August 14, 2022
Every relationship has its last goodbye. In the closing verses of 2 Timothy, Paul sent his final greetings to several people who encouraged him during his ministry. Alistair Begg briefly examines Paul’s words to Priscilla, Aquila, Onesiphorus, and a handful of others, explaining how these men and women served Paul and in turn all future believers. In the same way today, every life lived for Christ—no matter its reach—can be eternally significant in Gospel ministry.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, I said this morning that since I didn’t finish, I would try and finish the passage that we read. And so, just in case you weren’t present this morning, we were reading from 2 Timothy and from chapter 4, and we were considering the transition that was taking place with the imminent—apparently imminent—passing of the apostle Paul and the handing on of the baton of faith to the arms and into the hands of Timothy as a young man.
And the reason that we arrived at this was because, as I said this morning, we were thinking last Sunday of the last words of David as we found them in 2 Samuel, and we were considering in the evening the long list of individuals who were a vital part of the life and impact of David in his role as the king. And I think I wasn’t alone in finding that that was a recurring thought through the week: the idea that there will be a last time for every journey; there will be the last time that you put the car keys in your car; there will be a last time that you kiss your wife goodbye.
I had a book this week that came from a lady, to whom I subsequently spoke, in which she chronicled her experience of bereavement when she, as a fifty-four-year-old lady, had walked out of her house, leaving her husband of sixty-four sitting in his favorite chair. An hour later, she walked back into her house to find him still sitting in the chair, but he had passed from time and into eternity. And she wrote in her journal of how this was a day that she never anticipated, she clearly had never prepared for. And she wrote so helpfully that I felt inclined to call her and ask her just the details of it, because I want to learn from that. I want to learn for myself. I want to learn so that I can be of help to others who themselves are facing bereavement. She’s now seventy-three years old. That’s nineteen years on from that day, and yet the transition is still a very real one.
There are all kinds of transitions in life. As I mentioned this morning, there’s the moment when the oldest of our children leave and we become empty nesters, moments of sadness, moments of immediate joy, and all kinds of bits and pieces. And therefore, what I wanted us to really come to grips with was the intense humanity and down-to-earthness of what is conveyed here in this section—that although, as we said this morning, that the apostle’s heart is in heaven, his feet were so firmly and securely on the ground. And his anticipation of what death would mean for him did not immediately move him out of the realm of concerns for the everyday events of life that had to do with his imprisonment, that had to do with, perhaps, his lack of inspiration from reading material, that had to do with his own experience of being cold and at the same time of being friendless. And while he would have been able to say that his best friend was Jesus, still, these other folks were important to him. And that is why, as he nears the end of his life, he’s anticipating the company of Timothy and of Luke and of Mark. And it is in that context that he ends his letter.
The way in which we considered it was very straightforward, and that’s why we had ended at the eighteenth verse, and with our time gone, we just stopped. His anticipation was that he had been protected from all of the attempts of his enemy, whether it was the Roman authorities or others, to take his life from him, and he was confident that having been “rescued,” as he put it, “from the lion’s mouth,” the Lord would “rescue” him “from every evil deed” and “bring” him “safely into his [eternal] kingdom.”
And then, of course, he has this PS. And immediately he goes on to say, “Make sure that you greet Prisca,” or Priscilla, “and Aquila.”
First of all, Priscilla and Aquila. I was thinking of this when I said to Charles a moment or two ago, “Isn’t it amazing how the providence of God works?”—that those people who made their own determination, which was presumably a prayerful determination, now were unwittingly making it possible for us to be the beneficiaries of his presence with us and hopefully of the benefit of our collective influence on him. But it wasn’t as a result of a thunderbolt. It wasn’t as a result of some amazing prophetic message. It was just as a result of life.
And, of course, you will remember that in the Acts, Luke tells us, “After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently … from Italy with his wife Priscilla.” Why were they there? “Because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And [so] he went to see them, and because [they both were] of the same trade he stayed with them and [he] worked … tentmakers by trade.” And in that context, “he reasoned [at] the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.”
And so it’s no surprise that as he comes to the end of the letter, he says, “Make sure that you greet Priscilla and Aquila—and also, of course, the household of Onesiphorus.” We were introduced to Onesiphorus in the first chapter, when he had again mentioned the fact that he had experienced what seemed to be like a wholesale desertion in Asia—that whether it’s hyperbole in its form or not, it is clear that what he had been enjoying in terms of fellowship and support had deserted him. And he actually goes as far as to identify two individuals, Phygelus and Hermogenes, who presumably were perhaps leaders in saying, “You know, let’s leave this guy Paul to his own devices.” And then, in contrast to that, he then introduces us to this fellow Onesiphorus: “May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus.” And then he tells us why: “because,” he says, “he often refreshed me. He wasn’t ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome, he searched for me earnestly, and he found me.”
So once again, here you have Paul, uniquely gifted, in a strategic place, and yet he recognizes what a tremendous benefit it was to him to have this particular individual encourage him in that way. And when you read that and when I read it, it reminded me of just the importance of that kind of person. Indeed, when I preached this a few weeks ago in Keswick—when I preached chapter 1, that is—I said, “You know, every pastor needs at least one Onesiphorus. At least one. One’s good. But at least one.” And… (A bee on me? All right. Okay. Thank you. See, that was a kind of Onesiphoral kind of intervention.) And basically, all that Onesiphorus did was he went to a great deal of trouble in order that he might provide a great deal of comfort. He went to a great deal of trouble in order that he might provide a great deal of comfort.
