Reminders From Death Row (part 1)

Written on: December 5, 2020

Article by: Nathan Brown

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If you knew you had one last chance to leave some advice and encouragement for someone because you were likely to be executed soon, whom would you encourage and what would you say to them? This is the situation in which the apostle Paul found himself as he was writing the letter we know as 2 Timothy. As with all letters, the situation in which it was written and to which it was addressed significantly impacts the letter and its message.

This raises two questions. First, what do we know about Paul’s situation as he wrote this letter? Second, what can we infer about Timothy’s situation from the instructions that Paul passes along? For reasons of space, this article answers the first question and lays the groundwork for a thorough answer to the second. Lord willing, I will write another article (or possibly two) finishing the answer to the second question and highlighting the application of Paul’s advice for Timothy to the Lord’s church today.

What Was Paul’s Situation as He Wrote?

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The book itself reveals much about Paul’s situation as he is writing it. Clearly, Paul is writing this letter from prison, for he refers to his “chains” (1:16, 2:9) and to himself as the Lord’s “prisoner” (1:8).1 He has made his first defense before the authorities (4:16), using a word (ἀπολογία, apologia) that commonly, though not universally, refers to formal proceedings in court.2 Nobody but the Lord supported him in this proceeding (4:16), although at the time of writing, Luke is with him (4:11). All of Paul’s other supporters have left: some, like Demas, for bad reasons (4:9), others, e.g. Tychicus, at Paul’s behest (4:12), presumably to continue the evangelistic activity that Paul could no longer engage in himself.

Simply knowing that Paul was imprisoned as he wrote the letter does not narrow down the historical context very much because Paul was imprisoned on many occasions, potentially including some not recorded in Acts. Given that Onesiphorus was able to find him at Rome and minister to his needs (1:17), however, it stands to reason that he is being imprisoned there. At first glance, this points towards the imprisonment Luke records at the end of the book of Acts, but the circumstances of this Roman imprisonment appear to be different than those recorded in Acts.3 The hypothesis of a second, unrecorded Roman imprisonment for Paul dates to the early fourth century, if not earlier (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.22). Three main arguments support the hypothesis of a second imprisonment for Paul, one of which is particularly strong in my view.

Two of the arguments are somewhat circumstantial. Colossians, traditionally written from Rome during the imprisonment recorded in Acts, indicates that Mark and Timothy were with him at that point (Colossians 1:1, 4:10), whereas the closing of 2 Timothy instructs Timothy to come and bring Mark with him (4:9, 11). Granted, this argument is only definitive if Mark and Timothy were present throughout the imprisonment of which we know from Acts, which is a hard claim to sustain. Secondly, Acts ends on an optimistic note with Paul under house arrest but “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus with all boldness, unhindered” (Acts 28:31), while the Paul of 2 Timothy is expecting “imminent” martyrdom (4:6). Strictly speaking, this piece of data only proves that Paul’s circumstances changed after the two years of which Luke speaks in Acts 28:30; it says nothing about a release and a second imprisonment.

The strongest argument is that the text of 2 Timothy seems to indicate a recent trip to Asia Minor: he left a cloak at Troas (4:13), and he left Trophimus behind at Miletus (4:20). If these events occurred during the period covered by Acts, they would be old news by the time Paul reached Rome, for he spent at least two years in Palestine (Acts 24:27). Moreover, we know that Paul did not leave Trophimus at Miletus when he headed towards Jerusalem because Trophimus was with him in Jerusalem, causing the crowd to jump to the conclusion that Paul had brought Gentiles into the Temple (Acts 21:28–29). A trip to Troas and Miletus on the way to Rome is unlikely because Luke records that Paul travelled from Caesarea to Rome via Crete and Malta (Acts 27:5–7, 28:1), leaving Troas and Miletus north of his likely route. Thus, these events must have occurred after the period recorded in Acts.

Putting all this together, what do we know about Paul’s situation as he is writing? He is in prison at Rome, awaiting a final disposition of his case. The imprisonment in question does not seem to be the same one as recorded at the end of Acts. Most importantly for the content of the letter itself, he is expecting to die soon, he is sitting on “death row,” as the article title suggests. He expects this to be the last chance he will have to advise his “beloved child Timothy” (1:2). In light of this understanding, what does he think is important enough to say here?

What Is Paul Addressing?

Whereas the book sheds quite a bit of light on Paul’s present situation, the information about Timothy’s circumstances primarily relates to his past and future. In terms of the past, Paul focuses on Timothy’s heritage of faith and the mentoring he had received from Paul himself. As a result of this preparation, Timothy knows what he needs to know in order to keep the Lord’s church on track after Paul’s death, in the face of both internal threats like false teachers and external threats like persecution by the state. What he lacks, and thus that with which God has Paul provide him, is the self-confidence—or, rather, the confidence that God is working through him—to meet these threats head-on. In other words, Paul’s primary purpose in writing is not to impart new information but, instead, to remind Timothy of the gravity of his task and the resources he has for accomplishing it.

Paul’s word choice bears out the importance of what Timothy already knows. After controlling for the differing lengths of books, a search in Logos Bible Software reveals that only 2 Peter uses words related to knowledge, learning, and memory more frequently than does 2 Timothy. Granted, these statistical results are less than perfect: Timothy is not the subject of some hits (e.g. Onesiphorus sought Paul in 1:17), and the search failed to turn up some relevant passages because the word Paul uses is categorized differently in the lexicon on whose tagging Logos relies (e.g. Paul tells Timothy to pass along “the things which you heard from me,” meaning what Timothy had learned from Paul and thus already knew, but ἀκούω, akouō, the word translated “hear,” is categorized under the domain for senses). Nevertheless, these statistics show the importance of Timothy’s prior experience and preparation for his current task. I reserve the discussion of the experiences, preparation, and task for a future article.

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1 Scriptures cited by chapter and verse only are from 2 Timothy.

2 D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 377.

3 Cf. ibid., 378.