Counsel from the Aged Apostle

The Last Letter of the Apostle Paul
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I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.—2 Timothy 4:6

Timothy Krupa

Paul’s last letter was probably written just weeks before his death. But the last letter is best appreciated when we look at the events that led up to its writing, namely, the last two or three years of Paul’s life which means his imprisonment at Rome.

Paul wanted to go to Rome (Acts 23:11). As the capital of the Empire, Rome was the most significant city in the world. Paul also knew he could further fulfill his original commission (Acts 9:15) to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, to kings and to Israel, if he were in Rome.

In the closing verses of the book of Acts, Paul’s arrival in Rome is recounted (Acts 28:13-16). Verse 30 documents that Paul lived in a rented house for two years. While confined to that house, Paul created a huge outreach ministry. Not only did Jews come and believe, but so did portions of the many nationalities that were in Rome. Paul was planting seeds that would literally spread throughout every corner of the Roman Empire.

This was why Paul wanted to go there. The traffic and enthusiasm that emanated from that house must have been truly amazing. Every kind of person came to seek out this Jewish prisoner and the majority left pondering and most left rejoicing (Acts 28:17-29).

In so many places where Paul had preached the gospel, he met fierce and continual antagonism, especially from the Jews. But in Rome it was different. Rome was a more diverse population. It was farther away from the control of Jewish religious hierarchy in Jerusalem. And so, the gospel flowed more freely. This gave Paul a great joy and a sense of accomplishment. He must have felt that he was truly fulfilling his commission. We can only imagine the effect it had on the authorities and guards who observed these happenings.

In the quiet times, Paul would write. Thank God for those writings.

Approximately half of the New Testament was written by the apostle Paul and if historians and traditions are correct, the majority of Paul’s letters were written while he was im­prisoned in Rome. Amazingly, the majority of Paul’s writings were accomplished in that short two- to three-year period.

In the King James version of the New Testament, some of Paul’s letters have postscripts that state that the letter was written from Rome. Sometimes there are internal proofs in the letter that corroborate these assertions. Until we have better information, we will accept the suggestions of the KJV postscripts.

To The Ephesians

One of the letters written from Rome was to the church at Ephesus. Ephesus was perhaps the largest of the Christian churches. On Paul’s second missionary journey, he left Aquila and Priscilla there and during his third mission, he himself lived there for three years (Acts 20:31).

One of the themes that predominates in the letter to the Ephesians is the “Christian walk.” Paul wrote of how a Christian walks or behaves: in love (5:2), in unity (4:1-3), in humility (5:21), in marriage (5:22,25), as parents and children (6:1-4), and as employees and as employers (6:5-9). There was also a lot of love in this letter. We remember that, perhaps only a year earlier, Paul had an emotional farewell meeting with the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20). He predicted that wolves would enter the flock and as they parted, they “wept bitterly” (verses 36 to 38) because they knew they would never see him alive again. Remember, these were grown men, weeping. It shows how deep were their bonds of love and affection.

Since delivery of the letters was difficult, it made sense to send multiple letters with one messenger. Ephesians 6:21 implies that Tychicus was to deliver the letter to Ephesus. The postscript after verse 24 says that he also was the scribe of the letter. For efficiency sake, the letter to the Colossians was probably written at the same time.

To The Colossians

The city of Colossae was near Ephesus. The footnote to Colossians says that Tychicus also was the scribe of this letter. We realize that when two letters are written at the same time, thoughts and expressions would tend to be repeated. This is true with the letters to Ephesus and Colossae. In both, Paul speaks of the mystery (Colossians 1:26; Ephesians 3:1-7), being quickened together with Christ (Colossians 2:13,14; Ephesians 2:1,5), the analogy of the body being knit together (Colossians 2:19; Ephesians 4:16), putting away evil and developing Christian graces (Colossians 3:6-10; Ephesians 4:20-25), regarding the family, marriage and the home (Colossians 3:18-25; Ephesians 5:21-28).

Affection is also evident in the Colossae letter. Again Paul tells them that Tychicus will give them a report of his personal state (Colos­sians 4:8).

Toward the end of the Colossae letter there are two interesting points (Colossians 4:15, 16). First, Paul’s instruction that the letters be circulated shows that Paul realized that what he wrote was instruction for more than just the first recipients. Paul probably didn’t realize that the letters would still be treasured almost two thousand years later, but he knew the value of sharing these words.

To The Laodiceans

The second interesting point is in verse 15. Paul wrote, “Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea.” Laodicea was ten miles from Colossae. Verse 16 says, “And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans.” Now comes the interesting part: “And that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.”

