“Fulfill Your Ministry”
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“Fulfill Your Ministry”

2 Timothy 4:1–8  (ID: 3662)

In a complicated world, Paul’s charge to Timothy was simple: “Preach the Word.” The same charge has been laid on today’s pastors and church leaders, who minister in a world that is no less complicated. As such, Alistair Begg calls upon them to do as Timothy did: to take their solemn call seriously, to face the hostilities and difficulties that stand before them, and to “do the work of an evangelist” for a culture that sorely needs the Gospel.

Series Containing This Sermon

Basics 2024

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23522

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to turn with me to 2 Timothy and to chapter 4. And before I read this—at least part of it—just a word of explanation as to how we arrive here.

I’ve had in mind for a few weeks to speak from the closing verses of 2 Timothy 4—the long list of people’s names and personal instructions, which we’re often tempted, I think, to hurry through. And for some reason, I decided that is one of my talks. And then I thought, “Well, maybe since I know that, that should be the first one, ’cause I don’t know what the second one is.” And then I thought, “Well, no, you can’t have the end of something as the first talk. So you better have another one.” And then it occurred to me, “Well, why don’t you just do the opening part of chapter 4, since that would make perfect sense, at least in terms of the logic of Paul’s writing?” And then I said to myself, “But the opening verses of chapter 4, I mean… Basics was birthed in 2 Timothy 4:1–8. It’s so basic!” I said to myself. “So basic!” And I said, “Yeah, basic. That’s good. Basic. That’s what we call this thing: Basics. Yes.”

And then I unearthed an old quote from Willie Barclay, who should be quoted with great care. When he was teaching at Glasgow University, he said, “No teacher [should] find it a trouble to go over and over again the [basics] of the Christian faith; for that is the way to ensure the safety [and the stability] of [the] hearers.”[1]

And so, with that by way of background, let me read just the first eight verses, and then we’ll look at them together. Two Timothy 4:1:

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time [will come] when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”

Father, with our Bibles open before us, we humbly pray that the work of the Holy Spirit will be such that the eyes of our understanding are opened, that our wills are challenged, that our lives are brought into conformity with your Word. We pray, in the words of the hymn writer, that you will “take your truth” and “plant it deep in us” and “shape [us] and fashion us” in the likeness of your Son, the Lord Jesus,[2] in whose name we pray. Amen.

A Solemn, Simple, Strategic Charge

Well, this final charge that is given by Paul here at the end of his second letter is actually unlike the charges that he gives in his first letter, inasmuch as most of those charges have a very specific objective in mind. But when he comes now to the end—and it is essentially the end—he is saying to Timothy, “This is what I need you to understand, to believe, and to hold to for the rest of your life and for the rest of your ministry.” And in every realistic sense, it is the word of a spiritual father to a spiritual son in the gospel to encourage him to stay on track. He’s essentially saying, “I want you, Timothy, to make sure that you fulfill your ministry—that you run all the way through the tape, that you don’t lie down in the grass, that you don’t throw in the towel but that you sustain your journey right to the end.”

And the first five verses actually encapsulate Paul’s concern in this way. He has already pointed out to him in chapter 3 the importance of continuing, there in verse 14: “As for you, continue in what you[’ve] learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.” What an amazing heritage that he had: “how from childhood you[’ve] been acquainted with the sacred writings, … able to make you wise for salvation … in [Jesus] Christ.” “These Scriptures to which you are committed are,” he has said to him, “divinely inspired, they are completely reliable, and they are totally sufficient.”[3] And it is in light of that that he then charges him in this particular way. “It’s your responsibility—it’s going to be, Timothy—and I’m commissioning you to this.”

Three obvious observations concerning this charge.

First of all, you will notice that it is solemn. It is solemn: “I charge you in the presence of God,” the Father, “and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead.”

Timothy, as a young man in the ministry, was responsible for those who were under his care in Ephesus. He would have had colleagues around him who were important to him, from whom he was learning and who were also being the beneficiaries of his instruction. It is important for Timothy to understand that ultimately, his accountability is to God himself—that he’s not ultimately accountable to his congregation in Ephesus. He’s not working Sunday by Sunday, as it were, on a kind of chart basis to see whether he’s moving up the charts or down the charts. He’s not ultimately even responsible to Paul as the apostle, but he is responsible to the Lord Jesus.

