Last words are important. If you’ve ever been with someone at or near the moment of their death, you know what significance they have. What someone says in those final hours takes on added poignancy and significance. If they are of sound mind, we treat these last words with special reverence, recognizing in them the weight of a lifetime of experience and conviction. We assume that last words covey the real priorities and conclusions of life; in essence they answer the question, “What matters when everything peripheral is stripped away?”
No doubt this is how Timothy felt when he read Paul’s last words to him. We read them today on the pages of 2 Timothy as part of our Bibles, but to Timothy they certainly would not have felt like one book among many. No, for him they would have carried the poignancy of the last words of a beloved dying mentor.
So what things does Paul highlight in his last words to Timothy? What priorities, commands, or words of advice does he have?
In 2 Timothy 4:5, Paul gives Timothy four commands, four imperative statements explaining to him the nature of the ministry he was supposed to pursue. These commands would make Timothy the kind of minister who stood in sharp contrast to the false (yet popular) teachers whom Paul knows will emerge and proliferate in the last days (2 Tim 4:3-4). Timothy, along with all other godly ministers, is not to be like these teachers. Instead, Paul gives his four commands.
The first command is, “always be sober-minded.” The term Paul uses is one denoting seriousness or level-headedness. In fact, one of the older translations simply says, “keep your head in all situations.” Church leaders will always be subject to the ups and downs of ministry, but it is vital that we keep our heads – even if it seems that everyone else in the church is losing theirs! Self-possession and level-headedness are counter-cultural today. Ours is a day of constant personal drama. We seem to believe that nothing could be more important and fascinating than our own psychological ups and downs. We also live in a day of fads – new books, new models of ministry, new popular teachers and methods – and it is easy to get caught up in all of these passing trends. But according to this command, ministers need to aspire to something more – not the roller-coaster of emotions, panic, fads and fancies, but the stability which comes from knowing what we believe and the One whom we serve.
Paul’s second command is, “endure suffering.” Paul does not sugar-coat the difficulties of ministry. He assumes that it will involve hardship and difficulty. How different this realism is from much of what young ministers are often told. Often it is the glory of ministry that is put forward and not its hardships. But it doesn’t take very long to realize that any ministry which is level-headed, which isn’t designed simply to teach people what they want to hear, will lead to hardship and difficulty. And that hardship is not a cause for abandoning the post, but rather for staying in place and continuing the work until the end.
Third, Paul commands Timothy to, “do the work of an evangelist.” This is particularly interesting in light of the fact that Paul classifies some people as especially gifted in evangelism. In Ephesians 4:11, evangelists are listed alongside pastor-teachers as gifts given by Christ to his Church. But while there are unquestionably those who are set aside with a particular gift in evangelism, the work of an evangelist is not restricted to those specially gifted people. Peter tells all Christians to, “always be ready to give a defense for the hope that you have;” and Paul reminds Timothy that one of his non-negotiable duties as a minister relates to regular evangelism.
Paul has the end of ministry in mind with his last imperative, “fulfill your ministry.” In Paul’s day as in our own, it was easy to start something. But starting is not enough. The work God has entrusted to us must be finished, not just started. This doesn’t mean that there is no time to move or make a transition, but it does mean that ministers need to think first about the work itself and its completion, not about their own personal agenda and plan.
These imperatives are difficult. In fact they’re really impossible. While they serve as a guide to the priorities and focal points of ministry, they also serve to display just how far and how often our ministry efforts fall short. Paul surely knew this.
And yet there is also something striking about this list. When we examine it closely we see that it both a clear guide and mirror showing us our faults. But even as it shows our faults, it also shows Jesus’ perfection. Think about it. He alone displayed sobriety and focus in even the most pressure-filled moments of temptation; he endured the cross itself, in obedience to the Father and out of love for his sheep; he always preached the good news in all of its fullness; and he fulfilled his ministry to the uttermost.
So while Paul’s last words carry poignancy and have a grip upon us (as well they should), perhaps we should read them while bearing in mind the last words of Jesus before he gave up his spirit. When the author and finisher of our faith had done the will of his Father, his last words were declared with authority: “It is finished.”