In the last letter that Paul wrote in the New Testament and in its final chapter the great missionary apostle summarizes his mission and his confident hope in God. Historically, Paul has given his second defense before the emperor Nero. Whether this refers to a second trial, or the second stage of one trial is unclear. What Paul does make clear (4:16) is that he stood alone, humanly speaking, in his “first defense” (prote apologia). As in the case of Jesus, Paul was abandoned by everyone, but he prays for their forgiveness. Despite the human failure, the Lord Jesus remained faithful.
Paul claims two things. First, he describes the nature of the help that the Lord Jesus provided both now and in the future. He says that “the Lord stood at my side” (pareste). The verb Paul chooses here has many different nuances (cf. 2:15), but here has the sense “come to the aid of”, particularly in the context of a trial. Josephus describes the trial of Cumanus, procurator of Syria, before Caesar (Claudius) because of his actions against Jews and Samaritans in Palestine. Josephus tells how Cumanus was supported (paristanto) in the trial “by many eminent persons”. The legal parallels with Paul’s situation are significant, but the difference is that is the Lord Jesus who ‘stands by’ Paul.
The idea of divine assistance expressed through this verb occurs with some frequency in Jewish literature. In the Greek translation of Psalm 108(109):31 we learn that “He [God] stood at (pareste) the right hand of the needy, to save me from those who keep pursuing me.” When Moses receives the Decalogue from God the second time, the author of Exodus tells us that “Then the Lord descended in a cloud and he stood beside (pareste) him there.” God’s presence is a response to Moses’ plea “If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.” In the Wisdom of Solomon 10:11 the story of Jacob and his many conflicts is recounted, but throughout them all, we are told that “when his oppressors were covetous, she [Wisdom] stood by (pareste) him and made him rich.” Finally, in the early Christian account of the Martyrdom of Polycarp the author shares the experience of many martyrs that in their hour of extremity “the Lord was standing by (parestos) and talking with them.” This brief survey shows how important the concept of divine aid for those who love and serve God in times of dire human need becomes a reality. This was Paul’s experience.
In addition to affirming the direct presence of the Lord Jesus (perhaps in specific vision as Paul experienced this at other times in his life) Paul testifies that Jesus “gave me strength”. With Jesus’ presence comes his divine strength, just as he promised the Twelve in Mark 13:10-11. In II Timothy 2:1 Paul urges Timothy to let this same divine strength pour into his life by God’s powerful grace and thereby give him boldness in his Christian ministry. Paul testifies that this has been his personal experience in the most threatening contexts of his missionary work.
Paul defines two things that result from Jesus’ presence and empowerment. First, as Jesus enables his defense, he makes a bold and full proclamation of the Gospel, so that “all the nations might hear”. This event fulfills in a significant way God’s purpose for Paul’s life – “I am sending you them [the Gentiles] to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” Second, Paul has assurance from the Lord Jesus that rescue is coming, along with participation in the heavenly kingdom. How these two elements relate together is not made explicit. It may well be that Paul experiences rescue as he moves through death into the very presence of Christ, or perhaps, as some early church traditions suggest, he was released “from the lion’s mouth”.
In the context of our ministry, even in its most dire contexts, we have assurance of Jesus’ presence to aid and help us. He comes to our defense, even though all human associates abandon us. As Jesus promised the Twelve, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” It is his presence that enables us to give bold demonstration in our hostile culture to the reality of the Gospel. God’s grace empowers us so that the Good News is heard through the sacrifice of our lives, as well as the loving presentation of our words.
- 1. Jewish Wars II. 245.
- 2. A. Pietersma, New English Translation of the Septuagint. Psalms (Oxford: The University Press, 2000): 112.
- 3. Exodus 34:5. Larry Perkins, New English Translation of the Septuagint. Exodus (being prepared for publication).
- 4. Exodus 33:15
- 5. Polycarp was martyred c. 160 AD in Smyrna. This account is probably dated to towards the end of the second century AD.
- 6. Cf. comments on this concept in Paul in Internet Moments with God’s Word # 24.
- 7. Acts 26:17-18.
- 8. Matthew 28:20.