Abandoned, But Not Alone

16 At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! 17 But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. 18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

19 Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus. 20 Erastus remained at Corinth, and I left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus. 21 Do your best to come before winter. Eubulus sends greetings to you, as do Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brothers.

22 The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you. 2 Timothy 4:16-22 ESV

Since his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul had developed the unique ability to view the events of his life through a Christ-centered lens, and his life had been far from easy. In his second letter to the church in Corinth, he provided them with a rather lengthy and disturbing catalog of some of his “sufferings” on behalf of Christ.

I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.

Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. – 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 NLT

And Paul was not ashamed to label this list as a form of bragging or boasting – but of his many “weaknesses,” not his strengths.

If I must boast, I would rather boast about the things that show how weak I am. – 2 Corinthians 11:30 NLT

In the very next chapter of that same letter, Paul shared how he had prayed repeatedly that God would remove “a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud” (2 Corinthians 12:7 NLT) But God chose to answer his requests with the simple statement: ““My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT). 

This led Paul to adopt the attitude he carried with him for the rest of his life.

So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:10 NLT

Paul’s words reveal a mindset that seems counterintuitive to most of us. Even as Christians, the thought of someone “boasting” about their weaknesses sounds a bit unstable and psychologically unhealthy. But Paul was far from crazy. He was a man who had learned to view his life on this earth and all that happened to him and around him as temporary in nature. That is why he could tell the believers in Philippi:

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

Several times in his letter to Timothy, Paul has mentioned those who had abandoned him or compromised the truth of the gospel.

Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me – 2 Timothy 4:10 ESV

Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm – 2 Timothy 4:14 NLT

Hymenaeus and Philetus…have left the path of truth, claiming that the resurrection of the dead has already occurred; in this way, they have turned some people away from the faith. – 2 Timothy 2:17-18 NLT

And as he wraps up his letter, Paul adds a new detail that almost sounds as if he is having a pitty party.

At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. – 2 Timothy 4:16 ESV

In preparation for his trial before the emperor, Paul had been given a preliminary hearing. It is likely that this was intended as an opportunity for the facts of the case to be presented and any witnesses for the prosecution and the defense to be called. But Paul reveals that “no one came with me. Everyone abandoned me” (2 Timothy 4:16 NLT). No one came to Paul’s defense. There were no witnesses who spoke up on his behalf. But rather than responding in bitterness and self-pity, Paul expresses his desire that these individuals receive grace from God.

May it not be charged against them! – 2 Timothy 4:16 ESV

And then he reveals the Christ-centered perspective that allowed him to view even the darkest days of his life positively, rather than negatively.

But the Lord stood with me and gave me strength so that I might preach the Good News in its entirety for all the Gentiles to hear. And he rescued me from certain death. – 2 Timothy 4:17 NLT

When no one else showed up, the Lord was there. When it looked as if Paul was all alone and on his own, he knew his Lord and Savior was with him. Paul, who was a student of the Hebrew scriptures, seems to have had the words of King David in mind.

Even if my father and mother abandon me, the LORD will hold me close. – Psalm 27:10 NLT

And this was not the first time Paul had expressed to Timothy his strong belief in Christ’s presence in the midst of his sufferings.

You know how much persecution and suffering I have endured. You know all about how I was persecuted in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra—but the Lord rescued me from all of it. – 2 Timothy 3:11 NLT

Paul was able to see the hand of the Lord in every situation and circumstance of his life. Rather than viewing suffering as a sign of Christ’s absence, Paul chose to see it as a reminder of Christ’s strength in the midst of his own weakness. He tried to see trials and difficulties as nothing more than opportunities to witness the hand of God in his life. But Paul didn’t expect his earthly life to go on forever. He knew that there was a divine timeline in place that dictated the length of his stay on this earth, and he looked forward to the day when he could go to be with the Lord. That’s why he was able to say, “Yes, and the Lord will deliver me from every evil attack and will bring me safely into his heavenly Kingdom. All glory to God forever and ever!” (2 Timothy 4:18 NLT).

Even if his trial before Nero ended in his conviction and execution, Paul viewed it as a victory. He was completely confident in his eternal future and so, any suffering he might have to endure in this life was “nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later” (Romans 8:18 NLT).

Paul didn’t have a death wish, but he wasn’t afraid of the prospect of dying either. He expressed to the Philippian church how he constantly vacillated between a desire to continue his earthly ministry and a longing to be with Christ.

My confident hope is that I will in no way be ashamed but that with complete boldness, even now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether I live or die. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. Now if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean productive work for me, yet I don’t know which I prefer: I feel torn between the two, because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, but it is more vital for your sake that I remain in the body.– Philippians 1:20-24 NLT

In Paul’s mind, either option was a win, because whichever one happened, he would be well within God’s sovereign will and would enjoy unbroken fellowship with his Savior.

Paul concludes his letter with a request that Timothy convey his love to his old friends, Priscila and Aquila, who were living in Ephesus. It seems quite evident that Paul is reminiscing about his life and ministry, recalling names from the past, as he faces an uncertain future. He longed to see Timothy. He obviously missed his many friends and associates and knew that he might never see any of them again. But he was not melancholy or morose. He doesn’t exhibit the characteristics of someone suffering from depression. He is at peace and ready to face the future with confidence and a calm assurance that “the Lord will deliver me from every evil attack and will bring me safely into his heavenly Kingdom.”

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Do your best to come to me soon. 10 For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. 11 Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. 12 Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. 13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. 14 Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. 15 Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. 2 Timothy 4:9-15 ESV

When reading the letters of Paul, it can be easy to assume that he was a spiritual loner who, by virtue of his job, traveled from place to place, and never put down any roots. He can come across as a kind of spiritual soldier of fortune, making his way from one city to the next, staying just as long as it takes to make enough converts to start a local church. His work done, Paul would pack his parchments and scant belongings and head to yet another town where he would start the whole process over again.

This image of Paul as a type-A personality with an over-zealous constitution and a somewhat legalistic, doctrinally-driven mindset is inaccurate and unfair. Even a cursory reading of his many letters will reveal a man who had a deep love and concern for others. Yes, he was driven. He was a man on a mission. And he would not allow himself to be distracted by the cares of this world. But that does not mean he was callous, cold, or uncaring. As a leader, Paul had an unwavering commitment to preach the gospel with boldness, in the face of intense opposition from some and the stubborn obstinance of others. Yet, he had a pastor’s heart that beat fast for each and every person who came to faith in Christ through his ministry.

You can sense Paul’s love and concern in the way he addressed those under his care.

Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives. I wish I were with you right now so I could change my tone. But at this distance I don’t know how else to help you. – Galatians 4:19-20 NLT

I am not writing these things to shame you, but to warn you as my beloved children. For even if you had ten thousand others to teach you about Christ, you have only one spiritual father. For I became your father in Christ Jesus when I preached the Good News to you. – 1 Corinthians 4:14-15 NLT

…we were like a mother feeding and caring for her own children. We loved you so much that we shared with you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too. – 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8 NLT

Like any loving parent, Paul could be demanding and doting. He could admonish and encourage. He was deeply concerned for the well-being of each and every individual who had come to Christ under his ministry. They did not view them as notches on his belt or numbers on a spreadsheet. They were his spiritual children and he cared deeply for them. Just as much as he cared for Timothy.

So, as Paul begins to draw his letter to Timothy to a close, he mentions seven different individuals with whom he had developed relationships: Demas, Crescens, Titus, Luke, Mark, Tychicus, and Alexander. Some of these names are more familiar than others, appearing elsewhere in the New Testament. But there are a few whose exact identities and roles in Paul’s life remain a mystery. But this list of names reveals the diverse nature of Paul’s relational pool. The sheer scope of his ministry necessitated interaction with a wide range of individuals, some of whom he developed deep and lasting relationships. Others remained relatively unknown to Paul, but their anonymity did not diminish his care for them.

Seemingly convinced that his conviction and death at the hands of the Romans was drawing near, Paul appealed to Timothy to come to visit him in Rome. You can almost feel Paul’s sense of loneliness as he pleads with his young friend to make the arduous trip from Ephesus to Rome. Paul has just finished urging Timothy to be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, and fulfill his ministry (2 Timothy 4:5). And yet, now he expresses his desire for Timothy to drop everything and come to Rome so that he can see him one last time. 

And Paul’s explanation for this impromptu visit was that Demas had deserted him. It seems clear that Demas was a ministry associate of Paul’s and had been working alongside him during his imprisonment in Rome. But Paul accuses Demas of jumping ship, having fallen “in love with this present world” (2 Timothy 4:10 ESV). As a minister of the gospel, Paul had the extreme joy of leading many people to Christ and of training others for ministry. But he also had the unenviable task of watching some stray from the path of faith. Earlier in this same letter, he mentioned Hymenaeus and Philetus, who had “swerved from the truth” (2 Timothy 2:18 ESV). In his first letter to Timothy, Paul had called out Hymenaeus and Alexander, accusing them of having “suffered shipwreck in regard to the faith” (1 Timothy 1:19 ESV).

Paul knew what it was like to feel betrayed and abandoned by the very ones in whom he had poured his life. He had experienced the pain of watching leaders wander from the truth into false doctrine. He had witnessed countless individuals walk away from the faith because the path was more difficult than they expected. And now, he had been forced to watch Demas abandon his calling because his love for Christ had been replaced by a love for the things of this world. Demas had lived out exactly what Paul had warned Timothy about. He had become a lover of pleasure rather than a love of God (2 Timothy 3:4). Demas had failed to fulfill his ministry and this had to have caused Paul much pain and disappointment.

But not all of Paul’s ministry companions had walked away from the faith or deserted his side. Some, like Crescens and Titus, had left Paul in Rome so that they might carry the gospel to places like Galatia and Dalmatia. These men must have brought Paul great encouragement as he watched them do the work of the ministry he was no longer able to perform. But it was probably difficult for him to send these men into the world, knowing that they were going to face difficulties and trials, just as he had.

The departures of Crescens and Titus had left Paul with one remaining companion, the physician, Luke. It seems that, even while imprisoned in Rome, Paul had enjoyed regular visits from many of his friends and ministry associates. But, as the reality of his pending death grew clearer, Paul desired to reconnect with those whom he had not seen in some time. This included John Mark, another one of his former disciples and companions. Acts 13 reveals that, at one point on one of their missionary journeys, John Mark had left Paul and Barnabas and had returned to Jerusalem. No explanation is given for his departure, but Paul instructs Timothy to pick up John Mark and bring him to Rome. And Paul seems to provide Timothy with the assurance that all will be go well in Ephesus in his absence because he had sent Tychicus to serve in his place.

Paul also instructed Timothy to bring some specific items that he needed. One was a cloak Paul had evidently loaned to someone named Carpus. He also requested some books and parchments that he had likely lent to Timothy to assist in his studies. These could have included scrolls from Paul’s personal library that contained copies of the Old Testament scriptures. Even in old age and facing imminent death, Paul was still reading, learning, and studying. And as his letter to Timothy illustrates, even in prison, Paul was still teaching, training, encouraging, and pouring his life into others.

Finally, Paul warns Timothy to avoid someone he describes as Alexander the coppersmith. Paul accuses Alexander of having done him “great harm” opposing his message. No further explanation is given, but it seems clear that Timothy was familiar with Alexander and Paul wanted him to avoid this man like the plague. Once again, this warning fits in with Paul’s earlier admonition to Timothy regarding godless people.

They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that! – 2 Timothy 3:5 NLT

The gospel ministry will be accompanied by all kinds of people. There will be true converts and there will be those who only appear to have saving faith but who eventually walk away when the going gets tough. There will be self-proclaimed teachers who replace the truth of God with pleasant-sounding platitudes that tickle peoples’ ears and attract fairweather followers.

For every Demas and Alexander, there would be a Crescens and Titus. But Paul was convinced that the preaching of the good news was going to attract bad apples. The crowds attracted by the gospel message would end up attracting people who saw an opportunity to personally prosper by replacing the truth with ear-tickling claims that promoted wickedness rather than godliness. So, even as he prepares to conclude his letter to Timothy, he keeps warning his young friend to stay alert and to remain faithful to his calling. Because “in the last days there will come times of difficulty” (2 Timothy 3:1 ESV).

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Salvation, Suffering, and Scripture

10 You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. 12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:10-17 ESV

Timothy found himself surrounded by false teachers and foolish people whose lack of spiritual discernment caused them to accept their heresy as truth. But Paul was not going to allow his young disciple to lose hope or to abandon his ministry objectives. Timothy still had work to do. The gospel must be preached, new believers must be educated in the teachings of Christ, the truth of God’s Word must be defended, and the promises of God must be believed. At all costs.

If Timothy needed encouragement or an example to follow, he need only look to the life of Paul, his mentor, and friend. After all, Paul was writing this letter while confined to prison in Rome. And the sole reason he was there was because of his faith in Christ and his commitment to preaching the gospel. He had been falsely accused by those who opposed his message and despised him so much that they would do anything to see him eliminated. A group of 40 Jews had even made a pact, sealed by an oath, that they would not eat until they had personally assassinated Paul.

The next morning a group of Jews got together and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. There were more than forty of them in the conspiracy. They went to the leading priests and elders and told them, “We have bound ourselves with an oath to eat nothing until we have killed Paul. So you and the high council should ask the commander to bring Paul back to the council again. Pretend you want to examine his case more fully. We will kill him on the way.” – Acts 23:12-15 NLT

So, just in case his memory had lapsed, Paul provided Timothy with a sobering reminder of his own ministry experience. It had been anything but easy. From the moment he had received his commission as an apostle, Paul had found himself encountering opposition and having to face persecutions and sufferings. But he had done so with patience, faith, love, and steadfastness. This is not a display of arrogant pride or boasting on Paul’s part. He is simply reminding Timothy of what he had already witnessed with his own eyes. Paul recounts three different occasions when he had suffered persecution for doing what he had been called to do. The first took place in Antioch of Pisidia.

It was there that Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel of Jesus Christ in the synagogues and saw a great many people come to faith.

Many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, and the two men urged them to continue to rely on the grace of God. – Acts 13:43 NLT

But they also met with increasing opposition on the part of the Jews.

But when some of the Jews saw the crowds, they were jealous; so they slandered Paul and argued against whatever he said. – Acts 13:45 NLT

And it wasn’t long before their jealousy and slander turned to acts of physical violence.

Then the Jews stirred up the influential religious women and the leaders of the city, and they incited a mob against Paul and Barnabas and ran them out of town. – Acts 13:50 NLT

Having been railroaded out of Antioch by the Jews, Paul and Barnabas made their way to Iconium. But as Luke records in the book of Acts, things did not improve.

The same thing happened in Iconium. Paul and Barnabas went to the Jewish synagogue and preached with such power that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers. Some of the Jews, however, spurned God’s message and poisoned the minds of the Gentiles against Paul and Barnabas. But the apostles stayed there a long time, preaching boldly about the grace of the Lord. And the Lord proved their message was true by giving them power to do miraculous signs and wonders. But the people of the town were divided in their opinion about them. Some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles.

Then a mob of Gentiles and Jews, along with their leaders, decided to attack and stone them. When the apostles learned of it, they fled to the region of Lycaonia—to the towns of Lystra and Derbe and the surrounding area. And there they preached the Good News. – Acts 14:1-7 NLT

But things had taken a rather odd and nearly deadly turn in Lystra. Their miraculous healing of a crippled man had caused the inhabitants of Lystra to mistake them for gods in human form. They had even tried to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas, declaring them to be the Greek gods, Zeus and Hermes. But Paul had taken the opportunity to declare the good news, calling their audience to “turn from these worthless things and turn to the living God” (Acts 14:15 NLT).

But the crowds had remained undeterred by Paul’s words, still convinced that they must be gods. And then, a contingent of Jews from Antioch and Iconium had shown up, whose accusations against Paul and Barnabas had transformed the adoring crowd from worshipers to executioners.

Then some Jews arrived from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowds to their side. They stoned Paul and dragged him out of town, thinking he was dead. But as the believers gathered around him, he got up and went back into the town. The next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe. – Acts 14:19-20 NLT

And Paul reminds Timothy, “You know all about how I was persecuted in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra—but the Lord rescued me from all of it” (2 Timothy 3:11 NLT). Paul had miraculously walked away from his own stoning, making his way to Derbe, where he had continued to faithfully proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Then, according to Luke, Paul and Barnabas had retraced their steps, returning to the very cities where they had faced opposition and Paul had been stoned and left for dead.

