To some degree or another, most of us have felt all alone at some time in our lives. Maybe you did something foolish and people were merciless in the way they treated you. Maybe you had a relationship end and felt as though you now had no friends. Maybe you experienced a great loss in your life and felt like people pulled away from you. Maybe you found yourself the subject of vicious rumors that everyone seemed to believe. Or maybe you were in a leadership position or public office and suddenly found that people had turned against you, treated you with disdain, and impugned your motives. Whatever the situation, that feeling of loneliness is hard. In those times, we begin to feel like the world is against us and that no one cares about us. In those times, many of the people we thought of as friends may even turn their backs on us. It is a discouraging place to be.
In our text this morning the Apostle Paul tells Timothy of a time when he felt all alone. He shares with Timothy some of the lessons he learned from being in prison and feeling like everyone had abandoned him. He reminds Timothy of the importance of clinging to the truth and the difference that one person who genuinely cares can make. He encourages Timothy to cultivate these traits in his own life, so that his legacy may be one of dependability.
Our text this morning is really divided into two sections. In the first section (verses 12-14), Paul reminds Timothy that the foundation of the Christian faith is found in the true gospel message. He tells Timothy to hold firmly to that message. In the second section (verses 15-18) Paul recounts his experience of feeling abandoned while he was imprisoned in Rome. Here he tells Timothy to think about the kind of friend he would like to have, and then to work at being that kind of friend to others.
Cling to the Gospel
We turn our attention first to verses 12-14,
12 That is why I am suffering here in prison. But I am not ashamed of it, for I know the one in whom I trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until the day of his return.
13 Hold on to the pattern of wholesome teaching you learned from me—a pattern shaped by the faith and love that you have in Christ Jesus. 14 Through the power of the Holy Spirit who lives within us, carefully guard the precious truth that has been entrusted to you. (2 Timothy 1:12-14, NLT)
As we saw last week, the apostle Paul was talking to Timothy about the importance of not being ashamed of the gospel, regardless of the consequences. In these verses he reiterates his call to Timothy, telling him to “Hold on to the pattern of wholesome teaching” he had learned from Paul. Paul reminds Timothy that even though clinging to the truth of the gospel had put him in prison, it was also the source of his confidence. He reminds Timothy that ultimately what sustains us in the difficult times will not be accolades, friendships, or even our own abilities, but only the confidence we have in the One in whom we believe. Nothing is more important than to ensure we remain faithful to the truth of the gospel message.
Timothy was a young pastor, so it makes sense that Paul would encourage him to remain faithful to the message of the gospel—after all, pastors instruct others and must answer to God if they lead people astray. But Paul’s instruction applies to every believer, not only pastors. Every believer needs to ensure we are holding onto the truth because it is the foundation on which we build our lives.
Throughout history human beings have invented many religions. In Paul’s time there were religions where you worshiped by going to the temple and having sex. These religions were popular, but just because they were popular didn’t mean they were true. Worshiping a made up god did those people no good in their daily life—and it certainly did them no good when they reached the end of their lives.
That is an extreme example of a religion that is popular but is really destructive, but these kinds of destructive beliefs are all around us. There many churches that claim to be Christian who have begun teaching things that are popular, but untrue. Think about some of the things we hear out of churches today:
- God is love—he wouldn’t punish people he loves. Everyone will ultimately go to heaven when they die, because love wins.
- It doesn’t matter if you live God’s way or not; God’s biggest concern is that you are happy. If God’s laws conflict with what you think will make you happy, God understands if you simply ignore them.
- If you live the way God (or your pastor) tells you to, then God will bless you greatly in this life (with money, stuff, and health). If you don’t have those things it’s because you have made God mad.
- If you can just do enough good things, then God will forgive you of the bad things you have done.
- God set the world up and then allowed things to take their natural course; He is not the Creator and Sustainer of all things.
- Jesus was a great moral teacher, or a wonderful prophet, but he was not God in the flesh, nor did he rise from the dead.
I hope you see the falsehoods in each of these statements. These are non-Christian beliefs, but they are being proclaimed in so-called Christian churches around the country and by many who call themselves Christians. Paul tells us to cling to the truths of scripture because those truths are the things on which we base our lives. If we build on a foundation that is false, it will eventually crumble under our feet.
Paul tells Timothy to do two things with the truth of the gospel. He tells him first to hold on to the pattern of teaching Paul had given him. This means we should constantly be evaluating our own beliefs to make sure that we are staying in line with the pattern of what the scriptures teach. We need to check ourselves and our beliefs against what the Bible says. When we read a passage of scripture, we need to ask ourselves if our beliefs are consistent with what we have just read. If they are not, then we need to change our beliefs. We need to hold firmly to the truth of the Bible, because there is too much at stake.