As a leader in the church in Ephesus, he is keeping watch over the souls of those who are under his care. And as a result of that, he will give an account. The writer to the Hebrews makes that clear in chapter 13, encouraging the congregation to make sure that their approach to the leadership in their churches is the right one: “They [keep] watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”[4] Give an account to whom? We don’t give an account to Mrs. Jenkins or to the local trustees or to whoever else it is. We’re accountable to one another in the body of Christ.

It is important for Timothy to understand that ultimately, his accountability is to God himself—that he’s not ultimately accountable to his congregation in Ephesus.

I recall in a book that I read some time ago—but can’t remember which book it was—somebody was being inducted into a new congregation. And in the course of the Saturday evening, they found themself sitting there while somebody—a deacon or some other personage—was outlining for this poor soul who was about to become the pastor all of the desires and designs and responsibilities that were now falling to him. And as he sat there and listened, the weight on his shoulders became heavier and heavier. And he finally stood up, and he said, “In keeping with all that the Bible teaches, in keeping with the help of the Holy Spirit, I will be your servant, but you will never be my master.”

“I charge you solemnly, in light of God the Father and the appearing of the Lord Jesus Christ…” Christ has come. He stands forward: “The kingdom of God is at hand. The time is fulfilled. Repent and believe the good news.”[5] The progress of the kingdom of God continues throughout all generations as the gospel is proclaimed. Timothy is taking up his part in that. And Paul is reminding him that “what you’re doing is kingdom business. You’ve been entrusted with this privilege and this responsibility. One day, that kingdom will be apparent universally and openly. But in the interim, Timothy, I charge you, in light of this…” This is a solemn charge.

In the old days, whenever those were, signs in church buildings—at least outside of church buildings in Britain, and I’m not sure if it’s still the same—would announce who the vicar was, or the minister, the pastor, and what was going on. And usually at the bottom it would say something along these lines: that “Reverend Peabody is available for the solemnization of marriage.” “The solemnization of marriage.” “Oh, you mean that this is solemn, when you get married?” Yes! It is not to be entered upon lightly or carelessly but thoughtfully, with reverence for God, with due consideration of the purposes for which it was established by God. In the same way, entrusted with the privilege of gospel ministry, it’s not to be entered upon lightly or carelessly but thoughtfully, with reverence for God the Father and in light of the kingdom and the appearing of the Lord Jesus.

You remember in Hamlet… Someone’s going, “Do you remember Hamlet?” I remember Hamlet. I had to do it for A level. But when Hamlet and Horatio come on the gravedigger scene, and the gravediggers are clowning around, and they’re singing, and Hamlet says to Horatio, “Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at gravedigging?”[6] And Horatio replies, “Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.”[7] In other words, he’s so used to it now that he’s no longer saddened by it. He’s no longer moved by it. There’s really very little to it at all. The day that that begins to dawn in the heart of a pastor is big-D Danger Day. Solemn.

Secondly, simple—simple in the sense that it is simple to understand. It is straightforward: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing [at] his kingdom”—here we go—“preach the word.” “Preach the word.” All that Paul has already written in this letter—concerning the pattern of sound teaching in chapter 1, the importance of looking after the good deposit in chapter 1 as well[8]—all of that underpins the charge which he now gives in relationship to the Scriptures.

It’s very, very important that we keep in mind that the responsibility that is given to us is a responsibility to be a servant of the Word. Machen on one occasion—Gresham Machen—says to us all, “It is with the open Bible that the real Christian preacher comes before [his] congregation. He does not come to present his [own] opinions. He does[n’t] come to present the results of his researches in[to] the phenomena of religion, but he comes to set forward what is contained in the Word of God.”[9]

“Preach the word.” “Timothy, teach the Old Testament Scriptures. Teach now what you’re learning from me as one of the apostles.” I wonder if this is just so routine to us that it’s possible for us even to miss it, and we search for metaphors to drive it home, pictures in mind. If you’ve had the privilege of seeing a proper pipe band play in Scotland (preferably in the Highlands, maybe in Dornoch if you went to play golf), and you had that amazing experience on the Friday evening when out they came into the middle of the town and marched—all those snare drums and all those bagpipes, and then the fellow that I feel most sorry for that has that huge big drum that he has to carry in front of him. He presumably is very good friends with the local chiropractor or something like that. But he has that big, jolly drum, and he just hits it. And you will notice that when all the other instrumentation stops, that bass drum is the key. Because it is the constant rhythm of that drum that keeps the time of the march through the square. In a very realistic sense, the unfolding of the text of Scripture from the pulpit Sunday by Sunday is essentially the bass drum. It’s not on its own. It’s surrounded by everything else that is necessary and purposeful. But if all that were to silence, still the drum continues.

