Timothy was written during the imprisonment that’s mentioned at the end of Acts (see Acts 28; this was around 62AD). After all, this is the only imprisonment of Paul we have recorded elsewhere in Scripture. During that time in Rome, Acts tells us he was under house arrest, able to receive guests, study, and write letters (he wrote Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, and Philemon). But this is as far as the story of Paul in Acts goes (see the end of Acts 28) so we don’t really know what happened next. According to the early church leader Clement, Paul was released from this imprisonment.
But most find it hard to see how all of the stuff that’s mentioned in 1 Timothy and Titus could have occurred before his first imprisonment in Rome – it doesn’t seem to fit in with the timeline we have in Acts. For that reason, this is likely a second imprisonment in Rome, closer to his death in 67AD. (Paul mentions “frequent” imprisonments in 2 Cor 11:23). And this time, he’s not under house arrest, but in literal chains (2 Tim 1:16). Onesimus had to search hard to find him (1:17), probably in the military prison on the outskirts of Rome. He needed Timothy to bring his cloak before winter, or he’d probably die of cold in the dungeon (4:13). And he was probably unable to dictate the letter himself (unlike Philippians and Colossians), which may be why the letter sounds a little less like Paul’s style (and a little more like Luke’s, who was the only co-worker left with Paul, 4:11).
So here’s a likely reconstruction of what was happening in Paul’s life just before he wrote this letter (adapted from Ben Witherington III, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, vol. 1, p.65):
After being released from the Acts 28 imprisonment (62AD), he went to Crete with Titus and Timothy, leaving Titus in Crete to organise the various house churches. He and Timothy went on to Ephesus, discovering that there were problems with false teachers. He banished the troublemakers (including Alexander the coppersmith, mentioned in 2 Tim 4:14), but had to move on to Macedonia – so he left Timothy behind in Ephesus to continue to deal with the problem.
From Macedonia (64-65AD) he wrote letters back to Titus and Timothy (what we call “1 Timothy”). He then travelled elsewhere in Greece and returned to Asia Minor, where he was taken prisoner – possibly in Troas, and possibly turned in to the authorities by Alexander. He was taken to Rome, and then wrote this second letter to Timothy near the end of his life (65-66AD).
OK, so that’s some nice history. But how does it help us read this letter? Good question.
Firstly, it tells us a bit about Paul’s state of mind. This is the most personal of all his letters, in that there’s no hint that it should be read out to Timothy’s congregation. (1 Timothy, by contrast, is written conscious of the fact that the church would “overhear” the letter, since it was a letter giving Timothy a mandate to lead the church in a particular way.) And in this personal letter, despite his confidence in Jesus, Paul lets his guard down a bit and shows how difficult things are. Gone is the bravado of Philippians.Phil 1:12 What has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel…1:18 The important thing is that in every way… Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.4:12-13 I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation… I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Here in 2 Timothy there are hints of loneliness and physical suffering. His extreme language is suggestive of a weary prisoner (1:15 all turned away; 4:16 all have deserted me; 4:11 Luke alone is with me). And even though there’s gospel work for Timothy to be doing, this time – maybe for the first time – Paul puts his own needs first, calling Timothy to his side in his hour of need. This is Paul at his lowest ebb. And I think that’s helpful to keep in mind as we read – the fact that his suffering for the gospel is getting to him, yet he still remains confident in the hope of the reward he will receive.
Secondly, it shows us what Paul thinks is important to communicate to his most trusted coworker in what may be the last thing he says to him (if Timothy doesn’t make it to Rome before winter). Impending death sharpens the mind and clarifies priorities. What Paul says here has import, because he’s saying it while looking death in the face. And when we read the letter, we’ll notice that Paul doesn’t focus on telling Timothy what to do, so much as who to be. This letter is fundamentally about godly character.
But we’ll see more of that tomorrow, when we look at the type of letter this is.
To think about
For now, how does knowing the setting of the letter – where Paul was when he was writing it – help the way you are going to read it?