The second thing he tells Timothy is to carefully guard this precious truth. This means we are to defend the truths of scripture against those who would distort them. This doesn’t mean that we must jump on anyone who doesn’t see things exactly as we do, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we are to be mean or attacking to those who have abandoned the truth, but it does mean that we must lovingly confront those who are proclaiming a false gospel. There are some things on which Christians can “agree to disagree”, but there are others that are non-negotiable. The non-negotiables include things like,
- The authority of the scriptures. We must correct those who say the Bible is anything short of the inspired Word of God.
- The deity of Jesus. Those who would declare that Jesus was not really God are proclaiming a false gospel.
- The reality of the resurrection. Jesus literally died and literally (and bodily) rose from the dead. This truth is at the core of Christianity.
- The necessity of Jesus as our savior. If people think that we are basically good, or that God will simply overlook our sin, they are mistaken. Every person is sinful and needs the forgiveness that is only found in following Jesus Christ.
Paul reminds Timothy that these things are the source of our confidence; they are the bedrock on which we build. And if we cling to these truths, they will give us the confidence to stand firm, no matter what trials we face. So, we should be diligent in understanding the true gospel, making sure that we hold firmly to it, and defending it against those who seek to distort it.
A Contrast in Character
In verse 15, Paul seems to abruptly change his focus. He moves from talking about the truth of the gospel to talking about how he felt abandoned and alone. I think Paul actually saw a connection between these sections. He talks about feeling abandoned by the world, but told Timothy that nothing (even abandonment by his friends) could make him turn away from the truth of the Gospel. But I think he includes the examples in this section to encourage Timothy to think about his legacy. He gives us two different character examples, one that is positive, and one that is negative.
Paul starts with the negative example in verse 15,
15 As you know, everyone from the province of Asia has deserted me—even Phygelus and Hermogenes. (2 Timothy 1:15, NLT)
Paul engages in some hyperbole here, because clearly every single person in Asia had not abandoned him (Timothy had not abandoned him, and in the following verses we read about another who had not), but we can certainly resonate with that feeling. When someone you care about turns on you or turns their back on you, it wounds you deeply. When the people you thought were friends turn away from you in the midst of a difficult situation, you are left feeling like you are all alone.
This is what happened to Paul. When Paul was imprisoned again for preaching the gospel and it seemed like he was destined to be killed at the hands of the Roman government, most of the believers whom he counted as faithful friends and followers began to distance themselves from him. People do this for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it’s so the scorn you are receiving doesn’t rub off on them, sometimes it’s just simply that they don’t know how to respond, so rather than say or do the wrong thing, they pull away and do nothing. It’s a common response, but that doesn’t make it less painful.
Apparently Phygelus and Hermogenes (who we know only from this verse) had been two people that Paul had previously felt like were some of his most committed friends or partners in ministry. Because these two close friends had also turned their backs on him, Paul felt like everyone had abandoned him.
He contrasts the way he was treated by Phygelus, Hermogenes, and many of the other believers in Asia with the way he was treated by a man by the name of Onesiphorus.
16 May the Lord show special kindness to Onesiphorus and all his family because he often visited and encouraged me. He was never ashamed of me because I was in chains. 17 When he came to Rome, he searched everywhere until he found me. 18 May the Lord show him special kindness on the day of Christ’s return. And you know very well how helpful he was in Ephesus. (2 Timothy 1:16-18, NLT)
Again, the only information we have about Onesiphorus is contained in these verses. Nowhere else in scripture do we read about him, but Paul includes his example here to encourage Timothy to be a friend like Onesiphorus; someone who perseveres, not someone who walks away when things get difficult.
Paul said that Onesiphorus was not ashamed of him and that he had searched high and low to find him when he got to Rome. Apparently Onesiphorus was not from Rome, and had come there specifically to visit Paul. For whatever reason (possibly that the Roman government was trying to keep it a secret), it was not easy for Onesiphorus to find Paul, and he had to search “everywhere” until he found him. It is likely that even if people knew where Paul was being held, they were hesitant to tell anyone for fear of being identified with him and facing imprisonment themselves. But Onesiphorus kept searching, kept asking people, and kept knocking on doors until he found his friend.
There is debate amongst scholars on what happened to Onesiphorus after he visited Paul. In the original language, Paul issues a blessing to the “household of Onesiphorus”, not to Onesiphorus and his family. This has led some to conclude that maybe Onesiphorus had died as a result of his attempts to visit Paul. Maybe he had died on the journey home, or maybe he had gotten in trouble with the Roman government for visiting him and had been executed himself. We don’t know what happened to him; maybe Paul blessed his family simply because he was so thankful. What we do know is that Onesiphorus went out of his way to care for Paul, and it made a huge impact on Paul. We learn that we should be willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of others.
