by Clarence E. Macartney
(About the author: Clarence E. Macartney (1879-1950), American Presbyterian preacher, studied at the University of Wisconsin, Princeton University, and Princeton Theological Seminary. Dr. Macartney served as pastor in churches in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. When he retired in 1953, he had been pastor of first Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh for twenty-six years. Considered one of the best preachers of his day, Macartney was known for his unique ability to infuse forceful illustrations, character studies, and fresh insights of biblical truths into his sermons. He was one of the conservative leaders in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1930s.)
"Do thy diligence to come shortly unto me….Do thy diligence to come before winter" (2 Timothy 4:9, 21).
Napoleon Bonaparte and the Apostle Paul are the most renowned prisoners of history. One was in prison because the peace of the world demanded it; the other because he sought to give to men that peace which the world cannot give and which the world cannot take away. One could trace his path to glory by ghastly trails of the dead which stretched from the Pyrenees to Moscow and from the Pyramids to Mount Tabor. The other could trace his path to prison, death, and immortal glory by the hearts that he had loved and the souls that he had gathered in to the Kingdom of God.
Napoleon once said, "I love nobody, not even my own brothers." It is not strange, therefore, that at the end of his life, on his rocky prison in the South Atlantic, he said, "I wonder if there is anyone in the world who really loves me." But Paul loved all men. His heart was the heart of the world, and from his lonely prison at Rome he sent out messages which glow with love unquenchable and throb with fadeless hope.
When a man enters the straits of life, he is fortunate if he has a few friends upon whom he can count to the uttermost. Paul had three such friends. The first of these three, whose name needs no mention, was that One who would be the friend of every man, the friend who laid down His life for us all. The second was that man whose face is almost the first, and almost the last, we see in life-the physician. This friend Paul handed down to immortality with that imperishable encomium, "Luke, the beloved physician." The third of these friends was the Lycaonian youth, Timothy, half Hebrew and half Greek, who Paul affectionately called "My son in the faith."
Paul's last letter is to this dearest of his earthly friends, Timothy, whom he has left in charge of the church at far-off Ephesus. He tells Timothy that he wants him to come and be with him at Rome. He is to stop at Troas on the way and pick up his books, for Paul is a scholar even to the end. He is to bring the cloak, too, which Paul had left at the house of Carpus in Troas. It is getting cold at Rome, for the summer is waning, and Paul wants his robe to keep him warm. But most of all Paul wants Timothy to bring himself. "Do thy diligence to come before winter."
Why "before winter"? Because when winter set in the season for navigation closed in the Mediterranean and it was dangerous for ships to venture out to sea. How dangerous it was, the story of Paul's last shipwreck tells us. If Timothy waits until winter, he will have to wait until spring; and Paul has a premonition that he will not last out the winter, for he says, "The time of my departure is at hand."
We like to think that Timothy did not wait a single day after that letter from Paul reached him at Ephesus, but started at once to Troas, where he picked up the books and the old cloak in the house of Carpus, then sailed past Samothrace to Neapolis, and thence traveled by the Egnatian Way across the plains of Philippi and through Macedonia to the Adriatic, where he took ship to Brundisium, and then went up the Appian Way to Rome, where he found Paul in his prison, read to him from the Old Testament, wrote his last letters, walked with him to the place of execution near the Pyramid of Cestius, and saw him receive the crown of glory.
Before winter or never! There are some things which will never be done unless they are done "before winter." The winter will come and the winter will pass, and the flowers of the springtime will deck the breast of the earth, and the graves of some of our opportunities, perhaps the grave of our dearest friend. There are golden gates wide open now but next year they will be forever shut. There are voices speaking today which a year from today will be silent. Before winter or never!
Taking our suggestion, then, from this message of Paul in the prison at Rome to Timothy in far-off Ephesus-"Come before winter"-let us listen to some of those voices which now are speaking so earnestly to us, and which a year from today may be forever silent.
The Voice Which Calls for Reformation Your character can be amended and improved, but not at just any time. There are favorable seasons. In the town of my boyhood I delighted to watch on a winter's night the streams of molten metal writhing and twisting like lost spirits as they poured from the furnaces of the wire mill. Before the furnace doors stood men in leathern aprons, with iron tongs in their hands, ready to seize the fiery coils and direct them to the molds. But if the iron was permitted to cool below a certain temperature, it refused the mold. There are times when life's metal is, as it were, molten, and can be worked into any design that is desired. But if it is permitted to cool, it tends toward a state of fixation, in which it is possible neither to do nor even to plan a good work. When the angel came down to trouble the pool at Jerusalem, then was the time for the sick to step in and be healed. There are moments when the pool of life is troubled by the angel of opportunity. Then a man, if he will, can go down and be made whole; but if he waits until the waters are still, it is too late.
A man who had been under the bondage of an evil habit relates how one night, sitting in his room in a hotel, he was assailed by his old enemy, his besetting sin, and was about to yield to it. He was reaching out his hand to ring the bell for a waiter, when suddenly, as if an angel stood before him, a voice esteemed to say, "This is your hour. If you yield to this temptation now, it will destroy you. If you conquer it now, you are its master forever." He obeyed the angel's voice, refused the tempter and came off victorious over his enemy.
In your life there may be that which you know to be wrong and sinful. In his mercy God has awakened conscience, or has flooded your heart with a sudden wave of contrition and sorrow. This is the hour of opportunity, for now chains of evil habit can be broken, which, if not broken, will bind us forever. Now golden goals can be chosen and decisions made which shall affect our destiny forever.
