Traditionally, II Timothy is considered to be Paul’s last letter. In the epistle, the imprisoned apostle corresponds with his protégé, Timothy (II Timothy 1:2), encouraging him to visit as soon as possible (II Timothy 4:9, 21). Timothy’s presence is all the more desired as Paul has been abandoned by his followers, with the exception of Luke (II Timothy 4:11, 16).
Paul concludes his letter with the customary list of his personal concerns (II Timothy 4:9-22), The embattled apostle includes a passing reference to a mutual friend: he has left Trophimus ill in Miletus (II Timothy 4:20).
Erastus remained at Corinth, but Trophimus I left sick at Miletus. (II Timothy 4:20 NASB)Trophimus was a native of Ephesus (Acts 21:29) and had accompanied the apostle from Greece to Troas (Acts 20:4) and on his final trip to Jerusalem (Acts 21:29). In fact, Trophimus was the indirect cause of Paul’s arrest (Acts 21:29). Scholars have attempted to use Trophimus’ presence and presumed recent illness to retrace the apostle’s footsteps and date the letter, a difficult task which has produced an array of results.
Trophimus is said to be sick. The Greek term used is astheneo, a term with a broad range of meaning translated as either “sick” (ASV, CEV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT) or “ill” (ESV, NRS, RSV). George W. Knight III (b. 1931) diagnoses:
Paul left Trophimus at Miletus because Trophimus was ἀσθενουντα. The verb ἀσθενέω was used generally of the state of being weak. All its New Testament occurrences refer to physical illness (e.g., Matthew 25:39; John 4:46; Philippians 2:26ff; James 5:14). Though Paul on other occasions was the instrument through which individuals were healed (Acts 14:9-10, 19:11-12, 20:10, 28:8-9; cf. II Corinthians 12:12), he did not always heal: On this occasion he left a fellow worker “sick” (cf. II Corinthians 12:7-10). The implication of the verb “I left behind” (ἀπέλιπον) is that Paul was with Trophimus in or near Miletus when Trophimus stopped traveling. (Knight, The Pastoral Epistles (New International Greek Testament Commentary, 477)The term “sick” is as broad in Greek as it is in English and encompasses the potentiality of Trophimus simply being exhausted. John Wimber (1934-1997) and Kevin Springer (b. 1947) acknowledge:
There is the possibility, based on the Greek word translated in this verse “sick,” that Trophimus had overworked and weakened his body...Indeed, the illnesses...could have been associated with...ministries...In other words, they may have been guilty of what many pastors...do today: abuse of their bodies by disobeying the natural laws of health, which include good exercise, enough sleep, proper eating, recreation, and so on. (Wimber and Springer, Power Healing, 151)Whatever the nature of his condition, Trophimus is too weakened to continue ministering and is left in Miletus, located on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. Miletus was situated only 30-35 miles from Trophimus’ home and the church in Ephesus.
Trophimus is out of sight but clearly not out of Paul’s mind. There have been many suggestions as to why Paul includes his friend’s condition in his letter. Some suggest that he is merely informing Timothy of the plight of their mutual friend. Others see an implicit suggestion for Timothy to check on Trophimus.
Paul seldom worked alone and some have seen Paul as using Trophimus’ illness to accentuate why he is lonely – the absence of his team – in an effort to bring Timothy to him quicker.
The apostle is not blaming Trophimus for his desertion. In fact, the teacher can be seen as granting an excused absence. Raymond F. Collins (b. 1935) comments:
Six of the apostle’s seven companions are no longer with him. Demas, Cresens, and Titus have abandoned Paul, leaving Luke alone with him...Tychichus has been sent on a mission to Ephesus (II Timothy 4:12). Erastus remained behind in Corinth (II Timothy 4:20), and Trophimus, a sick man, was left behind in Miletus (II Timothy 4:20). The absence of these three is not presented as having contributed to Paul’s solitude. Their absence is the result of the apostle’s own initiative. (Collins, I & II Timothy and Titus: A Commentary (New Testament Library), 278)Regardless of why Paul makes the reference, Trophimus’ illness is conspicuous. George T. Montague (b. 1929) observes:
That he was sick, and not healed by Paul, is one of the rare mentions of illness in the apostolic workers of the New Testament. Paul himself seems to have suffered from some kind of eye infirmity when he was in Galatia (Galatians 4:15), and the weakness, or “thorn in the flesh,” of II Corinthians 12:7-9 may refer to an illness. It can be consoling to modern ministers to know that early ministers were not supermen or superwomen, but as St. John Chrysostom [347-407] notes, were able to accept God’s plan for them even if this included illness. (Montague, First and Second Timothy, Titus (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture), 208)Walter L. Liefeld (b. 1927) teases, “It may be significant in connection with Paul’s involvement in miraculous acts, including healing (Acts 14:8-10, 28:7-9) that Trophimus was left ‘sick in Miletus.’ (Liefeld, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus (The NIV Application Commentary), 302)”
Dispensationalists have interpreted Trophimus’ sickness as the end of the age of miracles. John MacArthur (b. 1939) is an exemplar, writing:
It is important to note that Paul made no effort himself to heal Trophimus, who, incidentally, was present at the late-night service in Troas when the apostle miraculously restored to life Eutychus, a young man who went to sleep during the sermon and fell out a window to his death (Acts 20:9-10; cf. Acts 20:4). The sign gifts were coming to an end. There is no evidence that any of the apostles, including Paul, performed miracles of any sort during their later years. As more and more of the New Testament was revealed and made available to the church, God’s Word no longer needed the verification of miracles. (MacArthur, 2 Timothy (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary), 215)Dispensationalists read too much into the text. The New Testament does not claim that Paul did not try to heal his friend and it certainly makes no claims that the age of miracles is over.
Do miracles still exist? Do you pray for them? Why didn’t Paul heal Trophimus? Does Paul reference Trophimus’ illness for his own benefit or that of his ill friend? Is there sadness or regret in Paul’s tone when writing of Trophimus? Which is worse, Trophimus’ illness or being left by his friend?
It is uncertain what happened to Trophimus. Tradition says that he did not succumb to his illness but rather to beheading at the command of Nero. It is difficult not to sympathize with his plight and wonder about his fate.
E. Frank Tupper (b. 1941) internalizes:
“Trophimus I left in Miletus.” Grace, but not grace enough. Ill, not healed. Ill, perhaps sustained? Ill, and left. Left sick, left behind, left out, left to somebody else, left to himself. Left, not healed. Left, not blessed. Left, not coping? Paul left Trophimus sick at Miletus: Abandoned? Abandoned broken? Abandoned bereft? Abandoned to whomever and whatever and whenever? We do not know. II Timothy 4:20 is only a fragment, a story untold, a story no one knows...It is a story...of providence that we would like to know. We, too, are fragments in the correspondence of others. (Tupper, A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God, 307-08)It is interesting that Paul finds himself in the same lonely predicament as Trophimus. We do not know if Timothy ever it made it to see his mentor. Likewise, Jesus, was also abandoned by his followers at the end of his earthly life (Matthew 26:31; Mark 14:27).
Abandonment is a universal human experience. Yet Christians have the assurance that though they may feel abandoned, they are never truly alone. Our predecessors in the faith had the same experience and God is with us just as God was with them.
Why do you think that Paul left Trophimus in Miletus? Have you ever had to leave someone you love when they were ill? What abandoned person can you visit? What can you do for someone who is suffering when you cannot physically be with them? Have you ever felt abandoned? Do you realize that with God, you are not alone?
“I am not so different in my history of abandonment from anyone else after all. We have all been split away from each other, the earth, ourselves.” - Susan Griffin (b. 1943), A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War, p. 360