It’s right that preaching should humble us. It’s wrong that it should paralyze us.

“Preach the word; … ready in season and out of season.” Press the message home on all occasions, convenient or inconvenient, when it’s a season of receptivity or when it’s a series of hostility, when the prospect fills you with dread on a Saturday evening or whether it fills you with delight on a Saturday evening, when your listeners are tuned in or when your listeners are tuned out, when the crowds are dwindling or the crowds are growing. “Preach the word.”

It’s a challenge, isn’t it? Because after all, it’s so hard. It’s right that preaching should humble us. It’s wrong that it should paralyze us. And part of the challenge is the context in which Timothy was going to be ministering, as we’ll see in a moment or two. But for us it’s the same. You talk to people about preaching today, even in local churches, and some of them are surprised that you really have any emphasis on it at all. We recently had a couple move away from here, and they went off to another part of the nation—a lovely place to go. And after some months, I had a note from them to say that they had finally settled in another local congregation. But in the note, this is what they said: “The struggle to find solid teaching and a high view of God and his Word is very real. We visited over ten churches, and rarely did a service begin with the opening of the Word of God.”

If it doesn’t start with the Bible, what does it start with? People need to understand that when God says to Moses in—where is it?—in Deuteronomy 4, he says, “Assemble the people that they might listen to my word.”[10] That’s the reason for gathering. And if the pastor doesn’t understand that, then there’s very little opportunity that the congregation will ever get it. “Why are you going?” “Well, to see my friends.” “Why are you going?” “Well, this,” “that,” “the next thing.” No! We’re being assembled in order that we might hear the very Word of God. “Well, where will you hear the Word of God?” Well, we’ll hear it when the pastor takes seriously Paul’s charge to Timothy: to preach it! To preach it—every opportunity that we have.

And what’s involved? Well, look at it: “Reprove, rebuke, and exhort.” In other words, it involves argument. It involves rebuke. It involves appeal. The challenge that I find the longer I go is the challenge of simply acknowledging that the Word of God does the work of God by the Spirit of God in the people of God. The fact that we’re entrusted with the privilege of being a mouthpiece is a mystery beyond mysteries. For we are actually in ourselves insufficient of so much of this.[11] It involves the use of our minds. It involves the preparedness to call people to account. It involves the encouragement that is necessary in order to not dispirit those who are under our care.

And you’ll notice he says, “And I want you to make sure that you do this with complete patience and teaching.” “Complete patience.” Are you patient? Are you under the age of thirty? You are by nature impatient. I guarantee you, you think you can achieve more in five years than you actually can. You’ll need to become older to realize what’s involved—and especially when you think about what he’s going to go on and say: that the fact is that the charge that he gives is not only solemn and straightforward, but it is also strategic. And he’s going to explain this in verse 3: “For the time is coming,” he says.

Now, let me just pause here and recount for us something that I have found helpful. I don’t have it in the front of my mind every time I’m going into the pulpit, but I want to have this in my mind as I think about the privilege of teaching the Bible. And I’ll put up for you on the screen these categories of listeners that William Perkins recounted in one of his books.

Who’s listening to us when we are teaching the Bible? Number one: there are non-Christians there who know nothing about the gospel, and they don’t care. There are non-Christians who know nothing about the gospel, but they’re teachable. There are those who know what the gospel is but have never been humbled to see their need of a Savior. There are those who have been humbled, some in the early stages of seeing their need; others who see that they need salvation, not merely improvement, and are convinced that only Christ can save them. There are genuine believers who need to be taught. There are backsliders who are in that condition either as a result of failing to be taught or as a result of a failure to live consistently in the light of what they have been taught.[12] All in all, we’re teaching the Bible to a mixed congregation of believers and unbelievers.