Somewhere in my notes—and I can’t source it—I have the record of a gentleman by the name of Mr. Smith. And Mr. Smith’s influence is recorded by his pastor at this point in history. And the pastor wrote quite a eulogy about Mr. Smith. And part of that eulogy reads as follows: “A great blank was created in the church by the death of Mr. Smith. A Sabbath morning without his kindly visit to the vestry was difficult to imagine. He left behind him the fragrance of an honorable name and a cherished memory.” “The fragrance of an honorable name and a cherished memory.”
Onesiphorus is mentioned here in the PS because he lived so as to be missed. He was, if you like, like a character in Middlemarch—in Eliot’s Middlemarch—that I quote often but purposefully, where, in the course of that book, she writes, “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric[al] acts; and that things are not so ill with you,” this individual, “as they might have been, is [in part] owing to the number who live faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” “Faithfully a hidden life, and … in unvisited tombs”—just in the same way as Paul writes concerning the body. He’s very clear, and he writes as somebody who is at the forefront of things. And he writes to say, “You know, when we think about the physical frame of our lives, the real stuff that’s taking place that is of vital significance does not have to do with our ability to see ourselves in a mirror or to fix ourselves from the outside, but it lies in the unknown but necessary functions that are hidden within our bodies.” And then he says, “And that’s the case, too, in the body of Christ.” It’s one thing for us to pay lip service to that, and it is another actually to make sure that we are acknowledging that in the way we acknowledge the gifts and graces of others around us.
“Greet Priscilla; greet Aquilla, the household of Onesiphorus. Erastus remained at Corinth; Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus. I want to make sure that you, Timothy, will do your best to come before winter.” Especially with the cloak, that would make sense.
Relationships in the gospel, for Paul, gave him the opportunity to give, to learn, to tolerate, and to be tolerated. And they do for us as well. But what about Eubulus? Who is Eubulus? “Eubulus sends greetings to you.” Well, they would have known. We don’t know. I can’t find him anywhere else. And “Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brothers [and sisters].” We should be happy to be included in that group. What part were you in?
You remember that feeling at school, when you weren’t one of the athletes? When you weren’t the fellow in the drama? When you weren’t the starter? When they put all the names down, some of them went with photographs, and then the rest of us were just in the list. And then there were all the other students, all the brothers and sisters.
And that’s it. That’s really it. And that is the point that he’s making: “I want you to make sure that you greet these people. They have played a particular role. But I want you to know that Eubulus is greeting you, and Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brothers are sending the greetings to you.” Fantastic. And so he says, “I want the Lord to be with your spirit. And grace be with you.”
I said this morning, you know, we consider the blessing of restored relationships, we consider the peculiar blessing of gospel partnerships, and we consider the peculiar blessing of a gracious parting. Of a gracious parting. This is probably Paul’s last written words. This is it: “The Lord be with your spirit,” and “Grace be with you.” And the “you” is plural, incidentally. Why would it be plural? Because although it is a personal letter, it was written in the anticipation of a public reading. He is writing to Timothy to be read to the entire church, so that they might learn what’s involved in him being a pastor and that they might learn what it will mean to support and pray for their pastor. And so the end comes.
There is a last time, isn’t there, for everything? And you know the old song by that guy who used to whistle from New Zealand: “The first time that we said hello began our last goodbye.” And that is, of course, perfectly true. It’s sort of morbid, but it is true. So the first time I greeted these young men is the precursor to our final goodbye. And that is true for every one of us. And that’s why hellos are so important, and that’s why goodbyes are absolutely vital. And so he says, “So let the Lord be with your spirit.”
When I read this, I thought about Wimber—Wimber, the charismatic guy, the Pentecostal guy, from, you know, the ’60s and ’70s; someone that wouldn’t necessarily be right on the speaking list for Basics (although I might have experimented, I think, but probably not). I preached with him once at a conference in Wales. And of course, he was doing all kinds of ministry. And we could only walk about a hundred yards, and then he had to stop, because he was suffering from heart failure. And so I, you know, classically said to him, “Hey, you’re the great healer. You know, how come you can’t walk more than a hundred yards?” And he said, “Well, I’m not a healer. God heals, and he’s chosen not to heal me.” So I was suitably rebuked.
But the song that came to my mind was a song that he wrote called the “Spirit Song,” and part of it goes like this:
O let the Son of God enfold you with his Spirit and his love;
Let him fill your heart and satisfy your soul.
O let him have the things that hold you, and his Spirit, like a dove,
Will descend upon your life and make you whole.
I think that’s a nice song. And I think it is in keeping with what Paul was saying: “May the Spirit of God enfold you.” He begins his letter with “grace” in 1:2; he ends his letter with “grace” at the end of chapter 4. He takes his leave of Timothy and all who are the recipients of the letter with a parting blessing, because he knew that Timothy would never outgrow the need for the Lord’s presence, nor would the people of God outgrow the need of his grace.
And that’s why after all these years, so far away from Ephesus, we read this, and we realize that the Spirit of God brings it home to our hearts—relationships that need to be restored; gospel convictions that need to be reinforced; preparations for goodbye that are prepared for with a minimum of regret and disappointment and with a minimum of disgruntlement and a lack of forgiveness and everything else that goes along with that. And all of that in these last words and in this long list.
 Acts 18:1–4 (ESV).
 See 2 Timothy 1:15.
 2 Timothy 1:16–17 (paraphrased).
 George Eliot, “Finale,” in Middlemarch (1871–72).
 1 Corinthians 12:22–25 (paraphrased).
 Roger Whittaker, “The First Hello, the Last Goodbye” (1976).
 John Wimber, “Spirit Song” (1979).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.