There are few subjects that make people more uncomfortable than to talk about death. We can talk about religion and politics, watch the squirming and facial contortions take place, but then bring up death, and it’s a whole new dimension of discomfort. Maybe it’s because we’re opinionated about religion and politics but not about death. None of us has experienced it. We can research it but cannot talk about it firsthand.
I felt some of this as a kid. When I got together with other young people and the subject arose about what kind of work our fathers did, I always got the “ooooo” sound when I said he was a funeral director or to use the more conventional term in those days, an undertaker. “You mean that he works with dead people?” I would hear. “Well, yes, sort of,” I would reply. Conversations usually changed.
We’re curious about death but do not want to look at it too closely. Yet I want to propose to you that it is important for us as believers to look at death through a different lens than the rest of the world. We have a Savior who has conquered death, rendering its sting impotent for those who put their faith in Him. That changes everything regarding death. It doesn’t mean that there is no consciousness of loss and separation by family and friends, but it does mean that we have a different angle on death. We learn through maturing in the Christian faith that death is the great transfer into a richer, deeper, more intense, and infinitely more satisfying life that never ends.
This changes the impetus for the Christian regarding the whole of life. Because of what lies ahead for those who are in Christ, we find new motivation to finish this life well. Finishing well as a life goal gives us a healthy perspective on life and death. But how is that the case? That’s what we consider as we look at Paul’s passion to finish well.
I. Consciousness of the imminence of death
Paul knew that death was right around the corner for him. It would not be a pleasant end as he recognized that the executioner’s axe would sever his head and quickly end his life. Yet his meditations that he openly shared with Timothy prove helpful for us.
How would you describe your feelings if death were imminent? Some make jokes about it to cover fear of the unknown. Others show terror and fear, rightly so because they do not know the living God through Christ. Some are indifferent about death because they think that there’s nothing beyond the grave. Still others express a selfish disappointment that their plans and longings are unfulfilled as though there’s nothing beyond death. But how did Paul address this?
1. Drink offering
The idea of a drink offering is foreign to us but not to both the Roman and Jewish cultures of Paul’s day. At the end of a meal together in ancient Rome, a family would pour out a libation of wine to the gods that they worshiped [Wm. Barclay, Pastorals, 209]. In Jewish circles, as people came to offer burnt offerings they also poured out a drink offering of wine as part of their sacrifice to the Lord [Wm. Mounce, WBC: Pastorals, 577]. Paul used similar language in Philippians 2:17 to express the sacrificial, giving nature of his service to Christ: “But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all.” But in our text he uses it with a sense of finality in this life.
The drink offering could not be recovered. There was finality to it. Pour it out and the wine cannot be drunk again. Its purpose was fulfilled. Here, Paul may have made an allusion to his impending martyrdom, that he would be poured out in a final way for the gospel: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering.” The language expresses that it is as though it was already happening in his mind. So there is resolution that he would not escape from the Roman prison or be delivered. It would end in execution.
But through these words, we learn some important lessons on what it means to finish well. (1) Paul saw the end of his life as a fitting expression of praise to the Lord. It was a “drink offering,” an act of worship. He desired to die as he lived—to the glory of God. (2) As a drink offering was an act of worship to God in Jewish liturgy, so he saw the offering up of a life redeemed by Christ and offered in service as an act of worship. Does that change one’s attitude toward dying? Certainly, for it brings the believer to the end with a consciousness that his life is poured out as an act of worship to the Lord.
(3) Finality was expressed in the drink offering. So there’s a sense of completion. Here the apostle brought his theology into the last days of his life. God had brought him to this place. Not one day beyond God’s wise, providential ordering of his life would be granted. So Paul can worship at the knowledge of God’s great wisdom and purpose completed in his life. One finishes well when he recognizes that he enters into the grand completion of the Lord’s saving purposes in his life.
2. Loose the moorings
The second metaphor offers a couple of images to help us understand his consciousness of the imminence of death: “and the time of my departure has come.” First, that of soldiers striking camp after having been stationed in one area is brought to mind. The tents are dismantled and rolled up for traveling. The fire pits covered. All of the equipment necessary to conduct warfare is mobilized for a journey. The soldiers follow the commander’s orders to locate to a new region and new realm of service.
Second, a ship is loosed from its moorings in order to set sail into far away lands. Voyages in that era were not so certain, with many vessels breaking up in raging storms or driven onto reefs and disaster. You can image a small group of family gathering at the place where the ship was moored, watching anxiously as their loved ones boarded the ship, perhaps never to be seen again. One thinks of the event centuries later in late 18th century England as William Carey and his family boarded a little ship to head to India. His dear friends bid him farewell, never to set eyes on him again.
J. R. R. Tolkien brings this out in his epic Lord of the Rings, as the work of Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, Bilbo, and Frodo Baggins are finished, so they meet at the Grey Havens to board a ship that will take them to the undying lands where they will never face death. Tolkien describes the scene as “the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and [Frodo] beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise” [LOTR, 3:310].
Here’s how one finishes well as he recognizes that the time for loosing the moorings comes. (1) Recognize that when the moorings are loosed there is a distant journey ahead to “a land that is fairer than day,” as one old hymn expresses, and one that has only been glimpsed at from afar. But it is a new journey—an eternal journey—in which we never want to return. I have been on quite a few trips and I always want to return! But not that final journey. The desires of the heart will reach a level of most intense satisfaction with what Jesus has prepared for those He redeemed (John 14:1ff).
(2) For the moorings to be loosed anticipates the journey with joy and delight. Death for the Christian is not a lonesome, harsh journey. Paul called his desire to depart and to be with Christ “very much better” than remaining on earth even with opportunities for service (Phil 1:21–26).
(3) To loose the moorings also means that one is convinced that the best—that which Christ has promised to us in the gospel—lies ahead. It’s not a “woe is me” moment because we face death! Rather, blessed be the Lord, the journey into the fullness of all that Jesus Christ has provided through His death and resurrection will now be fully realized!
II. A trajectory toward finishing well
The three-fold picture in verse 7 embraces metaphorical language to describe the reflection on the course the apostle had traveled through this life. He mixes military and athletic images to help visualize it. What is so impressive is to think of the context. Paul is in his second Roman imprisonment. He awaits Nero, the maniacal emperor’s verdict; perhaps he has an inclination of what was going to soon happen at the hand of the executioner. His last days are spent in a dingy, damp, and dark prison, a place fit for rats not people. Yet he has no regrets! That’s what is so striking. He does not say, “If only I could live a few more years, plant a few more churches, win a few more people to Christ, train a few more pastors and missionaries, and write a few more letters!” No wistful ideas are found in his words.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”
He didn’t live in the realm of the, if only because he saw each day as God’s gift, as bordered with Christ’s mercy and grace, as purposeful to glorify God. He did not see himself as the key to kingdom work despite all that he accomplished. He found refuge in the consciousness of God’s sovereignty over each day. He found satisfaction that if he needed to plant one more church to glorify God and complete his mission, then he would be delivered from the Roman imprisonment. That had happened before. Instead, he practiced contentment in the face of death (Phil 4:10ff).
His life practice is set forth in the three-fold picture that helps us to see this.
1. Fight the good fight
“I have fought the good fight.”
Either the athletic metaphor of wrestling or the military image of combat with the skirmishes and conflicts common to soldiers is what Paul has in view. Either way, there’s a struggle described (Gk. agona from which we derive ‘agony’). No rosy picture, no idealism is painted for the Christian life. There is no “Your Best Life Now” philosophy. Life is a battle! You are in a war if you are a follower of Jesus. The enemy is out to subdue you. But you have been equipped by your commander; you do not fight alone but with a company of fellow soldiers.
As you read this, in all likelihood, Ephesians 6:10–20 may come to mind. Our wrestling is with the unseen world. Spiritual conflict confronts us. Temptations abound. Challenges to live out the gospel meet us each day. Will we fight the good fight?
Paul calls it a good struggle. The adjective helps us to understand that this will always be part of our lives as Christians. The fight calls for every ounce of our being so that we might be regularly engaged. We’re to clothe ourselves in the gospel as our armor. We’re clothed with Christ!
We’re to rely on the truth of the gospel in the face of skepticism of the age.
We’re to depend on the righteousness of Christ when battled by the temptation to trust in our goodness rather than in the Lord and His completed work.
We’re to take the gospel into every circumstance as our steps are shod with the good news, proclaiming Christ even when the world bids us to be silent.
We’re to bear the shield of faith, knowing that only by faith do we please God.
We’re to keep our minds clothed with the gospel promises as our helmet so that when the enemy’s darts try to cause doubt, we repel them through the certainty in the gospel.
We’re to regularly wield the Spirit’s sword in response to the adversary’s assaults. Scripture becomes our strong defense and offense against the adversary.
2. Finish the race
“I have finished the course.”
Comparing the Christian life to a race, particularly a distance race rather than a sprint, gives us a perspective on how to live as Christians. The marathon originated from an event associated with the Battle of Marathon, when the upstart Greeks defeated the powerful Persian army in battle. A runner sped his way through the day and night to Athens, where he proclaimed to the magistrates, “Rejoice, we have conquered!” Then he fell dead from exhaustion [Barclay, 210]. Out of that triumph and tragedy of the runner, we have the picture set forth that urges us to finish the race. That first marathon runner did not give up; he completed the task given to him by his commander.
How do we finish well? We must enter the race through the merits of Jesus Christ alone. One does not finish well if he has not begun with trusting in Jesus Christ as his righteousness before God.
We must train and prepare through the equipping provided by our spiritual leaders (Eph 4:12ff). The saints are equipped through the provision of God in the local church so that we might minister, serve, and run faithfully as Christians.
We must learn to pace ourselves. Good runners know how to start, when to get into another runner’s draft, and when to kick. We cannot and should not always go at breakneck pace. We will not survive without those times of spiritual respite that slows us and refreshes us. That’s part of what we’re doing this very Lord’s Day. There will be times when we gut it out, pushing ourselves forward. There will be times when we follow behind other brothers and sisters to run in their draft. At other times, we’ll be out front setting the pace for the brethren. Yet the pace continues on in steady fashion.
The goal in the race before us is not to beat everyone else but to finish the race. We’re not competing for spiritual trophies or MVP awards! We are joined together in the body of Christ to help one another to finish well the race set before, looking to Jesus as the author and completer of our faith (Heb 12:1-3).
3. Keep the faith
“I have kept the faith.” The language has the emphatic nouns first, offering a strong emphasis. “The good fight I have fought, the course I have finished, the faith I have kept.” What does he mean by “the faith” in this instance?
We can view it subjectively: ‘I have kept believing the good news of Jesus.”
Or we can look at it objectively: ‘I have guarded and maintained the standard of the Christian faith—the gospel.’
Wm. Mounce probably has the best answer to this quandary. “It may be overly subtle to differentiate between these two options since for Paul keeping true to his call entails keeping the gospel intact, and to keep the gospel requires personal perseverance in his call” (580). In other words, we learn to regularly trust in the truth of the gospel.
So there’s truth to guard as a treasure entrusted to you (2 Tim 1:14). And this treasure must be believed (2 Tim 2:12). We never outgrow seeking to better understand the gospel and seeking to rest our confidence in the gospel. Never get beyond that simple trust that brought you to Christ for something that may appear to be more sophisticated, so that you don’t need to depend upon the death and resurrection of Jesus anymore. That’s what appeared to be happening to the Galatians so that Paul could warn them in the strongest way about the danger of falling away from the simple gospel (Galatians 1–3).
If you would keep the faith, find the gospel to be your daily delight. Find joy in studying and meditating on the gospel. Find joy in confessing your trust in Christ and His gospel. By God’s grace, fight the good fight; finish the course; and keep the faith.
III. The reward after finishing well
“In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me but also to all who have loved His appearing.”
Paul did not put himself as the great apostle, missionary, church planter, and theologian into a special category. The same goal for finishing well is shared by countless Christians through the ages. He said that this reward is for “all who have loved His appearing.” The language shows a completed reality—loving His appearing—that has ongoing impact. John Stott said that this love holds no merit but “it is a sure evidence of justification” [BST: 2 Timothy, 115]. So there is no idea of loving Christ’s appearing that is drummed up to create merit with God. Rather when we are transformed by the gospel and declared righteous before God, a new love for the appearing of Christ develops in our lives.
Certainly, if one does not know the Lord there is no love or longing to see Him. By comparison, if your family is excited that a particularly beloved relative is coming to visit, your excitement will be much different than someone who does not know the relative. The same is true concerning Christ.
But in this case, Paul ups the coming by referring to Jesus as “the righteous Judge.” His coming will divide: those clothed in the righteousness of Jesus on one side; those unbelieving on the other. One group welcomes Him; the other despises and fears Him. One dives into the depths of His love; the other shrinks before His wrath. One receives the fruit of His redemptive death; the other receives the accompanying sentence required by His death.
When the ancient Olympians ran or competed in contests they did so to receive a laurel wreath about their heads—a crown (stephanos) of leaves. So prized were those winning athletes in that era that those with the laurel crowns would receive a hero’s welcome back to their homes, with some occasions openings being knocked into the city walls so that the winners might pass through in a unique way [Stott 115]. Although Paul awaited Nero’s sentence, he knew that the guilty verdict and execution would be a “magnificent reversal of Nero’s verdict,” as the righteous Judge declared what would stand irreversibly for eternity [Stott, 115, quoting Simpson]. He would be welcomed home, crowned with Jesus’ righteousness.
The crown of righteousness uses this same metaphorical language to express that the righteousness of Christ clothing him before God will reach its perfect fulfillment in His presence. We are crowned by the very righteousness of the One who died in our place and whose righteousness in the life of sanctification shows itself in gospel evidence.
The future looks magnificently bright because of what took place on a hill outside of Jerusalem 2000 years ago. As poor sinners receive by faith this dying and risen One, the future changes forever. This life is merely a boot camp preparation for journeying into the trulyundying lands forever.
Let us seek to finish well that we may not be ashamed at His appearing!