In the space of one verse Paul gives us two – if not three – phrases:
“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)
Both “fighting the good fight” and “keeping the faith” have become well-known. If we added “staying the course” then we’d have a trifecta of famous phrases. In a way, that’s not surprising. Paul means to be memorable here.
This is the last chapter of the last letter he wrote. Tradition has it Paul was beheaded in Rome in AD67 and here is the epitaph he chooses for himself. He’s a fighter, a runner, a perseverer. And as he comes to the end of his life he inspires us all towards the same.
Paul is writing to his spiritual son Timothy, passing on the baton of gospel work. Crucially, he was the last of a dying breed. He had met with the risen Christ and been an eye-witness of His glory. Soon there would be no-one left on earth who could say that.
So as the church’s last foundational apostle, how does Paul encourage the next generation? Chapter 2 gives a sense of his burden.
Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also. Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier. And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully. The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits. Consider what I say; and the Lord give thee understanding in all things. (2 Timothy 2:1-7)
Paul knows that his eye-witness testimony will not die out with him. In verse 2 he envisions four generations of gospel ministry. From Paul to Timothy to Timothy’s trainees to their trainees. On and on it goes until it reaches you and me.
But, of course, it doesn’t stop with us. We too will commit this gospel message to others. And they to others, and so on. The saying is true: “God’s grace always runs downhill.” It applies to proclamation too. In fact grace and proclamation are almost synonyms.
From Christ’s exaltation and the Pentecostal outpouring, there has been a gospel flow which has reached even us. Now we are caught up in its movement.
As I say this, though, I might be conjuring up the wrong kind of imagery – fountains and babbling brooks and floating along. Paul’s imagery is much more robust. How does it feel to be gripped by this gospel and pass it on? Like a soldier, like an athlete, like a farmer.
Like a soldier – enduring, obedient, single-minded.
Like an athlete – compelled by a vision of the crown, striving to play things as they’re meant to be played.
Like a farmer – patient, hard-working, but enjoying the fruits of his labour.
All of these callings involve unglamorous service, sacrifice, hard-work and perseverance. But they also promise victory, crowns and harvests. This is the long-termism Paul seeks to instil in Timothy. After the exhaustion and self-sacrifice comes the prize. And the prize is worth it.
Paul asks us to meditate on these portraits. But only because he has been meditating on them so deeply. As he writes his epitaph he returns to these same three visions: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”
He goes on…
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 4:8)
Here is the prize. Just as Paul has participated in Christ’s sufferings, so he will participate in His glory. Christ’s life had a shape – cross and resurrection. The Christian life will have that same shape – suffering and glory. And Paul is now retiring from his hard-working soldiering, running and farming. Now he’s entering into his victory, his crown, his harvest. Truly he’s being “promoted to glory!”
And perhaps we think to ourselves – that’s wonderful for Paul, what about for us?
Well he says that all of us can likewise share in this glory. And the way he phrases it is telling. He does not say “This crown is for all who have soldiered as hard as I have.” He does not say “This victory is for all who have run as hard as I have.” He does not say “This crown is for all who have persevered as valiantly as I have.” No, the crown is for those who “love his appearing.”
If we simply love Jesus. If we simply want Him – then we will share in His glory.
It’s just that those who share in His glory, will also share in His suffering. That’s not the price we pay – it’s the privilege of living His life in this world. Paul on his death bed wouldn’t have it any other way. And if we see things rightly, neither would we.
So then, as you long for Christ’s appearing, as you pass on His gospel hope, meditate on your calling:
— the soldier
— the athlete
— the farmer.
Anticipate the glory of Christ’s return
— the victory
— the crown
— the harvest.
And know that one day too, you will be able to say “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”