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LIGHT AT EVENTIDE
2Ti_4:1-5 ; 2Ti_4:16-18 .
TIMOTHY does not appear to have been a strong man, either in body or mind, if we may judge from the exhortations and tonics which Paul felt it needful to administer in this letter. The young, gentle soul was more overwhelmed by Paul’s trial and impending death than the heroic martyr himself was. Nothing shook that steadfast heart, and from the very grave’s mouth he spoke brave encouragement.
Verses 1-5 are a rousing appeal to Timothy to fulfil his ministry. Embedded in it there is a sad prophecy of coming dark days for the Church, which constitutes, not a reason for despondency or for abandoning the work, but for doing it with all one’s might. But the all-powerful motive for every Christian teacher, whether of old or young, is pressed on Timothy in the solemn thoughts that he works in the sight of God and of Jesus, and that he and those to whom he speaks, and whose blood may be laid to his charge, are to see him when he appears, and to stand at his judgment bar.
The master’s eye makes diligent servants; the tremendous issues for speaker and hearer suspended on the preaching of the gospel, if they were ever burning before our inward vision, would make superfluous all other motives for straining every nerve and using every opportunity and power. How we should preach and teach and live if the great white throne and He who will sit on it were ever shining before us! Would not that sight burn up slothfulness, cowardice, perfunctory discharge of duty, mechanical repetition of scarcely felt words, and all the other selfishnesses and worldlinesses which sap our earnestness in our work.
The special duties enjoined are, first and foremost, the most general one to ‘preach the word,’ which is, indeed, a duty incumbent on all Christians; and then, subordinate to it, and descriptive of how it is to be done, the duty of persevering attention to that great life task - ‘be instant’; that is, be at it, be always at it. But is not ‘in season, out of season’ an unwise and dangerous precept? Do we not do more harm than good by thrusting gospel teaching down people’s throats at unfitting times? No doubt tact and prudence are as needful as zeal, but perhaps they are rather more abundant at present than it, and at a time that looks out of season to a man who does not wish to hear of Christ at any time, or to one who does not wish to speak of Him at any time, may be ‘in season’ for the very reason that it seems out of season. Felix is not an infallible judge of ‘a convenient season.’ It would do no harm if Christian people ‘obtruded’ their religion a little more.
But the general work of ‘preaching the word’ is to be accompanied with special care over the life of believers, which is to be active in three closely connected forms. Timothy is, where needful, to ‘convict’ of sin; for so the word rendered ‘reprove’ means, as applied to the mission of the Comforter in <431608> Joh_16:8 . ‘Rebuke’ naturally follows conviction, and exhortation, or, rather, consolation or encouragement, as naturally follows rebuke. If the faithful teacher has sometimes to use the lancet, he must have the balm and the Bandage at hand. And this triple ministry is to be ‘with all longsuffering’ and ‘teaching.’ Chry-sostom beautifully comments, ‘Not as in anger, not as in hatred, not as insulting over him,... as loving, as sympathising, as more distressed than himself at his grief.’ And we may add, as letting ‘the teaching’ do the convicting and rebuking, not the teacher’s judgment or tongue.
The prospect of dark days coming, which so often saddens the close of a strenuous life for Christ and the Church, shadowed Paul’s spirit, and .added to his burdens. At Ephesus he had spoken forebodings of ‘grievous wolves’ entering in after his death, and now he feels that he will be powerless to check the torrent of corruption, and is eager that, when he is gone, Timothy and others may be wise and brave to cope with the tendencies to turn from the simple truth and to prefer ‘fables.’ The picture which he draws is true to-day. Healthful teaching is distasteful Men’s ears itch, and want to be tickled. The desire of the multitude is to have teachers who will reflect their own opinions and prejudices, who will not go against the grain or rub them the wrong way, who will flatter the mob which itself the people, and will keep ‘conviction’ and ‘rebuke’ well in the background. That is no reason for any Christian teacher’s being cast down, but is a reason for his buckling to his work, and not shunning to declare the whole counsel of God.
The true way to front and conquer these tendencies is by the display of an unmistakable self-sacrifice in the life, by sobriety in all things and willing endurance of hardship where needful, and by redoubled earnestness in proclaiming the gospel, which men need whether they want it or not, and by filling to the full the sphere of our work, and discharging all its obligations.
The final words in verses 16-18 carry on the triumphant strain. There had been some previous stage of Paul’s trial, in his second imprisonment, of which we have no details except those here - when the Roman Christians and all his friends had deserted him, and that he had thus been conformed unto Christ’s sufferings, and tasted the bitterness of friendship failing when needed most. But no trace of bitterness remained in his spirit, and, like his Lord, he prayed for them who had thus deserted him. He was left alone, but the Christ, who had borne his burden alone, died that none of His servants might ever have to know the same dreary solitude, and the absence of other comforters had made the more room, as well as need, for Him.
Paul’s predecessor, Stephen, had seen Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Paul had an even more blessed experience; for Jesus stood by him, there in the Roman court, in which, perhaps, the emperors ate on the tribunal What could terrify him with that Advocate at his side?
But it is beautiful that the Apostle does not first think of his Lord’s presence as ministering to his comfort, but as nerving him to ‘fulfil His message.’ The trial was to him, first, a crowning opportunity of preaching the gospel, and, no doubt, it gave him an audience of such a sort as he had never had. What did it matter even to himself what became of him, if ‘ all the Gentiles,’ and among them, no doubt, senators, generals, statesmen, and possibly Nero, ‘might bear’? Only as a second result of Christ’s help does he add that he was rescued, as from between the very teeth of the lion. The peril was extreme; his position seemed hopeless, the jaws were wide open, and he was held by the sharp fangs, but Christ dragged him out. The true David delivered his lamb out of the lion’s mouth.
The past is the prophecy of the future to those that trust in a changeless Christ, who has all the resources of the universe at command. ‘That which hath been is that which shall be,’ and he who can say ‘he hath delivered from so great a death’ ought to have no hesitation in adding’ in whom I trust that He will yet deliver me.’ That was the use that Paul made of his experience, and so his last words are an utterance of unfaltering faith and a doxology.
There appears to be an interesting echo of the Lord’s Prayer in verse 18. Observe the words ‘deliver,’ ‘from evil,’ ‘kingdom,’ ‘glory.’ Was Paul’s confidence disappointed? No; for surely he was delivered from every evil work, when the sharp sword struck off his head as he knelt outside thewalls of Rome. And Death was Christ’s last messenger, sent to ‘save him unto His heavenly kingdom,’ that there he might, with loftier words than even he could utter on earth, ascribe to Him ‘glory for ever. Amen.’
A PRISONER’S DYING THOUGHTS
PAUL’S long day’s work is nearly done. He is a prisoner in Rome, all but forsaken by his friends, in hourly expectation of another summons before Nero. To appear before him was, he says, like putting his head into ‘the mouth of the lion.’ His horizon was darkened by sad anticipations of decaying faith and growing corruptions in the Church. What a road he had travelled since that day when, on the way to Damascus, he saw the living Christ, and heard the words of His mouth!
It had been but a failure of a life, if judged by ordinary standards. He had suffered the loss of all things, had thrown away position and prospects, had exposed himself to sorrows and toils, had been all his days a poor man and solitary, had been hunted, despised, laughed at by Jew and Gentile, worried and badgered even by so-called brethren, loved the less, the more he loved. And now the end is near. A prison-and the-headsman’s sword are the world’s wages to its best teacher. When Nero is on the throne, the only possible place for Paul is a dungeon opening on to the scaffold. Better to be the martyr than the Caesar!
These familiar words of our text bring before us a very sweet and wonderful picture of the prisoner, so near his end. How beautifully they show his calm waiting for the last hour and the bright forms which lightened for him the darkness of his cell! Many since have gone to their rest with their hearts stayed On the same thoughts, though their lips could not speak them to our listening ears. Let us be thankful for them, and pray that for ourselves, when we come to that hour, the same quiet heroism and the same sober hope mounting to calm certainty may be ours.
These words refer to the past, the present, the future. ‘I have fought - the time of my departure is come - henceforth there is laid up.’
I. So we notice, first, the quiet courage which looks death full in the face without a tremor.
The language implies that Paul knows his death hour is all but here. As the Revised Version more accurately gives it, ‘I am already being offered’ - the process is begun, his sufferings at the moment are, as it were, the initial steps of his sacrifice - ‘and the time of my departure is come.’ The tone in which he tells Timothy this is very noticeable. There is no sign of excitement, no tremor of emotion, no affectation of stoicism in the simple sentences. He is not playing up to a part, nor pretending to be anything which he is not. If ever language sounded perfectly simple and genuine, this does.
And the occasion of the .whole section is as remarkable as the tone. He is led to speak about himself at all, only in order to enforce his exhortation to Timothy to put his shoulder to the wheel, and do his work for Christ with all his might. All he wishes to say is simply, do your work with all your might, for I am going off the field. But having begun on that line of thought, he is carried on to say more than was needed for his immediate purpose, and thus inartificially to let us see what was filling his mind.
And the subject into which he subsides after these lofty thoughts is as remarkable as either tone or occasion. Minute directions about such small matters as books and parchments, and perhaps a warm cloak for winter, and homely details about the movements of the little group of his friends immediately follow. All this shows with what a perfectly unforced courage Paul fronted his fate, and looked death in the eyes. The anticipation did not dull his interest in God’s work in the world, as witness the warnings and exhortations of the context. It did not withdraw his sympathies from his companions. It did not hinder him from pursuing his studies and pursuits, nor from providing for small matters of daily convenience. If ever a man was free from any taint of fanaticism or morbid enthusiasm, it was this man waiting so calmly in his prison for his death.
There is great beauty and force in the expressions which he uses for death here. He will not soil his lips with its ugly name, but calls it an offering and a departure. There is a widespread unwillingness to say the word ‘ Death.’ It falls on men’s hearts like clods on a coffin. So all people and languages have adopted euphemisms for it, fair names which wrap silk round its dart and somewhat hide its face. But there are two opposite reasons for their use - terror and confidence. Some men dare not speak of death because they dread it so much, and try to put some kind of shield between themselves and the very thought of it, by calling it something less dreadful to them than itself. Some men, on the other hand, are familiar with the thought, and though it is solemn, it is not altogether repellent to them. Gazing on death with the thoughts and feelings which Jesus Christ has given them concerning it, they see it in new aspects, which take away much of its blackness. And so they do not feel inclined to use the ugly old name, but had rather call it by some which reflect the gentler aspect that it now wears to them. So ‘sleep,’ and ‘rest’ and the like are the names which have almost driven the other out of the New Testament - witness of the fact that in inmost reality Jesus Christ ‘has abolished death,’ however the physical portion of it may still remain master of our bodies.
But looking for a moment at the specific metaphors used here, we have first, that of an offering, or more particularly of a drink offering, or libation, ‘I am already being poured out.’ No doubt the special reason for the selection of this figure here is Paul’s anticipation of a violent death. The shedding of his blood was to be an offering poured out like some costly wine upon the altar, but the power of the figure reaches far beyond that special application of it. We may all make our deaths a sacrifice, an offering to God, for we may yield up our will to God’s will, and so turn that last struggle into an act of worship and self surrender. When we recognise His hand, when we submit our wills to His purposes, when ‘we live unto the Lord,’ if we live, and ‘die unto Him,’ if we die, then Death will lose all its terror and most of its pain, and will become for us what it was to Paul, a true offering up of self in thankful worship. Nay, we may even say, that so we shall in a certain subordinate sense be ‘made conformable unto His death’ who committed His spirit into His Father’s hands, and laid down His life, of His own will. The essential character and far-reaching effects of this sacrifice we cannot imitate, but we can so yield up our wills to God and leave life so willingly and trustfully as that death shall make our sacrifice complete.
Another more familiar and equally striking figure is next used, when Paul speaks of the time of his ‘departure.’ The thought is found in most tongues. Death is a going away, or, as Peter calls it with a glance, possibly, at the special meaning of the word in the Old Testament, as well as at its use in the solemn statement of the theme of converse on the Mountain of Transfiguration, an Exodus. But the well-worn image receives new depth and sharpness of outline in Christianity. To those who have learned the meaning of Christ’s resurrection, and feed their souls on the hopes which it warrants, Death is merely a change of place or state, an accident affecting locality, and little more. We have had plenty of changes before. Life has been one long series of departures. This is different from the others mainly in that it is the last, and that to go away from this visible and fleeting show, where we wander aliens among things which have no true kindred with us, is to go home, where there will be no more pulling up the tent-pegs, and toiling across the deserts in monotonous change. How strong is the conviction, spoken in this name for death, that the essential life lasts on quite unaltered through it all! How slight the else formidable thing is made! We may change climates, and for the stormy bleakness of life may have the long still days of heaven, but we do not change ourselves. We lose nothing worth keeping when we leave behind the body, as a dress not fitted for home, where we are going. We but travel one more stage, though it be the last, and part of it be in pitchy darkness. Some pass over it as in a fiery chariot, like Paul and many a martyr. Some have to toil through it with slow steps and bleeding feet and fainting heart; but all may have a Brother with them, and, holding His hand, may find that the journey is not so hard as they feared, and the home from which they shall remove no more, better than they hoped when they hoped the most.
II. We have here, too, the peaceful look backwards. There is something very noteworthy in the threefold aspect under which his past life presents itself to the Apostle who is so soon to leave it. He thinks of it as a contest, as a race, as a stewardship. The first image suggests the tension of a long struggle with opposing wrestlers who have tried to throw him, but in vain. The world, both of men and things, has had to be grappled with and mastered. His own sinful nature and especially his animal nature has had to be kept under by sheer force, and every moment has been resistance to subtle omnipresent forces that have sought to thwart his aspirations and hamper his performances. His successes have had to be fought for, and everything that he has done has been done after a struggle. So is it with all noble life; so will it be to the end.
He thinks of life as a race. That speaks of continuous advance in one direction, and more emphatically still, of effort that sets the lungs panting and strains every muscle to the utmost. He thinks of it as a stewardship. He has kept the faith whether by that word we are to understand the body of truth believed or the act of believing as a sacred deposit committed to him, of which he has been a good steward, and which he is now ready to return to his Lord. There is much in these letters to Timothy about keeping treasures entrusted to one’s care. Timothy is bid to ‘keep that good thing which is committed to thee,’ as Paul here declares that he has done. Nor is such guarding of a precious deposit confined to us stewards on earth, but the Apostle is sure that his loving Lord, to whom he has entrusted himself, will with like tenderness and carefulness ‘keep that which he has committed unto Him against that day.’ The confidence in that faithful Keeper made it possible for Paul to be faithful to his trust, and as a steward who was bound by all ties to his Lord, to guard His possessions and administer His affairs. Life was full of voices urging him to give up the faith. Bribes and threats, and his own sense-bound nature, and the constant whispers of the world had tempted him all along the road to fling it away as a worthless thing, but he had kept it safe; and now, nearing the end and the account, he can put his hand on the secret place near his heart where it lies, and feel that it is there, ready to be restored to his Lord, with the thankful confession, ‘Thy pound hath gained ten pounds.’