You can build a bonfire any time you please; but the fine fire of the Spirit, that is a different thing. God has His Moment.
The Voice of Friendship Suppose that Timothy, when he received that letter from Paul asking him to come before winter, had said to himself; "Yes, I shall start for Rome; but first of all I must clear up some matters here at Ephesus, and then go down to Miletus to ordain elders there, and thence over to Colossae to celebrate the Communion there." When he has attended to these matters, he starts for Troas, and there inquires when he can get a ship to Italy. He is told that the season for navigation is over. "No ships for Italy till April!"
All through that anxious winter we can imagine Timothy reproaching himself that he did not go at once when he received Paul's letter, and wondering how it fares with the Apostle. When the first vessel sails in the springtime, Timothy is a passenger on it. I can see him landing at Neapolis, or Brundisium, and hurrying up to Rome. There he seeks out Paul's prison, only to be cursed and repulsed by the guard. Then he goes to the house of Claudia, or Pudens, or Narcissus, or Mary, or Ampliatus, and asks where he can find Paul. I can hear them say: "Don't you know that Paul was beheaded last December?" How Timothy must have wished that he had come before winter!
Before winter or never! "The poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always," said Jesus when the disciples complained that Mary's costly and beautiful gift of ointment might have been expended in behalf of the poor. "Me ye have not always." That is true of all the friends we love. With them as far as our ministry is concerned, it is before winter or never.
On one of the early occasions when I preached on this text in Philadelphia, there was present at the service a student in the Jefferson Medical College (Dr. Arnot Walker, New Galilee, Pennsylvania). When the service was over he went back to his room on Arch Street, where the text kept repeating itself in his mind, "Come before winter." "Perhaps," he thought to himself, "I had better write a letter to my mother." He sat down and wrote a letter such as a mother delights to receive from her son. He took the letter down the street, dropped it in a mailbox, and returned to his room. Only a few days later, in the midst of his studies a telegram was placed in his hand. Tearing it open, he read these words: "Come home at once. Your mother is dying." He took the train that night for Pittsburgh, and then another train to the town near the farm where his home was. Arriving at the town, he was driven to the farm and, hurrying up the stairs, found his mother still living, with a smile of recognition and satisfaction on her face-the smile which, if a man has once seen, he can never forget.
Under her pillow was the letter he had written her after the Sunday night service, her heartease as she went down into the River. The next time he met me in Philadelphia he said, "I am glad you preached that sermon, ‘Come Before Winter."'
The Voice of Christ More eager, more wistful, more tender than any other voice is the voice of Christ which now I hear calling men to come to Him, and to come before winter. I wish I had been there when Christ called His disciples, Andrew and Peter, and James and John, by the Sea of Galilee, or Matthew as he was sitting at the receipt of custom. There must have been a note not only of love and authority but or immediacy and urgency in His voice, for we read that they "left all and followed him."
The greatest subject which can engage the mind and attention of man is eternal life. Hence the Holy Spirit, when He invites men to come to Christ, never says "tomorrow" but always "today." If you can find me one place in the Bible where the Holy Spirit says, "Believe in Christ tomorrow," or "Repent and be saved tomorrow," I will come down out of the pulpit and stay out if it-for I would have no gospel to preach. But the Spirit always says, "today," never "tomorrow," "Now is the accepted time." "Now is the day of salvation." "Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts." While it is called Today."
The reason for this urgency is twofold. First, the uncertainty of human life. A long time ago, David, in his last interview with Jonathan, said, "As thy soul liveth, there is but a step between me and death." That is true of every one of us. But a step! What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue!
An old rabbi used to say to his people, "Repent the day before you die."
"But," they said to him, "Rabbi, we know not the day of our death."
"Then," he answered, "repent today." Come before winter!
The second reason why Christ, when he calls a man, always says Today, and never Tomorrow, is that tomorrow the disposition of a man's heart may have changed. There is a time to plant, and a time to reap. The heart, like the soil, has its favorable seasons. "Speak to my brother now! His heart is tender now!" a man once said to me concerning his brother, who was not a believer. Today a man may hear this sermon and be interested, impressed, almost persuaded, ready to take his stand for Christ and enter into eternal life. But he postpones his decision and says, "Not tonight, but tomorrow."
A week hence, a month hence, a year hence, he may come back and hear the same call to repentance and to faith. But it has absolutely no effect upon him, for his heart is as cold as marble and the preacher might as well preach to a stone or scatter seed on the marble pavement below this pulpit. Oh, if the story of this one church could be told, if the stone should cry out of the wall and the beam out of the timber should answer, what a story they could tell of those who once were almost persuaded but who now are far from the kingdom of God. Christ said, Today! They answered, Tomorrow!
Once again I repeat these words of the Apostle, "Come before winter"; and as I pronounce them, common sense, experience, conscience, Scripture, the Holy Spirit, the souls of just men made perfect, and the Lord Jesus Christ all repeat with me, "Come before winter!" Come before the haze of Indian Summer has faded from the fields! Come before the November wind strips the leaves from the trees and sends them whirling over the fields! Come before the snow lies on the uplands and the meadow brook is turned to ice! Come before the heart is cold! Come before desire has failed! Come before life is over and your probation ended, and you stand before God to give an account of the use you have made of the opportunities which in his grace he has granted to you! Come before winter!
© First Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA and Geneva College, Beaver Falls, PA
Reprinted by permission