Finishing Well

2 Timothy 4:6-8

Just before his team left the locker room to play for the national championship of college football at the Fiesta Bowl last January, Jim Tressel, head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes, gathered his team for one final talk. After going over the game plan, he asked his team one simple question, “How do you want to be remembered?” It must have worked because when the game was over, the Buckeyes had pulled off one of the great upsets in recent memory, defeating the Miami Hurricanes, in the process ending their 34-game winning streak, and winning the national championship.

 

The question hangs in the air: “How do you want to be remembered?” What do you hope people will say about you after you are gone? How will the people who knew you best summarize 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 or 80 years of living? A while back my brother Andy, who lives in Florence, Alabama, told me that he wanted to show me a graveyard in the country. The next time I was in Florence, he drove along a remote country road and finally stopped near the ruins of an antebellum plantation. We got out and walked into the forest about a quarter of a mile. There we found the family cemetery for the owners of the 19th-century plantation. We climbed over a low wall and began inspecting the gravestones, most of them 150 years old. Most of the markers contained phrases like, “Loving father,” “Beloved mother,” “Darling son,” “Rest in Peace,” “Asleep in Jesus,” and so on. Eventually we came to the grave of the man who had owned the plantation for many years. Under his name there was the date of his birth and the date of his death. Then there was a five-word statement that summed up his whole life: “A man of unquestioned integrity.” Just five words. Nothing more, nothing less.

Suppose it was your tombstone. What five words would your friends choose? How do you want to be remembered?

Here is Paul’s answer to that question. Writing from a Roman jail, with the certain knowledge that he would soon be dead, he looked back at his journey with Christ, and then he looked forward to what would happen after he died. Then he wrote his own epitaph: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store 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 longed for his appearing” (II Timothy 4:6-8). After an exhaustive study of the men and women of the Bible, Howard Hendricks of Dallas Theological Seminary concluded that there are approximately 100 detailed biographies in the Bible. He notes that approximately two-thirds of those men and women ended poorly. Either they turned to immorality or they drifted away from the faith or they ended their life in a backslidden condition. The Apostle Paul was not among them. He finished well. Once when John Wesley was asked to explain the spiritual strength of the early Methodists, he replied, “Our people die well.” But in order to die well, you have to finish well. Our text tells us how that happens.

Finishing well doesn’t happen by accident. This week I’ve been reading about a man named John “The Penguin” Bingham. Serious runners will recognize the name. Since I am a biker, not a runner, I had never heard of him. He is both a runner and someone who knows how to motivate others to successfully run marathons. What is his secret? I ran across this quote by him and it stuck in my mind: “As I stand at the starting line, I know that somewhere out there is a finish line.” That’s a good principle to keep in mind. Out there somewhere is a finish line for all of us. Most of us probably think the finish line is a few years down the road—maybe ten years or 20 years or 30 years away. For me personally, I don’t know what to expect. If I live as long as my mother, I’ve got at least 30 more years in front of me. If I live no longer than my father, I have about six years left. All I know is, the finish line of life is “out there” somewhere. And it may come sooner for me than I expect. But whether sooner or later, it is bound to come because “it is appointed unto man once to die” (Hebrews 9:27 KJV). I have an appointment with death. I don’t know when or where or how, but it’s in God’s book in heaven. That’s one appointment I won’t miss and can’t postpone.

As Paul approached his own death, he drew some conclusions about his own life and what would happen next. Based on his words, I would like us to think about three questions together.

I. What kind of departure will you have?

When Paul says he is being poured out like a drink offering, he is referring to an Old Testament ritual that accompanied certain sacrifices. The Law mandated that when a worshiper brought an offering, part of it was consumed upon the altar and part was given to the priest for his own use. When the offering was consumed by fire, the worshiper would sometimes pour a “drink offering” of wine upon the burning sacrifice. All the wine was to be poured out. None was to be given to the priest. As the wine hit the burning coals, it evaporated and a sweet smell rose from the altar. Keep in mind that wine was a symbol of joy in the Old Testament. The drink offering was a symbolic way of saying, “I gladly give all that I have to the Lord. This sacrifice that I offer is given as a symbol of my wholehearted commitment to God. Nothing is held back. All that I have, I gladly give to my God.”

Paul knew that his death was close at hand. He was on death row in Rome and he would never be set free. By speaking of his death as a “drink offering,” he was saying to Timothy, “When you hear of my death, don’t think that Nero has executed me against my will. I gladly lay down my life for my Lord. Nero cannot take my life; I gladly offer it to Christ. My own blood will be like the wine of the drink offering, gladly given to the One who loved me and gave himself for me.” It was Paul’s way of saying, “Don’t weep for me, Timothy. Know this: When I die, I will die smiling.” Paul had already given everything to Jesus. The only thing left to give was his life—and that he gladly gave.

The word “departure” in verse 6 has three word pictures behind it. It refers to a ship hoisting the anchor, raising the sails, leaving the harbor, and setting sail for a distant port. It also refers to an army that has made camp near a battlefield. To “depart” means to break camp, leave the battlefield, and head for home. It also pictures a man who has been carrying a staggering burden. Now the call comes, “My friend, lay your burden down. It’s time to come home.” For Paul, death was like setting sail, breaking camp, laying down his heavy burden, and finally going home to be with the Lord.

Was Paul afraid to die? Not at all. Write over his whole life these two words: NO REGRETS. Since he had no regrets, he viewed his death as simply going home to be with the Lord. What kind of departure will you have? Do you have that same confidence about your own death? You can face death with that buoyant faith if you will do what Paul did—offer your life as a “living sacrifice” to the Lord with nothing held back.

II. What kind of legacy will you leave?

Whenever I read verse 7, I think of Billy Sunday. Though many people do not know his name, in the first half of the 20th century, he was America’s greatest evangelist—preaching face to face to over 100 million people. He personally shook hands with over one million people who “walked the sawdust trail” to give their heart to Jesus. I have a personal interest in his story because he is buried about two miles from our church—in the Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park. Seven times in the last ten years I have been asked to portray Billy Sunday as part of the “Cemetery Walk” sponsored by the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest. It is an awesome honor to stand six feet above his mortal remains and tell the story of his conversion from a professional ballplayer to a preacher of the gospel. Engraved on his tombstone are the words of II Timothy 4:7 in the King James Version: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” This was the legacy he left behind.

First, he lived a disciplined life. “I fought the good fight.” This speaks to the continual struggle that he faced. Think of the words Paul used to describe his own life: trouble, distress, tribulation, trials, hardships. In II Corinthians 6:4-5, he described the normal Christian life as including these elements: “But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings.” In other passages he spoke of the spiritual opposition he faced—Satan, the forces of darkness, the indwelling power of the flesh, and the spiritual darkness of paganism. Whatever else you can say about Paul, you can’t say he had an easy life. He never stopped fighting for Jesus until the day he died. Now at last the struggle is almost over. Soon his Commander-in-Chief will grant an Honorable Discharge from the battles of life. He will be promoted from the Church Militant to the Church Triumphant. By God’s grace, he had fought well and for him, the battle would soon be over.

Second, he lived a directional life. “I have finished my course.” We must not read that and think that Paul means, “I did what I wanted to do.” This is not like Frank Sinatra singing, “I did it my way.” Paul means that he followed the course the Lord Jesus set out for him the day he saved him on the road to Damascus. Ever since that day, he had been following the Lord, doing whatever the Lord had for him to do. Whether in good times or bad times, whether in happy circumstances or in the midst of pain and suffering, Paul had walked in the way of the Lord. Now that journey was almost over. He could look back and say, “It wasn’t easy, it was often hard, and sometimes I wondered if I would make it, but now I can see that Jesus led me all the way.” He had reached the finish line at last.

This week I read about a professor at a Christian college, who along with his son, went on a 1,000-mile backpacking trip from British Columbia to southern California. Together father and son hiked through the mountains of Washington, Oregon and California. For many days they were alone on the trail, often camping above the 10,000-foot level. They faced every sort of discouragement—lack of food and water, danger from wild animals, danger from robbers they might meet, days of rain and mud, incredible physical exhaustion, the very real possibility of physical injury, not to speak of loneliness, blisters, mosquitoes, and the extremes of heat and cold. Before leaving on the trip, the professor discovered that over 90% of those who set out to hike more than 500 miles never make it. Fifty percent never get started and 40% quit after they start. Only 10% ever finish a long-distance hike. After studying the 10% who succeed, he came to certain conclusions. Some of it involved strenuous training and meticulous logistical preparation. But there was something else involved. He discovered that those who succeeded versus those who failed understood that the biggest block was mental. They knew that their real enemy lay within, not without. Those who succeeded make two important decisions: First, they decided they would finish the trip no matter what happened, and second, they expected bad things to happen and decided they would not be surprised or dismayed. So when the rains turned the trail into a quagmire, they didn’t quit because they weren’t surprised. When black clouds of mosquitoes descended like some Old Testament plague, they didn’t quit because they weren’t surprised. When they faced days of loneliness and nights of hunger, they didn’t quit because they knew it would be like this. In essence, the successful backpackers adopted a certain mindset. They knew that the key was simply putting one foot in front of the other. You take a step and hit the mud. You take another step and see a bear. You take another step and your legs begin to cramp. You take another step and the crazy people come out of the woods. Doesn’t matter. You aren’t surprised because you knew the crazy people would show up sooner or later. So you just keep putting one foot in front of the other and eventually your journey is finished.

This was Paul’s approach to the Christian life. No matter what happened to him, he just kept moving forward by the grace of God. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time, one day at a time. He wasn’t deterred by opposition because he knew it was coming eventually. Our problem is that we’re surprised by trouble. We think the Christian life ought to be easy. It’s not easy, and it’s not supposed to be easy. Today is the day of struggle, combat, warfare. Today we march to battle in the name of the Lord. The day of rest comes later.

Third, he lived a doctrinal life. “I have kept the faith.” This simply means he refused to compromise the truth. When other people fell away, Paul preached the Word. When the world was against him, Paul paid no attention. When it would have been easy to trim his message to save his own life, Paul proclaimed the whole counsel of God. He did not back down, he did not compromise, and he would not preach what people wanted to hear. He kept the faith.

Because Paul knew that nothing could touch him that did not come from the hand of God, he never gave in to discouragement. He truly believed that everything that happened to him was for his good and for God’s glory. Therefore, he kept on going for God to the very end. Even the chains of a Roman jail could not destroy his faith or shatter his confidence in God.

He never stopped fighting!

He never stopped running!

He never stopped believing!

III. What kind of reward will you receive?

“Now there is in store 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 longed for his appearing” (II Timothy 4:8).

Here we see Paul’s faith shining so brightly that the darkness of the Roman prison cell seems to disappear. By faith he sees beyond his own beheading. The pain of that moment is now past and the suffering of this life is left far behind. By faith he sees a day (“that day”) when he will receive his reward from the Lord. What will that reward be like?

It will be a guaranteed reward. It is “laid up” or “stored” in heaven for Paul.

It will be a glorious reward. It is the crown of righteousness.

It will be a personal reward. Paul will receive his reward from the Lord himself. Note how specific he is about this. It is the Lord, the righteous Judge, who will reward him. In just a few days Nero, the unrighteous earthly ruler, will have him beheaded. But in “that day” the Lord himself will reverse Nero’s earthly judgment. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Universe will weigh in on Paul’s case—and his judgment will be final. And it will be personal. Paul won’t be awarded his crown by mail and he won’t receive it from a committee. He will receive it directly from Jesus Christ.

It will be a future reward. Paul will receive his reward on “that day,” the day Jesus Christ returns from heaven.

It will be a shared reward. It is not just for Paul but also for everyone who loves the Lord and longs for his appearing.

This is what is ahead for you and me if we will faithfully serve Jesus Christ in this life. Be encouraged, child of God. The Lord is not so unjust as to forget your suffering for him. He sees all that you go through. He knows all about your struggles. He sees how hard the fight is, how you are sometimes tempted to quit, and how you keep on going when others around you throw in the towel. He sees and he knows and in “that day,” the Lord himself will reward us if we are faithful to him now.

So the word of Lord is this: Keep on fighting. Keep on running. Keep on believing.

And the best of all is yet to come. It won’t be long now, just a little while and the Lord himself will return, and all our struggles will be over. This hot battle won’t last forever, this long road will soon come to an end, and this old world full of “dangers, toils and snares” won’t last much longer. Hold on to your faith, child of God. Keep believing. Stay strong. Put on the whole armor of God. Hold on to your faith and never give up. There’s a finish line out there somewhere, and it’s closer than any of us realize.

Finish Strong!

Finish Strong!

Finish Strong!

By the grace of God, let’s finish strong for Jesus. Amen!

2003-08-24-Finishing-Well

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Ray Pritchard

RAY PRITCHARD

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