Now, you see, once we are completely convinced that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and we are aware of the fact that that inspired Word of God then has to be opened up for the people, has to be expounded, then we have to determine that we’re going to be absolutely faithful to that Word and that we’re going to seek to be alert in addressing that Word not to the congregation we wish we had but to the congregation that we actually have.

I remember Luther, who says things—interesting things—Luther says at one point in his writing, he says, you know, “I have a number of lawyers and doctors in my church. To them I pay scant regard. I look only for the servant-maid at the back. If these others that I mentioned do not like it, well, they know where the door is.”[13] Thank you, Luther! That’s nice! He’s such an encouragement to a person like myself. I hope he is to you as well. But there’s no point in trying to pretend that you’re teaching to a group of Cambridge graduates when in point of fact, you’re working in a rural congregation with nobody who’s actually graduated from Cambridge in their lives. It’s straightforward. I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it?

We have to determine that we’re going to address the Word not to the congregation we wish we had but to the congregation that we actually have.

So, “Preach it—when you feel like it, when you don’t feel like it. And let me tell you why.” Here’s the strategy: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching.” Here’s the challenge. He’s already told Timothy that he was deserted by folks in Asia back in chapter 1: “You[’re] aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me,”[14] and he mentions in particular Phygelus and Hermogenes. And so he says, “I want you to expect a similar reaction. The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching. They will reject it. They will reject the kind of teaching that will make them healthy and will make them useful, and they will turn instead to itching ears, to accumulate a whole group of people that will teach them in such a way that they will be relieved of the responsibility of seeing their lives brought under the jurisdiction of the Scriptures.”

I met earlier today with a group of folks who are involved in translation in various parts of the world. And wherever we were referencing in the course of the conversation, what was striking to me was the amazing influence of people like Joyce Meyer and a health-and-prosperity gospel that immediately goes into places with vast resources—financial resources and engagement—and skirts around the fringes of a moribund church and secures followers.

Well, you can understand the story they have to tell—the kind of story that’s no different from what was going on in the “itching ears” syndrome in Isaiah’s day. They said to the prophet,

    Do not prophesy to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things,
 prophesy illusions.[15]

“Tell me lies, tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.”[16]

Now, what’s Paul saying here? He says, “You need to understand: you should expect this. You should expect this. They will reject orthodoxy, going in search of novelty.” Did we ever think that we would live to the point where not only would history be deconstructed and language be deconstructed, but biology itself would be deconstructed—that people would actually embrace such notions? And it’s the Bible that makes things clear. If you’re born as a man, you will die as a man, no matter what you do to yourself in the interim.

The doctrine of the authority of Scripture is challenged most vociferously at this point in my lifetime in relationship to the doctrine of man, to the nature of what God has made in making us in his image. You can apply that on your own. But why would people be attracted to that? Because it’s attractive. The Bible’s assessment of things is not immediately appealing, is it? Because the Bible is telling us that we are by nature sinful, that we’re guilty, that we’re lost, that we’re responsible, and that we’re unable to rectify the situation.

In that context, Timothy is being urged to take a stand, to swim against the current. “I charge you”; it’s solemn. “Preach the word”; it’s straightforward. It’s strategic, because the time has come now—seasons that will come again and again: they will turn away; they will wander off.

“As for You…”

Now he says, “Let me speak directly to you, Timothy”: “As for you…” “As for you…” And this is familiar material.

Number one, he says, “Always be sober-minded.” I think the NIV translates it, by memory, “Keep your head.” “Keep your head in all situations.” In other words, the fact that some of your contemporaries have been intoxicated by various ideas and have drifted off—that is all the more reason for you to stay awake, to be vigilant. Don’t fall asleep at the wheel. Watch your life. Watch your doctrine.[17] It’s crucial for you and for your passengers. You remember that line, “I want to die falling asleep peacefully, just like my grandfather, and not like the other passengers in his car”? Don’t fall asleep at the wheel. “Keep your head.”

