Points To Ponder/Letter from Death Row
by Pastor Dennis Whitmore
What is it like to live on Death Row?
The Apostle Paul’s second letter to a young pastor, Timothy, was probably the last he wrote. He knew he was facing an executioner soon. Imagine what may have run through his mind as he sat in a cold, smelly prison knowing that it was the end of the road for him. Did he think back over his life, about his days as a zealous Pharisee, an expert in the law who persecuted Christians? Did he relish the memory of that day on the Damascus road when the Lord Jesus blinded him with light and spoke audibly to him?
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 9:46,4b,5b)
When he received his sight again and had an understanding of scripture directly from the Lord (Galatians 1:12), his zeal was then turned toward Jesus rather than against him. Soon he became one of the persecuted himself. Perhaps he reflected on the many converts he shepherded, the churches he founded, and the young leaders he had mentored and sent forth; Timothy, Titus, and others who would carry on from where he had left off. For all of these victories and blessings of God, Paul paid the price; riots, prison, plots against his life, numerous beatings, stoning, shipwrecks, and long stretches without adequate food or clothing.
Did he think over all of these things? What would you do if you were sitting on Death Row waiting to die for your faith? Could you imagine being sentenced to death because of your faith? Let’s rephrase that thought; because of your faith? As the saying goes, if you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
I pondered this as I read some of the last verses of Second Timothy. Notice Paul’s attitude as he prepares to die for his faith. “At my first defense, no one stood with me, but all forsook me. May it not be charged against them.” (II Timothy 4:16)
Reflection: If you were about to pay the ultimate price for your convictions, how would you feel if your colleagues (who claimed to have the same convictions) abandoned you when the heat was on? Would you resent them? Is it perhaps unfair of God to surround you with guys who have spaghetti for backbones? But Paul forgave them (“Wow!,” I thought).
What’s the lesson here? The greater part of maturity, which grows through a closer walk with Christ, helps us to see beyond what hurts us. Paul, I think, accepted the weaknesses of his companions. Even the great Apostle Peter, a month and a half before leading 3,000 people to faith in Christ, lost his nerve and denied knowing Him three times. Paul goes on: “But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear. Also, I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.” (v.17)
The weakness and betrayal of everyone else did not weaken him. Wouldn’t it be great if we could say that! How many of us have resigned a position, dropped out of being active, or completely quit church because of the weaknesses or downright betrayal of people we once trusted? Who is glorified in that?
Paul stayed focused on the main thing - the message. Everyone else might let you down when the heat’s on, but you’re never alone if you are on a mission from God. If He is your Rock, you cannot be shaken. You may die trying, but then (are you ready) maybe you are supposed to do that. If you are a baptized believer, you declared it then: “I died with Christ. I live now unto God!” (see Romans 6:3-11). In other words, if you are God’s man or woman, you’re already dead to this world. “Through me,” Paul said, that’s how the message was proclaimed. Though the Romans had legal authority to kill Paul, it all was under God’s control. As he said, (almost as an after thought), “also I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.”
Reflection: If you’re already dead to this world, can anyone really kill you?
Paul goes on: “And the Lord will deliver me from every evil work and preserve me for His heavenly Kingdom.. To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen! (v.18)
Look at the powerful confidence in that statement. Knowing his last day on earth is imminent; he boldly claims that God will preserve him from every evil work. Even as he’s been betrayed by trusted friends, thrown into prison for his faith, and is about to be executed by ungodly pagans, “God will preserve me,” he says.
What’s the lesson in this? It is one we have to study and lean into everyday.
“If God is for us who can be against us?”(Romans 8:31b)
Say it again: who can be against us? In all the challenges and evil things that will attack you and undermine even your best efforts, you know by your faith this truth: “We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37) The world can’t kill you if you’re already dead to it. Whatever it takes from you, whatever it costs, what you are called to do is doable: “that the message might be fully preached through me.”
Are you allowing God to use you as a vessel through whom the message can be fully seen and heard? In your mind’s eye, visit Death Row for a while. Does it look familiar?
Pastor Whitmore serves God at The First United Methodist Church in Laurel, MD. Visit www.fumcl.org.