At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf,
but everyone deserted me.
May it not be held against them!
But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength,
so that through me the proclamation might be completed
and all the Gentiles hear of it.
And I was rescued from the Lion’s mouth.
The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat
and will bring me safe to His heavenly kingdom.
To Him be glory forever and ever.
II Timothy 4:6–8, 16–18
Modern scholarship has raised plausible doubts that Paul wrote by his own hand the letters to Timothy and Titus that bear his name. These letters seem to reflect an anxiety that the Churches are under attack from within and display an interest in encouraging the orderly life of a Church properly obedient to its bishops in the midst of false teaching and moral failure. This situation seems to many to locate these letters in the eighties or later, long after Paul’s martyrdom in the sixties. Others have argued that certain texts in the Pastoral Epistles seem to speak in Paul’s voice known from his letters to Rome and to the Galatians, as in the text from Second Timothy above.
These verses are from a longer passage in which Paul, in an elegiac mood, his life is drawing to a close, “the time of my departure has come,” is reflecting on a trial that is not long past. He was abandoned. The danger he faced was probably the arena: “He saved me from the lion’s mouth” may be metaphorical, but it may not. In any event it is characteristic of the life Paul had lived. In Second Corinthians he lists the “imprisonments and countless beatings” that brought him close to death. Five times given forty lashes less one by the Jews. Was this early in his apostleship, when he tried to witness in the synagogue, or perhaps when he returned to Jerusalem to bring aid to the Church there? Does “beaten with rods three times” refer to judicial punishment or the casual violence of those who opposed his teaching? Once stoned. Adrift at sea. Shipwrecked three times. In danger from both the Jews, “his own people” and the Gentiles. Sleepless and hungry, meanwhile bearing the daily pressure of his anxiety for all the Churches. There was the fear that faith would fail in his young Churches. False apostles were waiting to lure them away from the faith Paul shared with Cephas and the ‘pillar’ apostles at Rome into the soul-destroying heresies that surrounded the Church from the beginning or back into slavery under the Old Law. And for years there would be suspicion wherever Paul went from those who remembered him as a zealous persecutor. And add to this list his personal difficulties. He had been charged with establishing the Church, but while his letters were impressive, his appearance was disappointing and his rhetorical ability contemptible. And there was as well the persistent thorn in his flesh. Whether it was a bad knee or some persistent temptation; whatever it was God had refused to remove it from Paul’s life. And finally there would be death at the hands of the state and apparent ignominy.
Given this history, what can Paul mean when he says that God will rescue him from every evil threat? The record of divine performance on this count would seem most imperfect. One might be reminded of Fiddler on the Roof’s Teyve the dairyman, shaking his fist at heaven and asking God to choose somebody else. For Paul’s commission as an apostle of Jesus Christ had brought him beatings, dangers, disappointments, a hard life of unremitting anxiety. But this could also be said: “Rescue from the Lion’s mouth” could and did mean that God had saved his life throughout the disasters and injustices Paul had endured. It also, obviously, means that the Lord had never taken the Spirit of His presence from Paul. “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength,” so that although he had suffered the abandonment, Paul had never been alone.
We are not promised that our path will be easy but with Paul we can say, He will see me through the evils that must be faced, “He will bring me safe to His heavenly kingdom.” Life is a pilgrimage and it is the revealed will of our Father in Heaven that with the gift of faith there comes a promise. Abraham believed God and he was given the promise of a fair land and a progeny more numerous than stars of heaven (Genesis 15:5–6). We will never know what happened to Paul after he was led blind to Ananias in the Street called Straight in Damascus. But between that day and his return from Arabia, the gift of faith and the certainty of his call given by the of vision on the road had matured in his vocation as an apostle of the one he had persecuted. There would be difficulties, the near despair of his own failure to achieve the God-pleasing holiness he longed for (Romans 7:15-20), the difficulty of maintaining the authority of his call (I Corinthians 9:1–2). But as Newman wrote, a dozen difficulties do not make one doubt. The power of Paul’s life and hence of his apostleship was the certainty, born of faith, that God would see him through.
And us also; through every evil, safe to His heavenly kingdom. This is the light that shines down the path of every pilgrim, illuminating the ordinary, making bearable the frustration of hopes and the pain of life, and infusing every step with hope. Few are beaten or cast adrift, but it belongs to the Christian life to expect the opposition of Satan, the chastisement of sons and daughters, and frustrations of a world infected by sin, knowing that every baptized person is called into the eternal joy of the heavenly kingdom where the realities that are the substance of those shadows and types we now know will be given to us in the vision of Christ in whom all things subsist, where we will know and be known (I Corinthians 13:12), where the story we have longed to tell amidst the confusions of a fallen world, if it can be said in the Presence, will join the chorus of praise that is the work of the Heavenly Kingdom.
He will see us through. To Him be glory forever and ever.