How to Finish Well

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 to all who have longed for his appearing.

2 Timothy 4:6-8

Introduction:

For thousands of years human society has been fascinated with racing. In the typical track and field event, the majority of the competitions have something to do with racing.  In the Olympic summer games, out of 48 track and field events for both men and women, 32 of them have to do with racing. We bring human competition down to its most basic form in a foot race – who can run the fastest?

But we do not only race on foot, rather society has invented every kind of imaginable racing. We race boats, cars, horses, dogs, cows, camels, sheep, rats, pigs, and even turtles. We have summer games where we make people race in difficult ways – we put children in sacks and have them hop to see who is the fastest, we tie legs together and have three-legged races, we have people race on their hands while someone holds their legs. We even race those things that are not known for their speed – such as sailboats, kayaks, canoes, turtles, lawnmowers, and tractors. We have swim races of both fast and slow strokes, and even walk races.

But one thing that every race has in common is a finish line. There comes a point in every race, whether long or short, when the last line is cross and the winner is declared.  Those who have won stand honored in a ceremony, they receive medals, and they know that they enjoy a fellowship that is unique. Some races, especially the longer ones, it is a competition with oneself, to improve on your time, to do your best under difficult circumstances. And you receive congratulations and respect just for finishing it and for doing your best.

In the Bible, the Christian life is often compared to a race. Paul especially enjoyed doing so, but he was not the only one. The ancient Greeks, in the 8th century before Christ, invented the Olympic sports competition, and the games played a large role of the Mediterranean culture of the First Century.  Our text today from 2 Timothy is an example, where Paul compared his life of following Christ to running a race.

Someone has said, “To begin well is an advantage, but to finish well is an imperative.” This applies to our own life as well. There may be any number of reasons why someone may have gotten off to a slow start in life and in the Christian faith. All manner of things have influenced each of us and slowed down our advancement for a number of reasons, and there may be some excuse for these weaknesses. But there are less excuses for not finishing well.

In this text of Paul, we find three key thoughts in verse 7 that we need to adopt in our lives in order to finish our race of faith well. This sermon in one sentence would be:

To finish well the Christian life we must live daily with an awareness of the movement of God in the world, with attentiveness to every task God gives us to perform, and with an attentiveness to our personal relationship with God.

Three thoughts we will focus on: (1) The good fight, or what God is doing in the world; (2) The specific relationships, gifts, roles, and tasks He has entrusted us with; (3) Our relationship with Him.

The place of faith: There is an important insight we get from this passage. The tense of the three verbs in verse seven is the Greek perfect. Paul wrote, ” have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” The perfect tense was used, as it is in English, to show that some action taken in the past has an impact on the present and on the future.

For example, someone might say: “You have filled the room with the scent of flowers.” It is similar in German, zum Beispiel: „Sie haben das Zimmer mit Geruch von Blumen gefüllt.” Of course, with scents and aromas we understand that their presence would linger, but we may also say something like, “You have made a mess of this day,” or in a more positive way, “You have blessed us with your presence.” And we mean that the effects of the action will remain for a while.

When Paul wrote, “I have fought the good fight” he meant that his life and his faith in Christ in the past had carried through into the present, and would carry on into the future.  The commitments of his past had carried through to the present. And this means that the work and victory of Christ in our lives has a lasting effect upon us and upon the world.

And all of this begins with faith. We can say that faith is by its very nature an attitude of heart that sets other things in motion. Once we start believing God, once we begin trusting Him, loving Him, obeying Him, then we begin to see life differently, and we begin to be used of God to do His will, to join Him in His mission. God is then able to use us to make a difference in this world, and He is able to use us beyond our lives.

Three keys we find here to exercising faith and handling opportunities in such a way that they last beyond today. Three keys are here to finishing well the race of life, whether we are talking about finishing the year of 2015 well, or finishing the entire race of faith.

