Toward the close of his life, the apostle Paul penned his “pastoral epistles”—letters to his protégés Timothy and Titus. He wrote the letters late in life, knowing he was awaiting the martyr’s crown. In a sense, that means these letters are Paul’s dying words. He knows his time is limited. What should his protégés in the faith know once he’s gone? What should the church of all ages continue to remember? Here are three things to appreciate in Paul’s letters to Timothy:
1. Their loving and pastoral tone
Paul writes “to Timothy, my true child in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2). Love drips from Paul’s pen in the pages that follow. These aren’t truths in the abstract; they are loving exhortations of a man to his son in the faith in his final days. The beginning of the second epistle contains a poignant reminder of their love-bond:
“I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well.”
(1 Tim. 1:3-5)
These are not the words of a theologian, but a father for his beloved child. He yearns for a joyful reunion. Paul has not only seen Timothy’s tears, but also his faith as it was passed down from the godly women in his life. Thus, Paul has the intimate knowledge of Timothy to be able to exhort him to build on the grace he’s already received. In our age of broken families and dysfunctional relationships, such love reminds us of Christ Jesus and feels like a balm upon our wounds.
2. Their memorable “trustworthy sayings”
We’re all looking for Scripture to hide in our hearts. Paul helps direct us to some God-inspired wisdom that’s good for us to remember, both as individuals and as the church. He usually begins such passages with, “This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance.” In other words, these are truths that are useful to carry around in our hearts and repeat to one another. Perhaps my favorite comes from the beginning of the first epistle:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
(1 Tim. 1:15-17)
We’re often tempted to locate sin in everyone but ourselves. We are our own best defense attorney and the world’s best prosecutor. As Paul progresses through the Christian life, he seems to become more painfully aware of his own sin and more wondrously aware of God’s grace. He considers himself the least of the disciples, the least of all Christians, and the foremost of sinners. But he reminds us that this is the point: God saves the worst to show the best. In this way, the world is mesmerized by God’s grace and led to worship him.
3. Their picture of a life lived well, by God’s grace
In Acts 20:24, Paul tells the Ephesian elders, “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” Formerly, Paul hated God and killed his people out of supposed zeal for God and his truth. But God saved the very worst of sinners and gave Paul a very singular, gratitude-infused aim: To finish the race well.
Toward the very close of his final letter to Timothy, it seems that the prayers of Paul were answered:
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth 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.
(2 Tim. 4:6-8)
Do you see the parallels between these two passages? His fervent wish “if only I may finish my course” has become “I have fought . . . I have finished . . . I have kept.” Paul reminds Timothy and the rest of us that though the road is hard and our faith is frail, God will prevail. He not only tells us, but he also shows us. We can imagine Timothy on the day his spiritual father, Paul, was put to death. With tear-filled eyes, he could testify that God was proven faithful in the life of Paul. He will do the same with the rest of us.