There seems to have been another letter, written to the church of Laodicea, now apparently lost. Could it be that this third letter, the one to Laodicea, still remains to be found someday soon in a modern archeological dig? What could be more thrilling than to read the wisdom of Paul in a letter written to our era, the church of Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22).{FOOTNOTE: One editor notes that perhaps what we call the epistle to the Ephesians is the letter to Laodicea, a suggestion shared by various commentators. Another observes that he would be highly skeptical of any newly-found composition purporting to be an authentic letter of Paul. Another observes that the place for such finds would be archaic libraries rather than digs where such materials would have corrupted long ago. Presumably the existence of such a hitherto unknown epistle would have received attention by now.}

Another heart-warming reference in the Colossae letter is the mention of Onesimus (Colossians 4:9). Paul mentions Onesimus as a “faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” Apparently, Onesimus was originally from Colossae and Paul says that Onesimus will accompany Tychicus when he delivers this letter.

To Philemon

Onesimus is the subject of Paul’s letter to Philemon. Onesimus was a runaway slave. His master was Philemon. In his letter to Philemon, Paul begs him to take back this formerly “unprofitable” servant Onesimus, with love. Paul refers to Onesimus as his son. It is clear how emotionally and lovingly Paul is involved with these brethren. We can image the tears in his eyes as he writes from the prison in Rome.

Lessons For Us

What can we personally gain from these letters written in Paul’s ending days? First, we see how much one can accomplish in a short period of time. Letters Paul wrote while incarcerated have remained for almost two thousand years. What an accomplishment! What endured the longest of Paul’s efforts took the shortest period of his life. We, too, can accomplish much, in short order, well beyond what we would ever imagine, if we just put our hand to the plow and leave the results and over-rulings to the Lord. Don’t think that because you don’t have a lot of time, you can’t accomplish something.

The next lesson we see from Paul’s experience in Rome is that within a person’s lifetime there can be periods when a person can work freely and do mostly what he chooses. Then there comes a time “when no man can work.” Most of us have enjoyed great freedoms for most of our lives. The day is probably approaching when we will not be able to freely work. So work while you can. Take advantage of every opportunity. Don’t even pause for rest. There will be time for rest later.

Another lesson is that the style of Paul’s work changed. This mighty and fearless missionary who was used to going wherever he wanted, was now totally confined to a small house. He used to preach to great crowds, he would go into synagogues. If he saw an opportunity, it didn’t matter how far away it was, he would go. Then it changed; the students had to come to him. Teaching was now to two’s and three’s. And what lasted through the centuries were the letters that he was forced to write instead of traveling to the congregations. Greatly restricted, Paul the prisoner turned to what he could still do.

As we get older, few of us can do the same things we did in our younger days. Our lives change. We become restricted and handicapped in many ways. We might even say we are in prison. For some, the prison is the limitation of health or age. For others it is the prison of lack of resources. Everyone has shackles and bonds of some sort. But look what great things Paul accomplished while in prison. Regarding his letters, he wrote more age-lasting letters while in prison than he had in his entire previous consecrated life. We can’t use our handicaps as an excuse to not do all we can, even if it is quite different than what we did before.

One more lesson that we see from these last days is that the once fiery Paul seems to have mellowed. Perhaps being restricted and sensing the shortening of time, his heart grew fonder for those he had taught and toiled with. It seems that as Paul’s life is beginning to close, love becomes a stronger part. There is the personal affection toward his allies, there is a general affection for ecclesias and affection for the brotherhood in general.

We tend to appreciate Paul and his letters for their doctrinal tenets and this is appropriate. But we should not miss the continual and growing emphasis on the doctrine of “love of the brethren.” You can not miss it in these last letters. It’s a strong lesson for us. We love the apostle Paul and we love our Lord and Master. But, one of the lessons of these last letters is much like the lesson Paul asked Philemon to bear. Love someone who formerly was “unprofitable.” Onesimus had made a mistake. His conversion (turning around) showed his change of heart. He was worthy of Philemon’s forgiveness and love. We need to do likewise.

The Letter to Philippi

If there ever was a love letter, it is Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This also was written from Rome. The affection for these dear brothers and sisters of northern Greece was deeply ingrained in Paul’s heart. This was the first ecclesia he established in Macedonia. He went there obeying a dream. It all started when he met a lovely, spiritual lady on a riverbank outside the city (Acts 16:13,14). He was imprisoned there too, but the jailer ended up being converted. Through the years, these generous Greeks didn’t just send Paul their “love.” They sent him gifts, money, clothing. They did many things to support his ministry. In the closing greetings and salutations we see further evidence of God’s great over-rulings in Paul’s Roman imprisonment. Philippians 4:21 and 22 show us that the gospel had reached even into Caesar’s household (cf., Philippians 1:13). What marvels the Lord accomplished through Paul’s imprisonment!