So life looks to this man in his retrospect as mainly a field for struggle, effort, and fidelity. This world is not to be for us an enchanted garden of delights, any more than it should appear a dreary desert of disappointment and woe. But it should be to us mainly a palaestra, or gymnasium and exercising ground. You cannot expect many flowers or much grass in the place where men wrestle and run. We need not much mind though it be bare, if we can only stand firm on the hard earth, nor lament that there are so few delights to stay our eyes from the goal. We are here for serious work; let us not be too eager for pleasures that may hinder our efforts and weaken our vigour, but be content to lap up a hasty draught from the brooks by the way, and then on again to the fight.
Such a view of life makes it radiant and fair while it lasts, and makes the heart calm when the hour comes to leave it all behind. So thinking of the past, there may be a sense of not unwelcome lightening from a load of responsibility when we have got all the stress and strain of the conflict behind us, and have at any rate not been altogether beaten. We may feel like a captain who has brought his ship safe across the Atlantic, through foul weather and past many an iceberg, and gives a great sigh of relief as he hands over the charge to the pilot, who will take her across the harbour bar and bring her to her anchorage in the landlocked bay where no tempests rave any more forever.
Prosaic theologians have sometimes wondered at the estimate which Paul here makes of his past services and faithfulness, but the wonder is surely unnecessary. It is very striking to notice the difference between his judgment of himself while he was still in the thick of the conflict, and now when he is nearing the end. Then one main hope which animated all his toils and nerved him for the sacrifice of life itself was ‘that I might finish my course with joy.’ Now in the quiet of his dungeon, that hope is fulfilled, and triumphant thoughts, like shining angels, keep him company in his solitude. Then he struggled, and wrestled, touched by the haunting fear lest after that he has preached to others he himself should be rejected. Now the dread has passed, and a meek hope stands by his side.
What is this change of feeling but an instance of what, thank God, we so often see, that at the end the heart, which has been bowed with fears and self-depreciation, is filled with peace? They who tremble most during the conflict are most likely to look back with solid satisfaction, while they who never knew a fear all along the course will often have them surging in upon their souls too late, and will see the past in a new lurid light, when they are powerless to change it. Blessed is the man who thus feareth always. At the end he will have hope. The past struggles are joyful in memory, as the mountain ranges, which were all black reek and white snow while we toiled up their inhospitable steeps, lie purple in the mellowing distance, and burn like fire as the sunset strikes their peaks. Many a wild winter’s day has a fair, cloudless close, and lingering opal hues diffused through all the quiet sky. ‘At eventide it shall be light.’ Though we go all Our lives mourning and timid, there may yet be granted us ere the end some vision of the true significance of these lives, and some humble hope that they have not been wholly in vain.
Such an estimate has nothing in common with self-complacency. It co-exists with a profound consciousness of many a sin, many a defeat, and much unfaithfulness. It belongs only to a man who, conscious of these, is ‘looking for the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life,’ and is the direct result, not the antagonist, of lowly self-abasement, and contrite faith in Him by whom alone our stained selves and poor broken services can ever be acceptable. Let us learn too that the only life that bears being looked back upon is a life of Christian devotion and effort. It shows fairer when seen in the strange cross lights that come when we stand on the boundary of two worlds, with the white radiance of eternity beginning to master the vulgar oil lamps of earth, than when seen by these alone. All others have their shabbiness and their selfishness disclosed then. I remember ones seeing a mob of revellers streaming out from a masked ball in a London theatre in the early morning sunlight; draggled and heavy-eyed, the rouge showing on the cheeks, and the shabby tawdriness of the foolish costumes pitilessly revealed by the pure light. So will many a life look when the day dawns, and the wild riot ends in its unwelcome beams.
The one question for us all, then, will be, Have I lived for Christ, and by Him? Let it be the one question for us now, and let it be answered, Yes. Then we shall have at the last a calm confidence, equally far removed from presumption and from dread, which will let us look back on life with peace, though it be full of failures and sins, and forward with humble hope of the reward which we shall receive from His mercy.
III. The climax of all is the triumphant look forward. ‘Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness.’
In harmony with the images of the conflict and the race, the crown here is not the emblem of sovereignty, but of victory, as indeed is almost without exception the case in the New Testament. The idea of the royal dignity of Christians in the future is set forth rather under the emblem of association with Christ on His throne, while the wreath on their brows is the coronal of laurel, ‘meed of mighty conquerors,’ or the twine of leaves given to him who, panting, touched the goal. The reward, then, which is meant by the emblem, whatever be its essence, comes through effort and conflict. ‘A man is not crowned, except he strive.’
That crown, according to other words of Scripture, consists of ‘life,’ or ‘glory’ - that is to say, the issue and outcome of believing service and faithful stewardship here is the possession of the true life, which stands in union with God, in measure so great, and in quality so wondrous that it lies on the pure locks of the victors like a flashing diadem, all ablaze with light in a hundred jewels. The completion and exaltation of our nature and characters by the illapse of ‘life’ so sovereign and transcendent that it is ‘glory’ is the consequence of all Christian effort here in the lower levels, where the natural life is always weakness and sometimes shame, and the spiritual life is at the best but a hidden glory and a struggling spark. There is no profit in seeking to gaze into that light of glory so as to discern the shapes of those who walk in it, or the elements of its lambent flames. Enough that in its gracious beauty transfigured souls move as in their native atmosphere. Enough that even our dim vision can see that they have for their companion ‘One like unto the Son of Man.’ It is Christ’s own life which they share; it is Christ’s own glory which irradiates them.
That crown is ‘a crown of righteousness’ in another sense from that in which it is ‘a crown of life.’ The latter expression indicates the material, if we may say so, of which it is woven, but the former rather points to the character to which it belongs or is given. Righteousness alone can receive that reward. It is not the struggle or the conflict which wins it, but the character evolved in the struggle, not the works of strenuous service, but the moral nature expressed in these. There is such a congruity between righteousness and the crown of life, that it can be laid on none other head but that of a righteous man, and if it could, all its amaranthine flowers would shrivel and fall when they touched an impure brow. It is, then, the crown of righteousness, as belonging by its very nature to such characters alone.
But whatever is the essential congruity between the character and the crown, we have to remember too that, according to this Apostle’s constant teaching, the righteousness which clothes us in fair raiment, and has a natural right to the wreath of victory, is a gift, as truly as the crown itself, and is given to us all on condition of our simple trust in Jesus Christ, If we are to be ‘found of Him in peace, without spot and blameless,’ we must be ‘found in Him, not having our own righteousness, but that which is ours through faith in Christ.’ Toil and conflict and anxious desire to be true to our responsibilities will do much for a man, but they will not bring him that righteousness which brings down on the head the crown of life. We must trust to Christ to give us the righteousness in which we are justified, and to give us the righteousness by the working out of which in our life and character we are fitted for that great reward. He crowns our works and selves with exuberant and unmerited honours, but what he crowns is His Own gift to us, and His great love must bestow both the righteousness and ‘the crown.’
The crown is given at a time called - by Paul ‘at that day,’ which is not the near day of his martyrdom, but that of His Lord’s appearing. He does not speak of the fulness of the reward as being ready for him at death, but as being ‘henceforth laid up for him in heaven.’ So he looks forward beyond the grave. The immediate future after death was to his view a period of blessedness indeed, but not yet full. The state of the dead in Christ was a state of consciousness, a state of rest, a state of felicity, hut also a state of expectation- To the full height of their present capacity they who sleep in Jesus are blessed, being still in His embrace, and their spirits pillowed on His heart, nor so sleeping that, like drowsy infants, they know not where they lie so safe, but only sleeping in so much as they rest from weariness, and have closed their eyes to the ceaseless turmoil of this fleeting world, and are lapped about for ever with the sweet, unbroken consciousness that they are ‘present with the Lord.’ What perfect repose, perfect fruition of all desires, perfect union with the perfect End and Object of all their being, perfect exemption from all sorrow, tumult, and sin can bring of blessedness, that they possess in over measure unfailingly. And, in addition, they still know the joy of hope, and have carried that jewel with them into another world, for they wait for ‘the redemption of the body,’ in the reception of which, ‘at that day,’ their life will be filled up to a yet fuller measure, and gleam with a more lustrous ‘glory.’ Now they rest and wait. Then shall they be crowned.
Nor must self-absorbed thoughts be allowed to bound our anticipations of that future. It is no solitary blessedness to which Paul looked forward Alone in his dungeon, alone before his judge when ‘no man stood by’ him, soon to be alone in his martyrdom, he leaps up in spirit at the thought of the mighty crowd among whom he will stand in that day, on every head a crown, in every heart the same love to the Lord whose life is in them all and makes them all one. So we may cherish the hope of a social heaven. Man’s course begins in a garden, but it ends in a city. The final condition will be the perfection of human society. There all who love Christ will be drawn together, and old ties, broken for a little while here, be reknit in yet holier form, never to be sundered more.
Ah, friends, the all-important question for each of us is how may we have such a hope, like a great sunset light shining into the western windows of our souls? There is but one answer - Trust Christ. That is enough. Nothing else is. Is your life built on Jesus Christ? Are you trusting your salvation to Him? Are you giving Him your love and service? Does your life bear looking at to-day? Will it bear looking at in death? Will it bear His looking at in Judgment?
If you can humbly say, To me to live is Christ, then is it well Living by Him we may fight and conquer, may win and obtain. Living by Him, we may be ready quietly to lie down when the time comes, and may have all the future filled with the blaze of a great hope that glows brighter as the darkness thickens. That peaceful hope will not leave us till consciousness fails, and then, when it has ceased to guide us, Christ Himself will lead us, scarcely knowing where we are, through the waters, and when we open our half-bewildered eyes in brief wonder, the first thing we see will be his welcoming smile, and His voice will say, as a tender surgeon might to a little Child waking after an operation, ‘It is all over.’ We lift our hands wondering and find wreaths on our poor brows. We lift our eyes, and lo! all about us a crowned crowd of conquerors,
‘And with the morn those angel faces smile Which we have loved long since, and lost awhile,’
A FULFILLED ASPIRATION
Act_20:24 . - 2Ti_4:7 .
I do not suppose that Paul in prison, and within sight of martyrdom, remembered his words at Ephesus. But the fact that what was aspiration whilst he was in the very thick of his difficulties came to be calm retrospect at the close is to me very beautiful and significant. ‘So that I may finish my course,’ said he wistfully; whilst before him there lay dangers clearly discerned and others that had all the more power over the imagination because they were but dimly discerned-’Not knowing the things that shall befall me there,’ said he, but knowing this, that ‘bonds and afflictions abide me.’ When a man knows exactly what he has to be afraid of he can face it. When he knows a little corner of it, and also knows that there is a great stretch behind that is unknown, that is a state of things that tries his mettle. Many a man will march up to a battery without a tremor who would not face a hole where a snake lay. And so Paul’s ignorance, as well as Paul’s knowledge, made it very hard for him to say ‘None of these things move me’ if only ‘I might finish my course.’
Now there are in these two passages, thus put together, three points that I touch for a moment. These are, What Paul thought that life chiefly was; what Paul aimed at; and what Paul won thereby.
I. What he thought that life chiefly was.
‘That I may finish my course.’ Now ‘course,’ in our modern English, is far too feeble a word to express the Apostle’s idea here. It has come to mean with us a quiet sequence or a succession of actions which, taken together, complete a career; but in its original force the English word ‘course,’ and still more the Greek, of which it is a translation, contain a great deal more than that. If we were to read ‘race,’ we should get nearer to at least one side of the Apostle’s thought. This was the image under which life presented itself to him, as it does to every man that does anything in the world worth doing, whether he be Christian or not-as being not a place for enjoyment, for selfish pursuits, making money, building family, satisfying love, seeking pleasure, or the like; but mainly as being an appointed field for a succession of efforts, all in one direction, and leading progressively to an end. In that image of life as a race, threadbare as it is, there are several grave considerations involved, which it will contribute to the nobleness of our own lives to keep steadily in view.
To begin with, the metaphor regards life as a track or path marked out and to be kept to by us. Paul thought of his life as a racecourse, traced for him by God, and from which it would be perilous and rebellious to diverge. The consciousness of definite duties loomed larger than anything else before him. His first waking thought was, ‘What is God’s will for me to-day? What stage of the course have I to pass over to-day?’ Each moment brought to him an appointed task which at all hazards he must do. And this elevating, humbling, and bracing ever-present sense of responsibility, not merely to circumstances, but to God, is an indispensable part of any life worth the living, and of any on which a man will ever dare to look back.
‘My course.’ O brethren! if we carried with us, always present, that solemn, severe sense of all-pervading duty and of obligation laid upon us to pursue faithfully the path that is appointed us, there would be less waste, less selfishness, less to regret, and less that weakens and defiles, in the lives of us all. And blessed be His name! however trivial be our tasks, however narrow our spheres, however secular and commonplace our businesses or trades, we may write upon them, as on all sorts of lives, except weak and selfish ones, this inscription, ‘Holiness to the Lord.’
The broad arrow stamped on Crown property gives a certain dignity to whatever bears it, and whatever small duty has the name of God written across it is thereby ennobled. If our days are to be full-fraught with the serenity and purity which it is possible for them to attain, and if we ourselves are to put forth all our powers and make the most of ourselves, we must cultivate the continual sense that life is a course-a series of definite duties marked out for us by God.
Again, the image suggests the strenuous efforts needed for discharge of our appointed tasks. The Apostle, like all men of imaginative and sensitive nature, was accustomed to speak in metaphors, which expressed his fervid convictions more adequately than more abstract expressions would have done. That vigorous figure of a ‘course’ speaks more strongly of the stress of continual effort than many words. It speaks of the straining muscles, and the intense concentration, and the forward-flung body of the runner in the arena. Paul says in effect, ‘I, for my part, live at high pressure. I get the most that I can out of myself. I do the very best that is in me.’ And that is a pattern for us.
There is nothing to be done unless we are contented to live on the stretch. Easygoing lives are always contemptible lives. A man who never does anything except what he can do easily never comes to do anything greater than what he began with, and never does anything worth doing at all. Effort is the law of life in all departments, as we all of us know and practise in regard to our daily business. But what a strange thing it is that we seem to think that our Christian characters can be formed and perfected upon other conditions, and in other fashions, than those by which men make their daily bread or their worldly fortunes!
The direction which effort takes is different in these two regions. The necessity for concentration and vigorous putting into operation of every faculty is far more imperative in the Christian course than in any other form of life.
I believe most earnestly that we grow Christlike, not by effort only, but by faith. But I believe that there is no faith without effort, and that the growth which comes from faith will not be appropriated and made ours without it. And so I preach, without in the least degree feeling that it impinges upon the great central truth that we are cleansed and perfected by the power of God working upon us, the sister truth that we must ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.’
Brethren, unless we are prepared for the dust and heat of the race, we had better not start upon the course. Christian men have an appointed task, and to do it will take all the effort that they can put forth, and will assuredly demand continuous concentration and the summoning of every faculty to its utmost energy.