After preaching the Good News in Derbe and making many disciples, Paul and Barnabas returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia, where they strengthened the believers. They encouraged them to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God. – Acts 14:21-22 NLT

The inhabitants of these three cities must have been shocked when Paul and Barnabas showed back up. But no one would have been more surprised than those who had placed their faith in Christ as a result of the teaching of these two men. They had probably assumed they would never see Paul and Barnabas again. But not only did they return, they provided a living lesson in what it means to suffer on behalf of Christ. It is likely that Paul still displayed the cuts and bruises from his stoning in Lystra.

And Paul reminds Timothy of the message he had delivered to the faithful in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch: “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12 NLT).

The reality of the Christian life is that the godly will suffer while the ungodly will appear to prosper. False teachers will continue to deceive and mislead the innocent and immature. The wicked will appear to get away with their ungodly behavior, even flourishing, while those who follow Christ find themselves facing trials and difficulties of all kinds.

But Paul encourages Timothy to remain faithful at all costs, reminding him to consider the history of his own conversion and calling. Timothy had been raised by a godly mother and grandmother who had saturated his life with the Scriptures. And that immersion in the Old Testament had prepared Timothy to understand the truth regarding Jesus and His claim to be the Messiah of Israel.

You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. – 2 Timothy 3:15 NLT

Timothy knew that Jesus had been the fulfillment of all the Messianic passages found in the Hebrew Scriptures. He was the Son of David and the long-awaited Messiah. And He was Timothy’s Savior. And just as the Scriptures had prophesied Jesus’ first coming, they revealed that Jesus would one day come again. That’s why Paul reminds Timothy to keep trusting God’s written Word because it reveals the truth concerning His Living Word.

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. – Acts 3:16-17 NLT

Things were not going to be easy. Living the Christian life was not going to be a walk in the park. But Paul wanted Timothy to know that he could endure whatever came his way because he could trust in the Word of God. It had the power to instruct, discipline, encourage, and equip God’s people. It was divinely inspired and, therefore, spiritually empowered to help every believer not only survive but thrive. Salvation, suffering, and Scripture are three non-negotiables in the life of the believer. Saving faith will result in suffering. It comes with the territory. But Scripture, which reveals the redemptive plan of God made possible through faith in Christ, also provides everything we need to live Christlike lives as we await His Son’s return.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Committed to the Cause

13 Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

15 You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes. 16 May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains, 17 but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me earnestly and found me— 18 may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day!—and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus. 2 Timothy 1:13-18 ESV

Even while imprisoned in Rome, Paul took a keen interest in the affairs of the many local congregations he had helped to start. He wrote a great many of his pastoral epistles while under arrest, using his time to encourage the church of Jesus Christ, providing doctrinal instruction, relevant application of Jesus’ teaching, and an occasional admonishment aimed at false teachers and all those who had been swayed by their words.

But Paul also took advantage of his confinement by penning this letter to his young friend and disciple, Timothy, attempting to bolster his faith and strengthen his commitment to his calling as a minister of Christ. Paul knew from firsthand experience the kind of opposition Timothy was facing. He also understood the constant pressure his young friend was under to compromise his message and discredit his calling.

Timothy was a young man and yet, he had been thrust into a high-intensity role with responsibility to oversee the growing flock in Ephesus. He was the God-appointed shepherd to the sheep placed under his care and Paul knew that his young friend was struggling. Even Paul’s imprisonment had left Timothy wrestling with questions and doubts about the future. After all, his mentor had been arrested and accused of crimes against the state. And Paul’s enemies had used his arrest as an opportunity to undermine his work and destroy his reputation. But Paul encouraged Timothy to “not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner” (2 Timothy 1:8 ESV).

Paul assured Timothy that there was only one reason behind his imprisonment: His preaching of the gospel. He wasn’t an insurrectionist or an enemy of the state. He was simply a “preacher and apostle and teacher” (2 Timothy 1:11 ESV), who had been faithfully fulfilling his God-ordained responsibilities. So, for him, confinement in prison was a badge of honor, a symbol of his alignment with the sufferings of Christ. And Paul wanted Timothy to have the same mindset.

Timothy had become part of Paul’s entourage, traveling alongside the apostle and watching him preach the good news of Jesus Christ all throughout the Roman Empire. And he had witnessed the sheer power of the gospel message as countless individuals from all walks of life had placed their faith in Christ. He had seen small congregations spring up in the most unlikely of places. Gentiles who had grown up in pagan cultures worshiping a pantheon of false gods had discovered the truth about Yahweh and His Son. They had turned their backs on idolatry and been restored to a right relationship with the one true God, through a relationship with Jesus Christ.

And Timothy must have found all of this incredibly encouraging to his faith. He had enjoyed a front-row seat experience to the gospel’s transforming power and to Paul’s obvious calling as an ambassador of Jesus Christ. And he was compelled to follow Paul’s example – until things went south and Paul was imprisoned. But Paul didn’t want Timothy to lose heart. So, he challenged Timothy to quit focusing on his imprisonment and to remember all that he had taught him.

Hold on to the pattern of wholesome teaching you learned from me—a pattern shaped by the faith and love that you have in Christ Jesus. – 2 Timothy 1:13 NLT

Paul’s circumstances had done nothing to alter the gospel message. His imprisonment had not confined the good news any more than Jesus’ death had prevented His resurrection and ascension. The sovereign plan of God was alive and well and Timothy had a responsibility to continue the work of spreading the message of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone.

Confined to prison, Paul passed the responsibility of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles to Timothy and warned him to “carefully guard the precious truth that has been entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14 NLT). And he was to do it “through the power of the Holy Spirit” (2 Timothy 1:14 NLT). Nothing had changed. Paul’s imprisonment was not a problem for God. It had not caught the Almighty by surprise or left Him desperately trying to develop a “Plan B.” It was all part of God’s divine strategy and Paul wanted Timothy to know that he had been chosen by God for this very occasion. He had been called, gifted, and empowered by God. He had been sent to Ephesus by Paul. And he was right where he was supposed to be in order to accomplish what God had for him to do.

Paul wanted Timothy to understand that his role was not up for debate. He may not have liked the circumstances surrounding his life, but he had no choice but to embrace the gift of grace bestowed on him by God.

God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time—to show us his grace through Christ Jesus. – 2 Timothy 1:9 NLT

And to ensure that Timothy remains faithful to his calling, Paul brings up the actions of two individuals named Phygelus and Hermogenes, who had used Paul’s imprisonment as an excuse to abandon him. Evidently, these men had played a leadership role among the churches in Asia and their treatment of Paul had negatively impacted those under their care.

In contrast, Paul points out the efforts of Onesiphorus, someone who had chosen to remain faithful to Paul and his ministry in spite of his imprisonment. Paul points out that this individual and his family “often visited and encouraged me. He was never ashamed of me because I was in chains” (2 Timothy 1:17 NLT). Onesiphorus had even made a special trip to Rome in order to locate Paul and encourage him. And Paul expresses his gratitude by asking the Lord to show special kindness to this man and his family.

Paul wants Timothy to model his life after Onesiphorus, not Phygelus and Hermogenes. He wants his young friend to embrace a mindset of selfless service and sacrificial love, refusing to allow the circumstances of life to deter him from his mission or to distract him from his calling. The gospel does not need fair-weather friends who bail at the first sign of trouble. Paul wanted Timothy to know that his job was going to be difficult but not impossible. He would face trials, but he was not alone. And Timothy was going to need to embrace his role as non-negotiable and fully binding. In fact, in the very next lines of his letter, Paul will call Timothy to “share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3 ESV).

And, as a soldier of Christ, Timothy was obligated to serve faithfully and obediently. That’s why, in his first letter to Timothy, Paul had provided him with some strong words of instruction.

