Perhaps the most poignant of all of Paul’s letters was the final one, 2 Timothy — written from his last Roman imprisonment, and not long before his death (cf. 4:6).
This document contains the concluding written words of Paul. They are words of instruction and admonition for his young friend, Timothy — his “true child in faith” (1 Timothy 1:2). The message also contains an appeal to Timothy to “come” to the apostle’s side — as soon as possible (4:9). In addition, the letter reveals much of the “soul” of the noble Paul.
There is a passage near the conclusion of this letter that has long intrigued me. Paul says: “At my first defense no one took my part, but all forsook me: may it not be laid to their account” (4:16).
What are the circumstances behind this puzzling statement? Is it possible that we may entertain the wish that some, who have not treated us as well as they should have, might nonetheless be recipients of Heaven’s favor? Let us explore this topic.
First, there is the matter of the historical context. What is meant by “my first defense”? That is by no means a fully-settled question. While a few have argued that the phrase alludes to the apostle’s earlier, two year confinement in Rome (Acts 28), most scholars are persuaded that the reference is to a preliminary trial in connection with his present (and final) imprisonment.
In A.D. 64, a week-long fire had engulfed the Imperial city. The beastly emperor, Nero, was rumored to have torched the city so as to cover his own ineptness as an administrator. He maliciously blamed Christians for the catastrophe, and Christianity became an “illicit religion” (see Nero Caesar and the Christian Faith). Paul’s arrest is believed to have taken place a couple of years following these events.
It appears that the apostle had been brought to trial initially, but was cleared of a preliminary charge. It is likely, however, that another allegation was pending, and the apostle was waiting for a second trial phase — from which he expected no deliverance. His looming fate seems fairly certain in his own mind (4:6).
Second, it is clear that when the valiant soldier for Christ was brought before the authorities in the initial segment of his trial procedure, no one, in a position to do so, was willing to stand with him. It may be that he had sent forth an appeal to brethren to serve as character witnesses on his behalf, but perhaps, for fear of their lives, they had “turned away” (cf. 1:15; 4:16).
Where were those of the Roman church who had traveled out so joyously to meet the apostle when he first approached the “eternal city” several years earlier (Acts 28:13-15)? Had many of these been martyred already? Certainly no assistance could be expected from the “anti-Paul” faction in Rome! One is pained to remember that some in that congregation, so filled with envy because of the apostle’s success, had sought to “raise up affliction” for Paul during his earlier incarceration (Philippians 1:15ff). Such spiritual malignancy is difficult to fathom.
Third, the most amazing thing about this present circumstance, however, is Paul’s attitude with reference to those who “forsook” him. He tenderly says: “. . . may it not be laid to their account,” or, as the English Standard Version has it, “may it not be charged against them” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:19). Clearly, he is hoping that this lapse might not follow his defectors to the final settlement at the Judgment (cf. 1:16-18).
Looking at the Facts
Amidst the mystery of this passage, a few facts seem plain.
First, Paul was not making a petition on behalf of the dead. Following death, there is no opportunity for one’s “account” to be altered. At the point of human demise, the “door” for potential obedience is shut (see Matthew 25:1ff). There is no more reward to be had for the dead, as a result of anything done “under the sun,” i.e., upon the earth (see Ecclesiastes 9:5). After death, only judgment awaits (Hebrews 9:27).
Second, it is not feasible to suggest that Paul was asking God to ignore a willful, arrogant disdain of divine law, pursued with no inclination of repentance. (The verb is in the optative mood; it does involve a request.) Such a view would be at variance with other biblical passages of emphatic import (Luke 17:3; Acts 8:22). It is futile to ask forgiveness on behalf of a brother who recklessly pursues the path of spiritual death (see 1 John 5:16).
Within this same context the apostle refers to one Alexander, of whom he says, he “did me much evil. . . for he greatly withstood our words” (vv. 14-15). It seems rather apparent that this Alexander, whoever he was, did harm to Paul because he opposed the gospel. And the apostle simply says: “the Lord will render to him according to his works.” (The King James rendition, which makes this a wish, does not have the best textual support.) There was no petition for mercy on behalf of such a one.
A Possible Solution
How, then, is the request to be viewed? It seems that Paul considered the neglect in this instance as one of human weakness, rather than overt rebellion. These detractors had not “fallen in love with the world,” as Demas had (v. 10); rather, it seems that their weakness was a moment of panic. Fear can cause one to jolt under extreme conditions. Perhaps it was the case that a failure to exert the maximum courage at that moment — which might not have been the case under less stressful circumstances — was something that Paul himself could understand. Maybe the apostle recalled his own fear when, in the city of Corinth, he was rebuked by the Lord when anxiety welled within his heart (cf. Acts 18:9; see the author’s notes in his commentary on the book of Acts).
It does appear that, in this situation, Paul sees the possibility that God would understand the human element, and extend grace to those who might not have been as valiant as they could have been ideally.
As David once expressed the matter: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to them that fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14-15). How brimming with comfort!
This text, therefore, may not be just a commentary upon the forgiving spirit of Paul, it may also underscore the breathtaking mercy of the One who knows the true character of our hearts — even when we don’t live up to the highest ideal possible.
Let us petition God to help us to be faithful and courageous. In addition, may we always trust him, being assured that he will do what is right (Genesis 18:25); and let us show compassion for the timid.