This final chapter of Paul’s letter to Timothy, the final words we have recorded from the apostle Paul, hurts the heart to read. Paul is concluding his letter to Timothy about how to have faith during difficult times. As he concludes, Paul describes life as a race and wants to encourage Timothy to finish the race. Let us look at how Paul finished his race and how he uses his running to encourage us to run and finish our race.
Preach the Word (4:1-5)
The first charge for finishing the race is to preach the word. Since it is the sacred scriptures that are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus (3:15) and make us complete (3:17), then our teaching and instruction needs to only be from the word. To put this another way, we will not finish the race successfully unless we are in the word and teaching the word to others. But notice what he says in verse 2. The word must be proclaimed in season and out of season. The NRSV reads, “Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.” The NET reads, “Be ready whether it is convenient or not.” We noted in chapter 3 that being a Christian would be difficult during these last days. We were told that all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
So we cannot teach only when it is a convenient or favorable time. I think this is an easy temptation to fall into. We think about serving God and teaching others about God only when it is a good time to do it. We will do something when it is convenient for us and a safe or favorable time. We must correct, rebuke, and encourage with patience through our teaching. This is the goal of our public teaching here. God’s word is going to correct, rebuke, and encourage. We must be willing to preach the gospel to others in our community and our sphere of influence, even when it is difficult. We cannot bend to the cultural or governmental pressure to keep us from teaching the good news of Jesus. Nor can we shrink back when the times are difficult. I believe this is what has happened to Timothy. Timothy has not given up on God. Rather, he is just stepping back a little because the times were difficult.
I want us to notice the motivations that Paul gives. First, in verse 1 Paul reminds Timothy through his charge that Jesus will judge the living and the dead and is coming back. We cannot shrink back or stop preaching because Jesus will judge us. Jesus is coming back and we cannot take a break to teaching others about Jesus. Further, Paul says in verses 3-4 that when the tide turns against Christians is when we need to be teaching all the more. Listen to what Paul says is going to happen in verse 3.
People are not going to tolerate sound teaching. Instead, they are going to gather teachers who agree with them, teaching what they want to hear, so that they can carry out their own desires. Paul says we have to preach the truth from the scriptures because people will want to hear what matches their own desires. This is one of the most prevalent reasons we have so many churches today. If you do not like the message, go somewhere else where you do like the message. People are not leaving because it is false teaching. No, people will leave because it is true and they would rather hear what matches their present lifestyle. It is easy to become a megachurch. Just tell everyone what they want to hear. This is the idea of “myths” in the context of this writing. Paul is not talking about formal myths of the Greeks or something like rather. Rather, myths are anything that is not the truth of God’s word. Essentially, any false teaching is a myth. It is not true. It is a fabrication.
This is why the solution in the last days is more of God’s word and not less. When people have itching ears and look for spiritual teachers that match what they want to hear, it is an easy temptation to want change what we do so that we can keep such people. Maybe we should provide entertainment. Maybe we should provide coffee and donuts. Maybe we should provide meals. Maybe we should provide a particular emotional experience. The temptation will be there to shift our focus to meet these desires and passions.
Jesus showed us this very problem. In John’s gospel, after feeding the 5000, we read about the crowds seeking Jesus and finding him the next morning on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. But listen to what Jesus says to the crowd when they find him. “Truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Don’t work for the food that perishes but for the food that lasts for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set his seal of approval on him.” (John 6:26–27 CSB) Notice that Jesus observes that they have come to him for the wrong reason. They did not seek Jesus because they understood the sign. They were looking for Jesus to feed them again. People are going to claim faith and claim to believe, but really all they are doing is finding someone who will give them what they physically desire. They are going to seek teachers who give them what they want.
Paul’s solution to Timothy is to keep preaching the word and not give into these passions and desires. Paul says to Timothy in verse 5 to exercise self-control, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, and fulfill your ministry. Stay with the work. Endure the hardship. Do the work. Fulfill your ministry.
Be Ready (4:6-8)
Second, Paul says he is ready. In verse 6 Paul describes his life like being poured out as a drink offering and he is aware that his time to die has come. But I want us to listen to what Paul is able to say at this point. He knows he is near death and he is not near death because of old age. He is near death because of his work in the gospel. But this is what he says. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Paul says that he is ready. He is able to look at his life and say with satisfaction that he has run the race and has kept the faith. Here is why this matters. Look at verse 8. Paul knows that there is the crown of righteousness reserved for him to be given to him on that day. But look at the rest of verse 8. “…and not only to me, but to all those who have loved his appearing.” Paul says that he knows what is waiting for him and it is waiting for you also. The crown of righteousness awarded to you on that day if you will fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith. Paul is ready for the Lord’s appearing.
