2 Timothy 4:6-8
When you get to the end of life and look back on all that you have done, will you be content? When you reflect on the good times and the bad times, your achievements—the things that you have stood for—and the things you haven’t quite managed to do, will you be satisfied that you’ve led a good life—that you’ve done your best —and there was nothing else that you could possibly have done?
It’s an important question. But not only will you be able to say it then, but can you say it now? Because the reality is that none of us know when our time is going to be up. None of us know whether we have any more time to do the things that are necessary to make our lives complete. So can we say, even today, that, yes, we may have made mistakes, but we’ve led a good life—that we’ve done our best—and there was nothing else that we could do?
2. Paul (2 Timothy 4:6)
Well that’s the kind of situation that the Apostle Paul found himself in, so many years ago. He wasn’t about to die of old age, but he had been sentenced to death by Emperor Nero—a sentence that was carried out in 67AD. And whilst he was in jail, condemned to death, with his execution imminent, he had time to reflect on his life. And he spent time sharing his thoughts with his good friend, Timothy, who he’d left in charge of the church at Ephesus. And, interestingly, as Paul reflected on his life, he came up with three short statements: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”
Now, these may seem strange statements to make, but as far as Paul was concerned, he felt no fear of the future. There were no horrors about what lay ahead beyond the grave. For him, what lay ahead was the glory of living with Christ. It would be a new era, where he would be released for all his present restrictions. And consequently, he was able to sum up his life in terms of his relationship and effectiveness with God.
B. A TRIUMPHANT CONFESSION (2 Timothy 4:7-8)
And the three statements that he made . . . Well, all three are couched in terms of imagery of the Olympic Games—but with militaristic overtones. As a consequence, they are worth looking at in more detail.
1. I have Fought the Good Fight (7a)
And the first one is: “I have fought the good fight.”
Now for Timothy (to whom Paul was writing to), that expression would not have been new. Indeed, the idea of some kind of boxing match would have immediately come to mind. But then in Paul’s previous letter to Timothy, Paul had appealed to Timothy to “fight the good fight” twice.
The first time was in connection with encouraging Timothy (1 Timothy 1:18-20) to stick to the task in hand.
Timothy had been appointed a leader of the church. And Paul knew that that wasn’t an easy position to hold. He knew that Timothy would face many discouragements. He knew that there was an element in the church—people who were determined to get the church off-track (perhaps not deliberately, only misguided). Nevertheless he would face attack from these people who should have known better, and as a consequence had shipwrecked their own faith. As a consequence, Paul used those words to encourage Timothy to face up to such struggles.
Paul likened the struggles to a fight. A fight in terms of a boxing match where there we no Marquis of Queensberry rules. And indeed it was probably a match which would have looked more like a military battle. But the bottom line was that Timothy needed to stand firm and fight for the true Gospel.
And the second time Paul used the term in that first letter, was in connection with the attraction of worldly things, and particularly the love of money (1 Timothy 6:3-16). And regarding this concern . . . Paul contrasted the love of this world with the importance of a focus on more spiritual matters. And again Paul likened it to a fight—maybe an internal struggle, but a fight nonetheless—and a fight on which Paul also commended Timothy to stand firm.
So whilst in the past, Paul had appealed to Timothy to fight the good fight of faith in two different ways, Paul was now looking back on his own life as a Christian, and was able to see that the advice that he had given Timothy, he had actually kept for himself too.
Paul had had many opponents in his life, both outside and within the church. Paul had also faced pressures to adopt what the world had to offer. But he’d not buckled to the pressure to water down the message, he had not taught a faith that was corrupt, and he had not been diverted by other worldly distractions or for the love of material wealth either. And so at the end of his life he believed his fight was finally over, and the fight had been won.
2. I Have Finished the Race (7b)
Now the second expression “I have finished the race” takes us to the athletic arena. And as an expression it draws specific attention to the idea of Christian service.
Now, it’s significant that unlike an Olympic contest, Paul makes no mention of winning the race. It didn’t interest him. All Paul was interested in was that he had managed to stay the course.
And by doing so, Paul has actually suggested that the Christian faith isn’t about a race to see who the winner is. It’s not about who is a better Christian. Rather it’s about just being in the race and having the endurance to see it to the end.
As far as Paul was concerned, he had come face to face with the risen Christ on the Damascus Road, and now he was in jail facing imminent execution. But between those two events, he had consistently and continually been concerned with learning more about God (and himself), telling others about Jesus, and encouraging people in the faith. That was the race that he had run, and he had done his best. He may not have been the first to the finish line, but he had made it just the same. And with nothing further to do he could now feel content in his faith.
3. I Have Kept the Faith (7c)
And the third expression “I have kept the faith,” is an expression which relates not to a specific athletic contest, but rather to the athlete’s promise to keep compete within the rules.
For Paul it was very important to keep the faith intact, to keep God’s laws. To tell the story of Jesus and its meaning as it really is, and not to reinterpret it or water it down to make it more palatable to others.
Paul realised how easy it was, and how tempting it would be, to do that. And how hard it was with all the pressures to actually stick with the one and only true Gospel. That is why he encouraged Timothy, in the beginning of this second letter, to guard with his life the deposit he’d received (2 Timothy 1:14). An act which Paul felt that he, himself, had now done.
Paul knew that if the Christian faith was watered down, that the faith would be meaningless. People would consequently fall away, and, in the end, there would be no church. But then, there would be no need for it either.
Sticking with the rules and sticking with the story, as had been provided by God, then, was essential. Indeed, just as essential, as Olympic athletes sticking to rules, so they don’t get disqualified, and for military personnel to swear allegiance to those in command.
And, Paul, at the end of his life, was confident that he had kept the rules, and that he had kept the faith despite opposition, and despite pressures to change the message.
4. What Lay Ahead (8)
Of course one of the reasons Paul lacked concern for the future, was that he had peace with God. He’d been faithful. But he was also confident about where he was going. And just as laurel wreaths were awarded to Olympic athletes who won their particular contests, so Paul was confident that what lay ahead for him was a crown—an award made to a loyal subject by God for services rendered.
And whereas in the Olympic Games the wreath was awarded to the winner at the conclusion of the competition, for Paul, his crown would come at the end of the world, on the day that Jesus came to judge to the world. And it wouldn’t be a crown reserved for him alone. Indeed, there would be other crowns which would await all who fulfilled the conditions of faith and service.
Paul’s history, then, in this particular episode of his life, was that he had taught and encouraged Timothy to fight the good fight. To fight against people who wanted to change the Gospel message; to fight against the temptation to divert from his appointed task. And Paul was confident that, in the end, he had not only taught those principles to Timothy, but he had actually carried them out himself. So, having been sentenced to death and reflecting on his own life, Paul was content to die.
But if we were to think that that’s the end of the story, then we are very much mistaken. Because, the challenge is for us, now, to reflect on those three short statements of faith for ourselves. To see if we too would be able to say them (confidently) both now and at the end of our lives.
1. Faith Is Active
“Fight the good fight.” The sentiment is that faith is active not passive, and that we need to be involved in upholding the true gospel both outside and within the church. We need to be involved in fighting—to ward off the influences of this material world.
The implication is, that the Christian faith is not something that can be relegated to the sphere of casual interest only. It requires all believers to be involved. Because there are obstacles to overcome, and contests to be won.
Indeed, all members of the church are required to have a common goal. And that is to set aside one’s own likes, interests, and preferences, and to be united in standing firm on the one faith, with the intention of doing everything that one can to win others for Christ.
It should be quite foreign in the church to have believers who only have a casual interest. Or for believers to leave things up to someone else, and not play their proper part. Or people to want everything to stay the same because that’s the way they like it, and then wonder why there are so few people in church.
Faith should be active. We should all be fighting the good fight. And if we did that what a difference it would make to our church.
2. Faith Is A Journey
“Finish the race.” Well, behind those words is the idea that faith is a journey. Faith doesn’t come to a full stop when we accept Jesus into our lives. Rather that is only the start of greater things to come. There is a goal to pursue and a finish line to run towards. Put simply, we need to be involved in growing our relationship with God. And that’s not something we can do if we are determined not to get any more involved than we feel comfortable.
The mark of any growing church is it has a good solid core of people who come to church regularly to worship, to learn, and to participate. It is a place where people mix and encourage one another in the faith. And most importantly, it is a place where people don’t just meet together on Sundays, but where they involve themselves in some kind of study group, or support group during the week as well.
Faith is a journey that we should all be on. And imagine if we all got involved in that journey what kind of church we would have.
3. Faith Needs to Be Kept
And “keep the faith”. Well, behind those words is the idea that even today, faith will be a constant struggle against other tensions, other ideas, and other philosophies.
There are pressures today that include the idea of corporate worship as an optional extra, because other things take more precedence—whether it’s sport, family pressures, or whatever. There are pressures to relegate caring for others as something that the minister does, rather than accepting it as part of being a member of the Christian community. And there are pressures of wanting to keep control of all things—of controlling our own destiny, rather than having faith in a generous God. And that is reflected in the way we do our finances.
Keeping the faith. Sticking with it. Being unmoved despite the winds of time. Is not an easy thing to do. However, if we don’t do it, if we give in a little, or even piece by piece, as the church has been inclined to do, then we will end up with nothing. Then, unlike Paul, when we look back on our own lives, it will be unlikely that we can look back on our lives with satisfaction, knowing that we’ve done our best. It will also be unlikely that we can look forward, being confident about what’s ahead.
“Fight the good fight.” “Finish the race.” “Keep the faith.” Three short phrases used by Paul as he waited execution. Three short phrases, he believed, summed up his life. But are they expressions that sum up our lives too?
Posted 19th July 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis