Letter from a Roman Dungeon

By Nancy Unks

If I am tempted to complain about isolation on my warm, comfy couch, I have only to read Paul’s second letter to Timothy, his beloved young protégé, to snap me out of that mood. It was written in dreadful circumstances. Paul, under arrest, had been taken to Rome in chains and thrown into the worst of prisons—more like a sewer under the streets of the city—from which the only certain escape was execution.

The letter is Paul’s last will, charging Timothy to carry on his work. He says he is suffering because he dared to tell the truth that God’s grace (his unfailing love) “was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (2 Tim 1:9). In other words, Jesus is eternal God. Paul goes on to say that that grace “has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death” (1:10) by rising from the dead.

Those two ideas have been accepted Christian theology for 20 centuries: that Jesus is Lord and that his resurrection was real. In the first century, they were so radical that they incited riots. That’s how Paul wound up in a cold, wet, stone dungeon, lonely, deserted by friends, and under a sentence of death.

Yet Paul is thanking God! He remains convinced that the truth of the gospel will go forth by the power of the Holy Spirit in Timothy and other believers. He encourages Timothy and prays for him! He also prays for God’s blessing on one brother named Onesiphorus, who travelled to Rome, searched for Paul, and “refreshed” him.

Near the end of the letter, Paul urges Timothy to come to him and bring a cloak and scrolls he had left behind. A warm cloak seems useful, but I can’t imagine there was much light to read by underground, or to write letters. Paul mentions that Luke (the gospel writer) was with him; Luke may have written down the letter as Paul dictated it and could read the scrolls to him from above ground. But here’s a surprise: Paul also asks Timothy to bring their friend Mark with him, “because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Tim 4:11). Was Paul preparing for his own life to go on despite his death sentence? We don’t know if Timothy arrived before Paul was beheaded, but we do know the gospel continued, because we have it today.

No matter how isolated we feel, we know that God has already saved us. God’s Holy Spirit is in us to help us do the tasks he has for us. Maybe that’s to share the hope of Christ Jesus when all around us are doom and gloom. Maybe it’s to reach out as Onesiphorus did to encourage the lonely and isolated. We don’t even have to search the sewers of Rome—just make a phone call or send an email.