Be brave: “Endure suffering.” “Endure suffering.” He’s not issuing a new note. He’s actually sounding out a refrain. You go back through the four chapters. At the beginning, he says, “I invite you to share in sufferings with me for the gospel.”[18] “I suffer,” he says in verse 12.[19] “I am suffering. … [In fact,] I endure everything for the sake of the elect.”[20]

And he’s saying to Timothy, “This is part of the territory. This is what goes with doing what you’re going to do. The challenges, the suffering, may actually be physical suffering—certainly mental, emotional, the cost that comes in following a pattern of sound words when people around you are suggesting that you have lost the plot entirely. Surely the accusations and the insinuations of the Evil One are attempts to destabilize what we’re doing, to deceive us, to discourage us—ultimately, if he could, to derail us, to cause us to give up.

It’s tough, isn’t it, when these things happen? I always wonder what it must have been like for Nehemiah, the cupbearer to the king. What an interesting job, drinking all that stuff, realizing that if anybody had tampered with it, you’d go down first! That’s a brave, or a foolish, job to get. But anyway, when he finally takes on the challenge of going up to deal with the situation of the broken-down gates and walls and so on, he goes silently. He doesn’t make a big fuss. He doesn’t have anybody walking in front of him, playing a trumpet: “Nehemiah’s here! You’re all going to be fine!” No, he conducts his very clandestine operation before he actually shares with those who are going to be involved in it what’s going on. And you know the story. They finally get it up and get started, and within relatively short order, then he has to deal with an unholy trinity of Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem. And they decide that they can derail him and bring him down, and they send an open letter.

Don’t you love those open letters? “Dear Pastor, I’m writing this to you on behalf of many, many people—many people—so many people that if I were to write their names down, I’d need an entire new notebook. That many people!” It’s always anonymous, and that helps. At least these guys put their names. They put their names. And what did they say? “We know what you’re doing. You’ve got a fat head. You came up here to show us how good you are. You actually apparently want to make yourself the king of this whole province. That’s what you’re doing, isn’t it?”[21] You remember his reply? “I sent [them] this reply: ‘Nothing like what you [say] is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.’”[22] That’s a pretty good answer, isn’t it? Keep that one up your sleeve. You can’t use it routinely, but there will come a day when you must. “Dear chairman of the elder board: Nehemiah 6:8. Have a great evening!”

“Sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist.” “Do the work of an evangelist.” Is Paul suggesting a change of job here? No, I don’t believe so for a moment. It’s not a new job description he’s giving him. He’s not suggesting that he moves from what he’s doing in pastoring to take on a particular role of evangelism. But he is actually making clear that if he is going to be teaching the Bible in this way, then he is going to be involved in pointing people consistently to Christ. Jim Packer, in his book A Quest for Godliness, writes at one point, “If one preaches the Bible biblically, one cannot help preaching the gospel all the time, and every sermon will be … at least by implication evangelistic.”[23] “Evangelistic.”

People always ask the question, don’t they, to us, “Well, would you say you’re a teacher or you’re a preacher? I mean, what is teaching? What is preaching? Are you…” And so you say to yourself, “Well, let’s look into the Bible and see what it has to say.” And does it distinguish? Well, yes, it actually does. In the Acts of the Apostles you see it, where it was, the last time I looked, in 5:42: “They left the presence of the council, rejoicing … they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house”—so, not only in a big public forum but also in a smaller setting—“they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.”[24] Now, there’s two different verbs there. One is didaskontes, and the other is “euangeleozizomai,” or whatever. Right? (You say, “Well, you just picked that one out!” Well, I did pick it out, yeah. Of course I did! You go pick one out!) Fifteen and 35: “But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.”[25]

Well, what is this? Well, when we’re teaching the Scriptures, we’re aiming to unfold the truth of the Bible so as to give the listeners an understanding of the text—so that they might understand. Preaching is not less than teaching; it’s more. Because what we’re then doing is we’re making an appeal to people’s wills and to their emotions to respond to what they have just understood through teaching.

That’s why, you see, it’s very, very important that we don’t think that we’ve preached the gospel when we tell people that there are great benefits in believing the gospel, and there are great dangers in rejecting the gospel. Uh-huh? And the person’s sitting on row 14 going, “But you never told me what the gospel is! You need to teach me what it is that I’m supposed to understand needs to be received or rejected.”