There is one other thing we learn about Onesiphorus from these verses, however, and that is that this was apparently not new behavior. Paul said that Timothy knew very well how helpful he had been in Ephesus. This was not the first time that Paul (and probably Timothy as well) had been recipients of Onesiphorus’ care. This was the pattern of his life—he was the kind of person who gave of himself to others. He was the kind of person who took the time to see the needs of those around him and to meet them—even if it meant it would cost him something. True friendship always has a cost—that’s what makes it so precious.
Paul included this section in his letter to Timothy to tell him to think carefully about the kind of legacy he was leaving. He challenged Timothy to invest his life into being a friend like Onesiphorus—one that people could point to and say, “You know very well how helpful Timothy was…” In order to leave that kind of legacy, you must be consistent in the way you live—which is what Paul urges each of us to do; to be consistent in looking out for the needs of others, even if it costs us. That’s what true friends do.
This is kind of a strange passage, because it seems a little bit disjointed, but ultimately, Paul is trying to teach to Timothy some important things about ministry and life. The lessons Paul gives to Timothy apply to each of us as well.
First, we need to carefully examine ourselves and our beliefs. We need to ensure that what we believe is what the Bible teaches. We need to hold fast to the true gospel. Those who are taken in by a false gospel have no hope, but when we fix our eyes on Jesus and follow after Him, we can have the confidence to face any situation, just like Paul did.
There’s an old Peanuts comic strip that actually is pretty profound. In it Lucy and Linus are sitting in front of a window watching the rain. Lucy notices it’s raining so hard and begins to ask what if it floods the whole world? Linus responds by telling her what the Bible says—that God promised He would never again flood the world, and that the rainbow is the reminder of God’s promise. Lucy tells Linus that he’s taken a great load off her mind. Linus’ response? “Sound theology has a way of doing that!”
Linus is correct. When we closely follow the pattern that Paul and the other biblical writers have lain down, we find ourselves with the confidence we need to face the struggles of life. We can endure anything, just as Paul did. Similarly, we have a responsibility to guard that truth against those who would seek to lead us or others astray. Sound theology is more than an academic exercise; it is the basis of how we live our lives. Like Timothy, we want to have a legacy of being people who hold fast to the truth of scripture—but in order to do that, we have to be diligent in studying the scriptures and constantly examining our lives and our beliefs to make sure we are holding tightly to the pattern of teaching given by Paul.
The second take-home point we need to see is the value of friends who are dependable and loyal. Paul expresses something many of us have experienced—profound loneliness and a feeling of being abandoned by those we thought cared for us. The church should be a place of dependability and friendship. We should not be the kind of people who turn our backs on friends just because they are going through a difficult time. We should be people who stand with those who are hurting.
I want to speak to two different groups of people. First, to those of you who feel like Paul. If you feel like the world has turned its back on you, if you feel like everyone has abandoned you, whether you feel like you have done something to deserve it or not, let me first say that I’m sorry that you feel abandoned. I want you to remember this however, even though you feel alone, you are not. Paul felt like everyone had deserted him, but he knew that wasn’t true. He knew the Lord was by his side and would never leave him, but he also knew that Timothy and Onesiphorus had stuck by him. In a difficult situation we tend to only see those who have abandoned us or attacked us. Look more carefully, and see that there really are people who love you and care for you. The whole world has not turned against you—even though it might feel that way.
The second group is actually all of us—regardless of what situation you are in. Paul’s instruction is to strive to leave a legacy like Onesiphorus. Be people who can be depended upon. Refuse to follow the pattern of the world and instead choose to be a good friend. If you’re in the midst of a troubling time, focus your energy on being the kind of friend you would like to have—focus on being Onesiphorus to the people around you, even if you feel like you don’t have an Onesiphorus in your life. And if everything seems to be going well in your life, look around you and see the people who are in need. Look for the people who need a friend, and then be that friend. That kind of friendship is often messy, and we may be attacked by others for sticking close to those around us or for refusing to take sides, but we need to focus on living a legacy like Onesiphorus. At the end of our lives, there should be a line of people who can say, “I know firsthand how helpful they were. I have seen what a good friend they have been.” The church should be filled with people with this kind of legacy.
Lastly, we need to make sure we show appreciation to those who genuinely care for us. Paul was genuinely grateful to Onesiphorus and blessed him. When people care for us like that, we need to tell them how much we value their friendship. We need to help them see the treasure they are to us.
In order to live this way we have to get over ourselves. We have to look beyond the immediate and see the bigger picture. We need to be willing to endure some hardship in life in order to do what is right. Paul encourages us to think about the legacy we will leave—but a legacy doesn’t happen overnight. It comes from the consistent pattern of our lives. So let us work at being consistent at holding fast to the truth, and at being a friend who can be depended upon, no matter what the circumstance.