Over 200 years ago a group of five men, including William Carey, met to discuss their vision for taking the gospel to India. One of their number, Andrew Fuller, later recalled the meeting: ‘Our undertaking to India really appeared to me … to be somewhat like a few men penetrating into a deep mine, which had never before been explored. We had no one to guide us, and while we were thus deliberating, Mr. Carey said, “Well, I will go down, if you will hold the rope”. But before he went down he took an oath of each of us … that while we lived, we should never let go the rope’. History records that the four men present rose to the challenge, and each ‘held the rope’ until he died. They prayed constantly for William Carey and raised funds for the work in India. Andrew Fuller, in particular, persevered in the midst of severe personal affliction and overwhelming responsibilities. He suffered the loss of his first wife and eight of their eleven children; yet, he refused to ‘let go the rope’. He had a deep concern that unreached peoples should hear the gospel.
When the apostle Paul wrote his last letter to Timothy it is clear that he was in a ‘deep mine’; indeed, it could hardly have been deeper. During his first imprisonment in Rome, he was under house arrest; nevertheless, he was able to enjoy fellowship with believers in the city, Acts 28. 30. It was comparatively easy for them ‘to hold the rope’ at this time. Circumstances changed when Nero intensified his persecution of Christians. Paul knew that his life of service for the Lord was shortly to close, 2 Tim. 4. 6, and he needed fellow believers to ‘hold the rope’ more than ever before. Sadly, there were those who failed so to do, including Demas, v. 10; indeed, he suffered widespread abandonment by those who had once been faithful to him, ‘This thou knowest, that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me; of whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes’, 1. 15. Later on in this same letter, he records, ‘At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me’, 4. 16. However, there was a minority who refused to abandon him in his darkest hour, including Onesiphorus, Luke, and, of course, Timothy, 2 Tim. 1. 16-18; 4. 11.
Paul’s deep affection for, and longing to see, Timothy can be captured in his moving plea to him, ‘Do thy diligence to come shortly unto me … Take Mark, and bring him with thee … The cloke that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments …
Do thy diligence to come before winter’, 4. 9, 11, 13, 21. There were, no doubt, many memorable moments during their time together; however, the present writer suggests that these final requests mark Timothy’s ‘finest hour’. Loyalty and commitment are rare qualities among people in all walks of life today. Sadly, they are also often absent among believers. Whether Timothy actually saw Paul before he faced his executioner is not known; nevertheless, it is clear that he had total confidence in his willingness and ability to carry out his wishes, if it were possible so to do.
Such loyalty stems from a firm resolve to put others before self. Paul wrote to the Philippian believers about those who ‘seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s’, Phil. 2. 21. Such a charge could not have been levelled at Timothy. He commended him to them as a ‘man likeminded, who will naturally [sincerely, NKJV] care for your state’, v. 20. He challenges us today as to how genuine our care is for fellow believers. Do we put our own welfare before that of others? There are many who need us in different ways, to ‘hold the rope’ for them, either in prayer or practical fellowship. Are we prepared to make the sacrifices that loyalty to them demands? Sometimes we do not even bother to find the rope, let alone hold on to it!
Paul had spotted Timothy’s potential for the Lord when he first came across him as a young man in his teens in Lystra, Acts 16. 1-2. Indeed, from the outset of their fellowship in the Lord’s work, he showed that the needs of others were paramount in his life. He had a Jewish mother and a Gentile father; therefore, in order not to cause an offence or confusion, he willingly submitted to circumcision before setting off with Paul on his missionary journeys. If he had not agreed to this, he would have been regarded as a Jew by the Gentiles, and as a Gentile by the Jews. George Matheson writes, ‘Timothy was therefore the child of opposite worlds, and it was inevitable that they would strive within him. Israel and Greece were essentially opposed currents. Their difference lay deeper than any religious doctrine; it was constituted by their view of life’.1 It must be noted that this circumcision had nothing to do with Timothy’s salvation. Paul strongly opposed those who claimed that circumcision was necessary for salvation. From this point onwards, whatever the cost, he did not waver in his commitment to Paul and the spread of the gospel. Indeed, the reference to him by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews indicates that, in all probability, he was imprisoned at some time for his faithfulness to Christ, Heb. 13. 23. Paul did not marry and, therefore, had no natural children, but he looked on Timothy as a true spiritual son, 1 Tim. 1. 2, 18; 2 Tim 1. 2. Indeed, his references to him as a son indicate that he was almost certainly instrumental in his conversion, and also in his further spiritual development once he was saved through faith in Christ. Clearly, he enjoyed a closer relationship with him than with anyone else. His mother and grandmother also exercised great influence over him in the home by consistently teaching him the Old Testament scriptures, 1. 5; 3. 15. There was, therefore, already a solid foundation for Paul to build upon. Parents and other family members have a vital role to play in the spiritual development of children. It has often been remarked that the spiritual health of an assembly will rarely, if ever, rise above the spirituality of the families within it.
As well as being a personal support and encouragement to Paul as he neared the end of his earthly journey, Timothy was also encouraged to continue ‘holding the rope’ of the gospel message after he had departed: ‘But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them’, v. 14. The Apostle was well aware of the dangers that were abroad to undermine the truth that he had so faithfully taught. He made an urgent final appeal to his young companion: ‘I charge thee …
Preach the word … be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine … And they shall turn away their ears from the truth … But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist’, 4. 1-5. The same encouragement to continue to ‘hold the rope’ of the gospel message is as relevant today as it ever was. John Stott’s words are apposite: ‘The church of our day urgently needs to hear the message … all around us we see Christians and churches relaxing their grasp of the gospel, fumbling it, in danger of letting it drop from their hands altogether. A new generation of young Timothys is needed, who will guard the sacred deposit of the gospel, who are determined to proclaim it and are prepared to suffer for it, and will pass it on pure and uncorrupted to the generation which in due course will rise up to follow them’.2 Let us pray for the desire and strength to rise to Paul’s challenge to ‘hold the rope’ of divine truth in the preaching of the gospel!
Finally, it is an encouragement for us to note that naturally speaking, it appears as if Timothy was not a confident person, who sought prominence in any way, 1 Tim. 4. 12; 2 Tim. 1. 6-7. It is not those who shout loudest and longest who are of most use to the Lord. It was with His strength working through him, and constant encouragement from Paul, that he developed into ‘a spiritual giant’. By the grace of God, he reached out and ‘grasped the rope’ and never let it go. It is no surprise, therefore, that he was one of the very few who remained loyal to the Apostle until the very end of his pilgrimage! We, all too often, are prone to make lame excuses for idleness in service; however, he did not allow his natural diffidence nor bodily weakness, 1 Tim. 5. 23, to become excuses for achieving little for Christ. John Phillips writes, ‘Little did Timothy suspect when he became a Christian that his name would become a household word wherever the gospel was preached – to the ends of the earth and to the end of time’.3