Still further, there is another idea that lies in the emblem, and that is that the appointed task which thus demands the whole man in vigorous exercise ought in fact to be, and in its nature is, progressive. Is the Christianity of the average church member and professing Christian a continuous advance? Is to-day better than yesterday? Are former attainments continually being left behind? Does it not seem the bitterest irony to talk about the usual life of a Christian as a course? Did you ever see a squad of raw recruits being drilled in the barrack-yard? The first thing the sergeants do is to teach them the ‘goose-step,’ which consists in lifting up one foot and then the other, ad infinitum , and yet always keeping on the same bit of ground. That is the kind of ‘course’ which hosts of so-called Christians content themselves with running-a vast deal of apparent exercise and no advance. They are just at the same spot at which they stood five, ten, or twenty years ago; not a bit wiser, more like Christ, less like the devil and the world; having gained no more mastery over their characteristic evils; falling into precisely the same faults of temper and conduct as they used to do in the far-away past. By what right can they talk of running the Christian race? Progress is essential to real Christian life.
II. Turn now to another thought here, and consider what Paul aimed at.
It is a very easy thing for a man to say, ‘I take the discharge of my duty, given to me by Jesus Christ, as my great purpose in life,’ when there is nothing in the way to prevent him from carrying out that purpose. But it is a very different thing when, as was the case with Paul, there lie before him the certainties of affliction and bonds, and the possibilities which very soon consolidated themselves into certainties, of a bloody death and that swiftly. To say then , without a quickened pulse or a tremor in the eyelid, or a quiver in the voice, or a falter in the resolution, to say then, ‘none of these things move me, if only I may do what I was set to do’-that is to be in Christ indeed; and that is the only thing worth living for.
Look how beautifully we see in operation in these heartfelt and few words of the Apostle the power that there is in an absolute devotion to God-enjoined duty, to give a man ‘a solemn scorn of ills,’ and to lift him high above everything that would bar or hinder his path. Is it not bracing to see any one actuated by such motives as these? And why should they not be motives for us all? The one thing worth our making our aim in life is to accomplish our course.
Now notice that the word in the original here, ‘finish,’ does not merely mean ‘end,’ which would be a very poor thing. Time will do that for us all. It will end our course. But an ended course may yet be an unfinished course. And the meaning that the Apostle attaches to the word in both of our texts is not merely to scramble through anyhow, so as to get to the last of it; but to complete, accomplish the course, or, to put away the metaphor, to do all that it was meant by God that he should do.
Now some very early transcriber of the Acts of the Apostles mistook the Apostle’s meaning, and thought that he only said that he desired to end his career; and so, with the best intentions in the world, he inserted, probably on the margin, what he thought was a necessary addition-that unfortunate ‘with joy,’ which appears in our Authorised Version, but has no place in the true text. If we put it in we necessarily limit the meaning of the word ‘finish’ to that low, superficial sense which I have already dismissed. If we leave it out we get a far nobler thought. Paul was not thinking about the joy at the end. What he wanted was to do his work, all of it, right through to the very last. He knew there would be joy, but he does not speak about it. What he wanted, as all faithful men do, was to do the work, and let the joy take care of itself.
And so for all of us, the true anaesthetic or ‘painkiller’ is that all-dominant sense of obligation and duty which lays hold upon us, and grips us, and makes us, not exactly indifferent to, but very partially conscious of, the sorrows or the hindrances or the pains that may come in our way. You cannot stop an express train by stretching a rope across the line, nor stay the flow of a river with a barrier of straw. And if a man has once yielded himself fully to that great conception of God’s will driving him on through life, and prescribing his path for him, it is neither in sorrow nor in joy to arrest his course. They may roll all the golden apples out of the garden of the Hesperides in his path, and he will not stop to pick one of them up; or Satan may block it with his fiercest flames, and the man will go into them, saying, ‘When I pass through the fires He will be with me.’
III. Lastly, what Paul won thereby.
‘That I may finish my course . . . I have finished my course’; in the same lofty meaning, not merely ended , though that was true, but ‘completed, accomplished, perfected.’
Now some hyper-sensitive people have thought that it was very strange that the Apostle, who was always preaching the imperfection of all human obedience and service, should, at the end of his life, indulge in such a piece of what they fancy was self-complacent retrospect as to say ‘I have kept the faith; I have fought a good fight; I have finished my course.’ But it was by no means complacent self-righteousness. Of course he did not mean that he looked back upon a career free from faults and flecks and stains. No. There is only one pair of human lips that ever could say, in the full significance of the word, ‘It is finished! . . . I have completed the work which Thou gavest Me to do.’ Jesus Christ’s retrospect of a stainless career, without defect or discordance at any point from the divine ideal, is not repeated in any of His servants’ experiences. But, on the other hand, if a man in the middle of his difficulties and his conflict pulls himself habitually together and says to himself, ‘Nothing shall move me, so that I may complete this bit of my course,’ depend upon it, his effort, his believing effort, will not be in vain; and at the last he will be able to look back on a career which, though stained with many imperfections, and marred with many failures, yet on the whole has realised the divine purpose, though not with absolute completeness, at least sufficiently to enable the faithful servant to feel that all his struggle has not been in vain.
Brethren, no one else can. And oh! how different the two ‘courses’ of the godly man and the worldling look, in their relative importance, when seen from this side, as we are advancing towards them, and from the other as we look back upon them! Pleasures, escape from pains, ease, comfort, popularity, quiet lives-all these things seem very attractive; and God’s will often seems very hard and very repulsive, when we are advancing towards some unwelcome duty. But when we get beyond it and look back, the two careers have changed their characters; and all the joys that could be bought at the price of the smallest neglected duty or the smallest perpetrated sin, dwindle and dwindle and dwindle, and the light is out of them, and they show for what they are-nothings, gilded nothings, painted emptinesses, lies varnished over. And on the other hand, to do right, to discharge the smallest duty, to recognise God’s will, and with faithful effort to seek to do it in dependence upon Him, that towers and towers and towers, and there seems to be, as there really is, nothing else worth living for.
So let us live with the continual remembrance in our minds that all which we do has to be passed in review by us once more, from another standpoint, and with another illumination falling upon it. And be sure of this, that the one thing worth looking back upon, and possible to be looked back upon with peace and quietness, is the humble, faithful, continual discharge of our appointed tasks for the dear Lord’s sake. If you and I, whilst work and troubles last, do truly say, ‘None of these things move me, so that I might finish my course,’ we too, with all our weaknesses, may be able to say at the last, ‘Thanks be to God! I have finished my course.’
DEMAS, LUKE, MARK
THIS last of Paul’s letters is written, as is generally supposed, in his second imprisonment, and very near his martyrdom. The condition in which it represents him is remarkably contrasted, in several respects, with the conditions of his first imprisonment, as shown in the letters dating from that period. In these - in two of them, at all events - we find him surrounded by troops of friends, among whom the same three names as occur in my text appear as united with him in loyal confidence, and joining with him in greetings to his correspondents. Here they are again, but under what different circumstances! ‘Demas hath forsaken me... Only Luke is with me. Take Mark’ - who is also absent - ‘and bring him with thee.’ The lonely Apostle has none of the Old Guard around him, except the faithful Luke, and he longs, before he dies, to see once more the familiar faces, and to be ministered to once more by accustomed and tender hands. That touch of humanity brings him very near us.
But what I have chosen my texts for is the sharp contrast which the three prominent names in them present in their attitude to the Apostle - Demas the renegade, Mark the restored runaway, Luke, the ever steadfast and faithful companion- Now of course these three men’s relation to Jesus Christ was not identical with their relation to Paul. But at the same time their relation to Paul, one has little doubt, fluctuated with their relation to Jesus. It is scarcely possible to believe that the first of them would have done so base an act as to abandon the Apostle at the very crisis of his fate, unless his attachment to Jesus had become slender, nor that Mark’s love to his Lord had not cooled when he ‘went not with Paul and Barnabas to the work.’ I take these three names as representations of three different types of character and spiritual experience, and I wish to look at the three portraits in succession; only I venture to alter the order in which they appear in the text. First, then -
I. Demas the renegade.
We know nothing of him except that in the letters of the earlier imprisonment his name appears, honoured by Paul with the designation of his ‘fellow-worker,’ evidently admitted into the inner circle, living in amity and close communion with the other members of it, trusted and honoured, a man of some maturity and advancement, and now guilty of the base act of leaving the Apostle. How deeply that wounded Paul’s sensitive heart the language of our text sufficiently shows. It is a sad fate that all the world should know that fact, and only that, about Demas, that he should be cursed and condemned to such an immortality, and go down through the ages branded with ‘ he hath forsaken me, having loved this present world.’ He was not a monster, but just a man like the rest of us; and he came to his bad eminence by a very well-trodden and familiar path. He ‘hath forsaken me, having loved this present world’ - that is to say, he was a religious man who had not religion enough to resist the constant attractions and seductions of this present, and because he loved it, in one or other of its forms - wealth, ease, comfort, a whole skin, reputation, or whatever it may have been - more than he loved Paul’s Master, he turned his back upon principle, friendship, honour, duty, everything noble, and buried himself in the far-off Thessalonica. There are a great many Demases amongst us, and a great many different kinds of Thessalonicas to which we run. But we are all exposed to that same danger, and so we may well look at this one soul that fell under its spell, and was too weak to resist its pertinacious solicitations, and say to ourselves: ‘Lord, is it I?’
For there is nothing in human sin that is alien from any of us, and no depth of lapse and apostasy is so profound but that the tendencies towards it, and the possibilities of it, are in us, even us also. So let me translate into less well-worn words the language of the text which, for all its force, is so familiar that it does not appeal to us as it ought to do.
‘This present world,’ what is that? Well, it is Protean, as I have already hinted, in its shapes, and all manner of solicitations come from it, but we may say in general terms that it is the aggregate of ‘things seen and temporal’ which, subtle, and certainly corresponding to our own weakest sides, appealing to some of us in the shape of wealth, to some of us in the shape of earthly loves, to some of us in the shape of material advantages, to some of us in the form of the ‘hollow wraith of dying fame,’ to some of us in the nobler guise of scientific pursuits, lie confined within the limits of the phenomenal and the material, but to all of us being essentially the presentation of the visible, the material, the transient as the aim to strain after, and the good to count as our treasure. Let us remember how persistent and how terribly strong the appeal of ‘this present world’ is to us all Its operation is continual upon us. Here it is, and we are in necessary connection with it, and it is our duty to be occupied with it, and it is cowardice to shirk the duty because of the peril that lies in it. You have to go to your business to-morrow morning, and I have to go to my books or my work; and the task for each of us is - and God knows how hard a task it is - to have our hearts in heaven whilst our hands are busy with the things around us. Christianity enjoins no false asceticism. There is little need to preach that to-day, but still it is to be remembered that it is duty to be occupied with the world, and fatal sin to love it, And just because it is so difficult to keep upon that knife-edge, so difficult to put all our pith and power into our occupation with material things, and yet never to be tempted into the love of them which fights against all nobleness of life, is it incumbent on me, over and over again, to reiterate to you and to myself the old threadbare commonplace,’ Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.’ Leave your mark on them, work on them diligently, and with all your heart, bend them to be your servants, and to help you to rise to the things above them, but on your soul’s peril keep clear of that bowing down before them, that trusting in them, that longing for them, that despair if you lose them, which together make up the love of the world, and the lust thereof which passes away. There is an enemy within the fortress who is always ready and eager to fling open the gates to the besiegers. For the things ‘seen and temporal’ correspond with, and have their ally in, the senses by which we are brought into contact with them. And unless there is a very strong religious impulse dominant in our minds, or to put it into more Christian words, unless ‘the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given to us,’ it cannot be but that we shall follow Demas, and run away to our Thessalonica, and leave Paul, and duty, and, Paul’s Master, and duty’s Source, behind us.
For, brethren, if once this love of the world, which is always soliciting each of us, gets a footing in our hearts, it is impossible - as impossible as it is for two bodies to occupy the same place at the same time - for the love of Christ, which is the love of God, to continue dominant there. There cannot be two masters. That is plain common sense. If my head is full of thoughts and schemes, concerned only with the fleeting illusory present, then there is no room in it for His serene, ennobling presence. If my hands are laden with pebbles, I cannot clasp the diamonds that are offered to me. Unless you fling out the sand-bags the balloon will cleave to the earth, and unless we turn the world out of our hearts, it is no use to say to Him, ‘Come! Lord Jesus.’ There is no room for Him. And though He comes through the narrowest opening of the door of the soul, He will not come unless we have to some extent conquered the world, and the love of the world.
If I could get you to translate for yourselves the threadbare theological terminology of this text into the vital facts that it represents, I should thank God. Only, dear brethren, take this with you, either we forsake Christ because we love the world, or we forsake the world because we love Christ. On the one alternative we choose restlessness and feverish desires unsatisfied, and craving, all the misery of mistaking mist for land and cloud-wrack for solid ground; on the other, we choose all the blessedness of having set our love on that which satisfies, of having loved the worthiest, the best, the most loving. Which of the two shall we choose? It may be that the one choice shall mean, as it did for Paul, a prison cell and a martyrdom, and that the other may mean, as it did for Demas, comfort and safety, and many an unmistakably good thing, in some Thessalonica or other. But are we going to vote with Demas, or is it going to be Paul? Whether is it better to love the world, and get what the renegade presumably got for a time, or is it better to get what Paul speaks of in the words before my text, ‘a crown of righteousness laid up for all them that love’ - not the world - ‘but His appearing.’ like the martyr Apostle.
II. Now look at that other portrait, Mark, the restored runaway.
You remember the little that Scripture tells us about him, how he was chosen to be the personal attendant, private secretary, factotum, travelling agent, of Paul and Barnabas on their first journey, how his courage and faith lasted as long as the two missionaries were on familiar ground, on his native soil, in the island of Cyprus; and how when they crossed to the mainland both courage and faith oozed out at his finger ends, and he hurried back to his mother’s house in Jerusalem. When Paul would go again with Barnabas, to visit the churches, the latter, with a relative’s too great kindness which was cruelty, insisted on taking the runaway with them, and Paul, with hot indignation which was kinder than the misplaced affection of the uncle, steadfastly refused his consent. Then Barnabas and Mark slip out of the narrative and disappear, and long years pass during which we know nothing about them. But in time, somehow or other, things are made up; no doubt Mark was penitent. Therefore it was as right for Paul to forgive then, as it had been right for him before not to forgive.
It is very beautiful to notice that here he desires to have Mark for the very office which he had, in such shameful and cowardly fashion, flung up long years ago. For the book of Acts says, ‘They had also John Mark to their minister,’ and here Paul says, ‘Bring him with thee, for he is profitable to me for. the ministry.’ He was reinstating him in the very position which he had once abandoned.
