I’ve been thinking alot about Paul’s final words to Timothy. Writing from prison in Rome he said, “Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
One of the things that strikes me as interesting is how Paul recounts how people disappointed him and let him down. In fact Paul describes three painful experiences.
He tells of Demas who left him to go to Thessalonica. Paul simply writes that Demas was ‘in love with this present world.’ We know from Colossians 4:14 and Philemon 24 that Demas had seemingly been faithful to Paul and sought the furthering of the kingdom. However as the persecution increased and the cost of discipleship became evident, we find Demas abandoning Paul and following the ways of this world. For years Demas had been with Paul as they shared life with one another. Yet in Paul’s darkest trial he turns away. For Paul I’m sure the wound ran deep.
He goes on to mention Alexander the coppersmith. Scripture doesn’t tell us much about him, but what we do know is quite telling. From Paul’s comments we glean that he did great harm to Paul and was adamently opposed to the message of the gospel. Such was the nature of the hurt that Paul warns Timothy, even as he acknowledges turning him over to God who will ultimately judge.
Finally Paul gives us a glimpse into his first appearance before the ruling authorities in Rome. During his appearance no one stood by him. Not one friend…not one disciple…not one acquaintance. No one. After spending his life investing in others I’m sure Paul was disappointed and perhaps even discouraged that no one was willing to stand with him. Certainly Paul would have thought that these would be the very people who would carry the torch long after his death!
I read these encounters and am reminded that the church, full of imperfect people, can sometimes be messy and even disappointing. Because of this, and in light of the fact that we live in a hyper-individualistic and me-centered culture, it may seem countercultural or even counterintuitive to open up our lives to others and really let them in. But this is exactly what we need to do!
In their book How People Change, Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp remind us that “God has a bigger–and quite frankly, messier and less effecient–plan…change is something God intends his people to experience together. It’s a corporate goal. What God does in individuals is part of a larger story of redemption that involves all of God’s people through the ages.”
When we respond to Christ with faith and repentance we are brought into the family of God. We become part of this chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, and people for His own possession. And it’s in the context of this new community that God intends for us to grow, change, and be conformed into His image. In this new community there will be difficulties, challenges, and even disappointments. So we bear with one another, forgive one another, rebuke one another, be gracious toward one another, etc…just as Christ has been with us!
Paul’s ultimate hope was not in people! His hope was in Jesus Christ. He would write, “But the Lord stood by me and strenthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was recused from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Because his hope was in the finished work of Christ, and due to the fact that he was totally satisfied in Jesus, Paul was now free to give himself to seek the flourishing of others in the same way that Christ had given Himself to seek our flourishing. Paul was truely free to give himself away even when people, both inside and outside of the church, let him down.
Will authentic community be messy and sometimes disappointing? Yes. It was for Paul and will be for us. But as we put our hope in Christ we can bear with one another and show the power of the Gospel to change people.