But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight for the true faith. Hold tightly to the eternal life to which God has called you, which you have declared so well before many witnesses. – 1 Timothy 6:11-12 NLT

Paul may have been in jail, but Timothy was free to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and to continue the work of building up the body of Christ. There was no time to doubt and debate the efficacy of God’s strategy. There was work to be done and Paul wanted Timothy to know that he was the man for the hour. And his young age, inexperience, feelings of inadequacy, fear, and reservations were no match for God’s divine calling and Spirit-empowered gifting for the task at hand. Timothy needed to remain committed to the cause and ready to be used by the one who had called him to begin with.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Fan the Flame of Faith

1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God according to the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus,

To Timothy, my beloved child:

Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

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. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. 2 Timothy 1:1-7 ESV

Over the course of his memorable and eventful life, the apostle Paul managed to write a number of letters, many of which would eventually form a large part of the New Testament canon of Scripture. His pastoral letters, like First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, were addressed to the churches in those communities which he had helped to start. Paul was, first and foremost, an evangelist, with a Christ-ordained mandate to take the good news of the Gospel to the Gentiles. In his former life, Paul had been a dedicated Pharisee on a personal crusade to eradicate every last vestige of “the Way,” the name given to those who had chosen to become followers of the former rabbi, Jesus, who had been crucified in Jerusalem years earlier.

Paul, as a faithful Jew and a zealous member of the Pharisees, had deemed the teachings of Jesus as radical and a threat to the Hebrew faith. Yet God, in His infinite wisdom and as part of His divine redemptive plan, had chosen to redirect Paul’s ambitions and turn him from antagonist to evangelist.

The story of his conversion from persecutor to church planter can be found in the ninth chapter of the book of Acts. It explains how Paul had an unexpected and life-transforming encounter with Jesus Christ Himself. As a result of this once-in-a-lifetime experience, Paul would come to realize that the rumors concerning Jesus, the itinerant rabbi who had been executed by the Romans, were actually true. He was alive and well, having been resurrected from the dead. And all as proof that Jesus was who He had claimed to be all along: the Son of God and the long-awaited Messiah.

As a result of his roadside encounter with the risen Christ, the trajectory of Paul’s life was changed forever. He discovered a new purpose for his life and a much-improved focus for his ambitious nature and high-octane personality. Paul became one of the most outspoken proponents of the gospel, focusing his evangelistic efforts primarily on the Gentile world. Over the course of his life, he would lead countless individuals to Christ, helping them come to know the joy of salvation through faith in Christ.

Paul was an apostle, literally “a messenger” of Jesus Christ, who had been called and commissioned by Jesus to carry the gospel to the far reaches of the known world. And Paul would take his commission seriously, eventually embarking on three extensive missionary journeys to the far corners of the Roman Empire. And along the way, he shared the gospel with both Jews and Gentiles, revealing the truth “that Christ was crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23 NLT) and “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4 ESV).

Paul faithfully preached this message in cities, synagogues, public squares, before governors and magistrates, and with a tireless passion to see the lost come to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. And along the way, he witnessed countless individuals come to faith in Christ, including the young man to whom this letter is addressed. Timothy was a disciple of Paul’s, having been hand-selected by the apostle to join him on his missionary journeys and assist him in the spread of the gospel. The tone of this letter reflects Paul’s deep and personal affection for Timothy. Written from Rome where Paul was under house arrest and awaiting a hearing before the Roman Emperor, the letter is a highly personal and intimate message from the apostle to his young protégé and friend.

Paul’s love for Timothy is reflected in his salutation: “To Timothy, my beloved child” (2 Timothy 1:2 ESV). Paul viewed Timothy as a son and this letter contains words of fatherly love in the form of encouragement and admonition. Paul was obviously proud of Timothy, and even complimented him for his “sincere faith.” He was thankful that God had placed Timothy in his life and longed to see his young friend again. But, since Paul was under house arrest in Rome, and Timothy was ministering in Ephesus, Paul could only pray for and write to his son in the faith. And, in part, this letter was intended to encourage Timothy to remain faithful in the face of opposition. Paul was determined to help his young coworker become all that God intended him to be. Physically separated but spiritually bound by a common belief in Christ and a shared calling to preach the gospel, Paul felt a personal responsibility for Timothy’s life and ministry. And this letter is his attempt to pour into this young man’s life by calling him to an ever-increasing commitment to his faith and his Christ-mandated mission.

Paul reminds Timothy to “fan into flames the spiritual gift God gave you when I laid my hands on you” (2 Timothy 1:6 NLT). We’re not told what “spiritual gift” Paul had in mind, but we know that he viewed Timothy as having been specially gifted by God and he longed to see him use every resource at his disposal to faithfully accomplish his work. And he wanted Timothy to know that because he was gifted by God, he had no reason to embrace thoughts of inadequacy or fear.  

For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline. – 2 Timothy 1:7 NLT

This was not the first time Paul had challenged Timothy to live in the power provided for him by God. In a previous letter, Paul had provided Timothy with strong words of encouragement aimed at countering any feelings of inadequacy or inability he may have felt.

Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity. Until I get there, focus on reading the Scriptures to the church, encouraging the believers, and teaching them.

Do not neglect the spiritual gift you received through the prophecy spoken over you when the elders of the church laid their hands on you. Give your complete attention to these matters. Throw yourself into your tasks so that everyone will see your progress. Keep a close watch on how you live and on your teaching. Stay true to what is right for the sake of your own salvation and the salvation of those who hear you. – 1 Timothy 4:12-16 NLT

Paul knew from his own experience just how difficult living the Christian life could be. And the added pressure of preaching the gospel and shepherding the flock of Jesus Christ made Timothy’s job that much more difficult. He was young, relatively inexperienced, and in a high-pressure career where he faced opposition of a spiritual nature.

For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6:12 NLT

Timothy had been blessed to have a mother and grandmother who had modeled the life of faith for him. But he was now having to “fan the flame” of his own faith, learning to trust in the power provided for him by Christ. Paul wanted Timothy to know that he had power, love, and self-control at his disposal. He had everything he needed to accomplish that task before him. His age, inexperience, and any feelings of inadequacy he may have felt were irrelevant. He had a saving relationship with Christ, a clear calling to the gospel ministry, and the indwelling power of the Spirit of God. And Paul wanted him to know that he had a responsibility to remain faithful to his commission as a minister of the gospel because it is a “holy calling” (2 Timothy 1:9 ESV).

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Yet, I Will Rejoice

c17 Though the fig tree should not blossom,

    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer’s;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. Habakkuk 3:17-19 ESV

Habakkuk has expressed his concern to God about the state of affairs in Judah, describing it as a place where the wicked outnumber the righteous, creating an atmosphere of injustice and violence. He was shocked by God’s surprising admission that He would use the pagan nation of Babylon as His instruments of judgment against Judah. Habakkuk had been looking for a spiritual revival in Judah, but God had plans to bring about their destruction and captivity.

Upon hearing God describe the divine retribution He had planned for Babylon’s role in Judah’s punishment, Habakkuk found himself encouraged and comforted. He reflected on God’s past acts of deliverance on behalf of the people of Israel and concluded that, in spite of all that was about to happen, he could trust God to do the right thing. The sovereign plan of God was just, right, and perfect in every detail.

I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
    to come upon people who invade us. – Habakkuk 3:16 ESV

Now, Habakkuk closes his book with a statement of complete confidence in God. This is not some pollyanna, positive-motivational claptrap intended to score brownie points with God. He is expressing his sincere belief in the greatness and goodness of God. He fully realizes that Judah’s immediate future is a grim one. There would be no miracle of national revival like the one that took place during the reign of King Josiah. Injustice, immorality, and wickedness would continue to plague the nation of Judah until the judgment of God fell upon them in the form of the Babylonian army. Conquest and captivity were the inevitable fate of God’s people because of their long history of rebellion and unfaithfulness.

Using a series of metaphorical comparisons, Habakkuk clearly reveals his understanding of Judah’s fate. He harbored no delusions that things were going to improve. In fact, he seems to have in mind the curses God had promised to bring on the people of Israel if they failed to keep their covenant agreement with Him.

“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field.  Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock.” – Deuteronomy 28:15-18 ESV

Their decision to disobey God would result in His discipline of them, in the form of tangible loss and devastating suffering.

