BBC Radio 4 airs a programme called Great Lives, in which a celebrity picks a notable historical figure and describes their admirable qualities. Judging by spiritual criteria, Paul lived ‘a great life’ worthy of study and emulation – though he would quickly add ‘Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ’, 1 Cor. 11. 1 NKJV. His intrepid evangelistic fearlessness, coupled with a powerful, Spirit-illuminated mind, made him one of the most dynamic shapers of human thought in world history. One writer avers: ‘Surely, when we study Paul, we study one of the greatest trophies, if not the greatest trophy, of divine grace the world has ever seen and the greatest pioneer missionary the church has ever known’1 In a career of stirring gospel sermons, enlightening Bible teaching lectures, and timeless written ministry, his finest hour must be his triumphant finish during the fierce opposition of his Roman imprisonment, as recorded in 2 Timothy chapter 4.
The star young rabbi of his generation, Gal. 1. 13-14, Saul of Tarsus was an avowed enemy of Christ’s church. He zealously persecuted it – even pursuing believers to the lands of the Jewish Diaspora. But on his way to root them out in Damascus, he met the risen Lord Jesus, and he was instantly converted from a persecutor to a preacher of the faith he once tried to destroy, Acts 26. 9-20. As one writer explains: ‘Grace flooded with faith a heart previously filled with unbelief, and flooded with love a heart previously polluted with hatred’2 Even at the end of his life, Paul’s single-minded pursuit was to glorify Christ and build His church.
Paul became an indefatigable church planter, willing to suffer persecution for the sake of the Lord and His people. David Gooding describes his mindset: ‘He has been given a course to run and a task to fulfil by the Lord Jesus. That by itself, no matter what the course or the task might be, was in his eyes the supreme honour anyone could be given; and to complete the course and finish the task to the satisfaction of the Lord Jesus was the supreme joy that a man could ever know! But then consider the task. It was to testify to and proclaim the gospel of God’s grace … The majestic magnificence of that grace was a perpetual dynamo of motivation and energy for Paul. It took no more of God’s grace, of course, to save him than to save us. The difference is, if there is a difference, that he never forgot the wonder and splendour of it, Eph. 3. 7-8; 1 Tim. 1. 12-14. It changed his set of values. Life ceased to have any worth to him independent of living and working for Christ. If to complete the task Christ had given him he must surrender life itself, it was a nothing: he would gladly let it go’.3 He would have identified with the sentiment of the martyred missionary Jim Elliot, who wrote: ‘O God save me from a life of barrenness, following a formal pattern of ethics called Theism and give instead that vital contact of the soul with Thy divine life that fruit may be produced and Life-abundant living may be known again as the final proof for Christ’s message and work’!4
Years later, in the face of imminent death, Paul’s most important concern was to prepare his ‘son in the faith’, Timothy, and the assemblies with which he laboured for the increasing attack on God’s truth in this age. As an apostle, he was a man of one book; thus, he repeatedly directs his younger co-labourer to the fearless proclamation of the scriptures. For example, in 2 Timothy chapter 4 verses 2 to 5 he charges Timothy to carry out his teaching and evangelistic ministries against the backdrop of progressive infidelity and dissatisfaction with the truth among his hearers. Despite the people’s appetite for self-satisfying error, Timothy, and the church in general, must resolutely hold to God’s word as their ground for faith and practice. Verse 2 gives the flavour of this challenging ministry: ‘Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine’. It was a lonely mission, but one that Paul himself had resolutely pursued throughout his Christian life.
Paul’s remarks in 2 Timothy chapter 4 demonstrate that he was well-aware of his coming martyrdom and was prepared to depart for his eternal home with God. He phrased it in terms of a drink offering ‘being poured out’ in the Lord’s service, v. 6. His earlier statement to the Philippian saints reveals that his life was an ongoing, measured sacrifice in service to God and His church, Phil. 2. 17. He did not throw his life away; rather, he gave it in deliberate daily portions. He also referred to it as his ‘departure’, using a term that in extrabiblical Greek often indicated a ship loosing its moorings.5 Ryle’s words regarding the evangelist George Whitefield’s death are also appropriate for the apostle to the Gentiles: ‘If ever man was ready for his change, Whitefield was that man. When his time came, he had nothing to do but to die’.6
Paul delineates his life’s work by using three perfect tense verbs in verse 7. Schofield summarizes the apostle’s metaphors, remarking: ‘… as a Christian soldier he has “fought the good fight”; as a racer he has “finished his course”; and as a witness for God in this world he has “kept the faith”’.7 In his New Translation, J. N. Darby shows the martial nuance of the first phrase by rendering it: ‘I have combated the good combat’. It is true that the terms used could apply to athletics, but that aspect of his ministry is comprehended in the phrase ‘I have finished my course’, evoking images of distance runners. ‘I have kept the faith’ refers to his stewardship of the body of truth that God entrusted to him. All of these actions displayed his faithfulness and exertion in the Lord’s things. He began well, continued well, 1 Cor. 9. 24-27, and now was finishing well. To the victor go the spoils, and, like any champion, this overcomer in Christ was awaiting his triumphant crown. He turned his eyes from his past service to patiently await the coming of his Lord, who, as ‘the righteous Judge’, will reward Paul with ‘the crown of righteousness’, 2 Tim. 4. 8. Regardless of whether he received unjust treatment at the hands of his Roman captors – or from Caesar himself – the omniscient and perfectly righteous Judge would appropriately compensate His servant at His judgement seat.
Facing his court hearings alone, v. 16, with few close associates nearby – including the defection to the world of his once trusted co-worker Demas, v. 10 – Paul found consolation in the Lord’s abiding presence. As he put it: ‘Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion’, v. 17. Even his personal sufferings and the Almighty’s providential deliverance were viewed through the lens of what God was doing in evangelizing the world and manifesting His glory through them. Even at the close of his earthly career he was still directing his fellow saints to faith in the Lord and fidelity to His word. No complaining murmur escaped his lips; instead he looked to his God for sustenance in this difficult hour in some Roman dungeon.
Historians tell us that Paul was beheaded as a martyr to the risen Christ’s cause. Yet he, being dead, still speaks. His selfless service, culminating in a courageous finishing of the course set before him, left behind a tremendous example for the saints of the succeeding centuries. Each of us must take up our cross and endure whatever trials may come so that the Lord’s work may advance. In following the onetime Man of sorrows now known as the Lord of glory through the fiery furnace of this fallen, Christ-hating world, we will inevitably suffer, 2 Tim. 3. 12. But, like Paul, we will also experience the strengthening, ever-abiding presence of the Lord, who makes us to overcome, 1 John 5. 4-5.
One author compared Paul’s ‘finest hour’ – and his legacy in general – to the vaunted Roman roads that crisscrossed their empire and signified their lasting influence. This seems to be a fitting tribute with which to close this article: ‘All the glory which those ancient roads witnessed has passed away, but … Paul’s work remains; that work which he was then doing, as the great Pioneer of the Gospel, the Apostolic Road-maker of an Appian Way for the Prince of Peace; a work which was heeded by none of the noble, the great, and the powerful, who travelled then on the Appian Way. But that Apostolic Road remains; it is a living, a growing Road, branching ever into new lands, and opening the way to new conquests; and it is much more enduring than the solid volcanic blocks of the pavement of this great “Queen of Roads”; for it is the Road which was made by the power of Him who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”, John 14. 6, and it leads to the “Eternal City”, “the City which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God”’8
Robert L. Reymond, Paul, Missionary Theologian, Christian Focus, 2000, pg. 15. [Italics original].
John R. W. Stott, Guard the Truth: The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus, IVP, 1996, pg. 52.
D. W. Gooding, True To The Faith: Charting The Course Through The Acts Of The Apostles, Myrtlefield House, 2013, pg. 424.
Jim Elliot, Journal entry 3 February 1948, in The Journals of Jim Elliot, ed. Elisabeth Elliot, Fleming H. Revell Co., 1978, pg. 21.
G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922, pg. 31.
J. C. Ryle, The Christian Leaders of the Last Century, T. Nelson and Sons, 1869, pg. 43. Jim Elliot wrote something similar in his diary: ‘When it comes time to die, make sure all that you have to do is die’. Quoted in ‘Go ye and preach the Gospel’, Life magazine 40:5, January 30, 1956, pg. 11.
A. T. Schofield, ‘A Few Thoughts On Hebrews 11’, in The Bible Treasury, Vol. 12, accessed electronically here: http://stempublishing.com/magazines/bt/BT12/1879_231_Hebrews11.html.
Christopher Wordsworth, Tour in Italy, Vol. II, pp. 216-217; quoted in J. S. Howson, Scenes from the Life of Paul, Religious Tract Society, 1909, pp. 243-244.