The finish line

Paul’s second letter to Timothy is believed to be the last message he wrote before he was beheaded by the Roman Emperor Nero. His instructions to Timothy reflected the importance of having a successful transition after Paul was removed from his leadership role. Paul encouraged Timothy to not be ashamed of the work he had been called to do and told him to “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1). Paul also focused on the process of sanctification which he probably thought Timothy was going through in order to prepare him for the increased responsibility he would have after Paul was gone. Paul told Timothy regarding confessing his sins, “If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21).

Paul used his own life as an example for Timothy to follow in his pursuit of evangelism and told Timothy that he should expect his ministry to be challenged by unbelievers. Paul said, “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:10-12, ESV). One of things that Paul was clear about was that suffering and doing God’s work would always go hand in hand. There was no way to escape the persecution that resulted from preaching the gospel.

Paul told Timothy, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Greek words Paul used that are translated perfect and thoroughly furnished had to do with the process of sanctification being completed in the life of a believer. Paul linked scripture to this process and indicated that God’s word is sufficient to complete that process. There is no other requirement to reach spiritual maturity than to understand or fully comprehend all of God’s word.

Paul concluded his final message with these words, “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8). Paul had likely already been condemned to death when he wrote this message to Timothy. Paul was careful to note that he didn’t expect to be used any further in his ministry of preaching the gospel. It was Paul’s imminent death that prompted him to urge Timothy to keep his ministry going. Paul’s mention of a crown of righteousness was probably meant to encourage Timothy to work as hard as he had to spread the gospel around the world because he would be rewarded in heaven.

Paul’s comparison of the completion of ministry to a good fight and a finished course was his way of communicating the importance of endurance in serving God. Roman boxing was popular in the time period in which Paul lived. “Some boxers were known for their skill; others were known for simply being able to take punishment…Romans used gloves with pieces of metal placed around the knuckles (caestus) to inflict the most damage possible. Moreover, there was no time limit or weight classification. Proclaiming a winner resulted from either a knockout or the conceding of defeat by one of the boxers” (factsanddetails.com, Ancient Roman Sport). Paul’s declaration that he had fought a good fight implied that he had knocked out his opponent or at the very least gotten him to concede defeat.

Paul talked about his conflict with Satan in his second letter to the Corinthians. He stated, “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure” (2 Corinthians 12:7). The Greek word translated buffet, kolaphizo (kol-af-id’-zo) means “to rap with the fist” (G2852). Paul indicated the source of his afflictions were the revelations he received which were a progressive, private unveiling of the otherwise unknown and unknowable facts about God (G602). Paul’s numerous epistles are a testimony to the surpassing knowledge he had of Jesus and his future kingdom on Earth.

Paul likened his career in ministry to a race that was completed. Interestingly, Paul didn’t say he had won the race, but had merely finished the course. Paul’s humility in judging his importance in spreading the gospel around the Roman Empire showed that he genuinely viewed himself as an instrument in God’s hand. Paul didn’t take credit for any of his accomplishments. Most of what Paul talked about had to do with the suffering he endured while serving in the ministry of Jesus Christ. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul boasted of his sufferings and mentioned in detail the various trials he had experienced (2 Corinthians 11:23-28). The only evidence that Paul was content with what he had done at the end of his life was his statement, “I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). The Greek word translated kept, tereo (tay-reh’-o) means to fulfill a command (G5083). In other words, Paul felt he had done everything God had told him to.

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