Now, Paul is saying to Timothy, “This is something that you need to do. You need to make sure that you’re involved in telling people about Jesus.” It’s wonderful, isn’t it, to get out of our little ecclesiastical bubbles every so often and just go and meet people, just have conversations with people, just in the hope that we might have the chance to go back to our old days when we were there with Campus Crusade for Christ and couldn’t wait for a chance to get the Four Spiritual Laws out on the table and draw the circles and show them what’s going on? Up to date, you’re going to want to go to the seminar on one-to-one, because that’s exactly what we’re talking about, in terms of how do we take the Bible in an evangelistic opportunity that involves not public proclamation from a pulpit but involves the benefits of sitting under a ministry where the Bible is taught, thereby enabling us to take that Bible into the lives and laps of those who are our friends and our neighbors.

“As for you, keep your head, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, and fulfill your ministry.” In other words, “Discharge all your duties. Carry out to the full the commission that God has given you.”

I wonder: Have you been as challenged as I have been by the little excerpt from the Works of John Owen[26]—and I’m very purposeful in telling you that it is a little excerpt. If you want to know about John Owen, talk to Sinclair Ferguson; don’t talk to me! But I do know this much: that he writes at one point about the effective performance of our primary pastoral duty. The effective performance of our primary pastoral duty. And this is what he says is involved if we are going to fulfill the ministry à la what Paul is saying here to Timothy. Number one: it involves a clear, sound, comprehensive knowledge of the biblical doctrine of the gospel itself; secondly, a love of the truth which we have learned and understood; thirdly, a conscientious care and fear of giving place to novel opinions. (Don’t become one of those guys who has to come up with some funny angle every time, as if the Bible is insufficient. We don’t need your clever ideas. It’s good if you’re like me and you don’t even have any. It makes it easier.) Four. Four: the necessity of the learning and ability of mind to discern and disprove the arguments of the adversaries of the truth. Five: the solid confirmation of the most important truths of the gospel. And six: a diligent watch over our own flocks against the craftiness of external or internal proponents of error. It’s quite a mouthful, but it’s John Owen! And it’s a challenge.

I wonder: Did Kenneth MacRae ponder these things when, in his diary, he writes, “Only diligent and regular cultivation of my own soul can sustain [me in] that frame of spirit which I feel so necessary to the effective prosecution of my work. If I lose that spirit all becomes mechanical, cold, and formal, and I have little heart in the performance of my various duties.”[27] See, when this goes, it goes. That’s what he’s saying.

As for Paul…

Then he says, “And if you want to know how things are shaking out for me, I’ll tell you,” he says. Verse 6: “Here is my story: I am already being poured out as a drink offering. I’m already on my way out.” You know the picture there: a wine or an oil poured out alongside another sacrifice. An animal sacrifice was offered up, and then there was the pouring out of the wine or the oil. And he’s picking that picture up, and he’s saying, you know, “I’m being poured out just like a drink offering. The time has come for me to leave”—“my departure,” “my analusis.” From a human perspective, he’s not concerned about the prospect of death, but he is aware of it. And so he says, “I’m going to be folding things up here before too long. But I want you to know that my mission has been accomplished. The fight, I fought it. The race, I finished it. The faith, I kept it.”

What a testimony, huh? He’s not facing death proud of his own achievements. Mercy, mercy was there. I think he certainly wouldn’t have been singing, “I did it my way.”[28] I think he might have sung—is it Toplady? I don’t remember.

Depth of mercy! Can there be
Mercy still reserved for me?
Can my God his wrath forbear?
Me, the chief of sinners, spare?[29]

That was his perspective: “To me there was shown mercy.”[30] Mercy! “Of all the people that would be given this amazing privilege,” he says, “it was entrusted to me.”

“My mission has been accomplished. I’m poured out. I’m leaving. But henceforth…” “Henceforth.” You know, Paul’s whole life in ministry is about moving from what is “out there” to what he’s experiencing in the here and now. “Forgetting [those things which are] behind,” he says, “I press on toward[s] the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”[31] He’s not coming to the end of his ministry talking about the good old days. He’s not actually saying, you know, “I don’t know how you fellows are going to get on, on your own—not when I go.” That’s what people say all the time now: “What’s going to happen?” They asked the same thing of Bishop Ryle. They said, “What’s going to happen to the church when all the old guys like you finally kick their clogs off? What will happen now?” He says, “Worry not, for God has yet brighter stars in his universe.”[32] Close your eyes; open your eyes. They’re there! They’re there!

