“I am at my best nearing the finish of a race. Until then I am just another mediocre distance runner. Just one of the many run-of-the-mill competitors well back in the pack. Just one more old man trying to string together six-minute miles and not quite succeeding. But with the finish line in sight, all that changes. Now I am the equal of anyone. I am world class. I am unbeatable. Gray-haired and balding and starting to wrinkle, but world class. Gasping and wheezing and groaning, but unbeatable.” So writes Dr. George Sheehan in his book Running and Being (Simon and Schuster, 1978, p. 221).
An accomplished cardiologist, author and marathon runner, George Sheehan lived his life with passion and purpose. Even when confronted with terminal cancer in 1991, he demonstrated courage and determination. He ran life’s race and he finished strong. As with Dr. Sheehan, the day will come for each of us to finish life’s race. In 2 Timothy 4 we read how that time had come for Paul. In fewer than one hundred words, he shares with us the hardship of his present, the heartbeat of his past and the hope he holds for the future. In this brief passage Paul reflects on his life and ministry. He looks around, looks back and then he looks ahead. With the finish line in sight, as he picks up the pace, Paul sums up his dynamic life and his hope in death. The lessons we learn from this aging apostle will enable us to run well today, while encouraging us to finish strong tomorrow.
Paul’s words are dictated, probably to Luke, shortly before his martyrdom at the decree of the Roman Emperor Nero in the year 66 AD. For thirty years he has traveled, witnessed, worked and preached throughout the Mediterranean world. He has been helped and hated, assisted and attacked, blessed and cursed. Whatever else can be said of his faith and life, it certainly wasn’t dull! Enduring imprisonment and anticipating his execution, Paul begins in verse 6 with two vivid metaphors telling us about the hardship of the present.
First, Paul sees himself as a “drink offering” about to be poured out. What is the apostle saying? In ancient Rome banquets commonly ended with a particular ritual: the symbolic act of pouring out on the ground a cup of wine in honor of the Roman gods. Here Paul borrows this image. He says that his life is an offering poured out for the Lord Jesus Christ. Of course, this fits with Paul’s belief that all of life is to come under the Lordship of Christ. All of life is to be regarded as “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God” as Paul writes in Romans 12. In effect, the apostle is saying, “The Roman authorities will not take my life. Rather I will die living my life, giving my life for the Lord. I have been a living sacrifice, serving Him, since the day I was saved. Now I will complete that sacrifice by laying down my life for the One who gave His life for me.”
Second, in Romans 12:6, Paul also relates that the hardships he is facing will soon cease. He writes, “The time has come for my departure”. The word “departure” is a word that has many meanings. For one thing, it can mean to hoist an anchor and set sail. It seems that Paul looked upon his present hardships and his impending death as a release from the world. Paul saw death as an opportunity to set sail into eternity. Another meaning for the word “departure” refers to striking and taking down a tent. The apostle longed to be freed from his battered and broken body, his earthly tent, now shackled in prison. He anticipates his martyrdom as a change of place and a journey home. As he told the Philippian Christians, “to live is Christ, to die is gain”. Paul awaits his release from his present hardships in order to depart and to be with the Lord.
At the same time, Paul affirms God’s sovereignty over life and death. He trusts in a personal and compassionate Savior and Lord who will not place on him a burden greater than he with the Lord will be able to bear. Rather than wrest control from God, rather than alleviate his brief present hardship and suffering by taking his own life, Paul reaffirms his confidence in God’s will and way. In this way Paul is determined to wait upon the Lord.
In 2 Timothy 4:6, the apostle looks around at his present hardships. Then in 2 Timothy 3:7 Paul looks back on his life. He remembers the heartbeat of his past. For over thirty years he has faithfully served the Lord. In this verse we find three images drawn from the athletic arena. Paul likens his life and ministry to that of a long distance runner who has competed honorably in the ancient Olympic games.
“I have fought the good fight.” The word “fight” in the original text comes from a word which may refer to any athletic contest in the games. This phrase carries a much broader meaning than we commonly associate with a fight or a boxing match. The word is agon from which we derive our English word “agony.” It pictures an athlete coming off the field, having given it his all and his best. Here Paul is truthfully saying that he has given his all for Christ.
“I have run the race.” Having given his best, Paul now sees himself as crossing the finish line. It is easy to begin a race. It is easy to run hard for a few miles. But it is much harder to finish a long distance race, and harder still to finish strong. I believe that Paul is telling Timothy and each of us that the Christian life is not a sprint competition. Rather it is a long distance race, a marathon-type challenge, beckoning us to run well, to keep pace, to stay focused and to finish strong.
Years before Paul stated his life’s purpose in John 20:24, “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me — the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” Here in 2 Timothy 4 Paul looks back and he is able to say “I have run the race to the finish.” In both of these passages the word for “race” is the word dromon. It is a word that has a notable place in the ancient Greco-Roman world.
Historians tell us that in the year 490 BC, a Greek dromo, a runner-messenger by the name of Pheidippides was dispatched by a Greek general to inform the citizenry of Athens that the Persians had been defeated at the Battle of Marathon. Pheidippides supposedly ran a route that took him south along the coast and up and across a series of coastal foothills before descending into Athens, a distance of about 26 miles from the plains of Marathon. According to legend, as he arrived in Athens, Pheidippides announced, “Rejoice. We conquer!” Then he fell down dead! (see Hal Higdon, Marathon, Rodale Press, 1993).
In honor of Pheidippides the ancient Olympic games, of which the Apostle Paul was familiar, held several long distance runs. But it was the modern Olympic games! which resumed in Greece in 1896, which actually initiated the modern marathon of 26.2 miles in honor of old Pheidippides.
During 1998 approximately 450,000 American runners began and finished a marathon race of 26.2 miles. Someone has said that the marathon is the most accessible ultimate challenge around — it is like a Mount Everest climb in a city near you! In this congregation several of us have run marathons in recent years. These events are usually a blend of joy and pain, and hopefully more of the former than the latter. Still, many runners can relate to the sentiment of the great American marathoner and 1972-76 Olympic medalist Frank Shorter.
While running in the marathon trials for the 1971 Pan American Games, at about 21 miles, just before dropping out of the race, Frank Shorter was really struggling. He had “hit the wall” and was fading fast. As he was being passed by U.S. Olympian Kenny Moore, Shorter groaned one of the more famous quotes in running lore when he muttered at mile 21, “Why couldn’t Pheidippides have died here?” (Higdon, Marathon, p. 8).
Although Frank Shorter and many other great marathoners have had to drop out of a particular race, the Apostle Paul never did. He stayed the course. He saw his own life and ministry as that of a dromo, as a long distance runner and messenger for his Lord and Leader. Paul could claim, “I have finished the race.”
Then the apostle concludes his look back on his life by stating, “I have kept the faith.” If we understand this statement in the context of the ancient Olympic games, Paul is telling us that he has run the race according to the rules. History reveals that the early Greek and Roman athletes took a solemn oath before the games. They pledged that they would compete honestly and honorably. Here is Paul, at the end of the race, affirming that his vows have been kept. And to whom were these vows made? To his Lord. Paul is saying that throughout the long, lonely, difficult and demanding race, he has kept Christ uppermost in his heart and mind. His life goal for thirty years has been to be obedient to Christ’s call. His faith, though tested, has grown stronger. And the Lord Jesus, in whom Paul has trusted and for whom Paul has lived, has kept and carried Paul through thick and thin. The Lord’s grace is sufficient for his every need!
In our study thus far, we have seen in verse 6 how the apostle looks around at his present hardships. In 2 Timothy 4:7 Paul looks back on his life, remembering the heartbeat of his past. Then finally, in 2 Timothy 4:8, the aging apostle looks ahead and writes about his hope for the future. “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.”
In the ancient Olympic games, a winning athlete was rewarded with the coveted laurel wreath or a garland of oak leaves. With this the victor was crowned. To wear such a crown was the greatest honor that could come to any athlete. But this crown, in a few short days, would wither. Paul knows that there is for him a crown which would never fade, and this crown of righteousness is God’s reward to those who are faithful and obedient to His Son.
As Paul writes to Timothy, he knows that in a very short time he will stand before the Roman judgment seat and that his trial will have but one outcome. He knows what Nero’s verdict will be. The judges in Rome were not righteous. If they were, they would have released Paul. How many times had he been tried in one court after another! Yet now he faces his last Judge, his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the righteous Judge who always judges correctly. William Barclay once observed that a person who is dedicated to Christ is ultimately indifferent to the verdict of any human court. He cares not if they condemn him so long as he hears his Master’s voice saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
This is Paul’s hope and joy as his life nears its end. He looks ahead with confidence and certainty. He shares his joy with Timothy, reminding his young friend that this crown awaits not only him, but also Timothy and all others who trust, serve and live for Christ.
Consider your own life. Do you have this same kind of hope and assurance? You may feel pressed and pressured on every side. The challenges, at times, may seem relentless. You may feel a lot like Paul must have felt. Yet, do you have the hope and assurance which he knew as his death neared?
Whether your race has just begun, is reaching the midpoint or is nearing the finish, you can have the peace of God in your life, and you can be at peace with God. How? Do what Paul did. He confessed his sin and admitted his need for God’s forgiveness. He accepted God’s love and accepted God’s Son, Jesus Christ as the Savior and Lord of his life. That is what Paul did and that is what each of us must do. Only with the Lord will we be able to run life’s race to the very best of our ability, and only with the Lord will we be able to finish strong.
The story of Eric Liddell, the 1924 Olympic 400 meter gold medalist, is widely known through the 1981 Academy Award winning film Chariots of Fire. Liddell, the son of Scottish missionaries to China, himself became a missionary serving Christ in China. Like Paul, Eric Liddell was imprisoned and died for his faith and witness for Christ. Like Paul, Eric Liddell was also committed to “run for God and let the whole world stand in wonder” (a quote from Chariots of Fire, 1981).
As you and I run the race set before us today and tomorrow, take time to reflect on your running. Remember Paul’s words to Timothy. Realize that with the Lord, you, too, can fight the fight, run the race and keep the faith. With the Lord, you can run well and finish strong!