To the Hebrews

One more letter that is postmarked “Rome” was Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. Paul was famous for his work among the Gentiles and perhaps it was for this reason that he, from imprisonment, wrote to his genetic brotherhood. This letter is quite different from the others. Paul had done battle with the “Judaizers” for the past twenty-five years and in this letter he used arguments, logic, and references based on the Old Testament experiences of the Jews. He quoted the Psalms. He referred to the history of Israel. He discussed the priesthood, sacrifices, covenants; this is how he taught the lesson of Christ.

In a masterstroke of human relations he recounts their national heroes—Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Gideon, Samson, David, the prophets, again to drive home the lesson of the privilege of the high calling and the race that is set before us. He closes with another plea for love: “Let brotherly love continue” (Hebrews 13:1).

It seems evident that Paul expected his release from prison. He said to Philemon, “Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers” (Philemon 22, NIV). And in his letter to the church at Philippi, “I trust in the Lord that I also myself shall come shortly” (Philippians 2:24).

The Second Imprisonment

Somewhere in this time period, the first part of his Roman imprisonment apparently ended. We say the first part because, after a short release during which he may have visited Macedonia and may have then written a letter to Titus, Paul was again imprisoned, the second imprisonment in Rome.

This time the story was different. Nero was the emperor, the madman Nero. World conditions were so harsh that Christians were being executed for their beliefs. The government, looking for scapegoats, blamed much on the Christians. They were publicly tortured, nailed to crosses, torn apart by wild beasts in the sporting arenas, and burnt at the stake.

In this imprisonment, Paul was in chains. There was no expectation of release, only a final judgment. There was no supporting cast of fellow-workers. The local ecclesia had been decimated and those remaining were driven underground.

The Last Letter

There was no time for a lot of letters. There was only time for one more. Paul probably knew this was his last letter. And even if he didn’t know, he would have wanted this to be his last. It was written to his beloved son, Timothy. The postscript says that this letter “was written from Rome, when Paul was brought before Nero the second time.”

What we have here is one last love letter. Paul didn’t have a family. That was all forsaken for the gospel’s sake. So he called Timothy his son, his beloved son, because by the laying on of his hands he had personally begun the good work in Timothy (2 Timothy 1:6).

Timothy had seen a lot of battles, beatings, and trouble since the day he first met Paul. Paul encouraged him to endure hardness, strive for masteries (control), strive lawfully, suffer for Christ, rightly divide the Word, flee youthful desires (in Paul’s eyes, Timothy was still a youngster), seek righteousness, faith, love and peace. And, to avoid foolish questions and be gentle. What exhortations these are from an apostle about to die to his spiritual son!

Paul was quite forsaken: “Demas hath forsaken me” (2 Timothy 4:10). Others he had sent to distant places. Only the good doctor, Luke, was still with him (verse 11).

With death so close, Paul must have thought about meeting the Lord Jesus. His appreciative mind must have gone back to the first time they met. It was on the road to Damascus. How much had transpired since then. The first brother he met was Ananias (Acts 9). Then there were the learning years, then the missionary journeys. That’s where he met Timothy. The converts, the confrontations, shipwrecks, stonings and beatings. There were also the joys and love of teaching and growing in the bonds of Christian love.

Finally, Paul confided to the one he felt the closest to: “I am now ready to be offered; the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:6,7).

In thinking of the unusual and unique elements of Paul’s Christian experience, it would be impossible for us to emulate all the details of his consecrated life. His example can be daunting and it sets a high standard. But not everyone is placed in a position like Paul.

God may place a few of us in similar positions, to preach to the Gentiles, kings, and Israel. Others are placed more like Tychicus, Onesimus, or Philemon. Some are placed like Titus, Luke, or Timothy. And still others, are placed like the unknown members of the ecclesia of Philippi who supported Paul with their love. All played lesser roles than Paul. All were different. God placed them as he saw fit. We can probably relate more to these “lesser roles.” But, they all were taught of Paul and so should we be taught of Paul. We have his letters and we can have his faith and confidence as well.

Despite all the trials Paul went through, he never lost confidence in the heavenly Father and in his Master, Jesus Christ. Paul’s closing words to Timothy  show this even though Paul was in a Roman prison: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory forever and ever. The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.”(2 Timothy 4:18, 22, NIV).