Paul Facing Death – A.T. Robertson (historic sermon 1863-1934)
“For I am already being offered, and the time of my departure is come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; hence forth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day.” -2 Tim. 4:6
1. The Arrest. The winter came on, the winter of 67 and 68. Paul had left Erastus at Corinth on the way to Nicopolis (II Tim. 4:20). We have not Luke’s graphic pen to describe the occasion and the circumstances of this second arrest. Probably while at Nicopolis during the winter or early spring, Paul suddenly finds himself under arrest as the result of the work of some informer anxious to ingratiate himself into the good graces of Nero and his favorites whose pastime was now the persecution of the Christians. They had grown weary of mere gladiatorial shows. The tortures of Christians, men and maidens, added novelty to the blase life of Rome. His very nearness to Italy invited the attack of professional informers. Nicopolis, monument of the victory of Octavius at Actium, was a good place for such men to gather.
2. The New Charges. We are justified in saying this much. The trouble in Jerusalem had arisen from the Jews as a protest against Paul s work in its bearing on Judaism. His Jewish enemies had tried to give an imperial turn to these charges, but had failed both in Csesarea and Rome (before both provincial and imperial courts). But Christians could not now find shelter under the privileges granted to Judaism by Roman law. The Christian leader was now assumed to be, ipso facto, guilty of dark and dubious practices. The Jews themselves were not in good standing at Rome now that the war in Judea was raging. It may be inferred logically, therefore, that the newly invented charges against Paul had to do with the Roman state and in particular with the burning of Rome. That accusation was still doing duty whenever it was needed against a Christian. It was a matter of public knowledge that Paul had been in Rome not long before the burning of Rome. It would be easy to charge that his departure was only temporary, that he had returned, that he was resentful because of his long imprisonment, that he was in truth a ringleader of the whole affair, that he had since been hiding in distant parts of the empire. It would be easy also to add to this accusation charges of disloyalty against the Emperor because of his language about Jesus as King as at Thessalonica (Acts 17:7). The pathos of the situation lies partly in the fact that he was at this very time urging prayer for kings and all in authority (I Tim. 2:1), and urging obedience and orderly behavior on the part of all Christians (Tit. 3:1). It was just as it had been in his worship in the temple at Jerusalem when arrested before. Paul must now confront not a mob, either Greek or Jewish. He had learned how to escape them by the help of God. He was not to confront the Jewish Sanhedrin whose refinements in theology he well knew. He was not to appear before cowardly provincial governors who did not dare do what they knew was right. He was not, indeed, to face Roman law at all in its free exercise. He would not probably appear before Nero in person, but before the City Prefect, who would merely register the known desire of Nero about Christians. Certain forms of law would be observed, but the wheels of the law would grind out condemnation.
3. The Close Confinement. The freedom enjoyed during the first imprisonment is all gone. He is probably thrown into the Mamertine Prison or, at any rate, is under close military custody (II Tim. 1:16). One is reminded of the condition of John the Baptist in the prison at Machserus and Paul s own fate in the inner prison at Philippi (Acts 16:24). So he is back in Rome again, the new Rome of Nero s mad revels under the tutelage of Tigellinus. Seneca wrote philosophy while Nero gave full rein to his passions. There is no relief to the dark picture save what comes from the inward light of the spirit. It was, indeed, “the irony of human life,” for Paul to be in the hands of a man who was “nothing but a compound of mud
4. The Desertion of Paul s Friends. Not many Christians remained in Rome at a time like this. Many had suffered the martyr s death for Jesus. Others had left the city and probably did wisely in doing so. Crescens had gone to Galatia, perhaps, with a message from Paul, and likewise Titus to Dalmatia (II Tim. 4:10), showing that his work in Crete was of a temporary nature. So Paul had sent Tychicus to Ephesus (II Tim. 4:12). Prisca and Aquila are absent in the East with Timothy (II Tim. 4:19) as well as the house of Onesiphorus. Paul is grateful to Onesiphorus, “for he oft refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain; but, when he was in Rome, he sought me diligently and found me” (II Tim. 1:16). These simple words tell volumes about the difficulty of finding Paul now and the danger of being known as his friend. In his former imprisonment his visitors were many and they came and went “unhindered.” It was an honor among Christians to be in the list of Paul s friends. But now one had to consider whether he was willing to lose his life for the sake of seeing the Apostle to the Gentiles. He could not be rescued. He might be comforted, but at a very high price. Onesiphorus did not count the cost. He had his reward in comforting the lonely Apostle. Most Christians who had to be in Rome made it convenient, so it seems, to be ignorant of Paul s whereabouts and to make no inquiries. Some remained and were loyal to Paul (though not constantly with him), like Eubulus, Pudens, Linus, Claudia and “all the brethren” in Rome who were still spared by Nero (II Tim. 4 :21). But Demas forsook Paul, “having loved this present world, and went to Thessalonica” (II Tim. 4:10). He suddenly found a pressing demand for his services there and Paul felt the desertion keenly.
5. The First Stage of the Trial. This has already passed when he writes his last Epistle, our only source
of information for this closing period of Paul s life. The less serious charge apparently came first. What it was we do not know. It may have been that Christianity was a religio nova et illicita. This matter was involved in his former appearance at the bar of Nero. It had fallen through then and may have failed now. We know the name of one of the accusers at this first stage of Paul s last trial. “Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil” (4:14). He may have been the same Alexander who at Ephesus (Acts 19 : 33) sought to clear the Jews of any connection with Paul and his denunciation of Diana and her temple. The name is a common one. But if he is the same man, he was doubtless glad of his chance to settle his account with Paul since the multitude would not hear him that day. His resentment was of long standing and his representations told heavily against Paul. Paul warns Timothy to beware of him if he ever comes his way, “for he greatly withstood our words” (II Tim. 4:15). He seems to have been the chief spokesman among the accusers.
It seems that a considerable audience was present at this stage of the trial (4:17). Paul was the most famous Christian in the world. Common as the condemnation of Christians had come to be, fresh interest would be aroused by this case. When Paul came to Rome the first time, he was met by a delegation of brethren whose coming gave him courage. Now he looked around in vain for any one to take his part (4:16). “All forsook me.” Had Luke failed to be present on that day? Paul cannot help thinking of all the peril that he has risked for other Christians. It does seem a little hard now to be left alone in the mouth of the lion. “May it not be laid to their account.”
But he had help. It was his last opportunity to speak the message of eternal life to all the Gentiles present. “The Lord stood by me and strengthened me” (4:17). Was it a vision? Jesus had come to his side at Jerusalem after his conversion, when the Jews refused to hear him, at Corinth when they rejected his message, at Jerusalem again when they clamored for his blood. Paul had turned away from all his former friends to follow Jesus. Now all his Christian friends leave him. But Jesus does not leave Paul. With Jesus at his side he cares not for Nero, worse than a Numidian lion, whose hungry mouth was ready for him (4:17). Paul may mean that as a Roman citizen he could not be thrown to the wild beasts. He was acquitted, therefore, on this first charge. But it was only a matter of time till the end came.
6. The Loneliness of Paul. It was in the spring when Paul was writing, the spring of 68. He has passed through part of the winter or early spring in the dreary Roman prison. He has missed his warm cloak which he left at Troas with Carpus (4:13) on his way to Macedonia to winter at Nicopolis. He does not know how long the trial will be drawn out. It may last till the next winter, and so he urges Timothy to be sure to come to Rome before winter (4:21). It makes him shudder to think of another winter without that cloak.
But that is not the worst of it. He is lonely. “Only Luke is with me” (4:11). Thank God for the faithful physician who will risk all for his patient and friend. There is no complaint of Luke, but both of them hunger for the fellowship of others. Paul makes a direct appeal to Timothy to come to him. We do not know where Timothy was when he received this Second Epistle. The mention of Ephesus (1:18; 4:12) can be argued either way. He may have left Ephesus by now as Titus had left Crete. The presence of the house of Onesiphorus and of Prisca and Aquila with Timothy may argue still for Ephesus as his abode. But, wherever he was, we may be sure that he made all “diligence to come shortly” to Paul (4 : 9). There was no doubt of the devotion of Timothy to the grand old hero of the cross in the Roman prison. Timothy would risk his life for Paul. It seems from Heb. 13:23 that Timothy did come and was put into prison. When the Epistle to the Hebrews was written (probably A.D. 69, just before the destruction of Jerusalem and after Paul s death) Timothy has been set free. Whether he came before Paul s death or not is very uncertain, since the end came long before the oncoming winter.
It is a pleasant circumstance to note that Paul singles out Mark (II Tim. 4:11) as a young minister who can be counted on to be true in this time of trial. He has already been useful to Paul for ministering and has gotten bravely over the Perga experience. It is a good thing to reflect that a young man who makes a mistake may recover his ground. It is high tribute to Mark that Paul now couples his name with that of Timothy as one who will stick to the work, who will even dare the wrath of Nero to do so. The aged preacher appeals to two young preachers to come and stand by his side. That was a call to stir their blood.
Another element entered into Paul s loneliness. He had left most of his books and parchments at Troas. He was busy travelling and so left them with Carpus. He is in prison without friends (save Luke) and without books. That is a pathetic condition, indeed, and throws a keen light into Paul s nature, his love of books. He not merely exhorted Timothy to read. He had been a student himself as well as the writer of what have proved to be the greatest letters of history. Busy as Paul s life had been, as missionary and leader, he had not forgotten his books. Life is dreary without his books. Pity the old man who does not love books. Other friends may desert you. Good books stay with you. These “parchments” were probably portions of the Old Testament much used by Paul and precious to him. He may have made notes upon them.
7. A Last Message to Timothy. Paul has not lost his hold upon the workers nor his interest in the work. He has sent messengers to various parts of the world. By one of these, probably, this message to Timothy is conveyed. Greatly as Paul is concerned about his own problems, he is alert and eager to help Timothy. He hungers for sympathy, but he bravely puts heart into Timothy s plans. He reminds his “beloved child” of his pious ancestry and urges him to be worthy of such a heritage of faith (1 : 5). From a babe he has known the Holy Scriptures. The love of these devoted teachers should inspire Timothy (3 : 14 f.) to loyalty to the Word of God. Paul begs Timothy to kindle into a blaze the gift of God which he has (1:6). God gave a spirit of courage and power (1:7). It is a noble appeal that Paul here makes for bravery on the part of the young preacher. Hardship is the lot to which Paul calls him in ch. 2. Remember Jesus, remember Paul and forget hardship. Paul is ambitious that Timothy may be an expert teacher of the Word of God (2 : 15). That is the best way to meet heresy. Give people the truth. Dislodge error by the “expulsive power” of truth. Timothy will have trouble after Paul is gone, but let him be true to Paul s teaching and example (3 : 10 f.). “Out of them all the Lord delivered me.” But how can Paul talk so now? God has kept him to a good old age and established the work of his hands. He must go some time. Nothing that can now happen can
undo what God has done. Paul is not a pessimist as he warns Timothy against heresy and heretics. “The firm foundation of God standeth” (2:19). Let Timothy preach the word and fulfill his ministry (4 : 2, 5). That is his part. It is a bugle note from the old warrior.
8. Paul s Estimate of His Own Career. He is the battle-scarred veteran of many conflicts and may be allowed to say a word about himself. It is a brief word and is sometimes called his Swan-song just before his death. Paul s fight is over. That is plain to him and he is not unwilling for Timothy to know it. True, he may linger on some months or a year or so. But he never expects to have his freedom again. He remembers the five years of his former imprisonment and knows the changed conditions of his present state. He has run his course. He had longed to do this though ready to die if need be years before (Acts 20 : 24). God has been good to him. His work is done. He has no regrets. He made no mistake that day when he turned to Jesus on the road to Damascus.
He stands by his guns as he falls at his post, and urges those that remain to carry on the fight. Let us to-day hear his call. There is no sign of surrender, no note of defeat. He is calm as he beholds the end. He indulges in no self-praise. He has simply carried his load to the end of the journey. That is all. He has been preacher, Apostle, teacher, and he is not ashamed (1:11 f.). He does not boast. He is humble at the feet of the Master. He exults in knowing that he has kept the faith. Of this he is proud. He has stood against Judaizer and Gnostic to preserve the truth of the gospel. This fact is a solace to the old preacher whose last sermon has been preached. He has never been disloyal to Christ.
9. He Longs for Jesus. Paul does not doubt Jesus, for he has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (II Tim. 1:10). If there is one thing in the world about which Paul can speak with authority it is fellowship with Jesus. “I know him whom I have believed” (1:12). In the last analysis this is the fundamental apologetic, knowledge of Jesus. Nothing can rob Paul of this. He knows Christ by a blessed experience of thirty years or more. He has the full persuasion that Jesus is able to guard that which he has committed unto him against that day (1:12).
Paul s face is now turned toward “that day.” In deed, he is “already being offered” and the time of his departure has come (4:6). He had long been ready for that consummation (Phil. 1:23). At last he is released from the harness like the faithful horse at the end of the day s journey. It will be sweet to rest from the toil and strife, but he is glad that he has had his share of the work.
It is futile for his enemies to attack him. “The Lord will deliver me from every evil work” (4:18). He does not mean that he will be set free from the charges against him. Not that, but something better. Jesus “will save me unto his heavenly Kingdom.” There his enemies will not come and cannot harm him. Paul still has interest in earthly affairs, but his heart is in the hills on high. He looks away to the mountains. His feet are growing restless and the sun is setting in the west. Jesus is beckoning to him and he will go.
He has a “crown of righteousness” laid up for him which the Lord Jesus, “the righteous judge,” will give
him at that day (4:8). It matters little to Paul what the decision of Nero or his minions may be. He will appeal this time to the Supreme Judge, to the Highest Court, whose decision cannot be reversed. This “righteous judge” will give him his crown. That will be glory for Paul. He can pass by with indifference the whim of Nero. Let him do his worst. Paul is not now caring for Caesar s judgment-seat. Once Paul had said that his aim had been to bring every thought into subjection to Christ (II Cor. 10:5). Christ is living in Paul (Gal. 2:20). With Christ he is content. He is seeking the things above where Christ is (Col. 3:1). He moves serenely in the high, clear atmosphere like the triumphant eagle. Ke is going soon to be at home with the Lord (II Cor. 5:8). He will “depart and be with Christ; for it is very far better.”
10. The Condemnation. The end came sooner than Paul had expected. Nero s own star suddenly set in gloom. It has never risen again. By the middle of June A.D. 68 Nero was dead in disgrace. The common tradition is that Paul was put to death before Nero s departure. Hence in May or early June we must suppose that Paul met the long-foreseen doom. If Timothy came before that time he also was made a prisoner though he escaped with his life (Heb. 13 : 23). If so, Paul had the comfort of Timothy s fellowship awhile at least. It is doubtful if Mark was able to come. But Paul may have had another look at his books.
If Paul was accused of complicity in the burning of Rome, summary judgment was rendered. As a Roman citizen, he was spared a slow, torturing death. He was not to be burned or to go to the lions. But he was to be beheaded. At last one day he heard the sentence of death pronounced upon himself. He had faced that peril many-times before (II Cor. 1:9). It is now a reality. He is to follow in the footsteps of his Master. He had once revolted against the notion of a crucified Messiah. But the Cross had come to be Paul s glory (Gal. 6 : 14). He will bear his own cross. He already bears the brand-marks of Jesus.
11. Paul s Death. The details are all wanting. Tradition supplies only a few, which may be true or not. The story is that Paul was beheaded on the Ostian Road. It was customary for criminals of prominence to be executed several miles out of the city so as to avoid the crowds.
