2 Timothy (9) “Finish Well”
2 Timothy 4:6-18
Many of you will have heard of Scottish runner Eric Liddell who won gold in the 400 metres in the 1924 Paris Olympics. The Academy Award winning movie Chariots of Fire focuses on this exciting story. Well, a year before the 1924 Olympics, in July 1923, Eric was running in a competition between Scotland & England. He won both the 100 yards & the 220 yards races for Scotland. Then came the 440 yards final. The race started & the runners had only taken about 3 or 4 strides when an English runner called Gillis, wanting to get to the inside of the track, bumped against Eric making him stumble. Thinking he was disqualified Eric stood for a moment until one of the judges shouted for him to go on. He set off after the other runners, though by then he was about 20 metres behind. To the amazement of the crowd he began to catch up, passing one runner after another. At the final turn he was in fourth place. Liddell threw his head back & ran like crazy. The crowd went wild as Liddell hit the finishing tape just ahead of his English rival Gillis, the man who had accidentally knocked him off the track near the start of the race. Eric Liddell refused to give up. He wanted to finish well, not only in athletics but also in life.
Today we are going to think about the Apostle Paul who also wanted to finish well. And I hope all of us, whether young or older, will be challenged about making the most of our lives & finishing well.
1. Paul faces reality (4:6, 16 & 17)
Paul says, “I am already being poured out like a drink offering, & the time for my departure is near.” (v.6) Paul knows his life’s journey is almost finished. Paul wrote 2 Timothy in about AD 67. He had already stood trial before the Emperor Nero & was facing another trial. He knows that this time he will most probably get the death penalty.
In saying his life is “…being poured out like a drink offering” Paul is saying that for him to die for the sake of the Gospel is a huge privilege. His life is being sacrificed, poured out, as an offering to God. He is gladly giving his life for the sake of the Gospel.
Paul continues, “…and the time for my departure is near.” (v.6) He describes his coming death as “my departure”. This word was used for when the moorings holding a boat were untied so that the boat could set sail. What some may have regarded as a terrible ending to his life, Paul regards as a new & exciting beginning.
I thought about the departure lounge in an airport. People go to the departure lounge to wait for the boarding call – the call for them to board the aircraft. The departure lounge is not the end of the journey – it is the start, the beginning.
Paul did not see death as the end but as the beginning. Some years earlier he wrote to the believers in Philippi saying, “For me to live is Christ & to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21) & then added in v.23, “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart [there is the same word, this time as a verb] & be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”
When he was writing 2 Timothy, however, Paul knew he had no choice. The time for his departure had finally come. However for him & for all of us who are believers in the Lord Jesus, dying is not something to be feared. The Bible is very clear that for us the best is yet to be. To depart & be with Christ is better by far. As we saw when we studied Revelation, when that day comes there will be no more crying or pain or sorrow for we will be with the Lord. What a glorious hope!
This does not mean that coming to the end of life’s journey is necessarily easy. In Paul’s case he was not dying peacefully of old age surrounded by loved ones. He was facing execution. And he experienced the pain of being deserted by some of his closest colleagues & friends. He writes in v.16, “At my first defence, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them.” The very ones he thought would put in a good word for him failed to show up, let alone speak up. Has that ever happened to you? If your friends fail to support you when you are unfairly treated I hope you can be like Paul & pray: “May it not be held against them.”
How wonderful that although sometimes our friends do let us down, the Lord never does. This was Paul’s experience. He goes on in v.17, “But the Lord stood at my side & gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed & all the Gentiles might hear it.” On that occasion Paul writes, “And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth.” Later, Nero the Emperor did have Christians thrown to the lions in the Coliseum, but on this occasion Paul says, he was spared.
We may not find ourselves in a situation anything like the situation Paul was facing. However there are times when we or our loved ones do face seeming tragedy or serious illness. Are we able at such times to trust the Lord like Paul did? Are we able to see even death as simply a departure, as untying the moorings, as getting ready for take-off – to depart & be with Christ which is better by far?
We have seen Paul facing the realities of life. Let us move on now to our second point:
2. Paul evaluates his life (v.7)
As he looks back over his life & ministry, Paul is able to affirm that he has fulfilled all that God had called him to do & is finishing well. He uses 3 powerful images. In v.7 he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” This well-known verse speaks of Paul’s unwavering faith & his deep love for the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
What did Paul mean when he said he had fought the good fight? He was probably thinking of a contest in the arena – as when athletes compete against one another. If he had been writing in our time & our culture he may have spoken about playing rugby or cricket. Each player gives of their best. Whether they win or lose they know they have given everything – both players & fans can say, “That was a fantastic game!”
When Paul says, “I have fought the good fight” I think he is saying something like “I have given my best, I have served the Lord with all my heart.” May we be able to say the same! Rather than having to look back with regret at a life of wasted opportunities, may we be able to say, with Paul, “I have fought the good fight – I have given of my very best for God.” If we want to be able to say this at the end of our life, we need to begin now.
There is also the sense in which fighting the good fight is standing up against evil & fighting for what is right. Our battle is not against people “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world & against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12) Our fight is a spiritual fight against Satan & the forces of evil. We cannot fight on our own. We need the Lord’s mighty power & must “put on the full armour of God” taking our stand against Satan’s evil schemes. Paul stood up against the enemy. May we too stand up & fight. Don’t be passive. Don’t make excuses. Step up & engage. Let us be those who put on the full armour of God & with His strength & power fight the good fight.
As he came to the end of his life, Paul could also say, “I have finished the race.” Eric Liddell did not give up when knocked off the track by another runner. He ran as fast as he could to catch up. Not only did he finish the race but he came first.
It is perhaps worth noting that Paul says, “I have finished the race” rather than “I have won the race.” Some people start well but fail to finish. Paul may have been thinking of the marathon or of another long distance race where patience & perseverance are essential. A good friend of mine used to run in the famous Comrades Marathon in South Africa – one year they run downhill from Pietermaritzburg to Durban & the next year they run uphill, from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, a distance of about 90 kilometres. Running & finishing takes incredible fitness & dedicated training.
The Christian life is like this. It is easy to be enthusiastic at the start but then to give up half way. When Paul says, “I have finished the race” he is not boasting. He knew it was only by God’s grace that he had been able to finish. In Acts 20:24 when saying his final goodbye to the elders from the church in Ephesus, he said, “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race & complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” Now some ten years later as Paul faces the end of his life he can say, “I have finished the race” – he knew it was all through God’s grace.
Paul is telling Timothy that he has been totally committed to the work of proclaiming the gospel of salvation. He has run his race. He is ready to cross the finish line into heaven. How about us? Will we be able to say the same when we come to the end of our race?
Start running now, & get rid of anything that might hinder you from running well. Runners do not wear boots or heavy clothing, nor do they carry a backpack. They strip down to a running vest, shorts & running shoes. The writer of Hebrews, echoing the words of Paul, says, “Let us throw off everything that hinders & the sin that so easily entangles, & let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Hebrews 12:1) Allowing sin or compromise in our lives is like trying to run with boots or heavy clothes or a backpack. Becoming weighed down with worldly cares – worrying about money, material possessions, property, career or plans – will hold us back or sidetrack us from the “race marked out for us”. Let us keep our eyes on the goal, & like Paul, may we finish well.
Now finally in this wonderful verse Paul says, “I have kept the faith.” The word translated “kept” means “to guard, to watch over.” Paul’s faith or trust in Jesus never wavered. All through his life he faithfully declared the gospel & defended the truth. Not only had he kept the faith, but like a runner in a relay race he was passing the baton to the next runner – to his successors, co-workers like Timothy & Titus.
Over the years Paul faced all kinds of opposition & attack. Yet he kept the faith through it all. May we too “keep the faith”! May we keep true to the Lord & to His Word! May we serve Him faithfully as He fulfils His plans in us & through us for His glory!
Paul was able to look back over his life & say, “I have, I have, I have…” “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Let us say: “Lord, with your grace I will, I will, I will...” “I will fight the good fight, I will finish the race, I will keep the faith.” We cannot do this in our own strength or by our own will-power. We can only do it by the power of the Holy Spirit in us.
We have seen Paul facing reality & we have seen him evaluating his life. We come now to our final heading:
3. Paul longs for the Lord’s appearing (v.8)
Paul says, “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – & not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing.” (v.8)
When speaking of a “crown” Paul is probably thinking of the laurel wreath that was given to a winning athlete in the games. It was a huge honour, a most coveted prize in ancient Rome. Today in the Olympic Games winning athletes are given medals. These are badges of great honour. Those winning gold medals often become national heroes.
Paul looks forward to receiving his reward, his “crown” but it is not a laurel wreath that fades, nor is it a gold, silver or bronze medal – no, it is a “crown of righteousness”. It is not an earthly award. It is not recognition from or by the world. It is an award far more valuable & lasting than any award anyone could receive on earth. It is a crown given as a reward for a life of faithful service & holy living. The world seldom if ever gives out awards for godliness or righteous living, but God does!
The story is told of a missionary returning home to America after a life-time of service. He happened to be on the same boat as the President of the United States returning from a visit to Europe. Cheering crowds, a military band, a red carpet & the media welcomed the president home, but the missionary slipped off the boat un-noticed. Feeling self-pity & a little resentment, the missionary began to complain to God. Then the Lord gently reminded him, “My son, you’re not home yet!”
This crown of righteousness is a reward kept in heaven, which says Paul, “...the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day” – the day of the glorious return of Jesus.
Obviously, we would expect someone like the great apostle Paul to get such a crown in heaven. But what can you or I expect? Did you notice how Paul goes on? He says, “…and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing.” (v.8) This crown is not just for the special few. It is for every believer who loves & obeys the Lord & is eagerly awaiting His return. Each one of us can get a crown. However, I guess all the attention in heaven will not be on our crowns but on the One giving the crowns.
There is an interesting verse in Revelation 4:10 where John describes the scene in heaven. He sees the 24 elders representing the whole of the Church falling down before the throne. John says, “They lay their crowns before the throne.” (Revelation 4:10) There is no room for pride in heaven. Any crowns we receive will be signs of God’s mercy & grace. No wonder Paul says in v.18, “The Lord …will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom. To Him be glory for ever & ever. Amen.” Yes, to Him be the glory!
At the start of this message we spoke about Eric Liddell. His greatest glory in life was not winning gold in the Olympics but in obeying Christ & serving Him in China. He died in a Japanese internment [concentration] camp in Shandong right near the end of the Second World War. He was only 43. His life is still an inspiration. OMF missionary, the late Dr David Michell, who was a young boy in the same camp as Eric Liddell wrote this of him: “None of us will ever forget this man who was totally committed to putting God first, a man whose humble life combined muscular Christianity with radiant godliness.”
May the examples of both the apostle Paul & Eric Liddell be an encouragement to us as we run the race of life, that we too may finish well! May we, like Paul & like Eric Liddell fight the good fight, finish the race & keep the faith! May we be ready & unashamed when Jesus comes again!