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By John MacArthur

February 11th, 2008
If we judged success by worldly standards, some might be inclined to assess Paul’s leadership career as an abject failure and a bitter disappointment.
In the closing days of his life, when Paul wrote 2 Timothy, Luke was virtually his only contact with the outside world (4:11). Paul was confined in a Roman dungeon, dreading the savage cold of coming winter (vv. 13, 21), and without any hope of deliverance from the death sentence that had been imposed on him. He suffered because of the sadistic contempt of his enemies. He was even abandoned or disavowed by some of his closest friends. He wrote, “This you know, that all those in Asia have turned away from me” (2 Timothy 1:15). “Asia” refers to Asia Minor, where Paul had focused his missionary work. Ephesus, where Timothy pastored, was the capital of that region. So Paul wasn’t telling Timothy anything Timothy didn’t already know firsthand. In that time of fierce persecution, association with Paul had become so costly that all but a few of the apostle’s own spiritual children had in effect disowned and abandoned him.
That’s why people who see things superficially might think the end of Paul’s life was tragic. At first glance, it might even seem as if his enemies had finally defeated him.
A failure? Actually, the apostle Paul was not a failure as a leader by any measure. His influence continues worldwide even today. By contrast, Nero, the corrupt but powerful Roman emperor who ordered Paul’s death, is one of history’s most despised figures. This is yet another reminder that influence is the true test of a person’s leadership, not power or position per se. In fact, a careful look at how Paul’s life and ministry came to an end can teach us a lot about how to gauge the success or failure of a leader.
Paul’s first long imprisonment and trial before Nero apparently ended in the apostle’s release sometime before AD 64, because he wrote the epistles of 1 Timothy and Titus as a free man (1 Timothy 3:14-15; 4:13; Titus 3:12). But that liberty was short-lived. In July of the year 64, seven of Rome’s fourteen districts burned. When the original fire was nearly extinguished, another fire, fanned by fierce winds, broke out in another district. Rumors circulated that Nero himself had ordered the burning of the city to make room for some ambitious building projects, including a golden palace for himself.
Trying desperately to deflect suspicion, Nero blamed Christians for starting the fires. That began the first of several major, aggressive campaigns by the Roman government to destroy the church. Christians in Rome were rounded up and executed in unspeakably cruel ways. Some were sewn into animal skins and ripped to death by dogs. Others were impaled on stakes, covered with pitch, and burned as human torches to light Nero’s garden parties. Many were beheaded, fed to lions, or otherwise disposed of at Nero’s command in equally ruthless ways.
During that persecution, Paul was again taken prisoner by the Roman authorities, brought to Rome, subjected to persecution and torment (2 Timothy 4:17), and finally executed as a traitor because of his relentless devotion to the lordship of Christ.
Throughout his first imprisonment at Rome, Paul had been kept under house arrest (Acts 28:16, 30). He was allowed freedom to preach and teach those who visited him (v. 23). He was under the constant guard of a Roman soldier but was treated with respect. The influence of his ministry had therefore reached right into the household of Caesar (Philippians 4:22).
Paul’s second imprisonment, however, was markedly different. He was virtually cut off from all outside contact and kept chained in a dungeon (2 Timothy 1:16). He was probably held underground in the Mamertine Prison, adjacent to the Roman forum, in a small, dark, bare stone dungeon whose only entrance was a hole in the ceiling scarcely large enough for one person to pass through. The dungeon itself is not large; about half the size of a small one-car garage. Yet it was sometimes used to hold as many as forty prisoners. The discomfort, the dark, the stench, and the misery were almost unbearable.
That dungeon still exists, and I have been in it. The stifling, claustrophobic confines of that dark hole are eerie and depressing even today. It was there (or in a dungeon just like it) that Paul spent the final days of his life.
There is no reliable record of Paul’s execution, but he obviously knew the end of his life was imminent when he wrote his second epistle to Timothy. Evidently he had already been tried, convicted, and condemned for preaching Christ, and perhaps the day of his execution was already scheduled. He wrote to Timothy, “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand” (2 Timothy 4:6).
Naturally, there are notes of profound sadness in Paul’s final epistle. But its dominant theme is triumph, not defeat. Paul wrote that last letter to Timothy to encourage the young pastor to be bold and courageous and to continue following the example he had learned from his apostolic mentor. Far from writing a concession of failure, Paul sounds a clarion note of victory: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
Facing his own imminent martyrdom, Paul had no fear, no despondency, and no desire to stay in this world. He longed to be with Christ and eagerly anticipated the reward He would receive in the next world. Therefore, as he reviewed the course of his life, he expressed no regret, no sense of unfulfillment, and no feeling of incompleteness. There was not the smallest duty left undone. He had finished the work the Lord gave him to do, just as in Acts 20:24 he had hoped and prayed he would do: “so that I may finish my race with joy.”
Paul measured his own success as a leader, as an apostle, and as a Christian by a single criterion: He had “kept the faith”—meaning both that he had remained faithful to Christ and that he had kept the message of Christ’s gospel intact, just as he had received it. He had proclaimed the Word of God faithfully and fearlessly. And now he was passing the baton to Timothy and to others, who would be “able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).
Therefore, Paul faced his own death with a triumphant spirit and with a deep sense of joy. He had seen the grace of God accomplish all that God designed in him and through him, and now he was ready to meet Christ face-to-face

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By John MacArthur

I have in my library a book by the spiritual father of a quasi-Christian cult. It argues that structured doctrine and systematized theology are contrary to the spirit of Jesus’ ministry. The idea that Christ is anti-doctrine is a foundational belief of that cult. But no idea is further from the truth. The word doctrine simply means “teaching.” And it’s ludicrous to say that Christ is anti-teaching. The central imperative of His Great Commission is the command to teach (Matthew 28:18-20). Unfortunately, cultists aren’t alone in their bias against doctrine. Some evangelicals have almost the same perspective. Because they view doctrine as heady and theoretical, they dismiss it as unimportant, divisive, threatening, or simply impractical. People often ask why I emphasize doctrine so much. Now and then someone tells me frankly that my preaching needs to be less doctrinal and more practical. Of course, practical application is vital. I don’t want to minimize its importance. But if there is a deficiency in preaching today, it is that there’s too much relational, pseudopsychological, and thinly life-related content, and not enough emphasis on sound doctrine. The distinction between doctrinal and practical truth is artificial; doctrine is practical! In fact, nothing is more practical than sound doctrine.

The pastor who turns away from preaching sound doctrine abdicates the primary responsibility of an elder: “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). We teach truth, we teach error, or we teach nothing at all.

 Building on the Truth 

 Practical insights, gimmicks, and illustrations mean little if they’re not attached to divine principle. There’s no basis for godly behavior apart from the truth of God’s Word. Before the preacher asks anyone to perform a certain duty, he must first deal with doctrine. He must develop his message around theological themes and draw out the principles of the texts. Then the truth can be applied. Romans provides the clearest example. Paul doesn’t give any exhortation until he has given eleven chapters of theology. He scales incredible heights of truth, culminating in 11:33-36, where he says, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” Then in chapter 12, he turns immediately to the practical consequences of the doctrine of the first 11 chapters. No passage in Scripture captures the Christian’s responsibility in the face of truth more clearly than Romans 12:1-2. Resting on eleven chapters of profound doctrine, Paul calls each believer to a supreme act of spiritual worship — giving oneself as a living sacrifice. Doctrine gives rise to dedication to Christ, the greatest practical act. And the remainder of the book of Romans goes on to explain the many practical outworkings of one’s dedication to Christ.

He follows the same pattern in Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 Thessalonians. The doctrinal message comes first. Upon that foundation he builds the practical application, making the logical connection with the word therefore (Romans 1:1; Galatians 5:1; Ephesians 4:1; Philippians 2:1) or then (Colossians 3:1; 1 Thessalonians 4:1).

 Living by the Truth 

 We have imposed an artificial meaning on the word doctrine. We’ve made it something abstract and threatening, unrelated to daily living. That has brought about the disastrous idea that preaching and teaching are unrelated to living. The scriptural concept of doctrine includes the entire message of the gospel — its teaching about God, salvation, sin, and righteousness. Those concepts are so tightly bound to daily living that the first-century mind did not see them as something separate from practical truth.

The New Testament church was founded on a solid base of doctrine. First Timothy 3:16 contains what many expositors believe is an early church hymn: “God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory” (KJV). There, in capsule form, is the basis of all Christian teaching. Without that, no practical application matters.

 Departing from the Truth

 The next few verses of 1 Timothy describe what happens when men depart from the basis of biblical truth: “Some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth” (4:1-3). Lying, hypocrisy, a dulled conscience, and false religious practices all have roots in wrong doctrine. No ministry activity is more important than rightly understanding and clearly proclaiming sound doctrine. In 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, Paul commissions two young men to the ministry. His central theme is the importance of adhering to sound doctrine. Paul charged Timothy: “In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following” (1 Timothy 4:6). “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching,” Paul adds, “persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (v. 16).

Titus 2:10 says we “adorn [or honor] the doctrine of God” by how we live. When it comes to affirming sound doctrine, what we do carries far more significance than what we say. That’s why it’s disastrous when a pastor, seminary professor, or any kind of Christian leader fails morally. The message he proclaims is that his doctrine becomes merely an intellectual exercise.

 Hearing the Truth

 True doctrine transforms behavior as it is woven into the fabric of everyday life. But it must be understood if it is to have its impact. The real challenge of the ministry is to dispense the truth clearly and accurately. Practical application comes easily by comparison. No believer can apply truth he doesn’t know. Those who don’t know the Bible’s principles for marriage, divorce, family, childrearing, discipline, money, debt, work, service to Christ, responsibilities to the poor, care of widows, response to governments, eternal rewards, and other teachings will not be able to apply them. Those who don’t know what the Bible teaches about salvation cannot be saved. Those who don’t know what the Bible teaches about holiness are incapable of dealing with sin. Thus they are unable to live fully to God’s glory and their own blessedness.

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