During the reign of Emperor Nero, the apostle Paul was placed on “death row” in a Roman prison. Although he had been released from prison several times before, Paul now senses that death will be his only escape. He writes his last letter to the man who had worked with him the longest. He encourages Timothy to continue his work.
Paul begins by explaining who he is: Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus.
Timothy already knows this, so why does Paul include it? He probably wants Timothy to see himself in similar terms: appointed by the will of God and promised life in Christ. Timothy should not view his work as optional, and even if officials threaten to kill him, he needs to remember that life is guaranteed in Christ, not in the Empire.
Timothy need not be ashamed, nor afraid of prison and death, because he knows that Christ is faithful — we can trust our lives to him, and he’ll keep every promise he has made.
To Timothy, my dear son: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. By calling Timothy his “dear son,” Paul sets a tone of affectionate advice.
Be bold with the gospel (verses 3-7)
Paul begins with indirect praise: I thank God, whom I serve, as my forefathers did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. Paul gives God the credit for all the good that he sees in Timothy, and he assures Timothy that he is praying for him. He mentions his “clear conscience” — something he wants Timothy to have, too.
Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. We do not know what the tears were about —perhaps Timothy’s sorrow at leaving Paul, thinking that it might be the last time they would see each other.
Paul reminds Timothy of his roots: I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. Paul wants Timothy to continue in this same path.
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. Since you have faith, Paul says, put it to use. 1 Timothy 4:13-14 implies that Timothy’s “gift” was preaching the gospel. And as we continue reading this letter, we see that this is what Paul wants him to do.
For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. Don’t shrink back, Paul says — be bold. God gives us what we need: strength, love for others, and self-discipline. When it comes to the gospel, many people have a spirit of timidity, but timidity is not from God. So we might need to pray for strength, or love, or self-discipline. All of these come from God.
Was Timothy timid? Paul’s words might simply be a rhetorical strategy. He had sent Timothy on several difficult missions; it seems that Paul was confident in Timothy’s ability and willingness. He wanted to encourage him to continue the good work he was already doing.
Don’t be ashamed of suffering (verses 8-12)
Since God gives us what we need, do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. Most people would be ashamed: Paul was on death row for telling people that Jesus, not Nero, was Lord and King. Jesus had been executed as an enemy of the Empire, and Paul seemed headed for that, too. Timothy had helped Paul spread his message.
But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God… You will suffer for doing it, but God will give you the help you need.
And then Paul reminds Timothy of what the gospel is, and why he should preach it: God has saved us and called us to a holy life — not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. The word holy means “set apart for God.” God not only gives us eternal life, he tells us that our life has purpose — we are set apart for God’s use.
This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. Even before God created us, he knew that we would need a Savior, and he forgave us ahead of time.
Although the plan for salvation was in place all along, people didn’t know about it until Christ came. He defeated our worst enemy, death, and gave us the good news of eternal life. And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. Timothy already knows Paul’s commission, but Paul says it here because it applies to Timothy, too. He is passing the baton to someone who will continue the work. The job is larger than anyone can do, so part of the job is recruiting, training, and passing it along to others.
The message is good news, and yet it is not always accepted as good. That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.
Timothy has also been appointed as someone who should testify about Christ and the immortality Christ has revealed. Timothy need not be ashamed, nor afraid of prison and death, because he knows that Christ is faithful — we can trust our lives to him, and he’ll keep every promise he has made.
Keep the treasure safe (verses 13-18)
After explaining his own commission and commitment, Paul then addresses Timothy more directly: What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. I did it — now you do it. Don’t change the message — repeat it.
Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you — guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. The “good deposit” is the message of salvation, and it is preserved with the help of God’s Spirit. Paul is not explaining doctrine — he is creating a motivational message, mixing commands, personal testimony, and assurance to help Timothy carry on without him.
Paul then refers to his own situation in Rome: You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes. These men didn’t necessarily desert Christ, but they were afraid to help Paul in his most recent troubles.
In contrast to them, Paul praises someone who was not afraid: May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. Onesiphorus had helped Paul in prison, and now Paul asks God to help his family. Was he still alive? We do not know.
On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. This is an example that Timothy might need to copy when he comes to Paul (4:21).
May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! Did Paul think that he needed to ask God to show mercy to a loyal worker? No; Paul is playing on words: Just as Onesiphorus found Paul, Paul wants him to find mercy. Paul knows that the Lord will give him mercy, because the Lord is full of mercy, and it has already been granted, even before time began. Nothing can change that.
Taking it personally
Is there someone for whom I frequently thank God? (v. 3)
Has God given me a gift that I should fan into flame? (v. 6)
Am I embarrassed by the gospel? (v. 8)
Am I willing to be embarrassed by the gospel?
How does the Holy Spirit help me guard the gospel? (v. 14)
The Greeks had a Word for it
The Greek word syneidēsis first meant to be aware of something, to be conscious of something. 1 Peter 2:19 uses it in that sense, referring to a person who “is conscious of God”— aware of his existence.
But syneidēsis came to be used primarily for self-awareness, especially beliefs that one’s actions are right or wrong: the conscience. People can have a good conscience, thinking that they have done right (2 Tim. 1:3), or a bad conscience, believing that they have done wrong (Heb. 10:22). The conscience can lack sensitivity (1 Tim. 4:2) or be overactive (1 Cor. 8:10-12).
The conscience not only evaluates past actions, but also considers whether future actions are right.