Paul Forsaken

by Glenn Conjurske

“This thou knowest,” writes Paul to Timothy, “that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me, of whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes.” (II Tim. 1:15). This is a very remarkable statement, and one which some have been slow to believe. Various commentators have labored to soften its force and divest it of its meaning. But there is no reason to soften it at all, and indeed, we have no right to do so. Nor is the fact particularly difficult to believe to those who know the workings of the human heart.

It is not an uncommon thing for churches and individuals to turn away from men of God, and to repudiate the very man to whom they owe the salvation of their own souls. This proves no more than that there is a devil, and that he is active and malicious, and that the saints of God are susceptible enough to his workings.

And further, this statement in II Timothy 1:15 does not stand altogether alone. There are numerous other indications in the epistles of Paul that this turning away from him had been brewing for a long time. Carnal souls, false brethren, and false apostles were laboring in the churches to bring it about. Pride and ill-will had been long at work among the saints, moving them to despise and condemn Paul, ere they finally forsook him.

So Paul had written long before, not to a single congregation, but to all the churches in Galatia, “Where is then the blessedness ye spake of? For I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me. Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?” (Gal. 4:15). The truth was no doubt too hard to bear, and it was easier to condemn Paul than to embrace it.

It was easier to accuse Paul of being harsh and unloving, than to take home his “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth?” (Gal 3:1). To justify their own wrong course they must condemn Paul. They must turn the man who wept and travailed for their souls into their enemy. In their foolish pride, they of course knew better than he did what the truth of the gospel was, and Paul’s “though we or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed,” was proud and harsh and un-Christian, and moreover, it was a condemnation of many good men. After this manner they no doubt reasoned, for Paul’s impassioned pleading with them evidently had not its desired effect, for these same churches of Galatia were of course among all those who were in Asia, who at a little later date turned away from Paul.

Strong opposition to Paul had been long at work at Corinth also. He had long been despised by many of the Corinthians, and what more natural than that they should finally forsake him? They had long been questioning his divine commission, compelling him to write, “Since ye seek a proof of Christ speaking in me, …examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves.” (II Cor. 13:3-5). They had long been speaking contemptuously of him, saying, “His letters are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” (II Cor. 10:10). The wonder were not that such folks in time might forsake Paul, but that he did not forsake them. But Paul did not forsake them, but patiently labored with them to do them good, though a large portion of his labor for them must consist of an attempt to vindicate himself. In large segments of his second epistle to them he is compelled to write to vindicate his character, to justify his actions, and to defend his divine call and commission. “Ye have compelled me,” he says, “for I ought to have been commended of you.” (II Cor. 12:11). He must commend himself, that is, to those who ought to have been commending him. They ought indeed to have been ashamed of themselves, so to compel a laborious servant of God, and their own father in Christ besides, to commend and defend himself, but their passions had carried them away, and they no doubt actually believed that the fault was all in Paul.

Not that Paul did not have real faults, for who does not? But whatever faults he had were no doubt petty in comparison to the great good which was in him, and the great good which he was doing. Whatever faults he had were no reason, and no excuse, for the treatment which he received from the Corinthians. Whatever faults he had did not destroy God’s confidence in him, for he could yet say, “And I thank CHRIST JESUS OUR LORD, who hath enabled me, for that HE COUNTED ME FAITHFUL, putting me into the ministry.” (I Tim. 1:12). But this fact apparently had no weight with the Corinthians. They no doubt found ways to explain it away, or deny it, or so qualify it as to evade its force.

But the fact is, the whole relationship between Paul and the Corinthians was strained, and he was compelled to write even in his first epistle to them, “Now some are puffed up, as though I would not come to you. But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, not the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power. For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. What will ye? Shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love, and in the spirit of meekness?” (I Cor. 4:18-21). But “the speech of them which are puffed up” no doubt continued, and continued more and more to prejudice the others against Paul, for pride, ill-will, and gossip are the tools which the devil uses to set the saints against their fathers and elders in Christ. Thus by the time that Paul penned his second epistle to them, their relationship was much more strained, and he must write, “This is the third time I am coming to you. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established. …if I come again, I will not spare.” (II Cor. 13:1-2). In the same epistle he must spend whole chapters vindicating his apostleship and his character, and defending himself against petty charges. With such a state of things long brewing at Corinth, it is no wonder to read, “all they which are in Asia be turned away from me.” Corinth did not belong to Asia, but if such a state of things existed in Corinth, it is nothing difficult to suppose it existed elsewhere also.

Paul writes again, in II Tim. 4:16, “At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me.” Of course this moves us to sympathy for “Paul the aged,” but it ought to move us also to shame for the pride, the ill-will, and the ingratitude which could thus turn its back upon its greatest benefactor. But such is man—-even good and godly man, when wrong passions are allowed to grow unchecked in his soul. Yet the less Paul is loved, the more he loves, and no sooner does he inform Timothy that all have forsaken him, than he adds, “I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge.” Is it so, that such a man was forsaken by all Asia? Lord, what is man! What a beacon of warning this fact ought to be to all future ages of the church. But the beacon has often gone unheeded, for men yet turn their backs upon their spiritual fathers and superiors, and so throw away their own best blessings.

We may be ignorant of the actual reasons why these Christians turned away from Paul, but of two things we may be sure:

1.They did have reasons. If they had been asked for an account of their conduct in forsaking the apostle of the Gentiles, we may rest assured they would not have said, “We have no particular reasons, or none worth mentioning. We just prefer to leave him at this time.” Their own consciences would not have allowed them such a thing. They would have felt instinctively that to justify themselves in so great a matter as forsaking Paul, they must have some weighty reasons—-and to justify themselves they no doubt found reasons enough.

2.The second thing of which we may be sure is that whatever those reasons were, they were all in Paul, not in themselves. We may be absolutely certain that they did not say, “Paul is a true and faithful servant of Christ, who preaches sound doctrine and lives according to the true spirit of Christianity, but we are controlled by the evil passions of pride and resentment, and therefore we must leave him.” Whatever may have happened, this surely did not. No, the reasons were all in Paul. It was no doubt Paul’s faults, Paul’s pride, the offences which Paul gave, Paul’s deficiencies, Paul’s presumption, Paul’s indiscretions, Paul’s bad doctrine—-Paul’s anything, or Paul’s everything—-but whatever the reasons were, there is no doubt that in their way of thinking they were all in Paul. It was no doubt a simple matter of righteousness for them to oppose him, a simple matter of conscience and faithfulness to God. Paul himself had compelled them to do so!

But Paul (and the Spirit of God) had a different view of the matter. That Paul had faults we need not doubt, and Paul would certainly not have denied it. Yet Paul knew well enough that whatever faults he had were not the real reason for the defection of his children. He, by the spirit of God, puts his finger upon the real reason when he writes over and over to the Corinthians, “some are puffed up,” “the speech of them which are puffed up,” “ye are puffed up.” They began to think themselves beyond Paul. They knew better than he did. From this root—-coupled perhaps with some little offences some of them had received from Paul, or some little indiscretions they had seen in his conduct—-grew all of their opposition to him. And grow it did, until they really despised Paul, repudiated his divine call, impeached his character, and disbelieved his doctrine. What wonder if they finally forsook him? All that were in Asia did so. What fruits are these of the corruption of the heart of man, and that even in many who were going to the same heaven with the Paul whom they thus forsook! And what blessings they forsook in their way to that heaven, when they forsook Paul! And what a beacon of warning their defection presents to all the saints in all ages, to guard against the first beginnings of pride and ill-will!

Glenn Conjurske