One of Paul’s Final Prayers
Perhaps the most poignant of all Paul’s letters was 2nd Timothy – written from his last Roman imprisonment, and obviously not long before his death (cf. 4:6). This document thus is the concluding literary composition of the noble apostle. The letter embodies words of instruction and admonition for his young friend, Timothy – his “true child in faith” (1 Tim. 1:2). The message also contains an urgent appeal to Timothy to “come” to the apostle’s side as soon as possible (4:9). In addition, this epistle reveals much of the “heart” of the magnificent Paul.
There is a passage near the conclusion of this letter that has long intrigued me.
“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 thought momentarily.
First, there is the matter of the historical context. What is meant by the phrase, “my first defense”? That is by no means a fully-settled question. While a few have argued that the expression 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 terminal imprisonment.
In A.D. 64, a week-long fire engulfed the Imperial city. The emperor Nero was rumored to have set the city ablaze to cover his own ineptness as an administrator. Reportedly, he maliciously laid the blame for the catastrophe upon the followers of Jesus, and Christianity became an “illicit religion.” 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 that Paul was waiting for a second trial phase – from which he expected no deliverance. His looming fate seems fairly certain in his mind (4:6).
Additionally, 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 help, was willing to stand with him. It may be that he had sent forth an appeal to brethren, to appear on his behalf as character witnesses, but, for fear of their lives perhaps, many had “turned away” from him (cf. 1:15; 4:16).
Where were those of the Roman church who had so joyously traveled out to meet the apostle when he first approached the seven-hill city (Acts 28:13-15)? Had many of these been martyred already? Certainly no assistance could be expected from the “anti-Paul” faction in Rome (cf. Phil. 1:15ff).
Finally, the most amazing thing about this circumstance is Paul’s attitude with reference to those who “forsook” him – “may it not be laid to their account.” Clearly, he seems to be referring to the final settlement of human affairs at the day of Judgment (cf. 1:16-18). Amidst the mystery of this passage, a few facts seem plain.
- Paul was not making a petition on behalf of the dead. Following death, there is no opportunity for one’s “account” to be altered.
- While the verb (in the optative mood, thus a request) does constitute a prayerful petition, it is not feasible to suggest that the noble apostle was asking God to ignore the willful and arrogant disdain of divine law, pursued with no inclination of repentance, by apostate brethren. Such a view would disregard other passages of emphatic import (Lk. 17:3; Acts 8:22; 1 Jn. 5:16).
Within this same context the apostle refers to 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 of that situation 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. On behalf of such a one there was no petition for mercy.
- It seems that Paul considered the neglect in this instance as one of human weakness, rather than overt rebellion. Fear can cause one to panic under extreme conditions, and perhaps do that (or fail to do that) which might not be the case under less stressful circumstances. It does appear that in this situation the apostle sees the possibility that God will understand the human element, and extend grace to those who might not have been as valiant as they could have been ideally.
One is inclined to recall David’s affirmation: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psa. 103:13-14). The words of Paul to Timothy, therefore, may not be merely a commentary upon the forgiving spirit of apostle, it also may underscore the mercy of the HIM who knows the true character of our hearts.
May God help us to do our best to be faithful and courageous. In addition, may we always trust him, being assured that he is a compassionate Father who will do what is right on man’s behalf in every case (Gen. 18:25).
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.