1. Fight the Good Fight

This means that we fight God’s fight, not our own. There are numerous selfish battles we can get engaged in – trying to vindicate ourselves, trying to prove others wrong, trying to get back at those who hurt us. None of these are the good fight, however, that Paul was writing about. Paul was saying that he had put aside as his pursuit in life his own lustful and prideful ambitions, and taken on the purposes and mission of Christ.

God is active in our world,

John 5:19-20: So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing.

The whole story of the church is the story of God moving in the world. He is the one who has created the hunger in people’s hearts and the heartfelt conviction that Christ answers that hunger.  Just as He did with Christ, so God also shows us what He is doing and He is the one who invites us to join Him on His mission.

We live on this earth amid spiritual conflict but God‘s victory is assured. The scripture describes that there are more angels who are with us than those who are opposed to us: “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). He also says that He who lives in us, that is Christ Himself, is greater the evil one in the world. “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

The Cross of Christ is our victory. On the cross He defeated the devil by destroying through His death the accusations against us here on earth. He died for our sins so the debt is paid. It says that Christ, “…having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 1:15). So we are invited to join a winning fight – one that has, in fact, already been assured.

The good fight is what we do here on earth as we follow Christ. We engage in His battle, as He leads and enables us. There are many lessons we learn in this fight, a few of which are:

You must train for the fight. We must take our Christian life and our calling as His people seriously. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.”

You must get back up when you are knocked down. We will each experience defeat and must learn how to confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness, and then how to continue to follow Christ.  Ephesians 6:13-18, “Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”

You must rely on your team, or your Christian family. We cannot do our best for God without a supportive Christian community. Philippians 1:27, “Contending as one man for the faith of the gospel.”

To finish well any race, you must make sure you are running on the right track, headed in the right direction, running for the right team. Sports competitions are filled with stories of players who in the heat of the contest got confused and ran the wrong way, scored a goal for the opposite team. Unfortunately some Christians have done similar things. Fight the good fight, fight the fight of Christ, not the fight of pride, lust, vindication, revenge, or personal insecurity.

2. Finish the race that God has given you to run

Paul said, “I have finished the race.” He was referring to the specific race that God had given him to run. He said at another time,  “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” … (Acts 20:24).

What responsibilities, relationships, and opportunities has God entrusted into your hands? What races has God given you to run? We should see all of these matters as different parts of the same race, for we need to see life simply, not more complex. Every God-given responsibility should fit together nicely with all of the other God-given responsibilities. They are not competing interests in God’s mind, rather they perfectly fit together if we will let Christ be Lord over our lives.

In my own life I have learned to be a: pastor, a husband, a father, a brother, and a son.  But I have also learned to be a neighbor, a friend, a relative, a fellow church member, and a fellow citizen. Just as each race has different parts, so the race that we run for Christ also has different aspects. But Christ is still Lord overall.

Races are completed well by doing your best at each stage of the race.  A runner I went to school with, Mike Casey, his best race was the 400 meters, and he set a state record, as I recall, in high school. He went on to be a runner at Rice, but his high school record was around 48 seconds, as I recall. After he set the record he was interviewed and he said he was able to breakdown the race section by section. I recall he said that he was worried that he had begun the race running too fast and then he hit his stride on the middle part, and he still could finish strong. For all of us others, we had to laugh. We were just trying to imagine being able to run any part of that race at that speed. But he had learned to do his best at every stage.

I believe what we learn from this passage, and in the Bible itself, is that excellence in one area of life influences all other areas of our lives. Clearly we must prioritize, and Christ’s command, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt 6:33) means to see everything in life under the headship of Lordship of Christ. If it doesn’t fit there, then don’t get involved in it.

I had a good friend who passed away a few years ago, Dr Bill Wilkerson of Henderson, Texas. Bill was a great example of finishing well in every area of life. After he passed away I thought about the many different hats he wore. He was a Christian, a deacon in his church, a medical doctor, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend, a mission volunteer, an encourager, a learner, a giver, a receiver, a healer, a sufferer, and a victim. He was plagued with a debilitating illness the last several years of his life, and the last race he ran – the last race most of us will run – was the race of sickness. Yet in all of these things he handled them well, giving a Christian example. I remember him for his patient, gracious, sincere spirit.