Please notice that all three images depict the need for great endurance. Paul has fought the good fight. He did not walk out of the ring. He did not stop fighting the work of Satan. Paul has finished the race. He did not sit down during the race. He did not give up during the race. He endured and continued in the race until he finished. Paul has kept the faith. He did not let go of his faith when life because difficult. He held on to his faith and put his hope in the faith throughout his whole life. Living in the last days requires great endurance so that we are ready for the Lord’s appearing. Jesus is coming back with his reward. Can we say today that we have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith if he returned today? Can we say these words if we were to die today? Are we ready?
Now I want us to listen to how Paul ends this letter. You might expect this letter to end at verse 8 because it is a powerful, uplifting end. It is how we want an encouraging speech to end. Fight the good fight and finish the race so that you get the crown. But this is not how Paul ends. Paul is going to remind us that fighting the good fight, finishing the race, and keeping the faith is really hard. Listen to verses 9-12. Paul says that there is no one left with him right now except Luke. Some needed to be sent out to do the work like Titus, Tychicus, and Crescens. But there are painful words here. Demas has deserted me because he loved this present world. In Philemon 24 we read that Demas was a fellow worker with Paul. But now Demas has deserted him, loving this world more than the world to come. We are not told what Demas loved in this world that led him away. Maybe Demas wanted to protect his life and health. Maybe he wanted to fulfill his fleshly desires and walked away. Maybe the hardships of following Jesus were too much and he gave up. We do not know what the reason exactly was. But we do know the cause: he loved this present world. The pressure of this world finally broke him and he left.
We cannot finish the race if we love this world. I hope we will hear this warning from the apostle Paul. We will not keep the faith, we will not fight the good fight, and we will now receive the crown at his appearing if we love this world. Listen to what the apostle John wrote.
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15–17 NIV)
If anyone loves the world, then the love of the Father is not in them. It is as simple as this. If there is something in this world you love, then you are going to fail. It is your weak spot and Satan is going to exploit it. Satan will take that love of the world and press you to leave the Lord. Loving the world makes us defenseless against the attacks of the adversary. Demas fell and Paul writes this down for us as a reminder and warning.
Then Paul mentions Alexander. Demas deserted Paul because he loved this present world. Alexander stabbed Paul in the back in a manner of speaking. Paul says that Alexander did great harm to him. We are not told exactly what Alexander did. But here is another person claiming to be a follower of Jesus who ended up opposing Paul and his teachings. We made note of this in chapter 3 when Paul described that in the last days there are going to be times of difficulty because those who claim to follow Jesus are going to show that they are only lovers of self, only having an appearance of godliness. So Paul tells Timothy to watch out for Alexander just like he said about all of those false Christians to avoid them (3:5).
Deserted But Rescued (4:16-22)
But now Paul’s final words. Paul says that at his first defense there was no one who stood by him. Everyone deserted him. How painful this must have been! Just when he needed someone to be with him, no one was with him. This is what happened to Jesus also in his darkest moments while on this earth, everyone deserted him and ran away. So it was for Paul. Yet listen to Paul’s words in verse 16. “May it not be counted against them.” People hurt Paul and broke Paul by their actions. But may it not be counted against them. They wronged Paul but may they be forgiven for their decisions. So how did Paul get through? Paul was alone and hurt. How did he finish the race? Look at verse 17.
The Lord stood with him and gave him strength so that he could preach the word. Paul pictures himself like Daniel who alone had been cast into the lion’s den. But he was delivered from the lion’s mouth. Paul praises that the Lord rescued him and will continue to rescue him from every evil work and bring him safely into the heavenly kingdom. Even after all of these desertions and all of these hurts, Paul maintained his faith in God and looked for how God would carry him through. Everyone will let you down at some point. But God will not let you down. The Lord gave Paul the strength he needed. Paul tells this to Timothy so that he will be strong in the face of the hurt and hardships. The Lord will strengthen you also as you fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith.
So how will you finish? Will you finish like Paul? Paul was abandoned, alone, had no one to support him, and had great harm done to him. You have probably had those times and those moments in life also. But you cannot let others keep you from finishing the race. You cannot let what others do to you make you stop fighting the fight. We cannot fail to enjoy the crown of righteousness waiting for us just because people hurt us or abandon us. We cannot let them take our reward away from us by giving in. We must not lose what is laid up for us by turning back and loving his world. Be ready when it is convenient or inconvenient to stand in the faith, proclaim the word, endure hardship, and finish the race.