A person’s last words, when they know they are their last words, are often quite powerful and significant to the hearers. The Apostle Paul’s last words, in 2nd Timothy, are indeed powerful and significant to Timothy, but also to all believers. In this last letter that we have of Paul’s, he mentions “that day” three different times (1:12; 1:18; 4:5). When he wrote 2 Timothy, Paul was in a Roman prison awaiting his execution. One matter that he was directed by the Holy Spirit to write about was to remind Timothy about the believer’s future appearance before Christ’s judgment seat (“that day”). Most of us regularly need this reminder of our personal accountability when we appear before the Lord Jesus Christ. We get so wrapped up in doing life that we often lose this essential perspective. As a reminder, the Judgment Seat of Christ is not the place where our eternal destiny (heaven or hell) is determined, but it is the place for the rewarding of believers. Rewards are given on “that day” but the consequences of those rewards will carry over into the one-thousand-year reign of Christ, and most likely, throughout the eternal kingdom of God.
(1) 2 Timothy 1:12. The context for the first use of “that day” is Paul’s confidence and Paul’s suffering in relationship to the gospel of Christ. Paul was ordained by God to be a proclaimer of the Gospel (“apostle, preacher and teacher”, 1:11). And while we are not apostles, it is nevertheless true that we too have been given this amazing body of truth to share with mankind. It includes the truth about God’s intervention into history to solve the sin problem. Paul was not ashamed of this gospel (same word used in Romans 1:16) because the work of Jesus on the Cross is the only means of reconciling God and man (1 Cor. 1:18). But Satan and godless men hate this good news and lash out against those who would witness to its truthfulness (2 Cor. 4:4). They target faithful preachers/teachers. As a result of his faithfulness to the gospel and to the Person of Christ, Paul suffered. As he himself shares in chapter 4, he is in a harsh imprisonment, attacked by evil men and abandoned by his friends who are fellow believers. He is in a painful, lonely place. But even in this dismal situation, Paul is absolutely convinced that God is powerful enough to keep the combined efforts of the Evil One and wicked men from destroying the gospel. Paul has done his part to guard the gospel, and now the mighty hand of God will keep the evil enemies from succeeding in their attempt to destroy the gospel of Christ.
One of Paul’s great motivations for his determined efforts was the reality that he would stand before the Lord Jesus Christ and give an account of what he had done, and then be rewarded. Being rewarded was not his only motivator, as he states in 2 Corinthians 5:10-16, but it is the one he emphasizes here. Paul was faithful in his proclaiming the gospel and by so doing, he was willing to be identified with Christ. And when we too appear before Jesus, faithfulness will be one of the key criteria in our evaluation (1 Cor. 4:1-2). We must never forget that the Lord requires that we be faithful, but never requires that we be famous. Sometimes we think that fame in the church, or culture, will play a great part in our evaluation. It will not. But faithfulness will be as it is highly prized by the Lord Jesus. We must be faithful to Him in the use of our spiritual gifts, natural abilities, intellectual abilities, use of our time as well as our financial resources. The Lord places a great emphasis on the faithfulness of His servants.
2 Timothy 1:18. While being faithful in sharing the gospel is a very important part of our responsibilities, as servants of Christ, it is not the only thing. In this verse, Paul uses Onesiphorus as an illustration of faithfulness in serving Christ by diligently serving others. Onesiphorus’ labors and boldness would have been well-known to Timothy, since Onesiphorus was an Ephesian believer and Timothy was ministering at that time in Ephesus. This man went out of his way to find Paul when he was a prisoner in Rome, and to bring encouragement to Paul. Paul reminds Timothy that Onesiphorus lived a life characterized by kindness and good deeds. That attitude and those kind works will be remembered at the Judgment Seat, so it is not simply proclaiming God’s Word that will be evaluated. This should be of huge encouragement to all believers who do not stand behind a pulpit or classroom lectern. Paul also includes the fact that he is praying that mercy will be extended to Onesiphorus at the Judgment Seat. We do not know what he has in mind when he speaks of “mercy” (a withholding of deserved punishment), but it is apparently going to be an issue for all believers at the Judgment Seat. James too brings up the fact that we all will want mercy when we stand before the Lord (James 2:13). And mercy will be granted to those who have shown mercy to others in this life. This is clearly a significant point to think about, as it indicates that part of our evaluation will be in how we dealt with others; especially those who have hurt or offended us.
(3) 2 Timothy 4:8. This third use of “that day” makes it clear that the subject is indeed the Judgment Seat of Christ. Paul has faithfully, successfully reached the end of his race, and in the future he will be rewarded. Paul uses the imagery of an athlete who has won at the games and awaits the “crown” from the referee. This is not a time of punishment, but a time when faithful believers will be rewarded. Several truths about rewards are mentioned. First, the reward is secure (“laid up for me”). Jesus also clearly taught that investments made in the Bank of Heaven would never diminish or disappear (Matt. 6:19-21). Rewards earned will never disappear which may point to them being eternal in their consequences. Second, rewarding takes place, not at death, but at His appearing. This also is something Jesus was clear about in Revelation 22:12, where He brings His reward with Him at His coming. Third, Jesus is the “righteous” judge. When believers appear before Him, He will evaluate us fairly and justly. This comes from His very nature. He will not reward undeserving saints nor overlook the works of faithful saints. And, it will be clear to all observers that His evaluations are totally righteous ones. It is likely that Paul mentions this fact because Jesus stands in stark contrast to the Roman judges who were unrighteous in their dealing with the Apostle Paul. Fourth, Paul specifically mentions one “crown” to illustrate the rewarding at the Judgment Seat. This was the “crown of righteousness.” This crown is given because of a believer’s righteous living. Christ will give this to the one who has lived life according to the righteous standard of God. He is using the imagery of an athlete who competed at the games and did so to receive the victor’s “crown”. The “crown” (stephanos) was a wreath placed on the head which honored the athlete who had won. He won because he trained and disciplined himself for this moment before the referee. Paul did so as well, as he detailed in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. There Paul argues for believers to discipline themselves in their spiritual lives.
The “crown of righteousness” is not just for apostles. All believers who have loved His appearing will receive it. This speaks of the attitude and anticipation of the believer who has an ongoing love for Jesus Christ and of seeing Him. When a believer is looking forward to seeing Jesus Himself, that perspective gives strength to persevere in righteous living and to swim against the ungodly cultural current. We should observe that one receives this crown not because a believer is just hoping for the Rapture to bail the believer out of present trouble, but is a longing to see the Savior Himself.
The days we are presently living in are increasingly characterized by evil. More and more we are shocked by the calling of good as evil, and evil as good. Our American culture is in a dramatic moral and spiritual decline. The government seems to be looking with less favor on those who identify with Jesus Christ and His standards of behavior. Our day seems to be resembling more and more the days of prisoner Paul in Rome. Whatever the comparison may be, we need to listen to the last words of this great apostle and keep an eye on “that day.” We need to clearly identify with the Lord Jesus and, by His grace and strength, be faithful to Him in the way we handle His truth and the way we live. It will be worth it on “that day.”
As the old verse goes:
“only one life, it will soon be past,
only what’s done for Christ will last.”
“That day” is coming.