Races for Christ are run poorly by being too concerned about yourself, too selfish about your choices. Of course, we all need to take care of ourselves. We need our rest like everyone else, but that is not what I am talking about. Rather the words of Paul echo here in my head: “nor do I count my life dear unto itself” (Acts 20:24). God gave us strength that we might use it for Him.

Spurgeon wrote:

If by excessive labour, we die before reaching the average age of man, worn out in the Master’s service, then glory be to God, we shall have so much less of earth and so much more of Heaven! It is our duty and our privilege to exhaust our lives for Jesus. We are not to be living specimens of men in fine preservation, but living sacrifices, whose lot is to be consumed. (Quoted by John Piper in his book Charles Spurgeon: Preaching Through Adversity)

What has God entrusted into your hands? Your job, your wife, your husband, your child, your home, your neighbors, whatever it is, finish well there.

3. Keep the Faith

The final thing that Paul mentioned was that he had kept the faith, meaning that he had been faithful in his relationship with God, and not just in his ministerial duties.

Our relationship with God provides the strength we need to continue running the race.  Keeping this relationship fresh helps us avoid slumping into bitterness and resentment.

How easy it is to let this relationship with God, which should be the center of our life, fall into disrepair and neglect. We cannot put anything ahead of our personal life with God. Take time to pray, to speak with Him, to read devotional thoughts and especially scripture about God. Take time to worship Him.

Paul mentioned a reward that awaits us who love His appearing. We love the doctrine of His return because we love Him. The reward he spoke of is not salvation. Salvation is given as a gift we receive through faith, not through our devotion. There will be no bragging in heaven, so we will not be showing how shiny our crowns are etc. It will be about Christ. But there will be recognition for faithfulness.

The scripture says that “We shall each receive the praise of God” (1 Corinthians 4:5), and that is a promise to us all who believe. What is this reward that we will receive. I have read of some who have tried to make some sense of the different passages that speak about rewards. But I personally believe the heart of all rewards for our faithfulness here on earth is just to hear the Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21)

Proverbs 23:23 says, “Buy the truth and sell it not.” Do not discard the central reality of the gospel – the relationship you have with God. Through Christ you are reconciled to Him and all the grace gifts that we receive through Him – peace, love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, etc” – these are merely attributes of Him. We receive none of them apart from receiving Him, and we grow in none of them apart from growing in our relationship with Him.  We become more joyous, peaceful, kind, etc. as we grow to know Him more and more.

A speaking contest was once held – both young and old were invited to join in. The judges chose different famous passage of literature and the field was narrowed at each round. Finally only two contestants remained – a young man and an elderly man. The last passage of literature was selected from the Bible, Psalm 23.

They took turns and the young man went first. He was a gifted orator and raised his voice and lowered it at just the right points to give meaning and emphasis to the words. The people were impressed and they applauded as he finished.

But then the elderly man took his turn. This time was different than his other readings, because he was a man of devout faith. His hands shook a bit as he held the script. His eyes moistened, and not artificially so, but from real faith and love. His reading would have seemed plain in comparison to the young man, but there was something deep and profound in his voice. After he finished it rather than applaud the people were moved at the thought of God being their loving Shepherd and silent and worshipful.

The young man summed it up the best when he said, “I knew the psalm, but he knew the Shepherd.”

That is the most important legacy we will leave on this earth. That we knew the Shepherd and loved Him as He loved us.

As this year of 2015 closes out – let’s finish it well. Let’s finish it fighting the good fight of the Lord’s work. Let finish it by valuing the people He has placed around us, the opportunities He has given us, and the responsibilities to which He has called us. Let us especially look to Him, our Savior, the author and finisher of our faith, and worship Him.

As life goes on, let us also commit ourselves to finish well, doing the will of God to the end, loving those He has entrusted to us, and growing closer to Him day by day.

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