“The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me. The Lord will make the pestilence stick to you until he has consumed you off the land that you are entering to take possession of it. The Lord will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew.” –  Deuteronomy 28:20-22 ESV

Among the many curses that Moses outlined to the people of Israel were those affecting their crops and flocks.

“You shall carry much seed into the field and shall gather in little, for the locust shall consume it. You shall plant vineyards and dress them, but you shall neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm shall eat them. You shall have olive trees throughout all your territory, but you shall not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives shall drop off.” – Deuteronomy 28:38-40 ESV

And Habakkuk appears to take all these devastating signs of God’s disciplinary hand and boils them down into a few representative examples. He describes a fig tree that has failed to blossom, a sure sign that no fruit could be expected. It would be barren and of no value. He foresees barren vines, devoid of fruit, and guaranteeing no wine production. He envisions the annual olive harvest as failed, the fields lying barren and empty. And the subsequent famine has a devastating impact on the flocks and herds.

But although Habakkuk paints a bleak and depressing scenario, he expresses his firm intention to remain confident in the goodness of God.

…yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation. – Habakkuk 3:18 ESV

Even if all these terrible things take place, which God had indicated they would, Habakkuk is determined to trust in God. His words are reminiscent of those spoken by Job.

Though he slay me, I will hope in him… – Job 13:15 ESV

Job was a man who had suffered great loss and, unlike the Israelites, he had done nothing to deserve it. He was completely innocent and yet, in a devastating series of catastrophic events, he lost all his flocks and herds, and received news that his children had been killed in a freak accident. And yet, his response to all of this undeserved and inexplicable loss was to say:

“I came naked from my mother’s womb,
    and I will be naked when I leave.
The Lord gave me what I had,
    and the Lord has taken it away.
Praise the name of the Lord!” – Job 1:21 NLT

But things only got worse. Job soon found himself suffering from a debilitating and painful skin disease for which there was no cure or no hope of relief. At that point, his own wife, assuming that Job had done something to deserve all this suffering, encouraged him to curse God and die. To which Job responded, “You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” (Job 2:10 NLT).

Habakkuk, like Job, was convinced that his God was good even when everything around him looked bad. He was not going to judge the goodness of God based on the nature of his circumstances. And yet, how easy it is for the children of God to “accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad.” And while we should always be grateful to God for His many blessings, their absence should never cause us to assume a lack of God’s presence.

It is right and proper to voice appreciation of God’s goodness when he bestows all that is necessary for life, health, and prosperity. But when these things are lacking, to rejoice in God for his own sake is evidence of pure faith. – Bruce, F. F. “Habakkuk.” In The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expositional Commentary

Habakkuk was prepared for the worst, but fully confident in God’s best. He was placing his hope in the goodness of God. And this reflects a major shift in the prophet’s mood. He had started his book in a state of despair, complaining to God about the dismal conditions in Judah. But now, after having heard from God and being assured of His divine plans, Habakkuk was filled with confident assurance in his faithful, sovereign God.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength!
    He makes me as surefooted as a deer,
    able to tread upon the heights. – Habakkuk 3:19 NLT

Habakkuk knew that he would be able to endure all that was to come because his good God would give him strength. Like the apostle Paul, Habakkuk was relying on something greater than himself to face the ups and downs associated with this fallen world.

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:11-13 ESV

The days ahead would be difficult. The discipline of God would be painful and purging. But Habakkuk was willing to put his confidence in Yahweh because He had always proven Himself to be trustworthy and true. The conditions in Judah were going to get worse before they got better. The Babylonians were coming, whether Habakkuk liked it or not. And it was all part of God’s divine plan for the future redemption of His people.

As followers of Christ, we face a similar situation as that experienced by Habakkuk. We live in a fallen world where sin and wickedness abound. The people of God are under constant attack with the enemy focusing all His efforts on the destruction of the body of Christ. And yet, Jesus warned us that these days would come. And He also told us to remain firm in our faith and full of peace because He has it all under control.

But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” – John 16:32-33 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Circumstances Change, But Not God

God came from Teman,
    and the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah
His splendor covered the heavens,
    and the earth was full of his praise.
His brightness was like the light;
    rays flashed from his hand;
    and there he veiled his power.
Before him went pestilence,
    and plague followed at his heels.
He stood and measured the earth;
    he looked and shook the nations;
then the eternal mountains were scattered;
    the everlasting hills sank low.
    His were the everlasting ways.
I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction;
   the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble. – Habakkuk 3:3-7 ESV

After acknowledging God’s past accomplishments on behalf of Israel and begging God to once again show mercy to His rebellious and disobedient children, Habakkuk begins an extensive recitation of the Almighty’s glory. He begins with what appears to be a poetic description of God’s deliverance of Israel from their captivity in Egypt.

He describes seeing God (Eloah, singular for Elohim) coming from Teman, a town in the region of Edom. Then he further defines God as “the Holy One” coming from Mount Paran, a mountain whose exact location is unknown but is believed to have been located somewhere near Teman. In describing God as “the Holy One,” Habakkuk used the Hebrew word, qadosh, accentuating the eminence and transcendence of God. He is unequaled in glory and greatness, enjoying unparalleled sovereignty over all things He has made.

Teman and Mount Paran were located south of Judah and east of Egypt, so, Habakkuk is picturing God coming from the direction of Sinai as He prepares to rescue His people from their slavery in Egypt. And in Habakkuk’s version of the scene, God shows up in a blaze of glory.

 His brilliant splendor fills the heavens,
    and the earth is filled with his praise. – Habakkuk 3:3 NLT

There is nothing inconspicuous or modest about the Lord’s coming. Just prior to his death, Moses used a similar description when recounting God’s manifestation of His glory to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai.

“The Lord came from Mount Sinai
    and dawned upon us from Mount Seir;
he shone forth from Mount Paran
    and came from Meribah-kadesh
    with flaming fire at his right hand. – Deuteronomy 33:2 NLT

It was on Mount Sinai that Moses had made the bold request of God: “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18 ESV). But God had responded by telling Moses, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name…But…you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:19, 20 ESV). The true essence of God’s holiness was too much for a sinful man like Moses to witness without being consumed. For the same reason, God had warned Moses to set up boundaries around Mount Sinai, so they would not be tempted to barge into God’s holy presence.

“Go down and prepare the people for my arrival. Consecrate them today and tomorrow, and have them wash their clothing. Be sure they are ready on the third day, for on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai as all the people watch. Mark off a boundary all around the mountain. Warn the people, ‘Be careful! Do not go up on the mountain or even touch its boundaries. Anyone who touches the mountain will certainly be put to death.” – Exodus 19:10-12 NLT

Habakkuk understood the concept of God’s holiness and transcendence. He envisioned God’s glory emanating from Him like a dazzling light.

His coming is as brilliant as the sunrise.
    Rays of light flash from his hands,
    where his awesome power is hidden. – Habakkuk 3:4 NLT

This awesome display of God’s glory is reminiscent of God’s appearance on Mount Sinai when He gave His law to Moses.

When the people heard the thunder and the loud blast of the ram’s horn, and when they saw the flashes of lightning and the smoke billowing from the mountain, they stood at a distance, trembling with fear. – Exodus 20:18 NLT

And the apostle John saw a similar vision upon entering the throne room of God.

From the throne came flashes of lightning and the rumble of thunder. And in front of the throne were seven torches with burning flames. This is the sevenfold Spirit of God.
 – Revelation 4:5 NLT

The glory of God left Habakkuk awestruck and, in the midst of the current conditions surrounding Judah, and faced with the news of God’s pending judgment, he found comfort by focusing on the transcendence of God. He worshiped a great and good God, the same God who had showed up centuries earlier, in order to rescue the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. And God’s glory had manifested itself in the form of plagues and pestilence, directed at Israel’s captors.

Before him went pestilence,
    and plague followed at his heels. – Habakkuk 3:5 ESV

When God had appeared to Moses in the burning bush, commissioning him as His divine deliverer, He had promised to deliver the people of Israel through miraculous means.

“I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go.” – Exodus 3:20 ESV

When Habakkuk considered the stories of God’s past acts of deliverance, he found encouragement. He realized that his God remained unchanged and was just as potent and powerful as He had been in the days of Moses. There was comfort in knowing that while the circumstances may have changed, his God had not.

