Dear Paul. He comes off brilliantly in this letter to Saint Timothy, the second one to that bishop of Ephesus that we have in the New Testament. This is certainly my favourite of all his surviving letters for its brevity and its completeness as a note of encouragement and instruction to Saint Timothy, his beloved disciple and son, whom he had either himself ordained to the priesthood or participated in that ordination.
“I keep the memory of thy tears, and long to see thee again, so as to have my fill of joy when I receive fresh proof of thy sincere faith. That faith dwelt in thy grandmother Lois, and in thy mother Eunice, before thee; I am fully persuaded that it dwells in thee too. That is why I would remind thee to fan the flame of that special grace which God kindled in thee, when my hands were laid upon thee.”II Timothy, 1: 4-6
It is rather nice that Paul has kept in touch with Timothy’s family in Galatia, and remembers his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois by name. But Paul is here, at the end of his life, now being abandoned by people he trusted, especially following his imprisonment in Rome, which he constantly mentions in this letter. His faith in God remains strong, but he writes sadly about those he trusted but who had become unfriendly.
“This is what I have to suffer as the result; but I am not put to the blush. He, to whom I have given my confidence, is no stranger to me, and I am fully persuaded that He has the means to keep my pledge safe, until that day comes. With all the faith and love thou hast in Christ Jesus, keep to the pattern of sound doctrine thou hast learned from my lips. By the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, be true to thy high trust. In Asia, as thou knowest, all have treated me coldly, Phigellus and Hermogenes among them.”II Timothy, 1: 12-15
These were his first churches, in Asia, and it is sad that they no longer respect him. But his message continues to be a difficult one and the early Church was passing through a painful infancy, as the catholicity of the Church was still being established and there were rival Christian teachers with different messages, busy causing confusion. Paul had mentioned such troubles in the other letter to Timothy that we have and in other letters we have, such as to the Galatians, and the second letter to the Corinthians. Paul warns Timothy to remain true to the Faith and to be prepared to suffer for it.
“Then, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus, take thy share of hardship. Thou art God’s soldier, and the soldier on service, if he would please the captain who enlisted him, will refuse to be entangled in the business of daily life; the athlete will win no crown, if he does not observe the rules of the contest; the first share in the harvest goes to the labourer who has toiled for it. Grasp the sense of what I am saying; the Lord will give thee quick insight wherever it is needed. Fix thy mind on Jesus Christ, sprung from the race of David, who has risen from the dead; that is the gospel I preach…”II Timothy, 2: 3-8
Obviously, these rival teachers (see, for example, the ebionites) were challenging basic Christian teaching. Paul says that he himself has suffered for the Faith, and is prepared to until the end. Preach, he says, but don’t argue with many words, certainly without sophism; his message is simple, simply stated, and to be accepted on faith. He mentions another strange teaching, that the final resurrection of the dead has already come about.
“Bring this back to men’s thoughts, pleading with them earnestly in the Lord’s name; there must be no wordy disputes, such as can only unsettle the minds of those who are listening. Aim first at winning God’s approval, as a workman who does not need to be ashamed of his work, one who knows how to handle the claims of the truth like a master. Keep thy distance from those who are bringing in a fashion of meaningless talk; they will go far to establish neglect of God, and their influence eats in like a cancer. Such are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have missed the true mark, by contending that the resurrection has come about already, to the overthrow of the faith in some minds.”II Timothy, 2: 14
Timothy is to avoid the disputes and concentrate on a life of virtue and fellowship with Christians worshipping God with pure hearts. Rather than quarrelling, we are to be kindly and tolerant, making corrections gently and allowing God to mend the hearts of those who remain belligerent. Then Paul gives us a wonderful description of our own times, or rather dissolute human society of all times.
“Men will be in love with self, in love with money, boastful, proud, abusive; without reverence for their parents, without gratitude, without scruple, without love, without peace; slanderers, incontinent, strangers to pity and to kindness; treacherous, reckless, full of vain conceit, thinking rather of their pleasures than of God. They will preserve all the outward form of religion, although they have long been strangers to its meaning. From these, too, turn away. They count among their number the men that will make their way into house after house, captivating weak women whose consciences are burdened by sin; women swayed by shifting passions, who are for ever inquiring, yet never attain to recognition of the truth.”II Timothy, 3: 2-7
Before this ongoing dissolution, how is a bishop to behave? He is to hold firm to the doctrine handed down by the Apostles, the religion he was schooled in from his youth, probably on his mother’s knee or at his grandmother’s feet, and especially with respect to Holy Scripture.
“It is for thee to hold fast by the doctrine handed on to thee, the charge committed to thee; thou knowest well, from whom that tradition came; thou canst remember the holy learning thou hast been taught from childhood upwards. This will train thee up for salvation, through the faith which rests in Christ Jesus. Everything in the scripture has been divinely inspired, and has its uses; to instruct us, to expose our errors, to correct our faults, to educate us in holy living; so God’s servant will become a master of his craft, and each noble task that comes will find him ready for it.”II Timothy, 3: 14-17
So, Timothy is to ceaselessly preach the Gospel, whether or not it is welcome to society, patiently drawing people to the Christian life. Meanwhile, society will appoint preachers and teachers that say the things that they want to hear. Paul’s work is now over (he is near his martyrdom), but Timothy will have to follow his model and suffer for the Gospel, and for the Church.
“It is for thee to be on the watch, to accept every hardship, to employ thyself in preaching the gospel, and perform every duty of thy office, keeping a sober mind. As for me, my blood already flows in sacrifice; the time has nearly come when I can go free. I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have redeemed my pledge; I look forward to the prize that is waiting for me, the prize I have earned.”II Timothy, 4: 5-8
But Paul is not quite done. He still has to suffer a cold prison and he calls for his warm cloak. He wants to continue to read and he calls for his books. He wants to see his friends one last time, and only Luke visits him continuously; so he calls for Mark. He sends his greetings to Prisca and Aquila, whom he had left in Ephesus. He wants to see Timothy himself. And he sends greetings from the Roman Christians, mentioning Pudens (whose home in Rome can still be visited, for a church was built over it) and Linus (one of the first popes). It’s a great letter. May Saint Paul pray for us, who suffer in different ways what he once did.