Today, I’ve been thinking about getting older.
Sometimes, when we get older, we think it’s our time to slow down. “After all,” we reason, “I’ve done my part. I’ve worked hard and paid my bills and raised my kids. I’ve done more than my fair share. Now it’s time for someone else to carry the torch and lead. I’m just going to kick back, relax, retire, and die.”
But that’s not the example we see from Scripture.
In AD 60, Paul was imprisoned in Rome. He was treated well and allowed to stay in his own house at his own expense, for two full years “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him” (Acts 28:31). It was during this time he wrote his prison epistles: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon.
Paul was in his mid-sixties. About retirement age.
Paul was imprisoned a second and final time during the summer of AD 66. The cause of his arrest may be found in a statement Paul made in his final letter to Timothy: “Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm. May the Lord repay him according to his works. You also must beware of him, for he has greatly resisted our words” (2 Tim. 4:14-15).
This time, Paul was not allowed to remain under house arrest, but was thrown among the most vile of prisoners in the Mamertine prison or another such dark and horrid place. This prison was more like a dungeon, or a pit that could only be reached by a ladder or rope let through a hole in the floor above. There was little ventilation and sanitation was non-existent. If the idea was to reduce men to mere animals before they faced trial and execution, then the Romans did their job quite well.
It was in this desperate condition, accompanied only by Luke (2 Tim. 4:11), that Paul penned his last letter to Timothy. Paul was now in his late sixties, well past retirement age.
Paul’s Final Words
Paul begins what would be his farewell address to his beloved son in the faith, Timothy. In these final words, Paul urges Timothy to be bold in the face of opposition, knowing his own time was short.
2 Timothy 4:1-5 – I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. (why) For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
Paul then turns to more personal matters. He reflects on his present situation, his past ministry, and the future glory he will share with Christ.
2 Timothy 4:6-8 – For I am (present) already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have (past) fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is (future) laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.
And then amazingly, in the midst of his deplorable conditions, Paul encourages Timothy to come to him, to the Mamertine prison, to help him continue in ministry.
2 Timothy 4:9 – Be diligent to come to me quickly.
Why would Paul ask that of Timothy? What possible ministry could Paul be undertaking? The Scriptures don’t say. But we can see that Paul clearly understands his time is not over and there’s still more work to be done. He knows there’s no retirement plan in the Kingdom of God. Paul’s not ready, like many of us, to kick back, relax, retire and spend the rest of his days cruising the Caribbean or watching reruns of the Andy Griffith Show. Even in the midst of unspeakable filth, in the throes of pain and suffering, Paul realized there was still ministry to perform for his Lord.
2 Timothy 4:10 – For Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica— Crescens for Galatia, Titus for Dalmatia.
The sad news is that Demas has forsaken Paul and abandoned him and the faith. In doing so, Demas will forever be remembered as one who did not finish well and inevitably suffered the certain fate that awaits all who reject the One who came to save them. The good news is that Paul, even in prison, seems to be directing missionary endeavors to support and encourage the churches in Asia minor. Paul is saying that “Creschen has departed (or, has been sent or dispatched) to Galatia and Titus (has been sent or dispatched) to Dalmatia” (2 Tim. 4:10). Paul later says he sent, or dispatched, Tychicus to Ephesus (2 Tim. 4:12).
Think about it. In the middle of Paul’s prison cell he is still ministering to others. Paul’s physical circumstances may have changed for the worse, but not his calling nor his faithfulness to that calling. Paul, in prison and approaching seventy, facing trial and death, in unspeakable filth, continues ministering to others. He remains faithful even when he has every reason not to.
We then have the verse that communicates more to me about the heart of Paul than any other in this passage. Here Paul asks Timothy to bring Mark with him when he comes. That’s the same Mark, by the way, that deserted Paul early in their first missionary journey (Acts 13:13). And it was the same Mark that caused Paul and Barnabas to exchange such sharp words with each other that they split as a team and headed in different directions (Acts 15:36-39).
2 Timothy 4:11 – Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful (profitable, to furnish what is needed), to me for ministry (serving others, showing benevolence).
Note, Paul did not say Mark would be useful to him to meet his own personal needs, which must have been great. Nor did he say Mark would be useful to take care of Paul, or lessen his burdens, or comfort him while he suffered and languished in the Mamertine prison. No, Paul said Mark would be useful, or would furnish what was needed or lacking, in the lives of those Paul himself was ministering to— his fellow cell mates and possibly a guard or two. It was always for Paul, even in this late hour, about his love for Christ manifested by his ministry to others.
2 Timothy 4:13 – Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come— and the books, especially the parchments.
The cloak I understand. After all, it was probably quite cold in the prison, especially for a man of Paul’s age. But why the parchments? What did Paul need with them? They were for teaching, for his trial preparation, for the opportunity he saw to present Christ to those who would render judgment against him and decide his fate. He remembered what Jesus said about him, spoken to Ananias so many years ago, “he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). And even in the midst of prison, at his final curtain call, Paul saw one more opportunity to fulfill his calling and faithfully serve his Lord.
At the age when most of us are tired and want to quit, satisfied and content with the memories of yesteryear, Paul urges forward. As long as there’s breath in his lungs, he will continue to proclaim the glories of Christ to anyone, anywhere, in any situation, no matter the costs. For Paul, his best days are from this day forward, no matter how dire this day seems. Even if this day begins chained to a wall, standing in human excrement, facing certain death, in the bowels of a Roman prison.
Convicting, isn’t it? Especially when you realize how we view aging and retirement today.
It’s my prayer that I will be more like Paul as the day of my departure approaches (2 Tim. 4:6). And I also pray I will not mimic most Christians I’ve seen in church, who have worked tirelessly for their retirement and, when it comes, when they now have all the time in the world to serve the Lord they claim to love, instead choose to spend that precious time for themselves, and not for Him or for others.
That’s not the New Testament model. Pray it doesn’t become the norm for each of us.