When he stops, the earth shakes.
    When he looks, the nations tremble.
He shatters the everlasting mountains
    and levels the eternal hills.
    He is the Eternal One! – Habakkuk 3:6 NLT

This great, awesome, powerful, holy, and glorious God was still capable of performing wonders and delivering His chosen people from any and every circumstance. There was no problem too great for God to handle. He was sovereign over all things, including the mountains and hills, as well as kings and the empires of men. Once-mighty Egypt had been no match for God Almighty, so, the Babylonians would prove to be no problem either. The enemies of Israel were ultimately the enemies of God and He would bring them to nothing.

I see the people of Cushan in distress,
    and the nation of Midian trembling in terror. – Habakkuk 3:7 NLT

The Ethiopians and Midianites, whose lands bordered the region surrounding Mount Sinai, had heard the rumors of this great throng of people who had come from Egypt. They had no doubt seen and heard the display of God’s glory on Mount Sinai, and it had left them in fear and distress. This strange new nation with its powerful God had left them trembling in their boots.

And, once again, Habakkuk found encouragement and comfort in recalling the past exampled of God’s glory, goodness, and might on behalf of His chosen people. In all generations, there is always a need for God’s people to remember God’s past acts of rescue and redemption. When faced with troubling circumstances and struggling with doubts concerning God’s presence and power, His people must look to the past for reassurance. And the psalmist provides us with a much-needed example.

I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
    yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
I will ponder all your work,
    and meditate on your mighty deeds.
Your way, O God, is holy.
    What god is great like our God?
You are the God who works wonders;
    you have made known your might among the peoples.
You with your arm redeemed your people,
    the children of Jacob and Joseph. – Psalm 77:11-15 ESV

King David added his thoughts regarding God’s past accomplishments on behalf of His people and found ample reason to hope for the future.

All of your works will thank you, Lord,
    and your faithful followers will praise you.
They will speak of the glory of your kingdom;
    they will give examples of your power.
They will tell about your mighty deeds
    and about the majesty and glory of your reign.
For your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom.
    You rule throughout all generations. – Psalm 145:10-13 NLT

And the prophet Jeremiah shared David’s enthusiasm and positive outlook.

Yet I still dare to hope
    when I remember this:

The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
    His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness;
    his mercies begin afresh each morning.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance;
    therefore, I will hope in him!”

The Lord is good to those who depend on him,
    to those who search for him.
So it is good to wait quietly
    for salvation from the Lord. – Lamentations 3:21-26 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Living By Faith, Not Sight

1 I will take my stand at my watchpost
    and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
    and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

And the Lord answered me:

“Write the vision;
    make it plain on tablets,
    so he may run who reads it.
For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
    it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
    it will surely come; it will not delay.

“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
    but the righteous shall live by his faith.

“Moreover, wine is a traitor,
    an arrogant man who is never at rest.
His greed is as wide as Sheol;
    like death he has never enough.
He gathers for himself all nations
    and collects as his own all peoples.” Habakkuk 2:1-5 ESV

With the opening of chapter two, there can be little doubt as to whether Habakkuk is unhappy with conditions in Judah and far from pleased that God’s solution was to bring judgment on Judah through the use of the Babylonians. Continuing his dialogue with the Almighty, Habakkuk declares that he is going to stand his ground, like a watchman on a tower, waiting to hear what God has to say to his latest round of questions.

Habakkuk was confident that God would respond and he fully expected it to come in the form of a rebuke. The Hebrew word he used is towkechah and it conveys the idea of a verbal reproof or correction. He saw himself in the middle of an argument with God and was already thinking about how he was going to respond when God was done defending His actions.

The various translations of the Bible have taken slightly different tacts when interpreting the exact thought expressed by Habakkuk in verse one. The ESV translates it as follows:

I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

The New Living Translation puts the emphasis on God, not Habakkuk. The prophet was expecting an answer to his second round of complaints.

I will climb up to my watchtower and stand at my guardpost. There I will wait to see what the LORD says and how he will answer my complaint.

The New American Standard Version takes a similar approach, portraying Habakkuk as waiting to be rebuked by God and already formulating his response.

I will stand on my guard post And station myself on the rampart; And I will keep watch to see what He will speak to me, And how I may reply when I am reproved.

It seems that the prophet fully expected his dialogue or debate with God to continue in some form or fashion. He was not going to relent or give up easily. And he was willing to wait, describing himself as a watchman on the wall of a city, scanning the horizon for any glimpse of a possible adversary. Habakkuk saw himself in a war of words with God. But his motive was not anger. He was sincerely concerned for the well-being of his people and was asking for clarification. What he had heard so far had left him confused and struggling to understand how this plan of God was in keeping with His covenant commitment to the people of Judah.

This whole exchange is similar to the one Abraham had with God concerning the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. When God had announced that He was bringing destruction to those two wicked cities, Abraham had intervened, realizing that his nephew, Lot, and his family were living in Sodom. Abraham had presented God with a question.

“Will you sweep away both the righteous and the wicked? Suppose you find fifty righteous people living there in the city—will you still sweep it away and not spare it for their sakes? Surely you wouldn’t do such a thing, destroying the righteous along with the wicked. Why, you would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely you wouldn’t do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?”  – Genesis 18:23-25 NLT

In response to Abraham’s plea, God agreed to spare the city if He could find 50 righteous people residing within it. And this led Abraham to boldly counter with a slight change to his initial request:

“Since I have begun, let me speak further to my Lord, even though I am but dust and ashes. Suppose there are only forty-five righteous people rather than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” – Genesis 18:27-28 NLT

And again, God agreed to the new conditions. But Abraham was not done. The passage said, “Abraham pressed his request further” (Genesis 18:29 NLT). He continued to lower the requisite number of righteous residents in the hope that he could somehow assure the rescue of Lot and his family. Abraham even begged God to forgive his rather presumptuous and argumentative methodology.  “Lord, please don’t be angry with me if I speak one more time” (Genesis 18:32 NLT). But despite Abraham’s pestering persistence, God continued to acquiesce to his requests. And all of this was motivated by Abraham’s desire for God to spare Lot and his family.

As was the case with Abraham, Habakkuk was not arrogantly attempting to pick a fight with God. He was not arguing for argument’s sake. He had a legitimate concern for the people of Judah. His original petition to God concerned the dire conditions of those in Judah who found themselves surrounded by wickedness. Like Abraham, Habakkuk was concerned for the faithful remnant of God – those righteous few who were suffering in the Sodom-like conditions of Judah.

And Habakkuk, the self-ascribed “watchman on the wall,” got the answer he was looking for. He matter-of-factly states: “And the Lord answered me” (Habakkuk 2:2 ESV).

The first thing God told Habakkuk was to write down what he was about to hear. He was to make a permanent record of God’s response so that it could be disseminated among the people of Judah.

“Write my answer plainly on tablets,
    so that a runner can carry the correct message to others.
This vision is for a future time.
    It describes the end, and it will be fulfilled.
If it seems slow in coming, wait patiently,
    for it will surely take place.
    It will not be delayed.” – Habakkuk 2:2-3 NLT

And God informs Habakkuk that the content of this vision or message was concerning future events. God was answering Habakkuk’s questions, but the prophet needed to understand that the fulfillment of God’s plan was going to be long-term in nature. Habakkuk needed to know that there would not be a quick-fix to Judah’s problem. A solution was on its way, but it would be a long time in coming. And Habakkuk and the people of Judah were going to have to prepare themselves for a lengthy delay.

And God makes it clear that the delay was going to require faith on the part of the people of God. They were going to have to trust Yahweh, ignoring the conditions that clouded their view and keeping their eyes focused on the faithfulness of their God. Unlike the proud, who “trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked” (Habakkuk 2:4 NLT), the people of Judah were to trust in God.

“…the righteous will live by their faithfulness to God.” – Habakkuk 2:4 NLT

Things were going to get worse before they got better. The situation in Judah would not improve any time soon. In fact, the Babylonians would eventually arrive on the scene, destroying the city of Jerusalem and transporting its citizens as captives back to Babylon. They would remain there for 70 long years, suffering the humiliation of slavery and subjugation to their pagan overlords. But God encouraged the righteous to have faith. Even when all looked lost, He was not yet done. His plan was not yet complete.

This theme of faith in the face of adversity was picked up by the New Testament authors and used to encourage the righteous remnant in their day to remain faithful to the end. Paul told the beleaguered Christians in Rome:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” – Romans 1:16-17 ESV

He wrote to the believers in Galatia, reminding them that salvation was not based on human effort or through some form of self-righteousness achieved through adherence to the law of God. Instead, it was based on faith.

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” – Galatians 3:11 ESV

Their right standing with God was based on their belief in the redemptive work of Christ. And yet, they were constantly being bombarded with lies that suggested their salvation required effort on their part. False teachers were claiming that faith alone in Christ alone was not enough. But Paul kept going back to the reality of the message of God: The righteous shall live by faith.

And the author of Hebrews picked up on God’s promise to Habakkuk, utilizing His call to faith, even in the midst of difficulty

“And my righteous ones will live by faith.
    But I will take no pleasure in anyone who turns away.”

But we are not like those who turn away from God to their own destruction. We are the faithful ones, whose souls will be saved. – Hebrews 10:38-29 NLT

The context in Hebrews is that of believers who are facing difficulty but who must keep their faith focused on the promise of God.

So do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord. Remember the great reward it brings you! Patient endurance is what you need now, so that you will continue to do God’s will. – Hebrews 10:35-26 NLT

For Habakkuk, the immediate future looked bleak and foreboding. God’s pronouncement that He was sending the Babylonians as His instruments of judgment had left Habakkuk stunned. But God was calling His prophet to remain faithful, trusting that the divine plan would have a happy ending.

But God knew that Habakkuk was having a difficult time getting his mind off of the thought that the Babylonians were going to come out as victors over God’s people. That was more than he could handle. Which is why God assured him:

Wealth is treacherous,
    and the arrogant are never at rest.
They open their mouths as wide as the grave,
    and like death, they are never satisfied.
In their greed they have gathered up many nations
    and swallowed many peoples. – Habakkuk 2:5 NLT

Things are not always as they seem. The success of the wicked, while difficult to understand and even harder to witness, is not the final chapter in the story. The Babylonians would become wealthy and powerful. They would conquer many nations and enrich themselves with the spoils of war. But God wanted Habakkuk to know that He had already written the final chapter of their story. And in the following verses, God will provide Habakkuk with a glimpse into Babylon’s fate.

As bad as things appeared to be, all was not lost. God had a plan. And the futures of Babylon and Judah were part of that plan. But when the coming days became filled with darkness and despair, the righteous would need to live by faith, not fear.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

When God’s Ways Escape Us

12 Are you not from everlasting,
    O Lord my God, my Holy One?
    We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
    and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
    and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
    and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
    the man more righteous than he?
14 You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
    like crawling things that have no ruler.
15 He brings all of them up with a hook;
    he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
    so he rejoices and is glad.
16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net
    and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
    and his food is rich.
17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net
    and mercilessly killing nations forever? Habakkuk 1:12-17 ESV

Habakkuk questioned God and the Almighty responded. But the answer Habakkuk received was not what he had hoped for, and in these verses, you can see he is desperately trying to reconcile the divine pronouncement with what he understood about God.

After hearing God announce that the Babylonians worship strength as their deity of choice, Habakkuk declares “Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One” (Habakkuk 1:12 ESV). This statement seems to be partially a confident assertion of Yahweh’s unique status as the one true, eternal God of the universe, and an attempt by Habakkuk to shame God into doing something about Judah’s predicament. After declaring God’s holiness and eternality, the prophet states: “We shall not die.” 

While this appears as a statement in the English Standard Version, I believe the New Living Translation provides a more accurate rendering of the original intent behind Habakkuk’s words.

O Lord my God, my Holy One, you who are eternal—
    surely you do not plan to wipe us out? – Habakkuk 1:12 NLT

Habakkuk had been seeking God’s intervention but had been expecting Him to deal with the wicked who were causing all the trouble in Judah. He never dreamed that God would use a pagan nation and its godless king as His chosen instrument of judgment. And God had warned Habakkuk that what He had planned for Judah would be a shock to the senses.

“I am doing something in your own day,
    something you wouldn’t believe
    even if someone told you about it.” – Habakkuk 1:5 NLT

Now that Habakkuk knew God’s plans, he was concerned as to the extent of the judgment. Would it be complete, bringing an end to the nation of Judah. He had seen what had happened to the northern kingdom of Israel when it fell to the Assyrians. They ceased to exist as a nation. Their land was devastated, their cities and towns were destroyed, and the people were taken into captivity or left to live in abject poverty. Was that God’s plan for Judah?

Habakkuk could handle the thought of God sending the Babylonians as a form of reprimand and reproof.

O Lord, our Rock, you have sent these Babylonians to correct us,
    to punish us for our many sins.
– Habakkuk 1:12 NLT

He knew that he and his people deserved God’s punishment and he understood that God had chosen to deliver it by means of the Babylonians. But his concept of God made it difficult for him to accept the logic behind God’s plan.

But you are pure and cannot stand the sight of evil.
    Will you wink at their treachery?
Should you be silent while the wicked
    swallow up people more righteous than they? – Habakkuk 1:13 NLT

To Habakkuk’s way of thinking, this was only making matters worse. If you recall, in his opening statement to God, Habakkuk had described the sorry state of affairs in Judah, declaring, “The wicked far outnumber the righteous, so that justice has become perverted” (Habakkuk 1:4 NLT). As far as Habakkuk was concerned, Judah had more wicked people than they knew what to do with. He had been asking God to do something about the wicked living in his own country. Now God had announced that He was going to use the wicked Babylonians as His instruments of judgment. That made no sense. It was like throwing gasoline on a fire in a vain attempt to douse the flames.

To Habakkuk, God’s plan seemed like an overreaction to the problem – a literal form of overkill. And the prophet is not shy in sharing his concerns with God.

Are we only fish to be caught and killed?
    Are we only sea creatures that have no leader?
Must we be strung up on their hooks
    and caught in their nets while they rejoice and celebrate? – Habakkuk 1:14-15 NLT

Submitting to the righteous judgment of God was one thing. But having to endure that judgment at the hands of pagan Babylonians was something different altogether, and the thought of it left Habakkuk in a state of confusion and consternation. And just in case God didn’t understand the problem with His plan, Habakkuk attempted to inform Him. Knowing that Yahweh hated idolatry in any form, Habakkuk warns that any victory by the Babylonians over the chosen people of God will be followed by worship of their false gods. It will rob God of glory and give the appearance that He has been defeated by the gods of Babylon.

Then they will worship their nets
    and burn incense in front of them.
“These nets are the gods who have made us rich!”
    they will claim. – Habakkuk 1:16 NLT

This was too much for Habakkuk to comprehend. If this was the divine plan, Habakkuk wanted to know how long God was going to let it go on. Would the Babylonians destroy God’s people and enjoy uninterrupted rule over that part of the world?

Will you let them get away with this forever?
    Will they succeed forever in their heartless conquests? – Habakkuk 1:17 NLT

As usual, Habakkuk was operating with a limited perspective. As a mere human, he had no capacity to understand the mind of God. He couldn’t look into the future and see the outcome of God’s divine strategy for Judah’s rebuke and eventual restoration. He had no way of knowing how God would eventually punish the Babylonians for their part in Judah’s demise.

Habakkuk was a prophet of God, but that did not mean he understood the will and the ways of God. Like any other man, he was dependent upon Yahweh to provide him with divine insights and even the words to speak. The extent of his knowledge was solely dependent upon what the Almighty determined to share.  And in most cases, the prophets were all required to operate on limited data, restricted to sharing only that which God had chosen to reveal. But in time, God would divulge the rest of His plan, providing His prophets with a clearer understanding of His strategy in its entirety.

Concerning the Babylonians and Habakkuk’s worry that their global domination would be permanent, God revealed His plans for them to the prophet Jeremiah.

“You rejoice and are glad,
    you who plundered my chosen people.
You frisk about like a calf in a meadow
    and neigh like a stallion.
But your homeland will be overwhelmed
    with shame and disgrace.
You will become the least of nations—
    a wilderness, a dry and desolate land.
Because of the Lord’s anger,
    Babylon will become a deserted wasteland.
All who pass by will be horrified
    and will gasp at the destruction they see there.” – Jeremiah 50:11-13 NLT

God had plans for the Babylonians. Yes, those plans included their role as God’s agents of judgment upon the people of Judah. But those plans also included the ultimate destruction of the Babylonians for their willful participation in Judah’s subjugation and suffering. God would eventually repay Babylon for its wickedness and wanton destruction. And Habakkuk is going to learn of God’s plan for Babylon in the very next chapter.

Because you have plundered many nations,
    now all the survivors will plunder you.
You committed murder throughout the countryside
    and filled the towns with violence. – Habakkuk 2:8 NLT

One of the benefits of reading Scripture is that we get a glimpse into God’s sovereignty and man’s constant attempt to make sense of the Almighty’s ways. Even the prophets of God wrestled with the ways of God. The Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day found it impossible to understand what God was doing in their midst. He had sent His Son as their Messiah but these learned men failed to recognize Jesus as who He truly was. Jesus even accused them of missing the forest for the trees.

“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.” – John 5:39-40 NLT

They were knowledgeable of God’s Word but remained ignorant of God’s will. They enjoyed an encyclopedic understanding of God’s law but failed to understand that the law could not provide them with salvation. It could convict of sin but had no capacity to provide escape from the condemnation of sin. Only Jesus could do that.

Habakkuk was operating on limited information. And each time God revealed another aspect of His divine plan, the prophet found himself trying to reconcile God’s version of reality with his own. But part of being a child of God is learning to trust our heavenly Father’s ways. Habakkuk had been right when he said, “Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One” (Habakkuk 1:12 ESV). He recognized God’s holiness and transcendence, but now he was having to come to grips with God’s sovereign will over all things, including Judah’s judgment and the Babylonian’s role in it.

Learning to trust God is a big part of choosing to follow Him. We don’t always know where He is leading us. We won’t always understand what He is doing around us. The circumstances of life will not always appear just and fair. There will be times when He appears distant or disinterested in what is happening in our lives. But God is always there and His plan for us is perfect and unstoppable. We may not always understand His ways, but we can always trust in His will. And, in the meantime, we can express the words of the apostle Paul.

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! – Romans 11:33 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Don’t Grow Weary

11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

13 As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. 14 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.

16 Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all.

17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. 2 Thessalonians 3:11-17 ESV

Because of his authorship of the book of Romans, Paul is sometimes pigeon-holed for his theological acumen, but as this letter clearly shows, he could be highly practical as well. In these closing verses of 2 Thessalonians, he addresses what, to some, may appear to be a rather pedestrian problem: Laziness or idleness within the church. Paul had received news that there were those in the congregation in Thessalonica who were living undisciplined lives. This small contingent of individuals were refusing to work and expecting the rest of the church body to provide them with food. At first glance, it may seem that Paul is guilty of making a mountain out of a molehill. He is giving far too much attention to something that is essentially a non-issue.

But Paul saw the danger lying beneath the surface. He knew that, while the actions of these individuals may appear somewhat innocent and innocuous, they were actually quite dangerous. In the letter that bears his name, Jude warned of false teachers who had infiltrated the church and whose presence and teaching were posing a threat to the well-being of the fellowship. His description of them provides some insight into how Paul viewed those who were “walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6 ESV).

…they are like dangerous reefs that can shipwreck you. They are like shameless shepherds who care only for themselves. They are like clouds blowing over the land without giving any rain. They are like trees in autumn that are doubly dead, for they bear no fruit and have been pulled up by the roots. They are like wild waves of the sea, churning up the foam of their shameful deeds. They are like wandering stars, doomed forever to blackest darkness.  – Jude 1:12-13 NLT

Those within the body of Christ who chose to live undisciplined lives, whether through the teaching of false doctrine or by refusing to work, were doing irreparable harm through their self-centered actions. They cared only for themselves. They appeared to be active members of the congregation, but there was no benefit to their presence. They were like clouds that promised much-needed rain but never delivered. They were like fruit trees that failed to provide any harvest because they were dead. Like the waves of the sea, their presence within the body of Christ produced nothing of value, simply stirring up the foam of their shameful deeds. And like “wandering stars” or planets that move across the night sky, they proved to be unreliable sources for navigation. In other words, they provided nothing of value for the faith community.

And it wasn’t just that they refused to work. It was that their idleness would lead to a lifestyle of undisciplined behavior that would become like cancer in the body of Christ. Paul describes how their idle lives, characterized by a refusal to work, left them with too much time on their hands, which they used to meddle in other people’s business. Rather than being busy about work, they became busybodies, stirring up contention and strife among the fellowship.

Paul was a firm believer in the concept of the body of Christ and was adamant that each and every member of the body should be a contributor to its corporate well-being. Because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, everyone had something to give back to the body of Christ. And it didn’t matter how bad your pre-conversion state may have been. He wrote to the church in Ephesus, encouraging its members to put aside their past and live new lives of usefulness and godliness.

If you are a thief, quit stealing. Instead, use your hands for good hard work, and then give generously to others in need. – Ephesians 4:28 NLT

There was no reason for any member of the body of Christ to be fruitless or to fail to be a contributor to the corporate needs of the community. That’s why Paul warned the Ephesians: “do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live” (Ephesians 4:30 NLT). Someone who willingly chose to live an undisciplined or idle life grieved the Spirit of God because it evidenced their refusal to live in keeping with His will. Rather than using the gifts given to them by the Spirit of God for the benefit of the body of Christ, they were living self-centered lives with no regard for anyone else.

And, for the first time in his letter, Paul addresses these individuals directly, commanding and encouraging them “to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thessalonians 3:12 ESV). They knew who they were and they knew what they needed to do. No more freeloading. No more living off the generosity of others. They were to get busy and do their part, contributing to the needs of the body of Christ and displaying the transforming nature of the gospel through the way they lived their lives.

To the rest of the congregation, Paul provides a simple, yet profound piece of pastoral counsel: “do not grow weary in doing good” (2 Thessalonians 3:13 ESV). He knew that living the Christian life was not easy and there would be times when the Thessalonian believers would be tempted to throw in the towel. Not only were they having to deal with persecution from without, but they were also having to battle the presence of false teachers and lazy fellow parishioners. But Paul called them to a life of perseverance. He wanted them to keep their eye on the objective, what he elsewhere referred to as “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14 ESV). This life would be filled with difficult people and trying day, but the end of the race would come with a reward that would make all the effort they expended more than worth it.

In the meantime, they were to distance themselves from the disobedient and undisciplined among them. Paul makes it clear that they were not to treat these people as enemies but they were to “admonish them as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:15 ESV). James encouraged the same kind of brotherly love toward those who had wandered from the faith.

…if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins. – James 5:19-20 NLT

Restoration and reconciliation were to be the ultimate objectives. Maintaining unity within the body of Christ had to be of the highest priority. Calling out the unruly and undisciplined was non-optional. It wouldn’t fun but it had to be done or, like yeast, the sin of the few would spread throughout the body, destroying its vitality and diminishing its influence in the world.

And with that thought in mind, Paul closes his letter with a prayer for the presence and peace of God to be evident among the Thessalonian Christians.

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you his peace at all times and in every situation. The Lord be with you all. – 2 Thessalonians 3:16 NLT

As Paul had told the believers in Philippi, God’s peace, “exceeds anything we can understand.” Not only that, “His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7 NLT). Even in the midst of turmoil, trials, and difficulties of all sorts, God’s peace would always be available and viable. They could count on it.

And the Thessalonians could count on the fact that this letter was actually from Paul because he had personally signed it. While there may have been those who claimed to have letters from Paul that contained false teaching, this one was legitimate. He had included his own signature as proof.

Paul closes out his letter with his favorite benediction: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” (2 Thessalonians 3:18 ESV). He wanted them to remember that the grace of God – His unmerited, undeserved favor – was the key to their salvation, sanctification, and ultimate glorification. Grace was the God-given power to live the lives they had been called to live. They had been saved by grace. They could experience the peace of God because of His grace. And they would be preserved and protected according to abundant, never-ending grace.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson