St. Paul in Prison

A sermon by Justin Clavet for the Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Preached at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church of Clarion, La Moille, Illinois, 2 Timothy 3:14—4:5, October 20, 2019

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

St. Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy – a fellow preacher of the Gospel whom Paul described as his “beloved child” (2 Tm 1:2) – in the year of our Lord 68. This is the same year that he would be martyred in Rome. And when reading this letter, his last known to us, it is clear that Paul wrote as man who knew his days were numbered. In fact, he dictated this letter to a co-worker while he was chained and imprisoned for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “[T]he time of my departure has come” (2 Tm 4:6), he writes. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tm 4:7). He wants badly for Timothy to be able to travel from Ephesus to visit him in prison before the winter – before it is too late (2 Tm 4:21). He is suffering. He is weary. But he has not lost hope.

In this moment, Paul seizes one final opportunity to say his piece, to teach one last lesson to his beloved student. As a species, we assign great value to our dying words. If we possess both the ability to speak and the foreknowledge of our demise, it would be difficult to let our last moments pass us by without attempting to tell our loved ones how much they mean to us, impart some hard-earned wisdom, or shape our legacy. So when we look at Paul’s surviving body of work – more than 32,000 words constituting nearly one-quarter of the New Testament – there is something undoubtedly special about this letter.

Right after prophesying that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tm 3:12f), he encourages Timothy not to lose faith in the Gospel or the promise of life that accompanies it. He then follows this up with a reminder that the Scriptures, the written source of this promise, our external Word from God, are of invaluable importance: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the [messenger of God] may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tm 3:16f).

Breathed out by God? Yes! Every Word of Scripture, while recorded by human hand, was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, God is its ultimate author, and God cannot lie. It will accomplish what it says.

Profitable? Yes! The Gospel will bear good fruit. When it is sent out into the world from the lips of a preacher or a faithful witness, it will never return empty-handed. Its return on investment is unparalleled! Time spent with the Holy Word of God is never wasted. Paul likens the Word to a treasure, instructing Timothy “to guard the good deposit entrusted to [him]” (2 Tm 1:14).

Equipped for every good work? As skeptical as we all should be of any so-called “good work,” this too is, of course, true. Because with the Scriptures comes the Gospel, and with the Gospel comes freedom. When we are set free from sin, death, and the devil through Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross, we are also freed from the works of the Law, set loose to do good works for the benefit of our neighbor.

Paul’s next move is to charge Timothy with the preaching of this Word. In good times and in bad. In sickness and in health. For richer and poorer. When it is convenient and inconvenient. But, Paul warns him, it will rarely be convenient to preach Christ crucified – this thing that is foolishness and a stumbling block (1 Co 1:23) to the world. In fact, it will nearly always be most inconvenient. When counting our material wealth, it will often make us poorer. As Paul can testify, a servant of Christ is not guaranteed any good times. Christ assures us, “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Mt 10:22, Mk 13:13).

So why would we do it? Why would we preach this Word when it gives us no earthly benefit, when it is almost guaranteed to bring us hardship and adversity? Well, Paul warns Timothy, “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tm 4:3f). I am here to tell you that this time has come. In fact, it has been a long time coming. Paul wrote these God-breathed words nearly two millennia ago, and I don’t think any other words could better describe the age we find ourselves living in today.

So, why preach the Word of God? Besides the fact that Christ commands it, and our faith will compel us to whether we desire it or not, we preach the Word of God because our neighbors’ ears are itchy. Because if we don’t give them the truth first given to us by Christ, they will go out and seek someone willing to give them lies – someone willing to tell them what they want to hear. And in this age, they won’t have to look very far.

Why preach the Word? Because without the witness of the Church, there will be no truth left in this world to which we may listen. Because salvation comes through faith alone, and faith through hearing alone.

Why preach the Word? Because without it the world will wander off into myths – and indeed, most of it already has. Because the Lord is bringing this age to a close, so that he may create a new heaven and a new earth. Because without clinging to the Word of God, we are vulnerable to Satan, the prince of this world (Jn 12:31, cf. 2 Co 4:4). If we let down our guard for just a moment he will snatch this Word away from us, along with the hope that it gives, leaving nothing behind but despair, suffering, and sorrow.

Martin Luther once wrote, “Whoever believes and holds to Christ’s Word, heaven stands open to him, hell is shut, the devil is imprisoned, sins are forgiven, and he is a child of eternal life. That is what this book teaches you – the Holy Scripture – and no other book on earth” (WA 48:155). And so, we preach the Word! And through this Word, all of your sins are forgiven on account of Jesus Christ. Through this Word, God opens his heavenly kingdom to you. God gives you his Word, his Son Jesus Christ, and through him, life itself.

May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Image: St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt, 1627, Dutch Republic. From the collection of Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany.