A Course Finished with Joy, 2 Timothy 4. 6-8
Denis MacKinnon, N'dola, Zambia
The apostle Paul is writing from a prison cell in Rome. Humanly speaking, the outlook is bleak as the shadows lengthen over his life and career.
He recognizes that the outcome of his forthcoming trial can only be condemnation and subsequent execution. For about 30 years he has served Christ loyally but now his days of service are rapidly drawing to a close.
It would not have been surprising if the aged man, Philem. 9, deserted by some of his friends and neglected by many others, facing the winter of A.D.65 without either overcoat or books, should have felt somewhat depressed and despondent. After all, what does he have to show for his 30 years work? As far as this world counts and values things, he has nothing. When the Lord called him on the Damascus road those many years before, Saul of Tarsus had given up a most promising career to serve Him. In the place of his former natural advantages and respected position he has endured the hatred of the Jews, the derision of the Greeks and even the misunderstanding of his brethren. Now that the curtain is about to fall he is penniless, despised and without any immediate human companionship save that of his doctor and close friend, Luke. The apostle, however, does not resign himself to fate with a grim Stoical acceptance that when one's time is up that is all there is to it. Nor can any trace be found in his words of fear or dread, no sense of anguish or despair, no feelings of pessimism or hopelessness. On the contrary I He regards his present circumstances with calmness, v.6, his past life with contentment, v.7, and his future prospect with confidence, v.8.
Paul's present circumstances, v.6. The words "For 1" follow on from the opening words of verse 5r "But . . . thou". The apostle's exhortation to Timothy to "fulfil thy ministry" (cf. Acts 12. 25; Col. 4. 17) gathers a sense of urgency and solemnity from Paul's impending death. In all likelihood this is his last exhortation; the future of the testimony rests, humanly speaking, on such as his beloved child in the faith, 1. 2. The apostle has long since learned (lit. been initiated into the secret of) contentment, "in whatsoever state" he has been found, Phil. 4. 11. In the strength of this, he now takes stock with calm dignity of his present situation. The expression "already being offered" means "already being poured out as a drink offering". Ever since his Damascus road experience Paul has yielded himself as a living sacrifice to God, and now, in the same way as the drink offering was poured out at the foot of the altar to signify the completion of the sacrifice. Num. 15. 1 -10; 28. 7, so he is ready for his blood to be poured out in a violent death for the cause of Christ. His present circumstances, coupled with his forthcoming death, are viewed by Paul as his final sacrificial act. The time of his "departure" has arrived. To Paul his imminent execution hardly deserved to be called death, The word translated "departure" may convey the idea that, like a vessel ready to slip from its moorings and set out upon the open sea, so he awaits the Lord gently raising his anchor for him to set sail onto the broad ocean of everlasting bliss. Paul knows that the flash of the executioner's sword will not mark the end for him; it will simply herald his entrance to a glorious new realm. The word may also suggest the loosing of baggage from a beast of burden. The apostle has borne the heat of the day in his abundant labours for Christ and now, with joy, he senses the Lord's hand beginning to lift off the yoke of that service.
Paul's past experience, v.7. The apostle's calm confidence in the face of death is the fruit of a lifetime's experience of God. He can look back on a Christian life which holds no regrets for him. Like the wrestler in the arena he has fought the good (i.e. noble, honourable) fight (cf. 1 Tim. 6. 12); like the athlete in the stadium he has finished his course (cf. Acts 20. 24); like the steward entrusted with precious goods he has kept and guarded the faith, the body of Christian doctrine (cf. 1.14). Paul's life has not been wasted; it has not been spent beating the air, 1 Cor. 9. 26. He can review it without any feelings of remorse or regret concerning things which he has failed to do. If our "departure" was at hand, could we say the same thing?
Paul's future hope, v.8. Having looked back, the apostle now looks forward. He is confident that the crown of righteousness is laid up for him. The word translated "laid up" can be rendered "safely stored away" (cf. its use in Luke 19. 20), and expresses Paul's conviction that no hostile force can possibly deprive him of it. The "crown" in view is the wreath of the victor, not the diadem of the king ; see 2. 5. In the Greek games, men competed for wreaths of olive, ivy or pine leaves which, though greatly treasured, soon faded. Paul looks on to that supreme moment when he will receive the imperishable wreath. This, Paul knows will be awarded, not for athletic achievements or physical prowess but for excellence in personal righteousness. It will be given, not by Nero, the unrighteous judge, whose hands are stained with the blood of the saints but by "the Lord, the righteous judge", cf. Heb. 6. 10. The word translated "give" occurs in verse 14 as "render", and is used here in the sense of award or recompense, as also in Matt. 6. 4, 6, 18; 16. 27. The crown will be Paul's "at that day", an expression which encompasses the judgment seat of Christ; see 1.12,18;
1 Cor. 3.10-1 5. There have been times when life seemed hard and difficult for Paul (e.g. 2 Cor. 1. 8), but now, in comparison with the crown to be bestowed by the Lord's own nail-pierced hands, the troubles of the way pale into insignificance,
Yet even while Paul contemplates his wreath of righteousness, his mind turns to others. The crown of the Greek games was available to only one man, but a crown of righteousness is available to all those who love the Lord's "appearing", cf. v.1 ; 1 Tim 6.14; Titus 2. 1 3. This comment must have done much to encourage Timothy to fresh and more concentrated efforts in the Lord's work. Loving the Lord's appearing requires a consistent and holy life. There will be no reason then to fear being ashamed before Him at His coming, 1 John 2. 28. The tense Paul uses suggests that those in mind have loved His appearing in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
There are many people today who are asking themselves, "Is life really worth living?" The witness of Paul, echoing down to us over many centuries, encourages us to reply, "Yes, it is !" Viewed according to the prevailing philosophy of our time, life has neither meaning nor purpose. In marked contrast, Paul sets the Christian life in the context of eternity. At a time when so many have neither present purpose nor future hope, we can derive immense benefit from considering prayerfully these words of this great servant of Christ. Let us resolve to live in such a way that, when we say our last farewells to earth, we may look back with satisfaction and forward with confidence knowing that our lives have been lived wholly for the Lord.