We may picture the event in a possible manner. One day in late spring or early June the executioners came to Paul s dungeon and led him out of the city. One is reminded of Jesus as he bore his cross along his Via Dolorosa. Paul, as a condemned criminal, would be the victim of the rabble s sport. He would have no defender. We do not know if Luke was with Paul to the very last. We may at least hope so. If he could, he would surely walk along as near Paul as would be allowed. But no band of Christians followed with him now. He was going out of Rome on his way to the true Eternal City. He knew Rome well, but his eyes were fixed on other things. Outside the city the busy, merry life of the time went on. The crowds flowed into town. Some were going out. Paul was only a criminal going to be beheaded. Few, if any, of the crowds about would know or care anything about him. At a good place on the road some miles out the executioners stopped. The block was laid down. Paul laid his head upon it. The sword (or axe) was raised. The head of the greatest preacher of the ages rolled upon the ground. Tradition says that a Roman “matron named Lucina buried the body of St. Paul on her own land, beside the Ostian Road.” Be that as it may, no Christian can come to Rome, especially by the Ostian Road, without tender thoughts of Paul, the matchless servant of Jesus.
It is hard to leave Paul without a thought of Peter, whose martyrdom was probably at Rome and may have
been not far from the same time. Legend has been busy with that event. The story goes that Peter was
running away from Rome to escape death and was met on the Appian Way by Jesus. He fell at the feet
of Jesus and asked, “Domine, quo vadis?” The Master answered, “Venio iterum crucifigi.” Stricken with shame, Peter went back to Rome and to death. There is no proof for that story. It may be just an echo of Peter s real denial of Jesus and of Paul s martyrdom. But the time was full of change. Paul is dead. Peter is dead. Soon Jerusalem will be in ruins. The Temple of Jehovah will be no more. But the Kingdom of Jesus has girt the Mediterranean Sea and has taken root all over the Roman Empire. Paul lived to see his dream of a world empire for Christ largely realized. He, not Peter, is the spiritual leader of apostolic Christianity. Peter fell into line with Paul s masterful aggressiveness and rejoiced in the hand of God that was laid upon the great interpreter of Jesus.
12. A Backward Look. One hesitates to add a word more about Paul. He has gone to be with his Lord. But nearly nineteen centuries have rolled by since Paul planted the gospel in the Empire of Nero. His name to-day is the great name in Christian history after that of Jesus. It is not enough to say that he stood at the source of Christianity and put his impress upon it in the formative period. That is quite true, but a great deal more is true. Real Christianity has never gotten away from Paul. I do not believe that it ever will. He was the great thinker in this important era. He blazed the way in doctrine and in life. He caught the spirit of Jesus and breathed that spirit into Gentile Christianity. The uneasiness of Paul, expressed in his Epistles to Timothy, about the future of Christianity had ample justification. The time did come when that very Romanism which he had so admired in some of its phases seized upon Christianity, mixed it with the Judaism which he fought and radically perverted the gospel of Christ. The Gnostic heresies which had arisen grew in power, and Mithraism came to give battle to Christianity in the Roman Empire.
But however far men have at times wandered away from Christ, the Epistles of Paul stand as beacon lights
to call them back to Christ. We can find Christ more easily because Paul saw him so clearly. He will help the modern world to find Jesus. He did not wish men to think of him. His highest hope is realized when men turn to Jesus with heart and hope because of what Paul was and is.
The theme of Paul is not exhausted in this present volume. Books about Paul will continue to come from the press. His stature grows greater with the years. He is foremost as theologian, as practical missionary, as constructive statesman, as man of boundless resource and energy. No one in Christian history approaches him in these respects. No word about Paul is complete that does not lay stress upon his mysticism. John gives us the supreme picture of the mystical side of Jesus. Paul reveals his own mystical relation to Christ. John writes in a calmer tone, while Paul loses himself in the abandon of passionate devotion to Christ and identification with him. Masterful in intellect, mighty in endeavor, high in spirit, rich in heart was Paul, whose winged words to-day challenge the world s attention and call men “to know the love of Christ that passeth knowledge” and to “be filled unto all the fullness of God.”