Paul’s Bucket List

Dying well isn’t something we can just whip up at the end of our life. Dying well is something we start the moment we say yes to Jesus. The Christian life is a living death.

Anson Kroeker on March 20, 2022
Paul’s Bucket List
March 20, 2022

Paul’s Bucket List

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Passage: 2 Timothy 4:9-22
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“Bucket List” was a 2007 movie starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. It’s about two older men with terminal illnesses who meet in hospital. Knowing they each only have been given a year to live, they decide to make a list of things they want to do before they kick the bucket—hence, “The Bucket List.”

And so they go skydiving, drive vintage cars around California Speedway, fly over the North Pole, go to expensive restaurants, visit the Taj Mahal, motorcycle on top of the Great Wall of China, go on a lion safari in Africa, stop at Mount Everest, and see the great pyramids.

The final scene of the movie—which I haven’t seen, by the way; I got this all from Wikipedia—shows their ashes being placed side-by-side on a mountain peak as the final item on their bucket list, “witness something truly majestic,” is checked off by a friend.

Let’s think for a moment about the core assumption behind the bucket list—both the movie and the idea itself. The core assumption is that this life is the best it’s ever going to get. As death approaches, it’s up to us to pack in all of the good stuff that we can, because this life is all we’ve got.

Christians know better. We know that life on this present world is not all that we’ve got, nor is it the best that we’re going to get. We know that this life is just a prelude to the eternal life we’ve been promised, and that departing from this life and being with Christ will be far better than any experience we can have here below.

And it will get even better when Christ returns to earth with his saints and we’re resurrected to new bodies to live forever with Christ in a New Creation. That’s what we have to look forward to, and so the best is really yet to come.

And if that’s true, how should Christians think about a “bucket list”? As we think about the end of our life here on this earth, knowing that best is yet to come, what should our “bucket list” look like? What should we be eager to accomplish before we breathe our last?

Today’s passage brings us to the end of 2 Timothy and, as far as we know, the end of Paul’s life. Though he may have had a few months left to live, from everything we know nothing much changed in his circumstances from here until he died. And I want to suggest, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that today’s passage could be considered to be Paul’s bucket list. With only months left to live, here’s what he’s eager to accomplish before he breathes his last.

So as we walk through the passage today, the first thing we’re going to look at is what it tells us about Paul’s circumstances, or the realities he was facing at the end of his life. Then we’re going to look at this requests—what he asks for, what he longing for, what he hopes for before he dies. Finally, we’ll consider what our response should be to all of this.

So that’s our road map this morning. Paul’s realities, his requests, our response.

The Realities

So first let’s consider Paul’s realities—what life was like for him there in the final months of his life. And there’s three main realities we see in this passage. He was alone, he was cold, but he was confident.

1. Alone

Let’s start with Paul being alone. Paul typically travelled with a team, but here there’s almost nobody. In verse 9 he asks Timothy to come quickly, and then explains why. In verse 10, we hear that “Demas, in love with this present world, [had] deserted [Paul] and gone to Thessalonica.”

We looked at this verse last week, and it’s heartbreaking. Demas had been one of Paul’s companions for some time (Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24), but like we saw last week, because he loved this present world more than the return of Jesus, he couldn’t handle all of Paul’s hardships. He abandoned him and went off to something more comfortable and easy.

The rest of verse 10 tells about other companions of Paul who had left him, but the sense we get from the language is that Crescens and Titus were actually sent away by Paul for ministry purposes. That’s very clear in verse 12 with Tychicus, whom Paul “sent to Ephesus.” Possibly he was sent there to relieve Timothy and cover for him while Timothy came to visit.

Then in verse 20 we read that “Erastus remained at Corinth,” presumably also for ministry reasons, and that Paul “left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus.”

Did you notice those two little words about Trophimus—that he “was ill”? Those words really challenge the idea that it’s God's will for everybody to be healed.  Even for Paul it wasn’t all miracles, all the time. Earlier in his ministry, people were healed by handkerchiefs that had touched his skin (Acts 19:11-12). But here, he has to leave a sick friend in another city as he travels to Rome.

I’m going to say a few more things about this on the pastor’s blog this week, but it has to be pointed out here that God does not heal everybody. And the idea that God does want to heal everybody, and that if you’re not healed it’s your fault, is false teaching, plain and simple.

But back to the bigger idea here: with all of his friends out on ministry or abandoning Paul or sick in other cities, Paul was very alone. There were a few people around him. Verse 11 said that “Luke alone is with me.” Good old Luke, Paul’s travelling companion of many years. And then verse 21 mentions a group of people who sent greetings to Timothy.

And yet—and yet!—in verse 16 we read, “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them!” (2 Timothy 4:16). When Paul first appeared before the Roman court to defend himself, everybody abandoned him, just like they did with Jesus.

I have a hard time figuring this out, especially with Luke. It makes me wonder if maybe Luke hadn’t quite gotten to Rome in time for Paul’s trial. But what about the other brothers and sisters in Rome? None of them had the courage to stand up with Paul and be there for him when he needed them most.

And so, other than perhaps Luke and maybe a few fair-weather friends at the fringes, Paul is very alone. This is one of his major realities at the end of his life.

2. Cold

The second reality is that he was cold. We glimpse this in verse 13, when he requests a cloak that he “left with Carpus at Troas.” Paul didn’t need a cloak for going outside. But like we’ve heard before, Roman prisons were terrible places. It’s very possible Paul was sleeping, night after night, on a damp cold stone floor in nothing but his clothes, with chains chafing away at his sunless skin. So he asks for a cloak—to keep him warm, to cover him as he sleeps.

3. Confident

And finally, the third reality is that Paul is confident. We see this in verses 17 and 18. Yes, he had been abandoned by all of his friends at his trial. “But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. 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” (2 Timothy 4:17–18).

What incredible confidence. The Lord was with him and strengthened him, and he knew it. He knows that this whole experience—the trial, even the imprisonment—has been designed by God so that the gospel can spread to more and more gentiles, and that he was spared from death that first time in order that more people might hear.

And he’s confident that God is going to rescue him “from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.” That’s an interesting phrase because we know from the rest of this letter that he’s not expecting to make it out of this imprisonment alive. He knows he’s going to be executed when God’s time has arrived.

But to Paul, dying for Jesus was not an “evil deed.” Dying for Jesus was the very thing that would bring him safely into Christ’s kingdom. An “evil deed” would be turning away from the gospel. Abandoning Jesus. Doing what Demas did.

And Paul is confident that God is going to keep him from those kinds of evil deeds, and keep him alive as long as needed, and bring him safely home to heaven right when the time is right.

So these are the realities at the end of Paul’s life. He’s alone. He’s cold. But he’s confident.

The Requests

Now we turn to consider Paul’s requests. In the state that he’s in, with these realities in the background, what does he want? What does he ask for?

First we’ll consider the requests that Paul makes of Timothy. And next we’ll see the desires that he expresses to God.

Of Timothy

The main request that Paul makes of Timothy is that he would come to him. Verse 9: “Do your best to come to me soon.” And then again in verse 21—“Do your best to come before winter.”

Paul is alone, is not expecting to live long, and travel across the Mediterranean wasn’t possible during the winter months. So he urges Timothy to come soon.

Now we should just acknowledge that this was a big request. Timothy was not going to hop on Ephesian Airways and take a taxi from the airport to the prison. This trip would take weeks, maybe even months. And making this trip would make it very clear that Timothy was standing with Paul, and that wasn’t really popular those days (2 Timothy 2:15).

But Paul, who had been so generous with others, isn’t afraid to ask for others to care for him. And I suspect he also knows that this visit would be as good for Timothy as it would be for him. So he asks him to come.

And he assumes he’ll say yes, because he goes on to ask him to bring a few things with him. The first is a person—Mark. Verse 11 says, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).

This is just a great verse, because it shows how, while Paul had lost so many relationships, he had gained back some others. Mark travelled with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, but left them part-way through. And when they left on their second trip, Paul was so adamant that they shouldn’t give Mark a second chance that he and Barnabas parted ways (Acts 15:37-39).

And here, years later, Paul says to bring Mark, because he’s useful for ministry. Mark had apparently proven himself and reconciled with Paul.

There’s two quick lessons here. One is that Paul is still very interested in ministry at this stage in his life—something we’re going to come back to at the end. But two, don’t assume that, when a relationship parts ways, that’s the end. Don’t assume that when two Christians stop seeing eye-to-eye and experience a break in their relationship that it’s a permanent one. God is able to bring reconciliation between His people, something I’ve experienced multiple times in my life.

And so here Paul requests that Timothy bring Mark with him.

Next, in verse 13, he asks Timothy to brink his cloak. Timothy would pass through Troas when he comes and so he asks for him to bring the cloak he left there.

Fourth, Paul asks for Timothy to bring “also the books, and above all the parchments” (v. 13). There’s some discussion about what these books and parchments contained. They could be legal documents, but it’s very likely these words refer to the Scriptures and other writings that were connected to Paul’s ministry.

This is really worth thinking about. Paul is in prison, at the end of his life, and he wants to read. Just think about that!

In 1863 Charles Spurgeon preached a whole sermon just on verse 13. And here’s what he said about Paul’s request for books: “He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had heard things which it was unlawful for a man to utter, yet he wants books! He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books! The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher, ‘Give thyself unto reading.’”1

Don’t miss this. Paul, in prison at the end of his life, is still pursuing learning. And so he calls for books.

So, Paul requests for Timothy to come, and to bring Mark, a cloak, and some books.

There’s two final requests Paul has for Timothy, but neither of these have to do with what Timothy will bring Paul. These last two requests are all about Timothy and others.

First, Paul requests that Timothy would beware of Alexander the coppersmith. History tells us that there was a group of coppersmiths in Troas, so it’s likely that as Timothy stops there on the way to Rome he’s going to encounter this guy. And Paul warns him, in verse 14, to watch out, given how Alexander had done so much damage to Paul and his ministry. Paul is watching out for Timothy’s safety.

Finally, in verse 19, Paul requests that Timothy pass on greetings. “Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus” (2 Timothy 4:19).

What we see here is Paul showing genuine concern for Timothy and his friends. He’s thinking of others and working to take care of others even from his limited vantage point.

Of God

So those are Paul’s requests for Timothy. And finally, we’re going to consider three final desires from Paul, not for Timothy, but directed to God. These desires or prayers give us such a window into Paul’s heart.

And the first desire or prayer is for mercy for those who abandoned him. Verse 16: “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them!” (2 Timothy 4:16).

As I thought about these words this week, they reminded me of Stephen, 30 or so years earlier, who prayed as he was being killed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). You know who one of those people were, standing there, whom Stephen was praying for? Paul. And here we see Paul, been forgiven and transformed by God’s grace, passing that same grace on to others.

Paul’s second request or desire expressed to God is for God Himself to be glorified. Look at the end of verse 18: “To Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Paul had internalized that first request in the Lord’s prayer, “Hallowed by thy name.” His whole ministry was driven by a passion to see God’s name be honoured through Jesus. That’s why he did what he did. And his heart for God’s glory is still beating to the end of his life.

And his final request in this letter, his final desire or prayer, is for God to be with Timothy. “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you” (2 Timothy 4:22).

Paul knows that he’ll be gone soon, but Timothy will be okay, Timothy can press on, because God will be with him. And so he ends with a prayer for God’s saving, forgiving, strengthening and empowering grace to be with this younger man whom he loved so much and poured so much of his life into.

Faithful to the End

And that’s it. That’s Paul’s second letter to Timothy and last letter we have access to. We don’t know anything for sure past this point. We don’t know if Timothy made it to Rome before Paul’s execution. We don’t know how the subsequent trial before Nero went.

But we do know, fairly certainly, that at some point in the next few months after writing this letter that Paul was put to death by order of Emperor Nero.

For him to live was Christ, and with the flash of a Roman sword came death, which was gain.

What About You?

So what about you? If you knew that you were going to die in a few months, what would be on your mind? What would you be thinking about? What would you be busy trying to accomplish?

And what about bringing that back to today? Perhaps you expect to live for years or even decades longer than today. What are you hoping to accomplish before you die? What is the goal of your life? What’s on your “bucket list”?

One night when I was in youth group our youth leaders asked us what we’d do if we knew that Jesus was going to return within a year. And I’ll never forget the list of things that people came up with. “Getting married” was the number one thing at the top of most lists. They literally felt that if Jesus returned and they went to heaven and they had never experienced marital intimacy then they would be missing out somehow.

I wonder how many Christians think that way about any number of experiences here on earth. How many churchgoers would think they’d be getting ripped off if they had to go be with Jesus in heaven without finishing their bucket list.

And how different from the attitude we see in Scripture, that to live is Christ and to die is gain. That our real life begins the moment we wake up in eternity.

And all that today’s passage does is show us that that attitude looked like in the final months of Paul’s life. Though he was alone and in incredible physical discomfort, he’s not sad about all of the experiences he didn’t get to have. He’s not moping that he never got married or that he never got to see the pyramids. He really believes that the best is yet to come.

And so, these final months of his life are filled with what his whole life had been filled with all along. He’s concerned about people. He’s concerned about ministry. He’s concerned about God’s glory. He’s concerned about reading and writing in order that he might minister Jesus to others.

Yes, Paul was a human with human needs. He’s lonely and cold and he asks for some company and a cloak. And there’s some big lessons there for those of us who care for people in the final stages of their life. We need to care for the whole person, including their emotions and their bodies.

But the overwhelming picture in this passage is that Paul was mainly concerned about ministry. That’s why he wants Mark. That’s why he wants books. That’s why he’s sending his few faithful companions away to serve Jesus in other places. That’s why he’s warning and praying the way he is.

Paul’s bucket list, in other words, had one item on it. And it only ever did have one item on it. Years before he had said, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).

And at the end of his life, while he was limited in how much he could do, his direction had not changed. To live was Christ, to die was gain, and with whatever time was left he was going to keep pouring into others for the sake of the gospel.

How Do We Get There?

So, let me ask again: what about us? What will be your priorities in the last months of your life?

I hope, by now, we know what the right answers are. If we were to have just months to live, we know the right answer would be Paul’s answer. We should know that death is gain and we’d spend our time focused on serving others for the glory of God.

But how do we actually get there? How do we start to prepare, today, to make sure that when we get to the end of our lives, we’re acting and thinking and feeling like Paul instead of Demas? What does it take to get there?

And my answer is that we just start living like we are dying today. And I’m not just pulling that our of thin air. I’m giving that answer because that’s what we see in Paul’s life. His whole life was pointed in one direction, and so when he got to the end it wasn’t a major shift.

And I’m giving that answer because that was Jesus’ answer. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’” (Matthew 16:24–25).

Jesus’ first hearers understood that if you saw someone taking up a cross, they were on their way to die. They were on their way to be nailed to that cross. The call to follow Jesus was a call to come and die in order that we might truly live. “If we have died with him, we will also live with him” (2 Timothy 2:11b).

And so dying well isn’t something we just whip up at the end. Dying well is something we start the moment we say yes to Jesus. The Christian life is a living death.

So if you knew you had months to live, what would you be doing? What relationships would you use investing in? What people would you be caring for? What work would you give yourself to? What ministry decisions would you be making? What would a godly, Christ-centred, ministry-focused bucket list look like?

Now take that list, and start doing it today. No matter how old or young you are, start living like you were dying, in the light of eternity, right now.

And if I might make one specific suggestion for something to be on that list, might I suggest reading some good books? That might sound like it’s coming out of left field, but it’s not. Other than a cloak, that’s what Paul was eager for at the end of his life. He was eager to read—especially the Bible, but most likely more than the Bible.

Is reading good books on your bucket list? It should be. If you can read, at all, and if you have access to some good books (like the ones in the library out in the foyer there), then you are in a place of privilege which most people in history haven’t shared. Think of the parable of the talents for a moment: your ability to read and those good books you have access to are resources the master has entrusted to you and which he will ask you to give an account for someday.

Reading might feel hard for you. Some nights, opening up a book instead of doing something else might feel like a little death. Picking up a book might feel as hard as picking up a cross.

But Christians should have a lot of practice in picking up crosses. And I’m convinced, form our passage today and from so many other examples I’ve seen, that reading is one of the most important ways for you to live well and to die well.

So if you’re wondering where to start with all of this, how to start living like you were dying, pick up a good book. Start with the Bible, and then turn to some other books that will help you understand that Bible better. It’s a small step but an important step which God could use to help you walk in faithfulness, that you, like Paul, might walk faithful to the end.

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