At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. 2 Timothy 4:16 (NIV).
Paul was given to hyperbole, but here in this verse, he probably wasn’t being hyperbolic. It’s likely that there actually were people around him who did physically support him – with food, with friendship, with camaraderie, with prayer. That’ isn’t what he’s talking about. When Paul was called before the Jewish, then Roman, authorities, he was probably alone. He was probably left to defend himself with only the words of Jesus’ Spirit to guide him. Everyone else, even his closest friends, either deserted him or sought self-preservation from the hell-bent Jewish and Roman overseers.
That’s understandable, you know. We can only do so much. While God calls us to boldly proclaim and love Him in all ways even unto death, He asks us more to model the attitude of self-sacrifice; the heart to give everything in His service. That’s the heart Paul had, the kind of heart that guided him through the times when the government and the religious authorities actually persecuted him for proclaiming Christ crucified.
My Concordia Bible makes an interesting parallel between this verse, especially the last section of it, and Acts 7:60. In the Acts verse, Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is being stoned to death by over-eager Jews. Stephen had just rhetorically devastated these men, who had called him to testify as to why he was proclaiming the forbidden “way” of Jesus. Stephen used that occasion to relate how the Jews had followed God in an up-then-down manner from the time of Abraham until that day. He then bluntly denounced them for mocking God in their hearts because they had murdered Jesus, God Immanuel. The Sanhedrin stoned Stephen for that, and it was Paul, then known as Saul, who had overseen the murder.
So it’s ironic that, in the verse from 2 Timothy, years after the death of Stephen, Paul asks a prayer for the people who have deserted him. Stephen wasn’t alone in his dying moments: he saw heaven open and Jesus. Paul knew that he, too, wasn’t alone. That even when his friends left him, he still had Jesus there to bring peace to his heart and forgiveness as its best desire.
We’re in that same boat, you know. We are given to thinking we’re all alone, certain that the world is set against us and that only disaster and despair are ahead. Yet it’s a mirage; it’s an exaggeration of our circumstances; hyperbole. We are never all alone, even when we feel alone. Stephen wasn’t. Paul wasn’t. You aren’t; I’m not. Even in the worst day, Jesus endures with us, giving us strength to pray for the forgiveness of others.
For further reading: Acts 7:60, 2 Timothy 4:17
Lord Christ, forgive, uphold, restore, and enrich those who would hurt me today. Grant them and myself Your peace.