Now what does Mark’s restoration teach us? This great gospel, that from any departure, no matter how far, no matter with what aggravations attended, no matter for how long it has lasted, from any departure from duty and from Christ a man can come back. Those of us professing Christians who know ourselves best, and who fight most vigorously against the creeping encroachments of the love of the world, know best how often and how far we have yielded to them, and gone away from them. Brother, no matter how remote we have made ourselves from Him, we cannot travel beyond the reach of His seeking love. And the wisest thing we can do-and it is a possible thing for us all - is to go back to the beginning, and at the Cross to receive, what is never withheld, pardon for our lapses. Christ laid down the measure of human forgiveness when He said ‘seventy times seven’ - the two perfect numbers multiplied into themselves, and their product again multiplied by perfection; and are His love, and His placability, and His pardoning mercy less than that which He prescribed for us? Surely not. So we all may go back again, however far we have wandered, and must go back if we would not be swept into outer darkness for ever. The possibility of return, and, therefore, the blessed duty of repentance, is preached to all us imperfect Christians by this example before us.
I would also remind you how in the restored runaway, or rather in the Apostle’s conduct to him, we sea as ! have already hinted, an adumbration, because a consequence of the divine forgiveness. Paul trusted this unreliable man at last. As the Acts of the Apostles says, ‘He thought it not good to take him with them who had departed from the work,’ and his severity was an instrument of cure far more effectual than Barnabas’ flaccid good nature. The shrug of the shoulders that overlooks transgression and says, ‘Oh! it does not matter,’ is a much more cruel and a much less curative thing than the hot indignation which says, ‘No, you have been unworthy, and until you repent there is no restoration possible.’ That is how God does with us, not because He loves us less, but because He loves us more, and because He seeks to make thorough work, and to purge the bosom of the perilous stuff which, unless it is purged, will ever keep us from union with Him. Inasmuch as the law of the divine forgiveness is here set forth in the severity towards the impenitent, and in the generous confidence towards the penitent, and the restoration to his old office, let us Christian people learn our duty to those who have gone astray, and how there is no surer way of helping them to be reliable and profitable than showing them that we trust them to be both.
Still further, from out of this second of our portraits, there comes the other lesson, that failure in a task may tend to make us successful in it hereafter. Mark shirked the ministry; he became ‘profitable for the ministry.’ That is to say, though all sin weakens, yet sin repented and sin east out may strengthen, because it may drive us nearer to God, because it may lead us to deeper humility, because it may kindle a livelier flame of gratitude, the gas that drives the engine, and because it may set us upon closer examination of our own selves, and putting up barriers at the weak places where the enemy poured in like a flood. So for all these reasons, in a far higher sense than the poet meant it, we may make stepping-stones of our dead selves to higher things. There is no fatal entail of sin upon us, by which the past is always to set the time and prescribe the measure for the future. The Israelites fought two battles, on the same field, against the same foes, the fights at Aphek against the Philistines. In one of them they were ignominiously routed and beaten from the field; and in the other, on the same spot, against the same enemy, with the same weapons, the same men triumphed; and reared upon the field a memorial alike of their present victory and of their past defeat, and called it the Stone of Help, saying, ‘Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.’
III. Lastly, we have here a third picture, that of the steadfast companion, Luke.
‘Only Luke is with me,’ and he had been with Paul for years, having joined him first at Troas, on the eve of his first missionary enterprise in Europe, having remained, as it appears, at Philippi whilst the Apostle traversed Greece, having rejoined him at Philippi on his return journey, travelled with him to Jerusalem, Caesarea, in a shipwreck, in Rome in the first imprisonment, presumably during .the interval; and now again we find him Paul’s only companion, in the second imprisonment. He is a type of the steadfast souls who never stray, but by patient continuance in communion with Paul’s Lord, ‘go from strength to strength,’ until ‘every one of them in Zion appeareth before God.’ ‘Abide with me,’ says Paul’s Master, and if we keep ourselves in the love of God, and resist the temptations to be drawn aside, steadfastly cleave unto the Lord, then the world will not have power over us, and we shall neither repeat the experience of the renegade, nor of the restored runaway, but find that day by day we grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord, and run with unwearied patience and perseverance the race that is set before us. A continuous development as the result of a quiet constancy of abiding with Jesus Christ is possible for us all And if we do not come to it absolutely and with the completeness of the ideal, in our earthly experience, still we may approximate indefinitely towards it, and interruptions may become fewer and fewer and shorter and shorter, until what were broken dots, as it were, run into a continuous line, and we dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of our lives.
Brethren! are we to be Demas? Are we to be Mark? Are we to be Luke? We may be all three. We have run away; we can go back; and thenceforward we can continue steadfast and immovable, cleaving to the Lord, and ‘loving’ - not the world, but - ‘His appearing.’
PAUL’S DYING CONFIDENCE
If we leave out of notice for a moment the two or three salutations and personal messages which follow, these are the last words of Paul’s last letter. So he disappears from history with this ringing cry of confidence upon his lips. There was enough in his circumstances to breed the very opposite disposition. He was half-way through his trial before Nero, and suspense, we all know, gnaws at the very roots of courage. He was all but absolutely certain that death was near, as he had said a minute before: ‘I have finished my course; I have kept the faith; henceforth there is’ nothing but the crown to look for. His heart was wrung by the desertion of friends; Demas had forsaken him, and when the pinch of his trial came, and his head was, as it were, in the lion’s open mouth, none of his friends plucked up heart of grace to stand beside him. But in spite of all, indomitable courage and a bright flame of hope, that nothing could blow or batter out, burned in the Apostle’s heart still Therefore he rays, even while facing the block, ‘the Lord will deliver me from every evil work, and preserve me unto His everlasting Kingdom.’ He is so sure of this that he beings his thanks beforehand - ‘to whom be glory for ever and ever. The thing is as good as done; and so I render my praise.’
Note here a very striking trace and echo of -
I. Christ’s words. I suppose you will often have observed that my text is a variation on the theme of the Lord’s Prayer.
That said, ‘Deliver us from evil’; Paul says, ‘The Lord shall deliver me from every evil work.’ That, according to one form of Matthew’s version, ends with the doxology: ‘Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory for ever. Amen’ Paul echoes that ascription of praise with his ‘to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.’ So we have here a little window through which we can see a wide prospect. For the gospels are later in date than Paul’s letters, and the text shows that long before they were in existence the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ was familiar, so that allusions to it were made tacitly, and would be recognised. This allusion is interesting in another point of view, in so far as it seems to prove that, in Paul’s time, at any rate, the doxology was appended to the Lord’s Prayer; and that, therefore, the fuller form of that prayer with the doxology is more original than the truncated form without it.
But passing from such considerations, let us note this word of Paul’s as an instance of how his mind was saturated with the Lord’s utterances. So it should be with us. Christ’s words should have so entered into the very substance of our minds and thoughts as that we give them freely forth again, in other shapes and in other connections; and the sweetness of them, like that of some perfume diffused through else scentless air, shall make all our words and thoughts fragrant, Do you so summer and winter with the Master’s words that they suggest themselves spontaneously to you often when you scarcely know that they are His, and that you speak them, not with formal quotation marks in front and behind, but in that allusive fashion, which indicates familiarity and the free use, in other combinations, of the great truths which He has spoken?
Notice, too, that Paul turned the prayer into confidence. In the prayer his Master had taught him to say, ‘Deliver us from evil.’ He had offered the petition, and therefore he had no more doubt than he had of his own existence or of Timothy’s, that, having asked, he would receive. Therefore he is sure that ‘the Lord shall deliver me from every evil work.’ Is that how you treat your prayers? Are they worth treating so? Are they offered with such confidence as that you have any right to be sure that they will be answered? Are they offered with such submission as that you may well be certain of it; and do you wait, as this Apostle did, quietly expecting to have the answers? And are your eyes anointed to see the answers in things that some people might take to be the contradictions of them? Unless we have so moulded our petitions into assurances there is something wrong with them. If we pray aright, ‘Deliver us from evil,’ there will rise up in our hearts the quiet confidence, ‘the Lord will deliver me from every evil work.’
Here we have a beautiful illustration of the true use of -
II. Past experience.
Paul links two clauses together. He says, describing how these faint-hearted if not faithless friends had run away from him when the pinch of peril came, ‘They all forsook me, but the Lord stood with me; and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.’ He looks back to that recent instance of Christ’s protecting care and delivering might, and so he changes his tenses, and brings the light of the past to flood the darkness of the present, and to flash into the obscurity of the future, and he says, ‘I was delivered.., and the Lord will deliver me, from every evil.’
He has the same collocation of thoughts, as you may remember in another place where, speaking of other kinds of deliverances, he says that the Lord ‘delivered him from so great a death’ - that was in the past - ‘and doth deliver’ - that is the thrilling consciousness that the same power is in the present as in the past; that to-day is no more prosaic and devoid of God than any yesterday; and then he adds, ‘In whom we trust that He will deliver us.’ Such is the true attitude for a Christian man. Experience is not meant only, as is too often its sole effect, to throw light upon the past, but also to flash a cheery beam on the else dim. future; just as the eastern sky will sometimes throw a hint of its own glory upon the western heaven. To a Christian, every yesterday is a prophecy of a to-morrow that will be like it, and God’s past is a pledge for God’s future.
If we, if we are truly trusting in Him, may have the prerogative which belongs to His children alone, of being absolutely certain that ‘to-morrow shall be as this day, and much more abundant,’ For there is nothing in the past, nothing in the miracles of former generations, nothing in the great deeds by which God has vindicated HIS protecting care over His people in the days that are gone, and nothing in the mercies and blessings and deliverances and immunities which we ourselves have received that is not available for to-morrow’s consumption. The psalmist said, ‘As we have heard so have we seen, in the City of our God.’ The deeds of ancient days were repeated in the prosaic present.
And that is as true about the individual life as it is about the corporate life of the community. All of us, looking back to what God has done for us, may find therein the basis of the surest confidence that all that is but a specimen and pledge of what He will do. Nobody else but a Christian has the right to say, ‘I have had this, that, and the other good; therefore I shall have it.’ Rather, alas! a man that has wrenched himself away from God has to say sadly, ‘I have had; therefore the likelihood is that I shall not have any more.’
Have you ever thought that the belief which we all have, and cannot get rid of, in the uniformity of nature, has no scientific basis? Everybody expects that the sun will rise to-morrow, and for a great many millions of years, perhaps the expectation is right; but there is coming a day when it will not rise. There is a last time - ‘positively the very last’ - for everything in the world, and in the order of nature, and the expectation of permanence by which we guide our lives is, at bottom, absolutely unfounded, and yet there it is, and we have to act upon it. But you can give no rational explanation of it, and it will not always serve., There was once made a calculating machine. You turned a handle, and ground out a succession of numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, etc., each increasing on the preceding by one. And after that had gone on for a long series the sequence was broken, and there came out a number which did not stand in the series at all. That is how God has made nature; grinding away for millions of years, and everything going in regular sequence; but then there comes a break, and the old order changeth. A day will come which is the last day. The sun will set and not rise again, and the world, and all there is in it, shall cease to be.
And as with nature, so with our little lives, and with the men that we trust to. We have no right to say, ‘I have been delivered, and therefore shall be delivered,’ unless we have the Lord, who is the same yesterday and to-day and for ever at the back of our confidence. For men’s resources fail and men’s dispositions change. If I have helped a man a hundred times, that is not a reason for my helping him the hundred and first time. I may get tired, or perhaps I have not the wherewithal, or circumstances alter. Continuity does not guarantee permanence. You can weary out the most patient patience, and chill the warmest love. And so we have to turn from all the limited and changeful grounds of confidence in ourselves, in others, in the order of things about us, and to acknowledge that we do not know what to-morrow is going to do for us. We have had a great many blessings, but the future may be beggared and bankrupt of them all, unless we can say, like Paul, ‘the Lord delivered me, and the Lord will deliver me.’ For His past is the parent and the prophecy of His present, and He does not let His resources be exhausted or His patience wearied or His love disgusted. Thou hast been with me in six troubles, says Job-art Thou tired of being with me? - ‘in the seventh Thou wilt not forsake me.’ Thy past is the revelation of Thine eternal Self, and as Thou bast been so Thou wilt be. Christ, as the Incarnation of Divinity, lives, if I might use such a phrase, in a region that is high above the tenses of our verbs, in one eternal now, far below which, Past, Present, and Future, as we know them, are like the little partitions in our fields, which from the mountain-top melt away into invisibility, and do not divide the far-reaching plain.
Travellers see, in deserted, ancient cities, half-hewn statues, with one part polished and the rest rough, and the block not detached from the native rock. They were meant to be carried by ‘the subjects of some forgotten king to build up some unfinished and never-to-be-finished temple or palace. There are no half-finished works in God’s workshop; no pictures begun and uncompleted in Christ’s studio: and so we can go to Him with the old prayer of the psalmist: ‘The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me. Thy mercy, O Lord, endureth for ever; forsake not the work of Thine own hands.’
Lastly, we have here a great lesson of how -
III. A man close to death may think of it, ‘The Lord will deliver me.’
Did He? ‘The Lord will save me... into His everlasting kingdom.’ Was that a mistake on Paul’s part? Very soon after he wrote these words, perhaps even before the winter against the cold of which he asked Timothy to bring his one cloak that he had left at Troas, he was again brought before the Emperor, and then was led outside the walls of Rome, where a gorgeous church now bears his name, and there, according to tradition was decapitated. Yes; that was just what he expected. For, as I have already pointed out, a verse or two before my text says, ‘I have finished my course.’ And yet, with the certainty that Death was close by him, he lifts up this ringing song Of triumph, ‘The Lord will deliver me from every evil work, and will save me into His heavenly Kingdom,’ He expected that deliverance and saving into the Kingdom to be accomplished precisely by the fact of his death.
A man who has a firm grip of Christ’s hand sees all things differently from him who has no such stay. If Jesus is standing by us, and strengthening us, we can look with a smile at the worst that Nero can do, and can tell even the executioner: You do not mean it; do you know what you are doing? You think you are inflicting evil upon me. You are delivering me from every evil.’ Death is the great emancipator from all manner of evil, be it the evil of sorrows or the evil of their parent sins. And he who rightly understands the operation of that, the last of earthly incidents, understands that it is, in the fullest sense, the smiting off of his chains, and the lifting of him up high into a region where no malaria of evil can ever rise.
Death is not merely to be looked at on the side of what it takes a man away from, but on the side of what it introduces him to. ‘He shall deliver me from every evil’; that is much, but it might be effected by crushing the man’s consciousness and annihilating him. Bare exemption and escape from the ills that flesh is heir to are not all the choice gifts with which Death-comes laden. In his bony left hand is the gift of deliverance from all evil. In his right there is the positive gift of participation in all good. ‘He shall deliver me from evil, and shall save me into His everlasting Kingdom.’ And so that grim form is the porter at the gate, who ushers the man who has hoped in Christ into the royalty of His presence.
Mark that here, for the only time in Scripture, we have the expression, the ‘heavenly Kingdom.’ Why? Because Paul knew and felt that he was in the Kingdom already, and so he could not say barely that Christ through death was going to save him into the Kingdom. He was already there, but just because he was, therefore the last enemy assumed this friendly and familiar form to him, and was sure to bring him into the heavenly form of the Kingdom, of whose earthly form he was already a subject. If - and only if - you are in the Kingdom here, can you quietly look forward and be sure that the Lord, when He sends His messenger, will send Him to do the double work of delivering you out of all evil, and ushering you into all glory of good.
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on 2 Timothy 4". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Easter