Many believers today are feeling the pressure of seeking to live for Christ in an age that has little time for God or His Word. Often our gospel efforts face either apathy or antagonism; both are equally depressing. We are saddened to see an increasing number of assemblies grow smaller, weaker, and eventually die out. Preachers remind us that we are living in the end times and that as a remnant we must hang on. These are dark days indeed.
But just a minute! Think of the prevailing circumstances twenty centuries ago, before the Apostle Paul left this world for a better one above. Could the storm clouds have been more ominous? Personally, the picture was bleak for the apostle: in the harshness of his final imprisonment he found himself bound by chains, just like a common criminal, as he awaited execution. Who would carry on the work? Timothy was a faithful younger colleague, but one could not overlook his fragile physical health and the intense pressure and opposition he would face after Pauls departure.
Taking a wider view, the situation was even worse, and the warnings Paul had issued to the Ephesians a few years before were proving to be entirely justified: "after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20.29-30). Perilous times marked by doctrinal error and division had already come. The young church, established only 30 years before, looked as if it might not last another ten years. Was this the end?
Paul forthrightly addresses these concerns in his second letter to Timothy: it was effectively the apostles last will and testament as he passed on the torch of truth and testimony to his beloved friend and fellow-labourer. We note that surprisingly there was neither despair nor panic. Instead, an atmosphere of calm and total confidence in God pervaded every page of the letter and completely dispelled the gloom. As we might say today, "Every cloud has a silver lining". No matter how dark or how thick the clouds might be, the sun is always above and behind them and its bright rays have a wonderful and irrepressible way of breaking through. This maxim holds good in the spiritual as well as the natural realm. Let us view some of the storm clouds that afflicted Paul and then see his immediate and triumphant response.
The cloud of suffering
Paul urged Timothy to not be fearful or ashamed of "the afflictions of the gospel" (2 Tim 1.7-8). In this first chapter he was thinking in general terms; he would be more specific concerning physical persecution in a later passage. As he reflected on his own life and ministry he wrote, "For the which cause I also suffer these things", and continued, "nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day" (2 Tim 1.12). As far as Paul was concerned all could be safely entrusted to the hands of his Lord, one whom He knew personally as being completely trustworthy.
The cloud of imprisonment
For a man who loved to travel and carry the gospel to distant lands, the restricted circumstances of a dungeon must have been a trial indeed. The favourable conditions of his house arrest in Rome a few years earlier were only a distant memory - now he was on death row. And yet he realised that the effective spread of the Word of God did not begin and end with his own personal involvement. As he wrote of his situation his spirit could still soar: "Wherein I suffer trouble, as an evil doer, even unto bonds; but the word of God is not bound" (2 Tim 2.9). Then, as now, the Word of God had an irresistible life and energy of its own. He was bound, yes, but the Word was not.
The cloud of error
The serious departure from truth caused Paul to mention names and mark those who were sowing seeds of error. Hymenæus and Philetus were responsible for false teaching that denied a future bodily resurrection of believers. The serious effect on others was to overthrow their faith. Nothing, it seems, could have been more depressing than this sad state of affairs. And yet, while hardly catching a breath, Paul went on, "Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure" (2 Tim 2.19). Centuries later truth still stands and many continue to believe. The Lord promised that He would build His church "and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Mt 16.18).
The cloud of persecution
Paul recalled his first trip to Pisidia and the many troubles he had encountered including being stoned and left for dead in Lystra. Had the young lad, Timothy, witnessed this cruelty and seen how high a price these gospel pioneers were paying to do Gods work? It is likely that Timothy was saved at that time through the apostles ministry. Paul did not only remember the difficulties as he wrote of the "persecutions [he] endured: but out of them all the Lord delivered [him]" (2 Tim 3.11). The Lord had brought him safely through the fiery furnace.
The cloud of abandonment
In the final chapter, after speaking of Demas having forsaken him, he remembered that at the first legal hearing before his accusers everyone else had abandoned him too. Well, not quite everyone: "At my first answer no man stood with me all men forsook me Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me" (2 Tim 4.16-17). Paul proved that the Lord would never leave him nor forsake him and since the Lord was with him, nothing else really mattered. We sense his exultant hope and assurance: "And the Lord shall deliver me and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom" (2 Tim 4.18).
In the midst of the many difficulties we face today we can draw strength from the Word of God. The key words we have noted "nevertheless", "but", "notwithstanding make all the difference. They shine brightly as pure silver. May we all take heart and be encouraged to know that above and behind every stormy cloud that will ever come our way, there is always the Son!