Finishing Well

2Timothy 4:6-22

Rev. Bryn MacPhail

It was 7 p.m. on October 20th, 1968. Only a few spectators remained in the Mexico City Olympic Stadium. The winner of the 26 mile marathon had crossed the finish line more than an hour ago, and now, the last of the marathon runners were across the finish line and leaving the track.

As the last few spectators began to leave, those sitting by the entrance suddenly heard the sound of sirens. One last runner appeared at the entrance. The man, whose leg was bloody and bandaged, was wearing the colours of Tanzania.

The Tanzanian runner, experiencing intense pain, hobbled around the 400 meter track in the stadium, and the few remaining spectators rose and applauded him as though he was the winner.

After crossing the finish line he slowly walked off the field without turning to the cheering spectators. In view of his injury, and having no chance of winning any medal, a curious spectator asked him why he did not quit the race.

The Tanzanian runner replied, 'My country did not send me 7000 miles to start the race, but sent me 7000 miles to finish it.'

Those of you who have come to know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour have also been enlisted in a race. It is unfortunate, however, that many Christians are wandering aimlessly off the track.

Many Christians begin strong--they begin their Christian life with a sprint, full of energy and joy--but very few seem to finish strong. I am not talking about the aging process here either. Many Christians, who start strong as teenagers, begin to waver as adults because of the demands of their career. Other Christians begin strong in mid-life only lose interest as other responsibilities increase.

The Christian life should not only begin strong, but it should also finish strong . One pastor, when warned of the dangers of burn-out if he continued at his current pace, replied, 'I would rather burn-out than rust out'. How many of you, after beginning the Christian life strong, are in danger of rusting out?

The apostle Paul, we see in his final letter to Timothy, was one of those Christians who finished well. Paul concludes his letter to Timothy by sharing with him that he expects his present imprisonment to result in death, "As for me, I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come "(4:6).

The metaphors employed by Paul here are euphemisms for death, and they reveal Paul's positive outlook towards death (Fee, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus , 289). The "drink offering " metaphor refers to the Old Testament practice of pouring out wine before the Lord in the sanctuary(Num. 28:7). Clearly, Paul views his impending death, positively , in terms of a life poured out before the Lord. The second metaphor, "departure " is commonly used to describe the loosing of a ship from its moorings(Fee, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus , 289). Paul, by employing these metaphors, demonstrates that he views death, not as 'the end' but, as a glorious new era when he will be released from all his present restrictions.

As Paul looks forward to this new era, he also looks back to the Christian life he lived, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith "(v.7).

The first phrase, in verse 7, is ambiguous and literally reads, "I have contested the noble contest ". Some commentators interpret the word "contest " to be a military metaphor, while others see it as a metaphor for boxing or wrestling. The context, however, suggests that Paul is speaking, once again, about an athletic race.

The positioning of the word "good " does not mean that Paul's running was good but, rather, that he has been running in the noblest of all races--the ministry of Jesus Christ. Paul is saying, "I have raced in the noble race " and "I have finished the race ". Paul did not simply start well, but he also finished well. Paul never mentions winning the race, only completing it. The Christian life is not a race to be won in a sprint, it is a contest to be finished through employing a steady, unwavering, pace .

When Paul adds that he has "kept the faith ", he adds one more angle to this race metaphor. The word translated "kept " means, "to guard "--something Paul tells Timothy to do in chapter 1, verse 14, "(Timothy) guard the good treasure entrusted to you ". Piecing these metaphors together I picture Paul saying that, he has picked a noble race to run in, that he is committed to finishing this race, and, at the same time, is committed to guarding the baton entrusted to him.

The noble race, of course, represents the Christian life, while the baton represents the gospel. Paul is urging us not to be content with having been enlisted in the noble race, but we must also endeavour to finish the race. One must not simply finish the race either, but we must endeavour to hold on to the baton--we must make every effort to "keep the faith ".

Now that Paul has finished the race, and knowing that he has held on to the baton, we should clearly understand the context of this entire letter to Timothy. This entire letter can be understood as an exhortation to Timothy to finish well and to not drop the baton. Paul's work is finished and so he is passing on the baton to Timothy. In fact, the baton has been passed on to the entire Christian Church, it has been passed on to every Christian.

I reckon that, in every church, there are at least 3 groups of people. The first group are those who have not enlisted in the race . The people in this group may very well be faithful in their church attendance. The people the first group may also lead morally upright lives. What is distinct about the first group, however, is that they have not made a personal commitment to live for Christ.

These people come to church as spectators, not as athletes. Instead of asking 'Which way to the starting gate?', these people ask, 'What can I get at the concession stand?'. These people may even aspire to be like the athletes in the race, but they have not committed themselves to train like the athletes--they have not yet enlisted in the race.

The second group are those who have been enlisted in the race, but who have since wandered off the track . These are people who, at the beginning, made a personal commitment to follow Christ at all costs. Since then, however, the pressures and hardships that accompany the race have distracted them from the task at hand.

These are the people who claim to be 'too busy' to partake in the things of Christ. These are the people who allow themselves to be weighed down by commitments to their family and commitments to their career--so much so, that their enlistment in the race, their relationship with Christ becomes secondary.

The people in the second group are often characterized by a lack of joy. These people lack joy because they have forgotten that the Christian race is "the good " race--it is the noblest of all pursuits. These people lack joy because they have forgotten that those who finish the race will receive "the crown of righteousness " Paul describes in verse 8.

The third group are those who have been enlisted in the race, are presently running the race, and are firmly grasping the baton given to them . The people in this group have made a commitment to follow Christ at all costs and have not wavered from this commitment.

These people are prepared to share the gospel with others, and regard the Bible as the only reliable to guide to finish the race(3:15-17). When hardship comes their way, these people focus on the task at hand, and they focus on the finish line and the prize that awaits them.

The people in the third group often endure a great deal of hardship in their life. The apostle Paul promises that "all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted "(3:12). Though the third group often endures greater hardship than those in the other groups, they stay the course knowing that the race they are in is a "noble contest ", and that when they finish they will receive a "crown "(v.8).

If we honestly examine our lives, which group do we see ourselves in? At the rate we are going, will we be able to say with Paul, "I have finished the race, I have kept the faith "? Are we allowing God, through His Word to guide us in the race, or are we looking for short cuts? Remember that Jesus says that, "the road that leads to destruction is easy ", while, "the road that leads to life is hard "(Mt. 7:13).

Why would we ever choose to run in the difficult race? Because it is "the noble race ". We run in the difficult race because those who finish it receive the greatest award imaginable.

The life of the apostle Paul is evidence of how difficult the race can be. His beatings, poverty, and arrests are well documented in his letters. In this, his final letter to Timothy, Paul mentions persecution that came from within the church. Paul mentions how Demus , likely a co-worker of his, deserted him(v.9). Without being specific, Paul also mentions "Alexander the coppersmith " who did him "much harm "(v.14). Paul goes on to say that, in the midst of this opposition, "no one stood with (him), but all forsook (him) "(v.16).

What motivated Paul to finish the race and to keep the faith? Paul anticipated the prize . Paul was not consumed by this present world, but rather, he was always looking heavenward--eagerly anticipating "the crown of righteousness " that would be his in Christ.

If we are to finish the race, if we are to keep the faith, we must--like Paul--look heavenward. We must consider and anticipate the happiness of heaven, rather than always pursuing happiness on earth.

Running the "good race " will be indeed be difficult. But even if we are willing, how will we ever be able to finish the race? The apostle Paul confesses that while everyone deserted him, "the Lord stood by (him) and gave (him) strength "(v.17).

Be encouraged to run the Christian race. Be encouraged to finish the race. Be encouraged to hang on to that baton. Be encouraged because the One who enlists you to the run the race--Jesus Christ--will also strengthen you to run the race, and to finish well. Amen