2 Timothy 4:16-17 “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.”
Paul was no stranger to jail cells: Philippi, Jerusalem, Caesarea, Rome. This time was different. The Christian faith was no longer hiding under the protection of its Jewish roots. It was recognizably different, and it was illegal to spread it. This jail cell was the end of the line for Paul.
His Roman citizenship still afforded him a public hearing in a court of law. He tells Timothy they had already held his first defense. Paul used it as an opportunity to preach the gospel. That was his calling. But humanly speaking, it had left him all alone.
Paul wasn’t saying he had lost every friend in the world. Earlier he notes that Luke was still with him. He fully expects Timothy to come and bring Mark along. But not just anyone could speak in your support at a Roman defense hearing. Your defender needed to be a citizen, and he needed to be a certain kind of prominent citizen to do you any good. Apparently everyone who could have helped had deserted him.
I think we understand the temptations that being left all alone presented to Paul. They still confront us today. There is the temptation to cave in, to change our line, to sing a different tune.
Even the dread of being relatively alone, of becoming an unpopular little minority rejected by most, is a powerful motivator to rob us of the courage of our convictions. If it doesn’t get us to change our message, maybe we try to hide it. We play it safe by keeping our mouths shut. We don’t feel so much like telling others what we believe.
In the face of such temptations, Paul still counted on God’s presence. “But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength.” His experience of the Lord’s support was no different than ours. Paul’s eyes were not opened to see something no one else in the courtroom could see, as Elisha’s servant once saw the angel armies in the form of horses and chariots of fire surrounding Elisha’s house.
Paul found the Lord standing by his side and giving him strength where every Christian does: in the words and promises of God. Do you remember the little autobiographical testimony Paul had given toward the beginning of his first letter to Timothy? “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy, so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” The Grand Canyon sized contrast between Paul’s sin and Christ’s forgiving grace left no doubt in Paul’s mind that the Lord was on his side, and by his side.
Isn’t this a theme, a connection, that runs all through Paul’s life and work? His thoughts are never far from God’s grace at the cross when it comes to the way he lived his life. To the Corinthians: “Christ’s love compels us, for we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (5:14). To the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Again and again it is Christ’s love, his cross, his death, his sacrifice, his grace that occupies Paul’s thoughts and captivates Paul’s heart, so that he lives and serves and endures as though God himself were working through him–which, of course, he was.
It works no differently for us. If we want to know that the Lord is standing by our side, if we want to find his strength, if we want to be sure we are never alone, run to the gospel. Run to God’s grace. Run to the promises. Don’t stand and wait to be hit by a bolt of spiritual lightning out of nowhere. Don’t shrink and shrivel in the face of a world majority that thinks the Gospel is stupid at best and evil at worst. Christ Jesus loves you so much that he died to save you. Christ Jesus loves you so much that he has driven world history to make sure that, out of all the citizens of this planet, you would have parents or friends or pastors or teachers who brought you the gospel and led you to faith. You don’t think he stands by you, then? No, you are never alone as you carry out Christ’s calling.