“I am being poured out. But henceforth there’s more to come. There’s laid up for me the crown of righteousness.” The athletes, to which he has already referred back in chapter 2—“An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules”[33]—but they got a crown of leaves: olive, laurel, pine, whatever. “They got a perishable crown,” he says, “but we receive an imperishable crown.”[34] We don’t earn it. We’re awarded it.

“It’s not unique to me,” he says. That’s why I want to do the end of the chapter—to see how all these other people are so vital to his ministry; how, in one sense, people are our books. “It’s laid up for me—a crown of righteousness the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day.”

I often wonder—you’re not really supposed to wonder like this, but I can tell you, because this is quiet and private in here (apart from the live stream)—but you know, if he’s using a secretary, if he’s using an amanuensis, if he’s got someone who’s working with him, I anticipate that there were times when the person has said to him, “You might want to, you know, just soften that a little bit”—under the direction of the Holy Spirit, you know.

I’m thinking, for example, when he goes on an amazing run in Philippians 3, you know: “I count everything as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I’ve suffered the loss of everything. I count them all as rubble. And the righteousness that comes through faith… That I might know him, the power of his resurrection, the fellowship of his suffering, being made conformable in any possible way until we attain to the resurrection of the dead!”[35]

The secretary just says, “Well, that’s good. But maybe… Oh!” he says. “Maybe something like ‘Not that I have already obtained all this or am already perfect…’”

“That’s good! That’s good! Do that!”

“‘But I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.’”[36]

“Oh, yes! That’s good!”

Because the average person is going to say, “I get that part. I’m pressing on to make what is given to me in Jesus my own. I’m heading on the upward way. I’m not very high up. I’m trying my best, Pastor. Trust me. If you had a sensible job, you would understand how hard it is—you standing up there every Sunday. You come down where I am, you’ll find out where the rubber really meets the road.”

“Not that I have already obtained all this…”

In the same way, this is what I’m saying: that someone says, “Well…” “And he will award that to me on that day.” And the secretary says, “Well, what about everybody else?” And he says, “Well, let’s put that in as well: ‘And not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.’”

You understand that I am not meddling with the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. I’m just suggesting that it is a far more comprehensive program than sometimes we’ve ever imagined. God has sovereignly put it here, and here he wants everybody to know: “I didn’t earn it, and you didn’t earn it either, and you won’t earn it.” It’s important to realize that he’s not singling himself out. He’s been involved in this amazing privilege. All the people, including Timothy and his colleagues, are now going to pick up the baton from him.

I wonder how these crowns will be. Will they all be the same? They’ll all fit—that’s for sure. They’ll all fit properly. You won’t have to take your crown back and say, “Do you have an extra-large?” you know. I think Paul will just wear his at a bit of a funny angle. That’s how we’ll be able to recognize him.

Well, I think I’ve said enough, and I want just to finish. Johnny set us up last night by quoting John Newton, and it got me thinking about Newton, and particularly in relationship to this transition. When you read the letters of Newton, you realize how inadequate most of our communication with one another actually is, both pre- and post-email. But he writes to this man Clunie with regularity, and in the course of his letter which was on July 26, 1776, I think—I remember that—this is what he writes:

How fast the weeks return! We are again upon the eve of a sabbath. May the Lord give us much of his own Spirit on his own day. I trust I have a remembrance in your prayers. I need them much: my service is great. It is, indeed, no small thing to stand between God and the people, to divide the word of truth aright, to give every one [his] portion, to withstand the counter tides of opposition and popularity, and to press those truths upon others, the power of which, I, at times feel so little of in my own soul.

And then listen to this sentence: “A cold, corrupt heart is uncomfortable company in the pulpit.”

A cold, corrupt heart is uncomfortable company in the pulpit. Yet, in the midst of all my fears and unworthiness, I am enabled to cleave to the promise, and to rely on the power of the great Redeemer. I know I am engaged in the cause against which the gates of hell cannot prevail. If He died and rose again, if He ever lives to make intercession, [then] there must be safety under the shadow of his wings: there would I lie. … In his strength I would go forth, do what He enables me, then take shame to myself that I can do no better, and put my hand upon my mouth, confessing that I am dust and ashes,—less than least of all his [saints].

I suppose you will get this before your next meeting at Mr. West’s; my heart will be with you there, and I and my dear friends attempting to pray for you all. May that little meeting be as a garden planted and watered by the Lord: may great grace be with your dear minister and with all the members; and may you and [dear] Mrs. Clunie grow up as plants of renown, and find every ordinance, opportunity, and providence sanctified to the good of your [soul].[37]

That was Newton taking seriously, I suggest, Paul’s charge to Timothy as we find it at the beginning of chapter 4.

Father, thank you that your Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.[38] Thank you that the one to whom you look, as Isaiah reminds us, is the one “who is humble and contrite in spirit” and who “trembles at [your] word.”[39] Thank you that you bring home to us again and again that which is familiar. Because it’s not that we need so much new information as much as we need to pay attention to that which we already hold dear.

We pray that at the very outset of our time, as we have the opportunity to listen to those who will open up the Scriptures and seek to guide us aright, that you will save us from hard-heartedness, a preoccupation with ourselves and how things are, and grant to us an open-hearted welcome to the Lord Jesus Christ as he comes and is ministered to us through his Word. Stir us up, Lord, we pray, so that we, entrusted with this immense responsibility, may then in turn encourage those alongside us, around us, and under our care to stand up and be counted in our day to fulfill the ministry entrusted to us. And this we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[1] William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, The Daily Study Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), 65.

[2] Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, “Speak, O Lord” (2005).

[3] 2 Timothy 3:15–18 (paraphrased).

[4] Hebrews 13:17 (ESV).

[5] Mark 1:15 (paraphrased).

[6] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 5.1. Paraphrased.

[7] Shakespeare, Hamlet, 5.1.

[8] See 2 Timothy 1:13–14.

[9] J. Gresham Machen, introduction to J. Marcellus Kik, The Narrow and Broad Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1934).

[10] Deuteronomy 4:10 (paraphrased).

[11] See 2 Corinthians 3:5.

[12] William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, ed. Sinclair B. Ferguson (1606; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996), 56–63.

[13] The Table Talk of Martin Luther, trans. William Hazlitt, §427. Paraphrased.

[14] 2 Timothy 1:15 (ESV).

[15] Isaiah 30:10 (ESV).

[16] Christine McVie and Eddy Quintela, “Sweet Little Lies” (1987).

[17] See 1 Timothy 4:16.

[18] 2 Timothy 1:8 (paraphrased).

[19] 2 Timothy 1:12 (ESV).

[20] 2 Timothy 2:9–10 (ESV).

[21] Nehemiah 6:6–7 (paraphrased).

[22] Nehemiah 6:8 (NIV).

[23] J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 169.

[24] Acts 5:41–42 (ESV). Emphasis added.

[25] Acts 15:35 (ESV). Emphasis added.

[26] “The Duty of a Pastor,” sermon 5 in Thirteen Sermons Preached on Various Occasions, in The Works of John Owen, ed. Thomas Russell (London: Richard Baynes, 1826), 7:60–72.

[27] Diary of Kenneth A. MacRae: A Record of Fifty Years in the Christian Ministry, ed. Iain H. Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1980), 165.

[28] Paul Anka, “My Way” (1969).

[29] Charles Wesley, “Depth of Mercy” (1740).

[30] 1 Timothy 1:16 (paraphrased).

[31] Philippians 3:13–14 (NIV).

[32] John Charles Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots, enlarged ed. (1879). Paraphrased.

[33] 2 Timothy 2:5 (ESV).

[34] 1 Corinthians 9:25 (paraphrased).

[35] Philippians 3:8–11 (paraphrased).

[36] Philippians 3:12 (paraphrased).

[37] Newton to Captain Clunie, Olney, July 26, 1776, in Letters by the Rev. John Newton of Olney and St. Mary Woolnoth, ed. Josiah Bull (London: Religious Tract Society, 1869), 60–61.

[38] See Psalm 119:105.

[39] Isaiah 66:2 (ESV).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.