“Is Paul Having a Pharisee Relapse?” (2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18)

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
October 24, 2010

“Is Paul Having a Pharisee Relapse?” (2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18)

Today we come to the end of our series of readings from Paul’s letters to Timothy, and with that, to the end of Paul’s letters. For almost certainly, 2 Timothy is the last letter that Paul writes in his life–at least of the ones we have in the Bible. Paul is writing from his prison cell in Rome, during the persecution under Emperor Nero, and he is awaiting execution. Paul writes to his assistant Timothy, and as he comes to the end of this letter–and to the end of his life–Paul does a little reflecting, a little looking back. And a little looking forward, to what awaits him beyond this life.

But as we read what Paul writes, which we’ll get to in a moment, the question that comes to my mind, especially when reading this alongside today’s Gospel reading about the Pharisee and the Publican–the question I have to ask is, “Is Paul”–the former Pharisee, after all–“Is Paul Having a Pharisee Relapse?”

Let me explain. In the story of the Pharisee and the Publican, a parable Jesus told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” the Pharisee says: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” And of course Jesus means that this is not a good way to pray, that this would be a case of someone who does, wrongly, trust in his own righteousness. “I thank you that I am not like other men. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”

Now compare that to what Paul says here in our text: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Sounds somewhat similar, doesn’t it? Citing a string of one’s own good works? Could it even be that Paul is citing his works as a basis for his salvation, because Paul does go on to say: “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day.”

So is Paul having a Pharisee relapse? And how should we regard this for our own lives? Is a little bit of Pharisaism alright to throw into the mix?

You know, Paul was a Pharisee as a young man. A very brilliant and zealous one, at that. Saul of Tarsus, top of his class, a Pharisee of Pharisees! Now, as an old man, is he reverting to his former ways, putting confidence in his own works? “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness.”

Now I’m thinking you’re already anticipating the answer. No, of course not, Paul is not having a Pharisaic flashback. He’s not doing any boasting here. As Paul said in Galatians, “God forbid that I should boast in anything save the cross of Christ!” And now, at this late date, he is not suddenly changing his tune.

No, there is no Pharisaic self-righteousness here in this text. When Paul says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” he follows that up by saying, “The Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed.” You see, it was the Lord who gave Paul the strength to do all that he did, and Paul rightly gives all glory to God.

And when Paul says, “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day,” he is saying nothing more than what is the hope of every Christian: that we have waiting for us the victor’s crown of life that Christ won for us by his bloody crown of thorns. The righteousness of Christ, his perfect righteousness, given to us as a gift–this is our only hope on the Day of Judgment.

Listen, Paul says this very plainly. He says, “The Lord will rescue me–the Lord . . . will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Again, it is the Lord who does the work and receives the glory. No Pharisaism here.

Nope, no way is Paul having a Pharisee relapse when he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” So if that is the case, then how do we take these words of his? Friends, take them as an encouragement. That’s why Paul is writing these words to Timothy–and to us–to encourage us, to give us courage to carry on, in spite of whatever difficulties or persecution might lie ahead.

Paul is in prison. He’s about to be executed, martyred for the faith. But he wants Timothy to know that there is no need to fear such things. Don’t let fear stop you from fighting the good fight. Don’t let danger stop you from finishing the race. Don’t let persecution shake your grip on keeping the faith.

Instead, look at all the Lord will do for you: The Lord will stand by you and strengthen you to carry out your calling. The Lord will rescue you from every evil deed and bring you safely into his heavenly kingdom. The Lord will award to you the crown of righteousness he has laid up for you. All that the Lord has done, is doing, and will do for you far outweighs whatever the world can do to you.

Do you believe this? Yes. If there was any doubt, just look at what Christ Jesus did for you when he went to the cross, willingly suffering and dying in your place, to take away your sins. If God loves you that much, don’t you think he will do the rest? Of course he will. He will see you through the hard times, the trials and afflictions you will face. He will give you the strength and the endurance you need to reach the finish line.

That’s what Paul is saying here. He’s saying: What the Lord has done for me, he will do for you too. When the Lord Jesus Christ returns, he will award that crown of righteousness to me, but “not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”

So we see that Paul is by no means having a Pharisaic flashback. Far from trusting in his own righteousness, Paul would be the first to confess his utter unworthiness. “There dwelleth in me, that is, in my flesh, no good thing,” he says in Romans. And in 1 Timothy, Paul calls himself the “chief of sinners.” When it comes to salvation, righteousness, justification, Paul would beat his breast and say nothing more than the tax collector in the parable, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Yes, it is purely by the grace of God in Christ, his pure, unmerited favor, that any of us are saved. But that grace of God will then have its effect in our lives. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” So it is for us. On the one hand, no matter how long we have been a Christian or how much good we’ve been privileged to accomplish, our humble plea must always be, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” On the other hand, though, we don’t want to use that sinfulness as an excuse for not pressing on and working hard as a Christian. Paul didn’t do that, and neither should we. God does give us grace and strength for living the Christian life, so let us use it.

Is Paul having a Pharisee relapse? No, he’s having a fair and balanced realism. He’s realistic about our own righteousness: We have none. But he’s also realistic about the righteousness that God gives us in Christ: He has it all, Christ does, more than enough righteousness. Not only does he cover and cancel all your sins, the Lord will also stand by you in your trials, he will strengthen you for your calling, rescue you from all evil, bring you safely into his heavenly kingdom, and award to you the crown of righteousness. “To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

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Published in: on October 23, 2010 at 10:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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