Since ‘How to Finish Well?’ is the title of my message I believe it’s fitting, to begin with, a word about ‘Last Words’. Last words can be very sentimental. ‘I’ll finally get to see Marilyn’ were the last words of Joe DiMaggio. They inspire sorrow sometimes. ‘Oh, God. What’s happened?’ were the last words of Princess Diana. The last words of Edward H. Rulloff, convicted serial killer surely strikes terror into our hearts. His last words were ‘I’d like to be in hell in time for dinner.’
Tonight, let us consider the last words of Paul the Apostle found in 2 Timothy Chapter 4 verses 7 and 8. ‘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 also to all who have longed for his appearing.’ (NIV)
This is one of the better-known and most-quoted passages of the apostle Paul even among the non-churchgoers owing to its appearance in the film ‘The Book of Eli’ in the year 2010. Now, these are words very optimistic for a death row inmate. Unlike Rulloff though, Paul knew what he was saying. He was implying he finished well and finishing well is an important theme in the Bible. If you don’t know its meaning, it stems from the understanding that salvation is not a sprint but a marathon. Now, this is not the first sermon about finishing well and it’s not the last either. Still, when reflecting on my father who entered eternal glory on September 19th 2020, I was inspired by the Holy Spirit to prepare a message based on his life. Hence, the need for this message. So, let’s see how to finish well.
1. We finish well by fighting the Good Fight
What does Paul mean by he fought the good fight? Unlike now boxing in ancient Rome was a brutal spectator sport. Once you stepped inside the ring you were not allowed to step out of it unless you fought until your opponent dropped dead. You could get knocked down but not knocked out because to get knocked out meant a horrible death in the hands of your opponent. Why did Paul use something as ungodly as that as a metaphor to explain a truth as godly as this?
Paul wants us to know we stepped into the ring the moment we turned our backs on the devil and surrendered our lives to Christ. Fighting until the devil drops dead is the only way we will get out of that ring alive. You can get knocked down but you cannot get knocked out. How do you know the difference? When you are discouraged you are knocked down, (John 21:3). When you are living in sin you are knocked out, (Luke 22:3).
What must we do so the devil cannot knock us out? In the book of 1 Corinthians chapter 9, verse 26 Paul says, “So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing.” (NLT). Paul is stressing the importance of focus. A boxer cannot take his eyes away from his opponent if he intends to remain standing. In our case, the devil is our opponent but we keep our eyes on Jesus the author of our faith, (Hebrews 12:2) lest we get distracted. What are these distractions? The grey areas in your life. Occasionally giving in to the temptation to bend the rules.
In the beginning, I said this message is going to be based on the life of my father. Each one’s fight is different and I want to share in brief how my father fought his good fight. As a small-scale businessman, his integrity was often challenged by situations inherent to any other businessman. But he shunned evil gains and rejected ill-gotten profits. He refused to bend the rules. As a result, he suffered financial losses sometimes. That was the devil’s way of knocking him down. My father, however, refused to give in. He drew strength from Jesus on whom he had his eyes fixed and always got up on his feet. He fought the good fight. What is your fight today?
2. We finish well by finishing the Race
What does Paul mean by he finished the race? Another popular sport in ancient Rome was marathoning. Although marathoning wasn’t bloody it wasn’t an easy sport either. Unlike now the marathoner in ancient times had to deal with many obstacles like Geographical irregularities, Harsh weather conditions, wild animals, and even bandits.
Paul is comparing the Christian life to that type of Marathon. Not a modern marathon. According to him, there are only two obstacles we must deal with to stay the course but those are major obstacles. In the NLT he calls them “every weight that slows us down” and “the sin that so easily trips us up” (Hebrews 12:1)
What is every weight that slows us down? Burdens that weigh you down. Burdens like injustice, unforgiveness, bitterness, guilt, anxiety, failure, frustrations, and envy. You must get rid of these like an athlete getting rid of unnecessary weight. In the ancient world, the athletes considered their clothes to be an unnecessary weight they stripped themselves before participating in the events. Even today the athletes participating in sports events choose very light clothes.
Then what is every sin that so easily trips us up? The Greek word used in place of “easily trips” is “euperistaton” and it can be translated in four ways: “easily avoided,” “admired,” “ensnaring,” or “dangerous.” In other words, some sins can be easily avoided, but are not. Some sins are admired, yet must be laid aside. Some sins are ensnaring and thus especially harmful. Some sins are more dangerous than others. We must lay all of these aside if we intend to finish the race. What happens when giving into these? The answer is in Philippians 3:13.
You can live in sin and still keep on running the race but your past will follow you into your present and future. You will be looking over your shoulder instead of pressing forward because you are living a double life. Eventually, the guilt will slow and drag you down, (Matthew 27:5; John 12:6).
When distraction fails the devil seeks to weigh us down. When we throw off the weight, he attempts to trip us up. How do you keep from tripping? By keeping your eyes on the prize. In other words, the salvation of your soul. I thank God for my father because he continuously rid himself of potential weight. When faced with injustice he expressed his concerns to the Lord in prayer. He dealt with bitterness through forgiveness. When overwhelmed with the guilt he repented. When he failed, felt anxious or frustrated he strengthened himself in God’s word.
My father seldom spoke about his temptations but I do know that he faced many. Through all of it, he kept his eyes on the prize. He was never unfaithful to my mother. He was a loving father and a committed Christian. What are the weights in your life slowing you down today and the sin that trips you up?
3. We finish well by keeping the Faith
How did Paul keep the faith? In Greek, the word “keep” is rendered as “tereo”. It means “to keep by guarding or to watch over.” The Greek word for faith is “pistis” which is the conviction that occurs from hearing God’s Word, (Romans 10:17). Paul guarded his trust in Jesus, literally amid terrible sufferings that tested his faith.
In addition to his sufferings summarized in 2 Corinthians 11:24-33, we know he was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet him (2 Corinthians 12:7), abandoned by all his friends while imprisoned (2 Timothy 1:15), despaired even of life (2 Corinthians 1:8). In all of these, he stood firm. He defended the Gospel in the presence of the dignitaries Felix (Acts 22:10, 26), Festus (Acts 25:9), and Agrippa (Acts 25:26). In Galatians 2:11-16, he boldly confronted Peter when that apostle showed signs of compromising the teachings of Christ.
Let’s consider the whole expression “I have kept the faith” to understand Paul’s words further. The expression has two possible meanings. First, Paul had declared the gospel faithfully and guarded its truth, keeping its message undiluted. In 1 Timothy 6:20 and 2 Timothy 1:13, Paul urged his young protégé, Timothy, to do the same.
The other possible meaning of “I have kept the faith” is that Paul had fulfilled his divine calling to be Jesus’ messenger to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; 22:21). When Jesus commissioned Paul in Acts 9:16, he was clear that the appointment would mean much suffering. Still, Paul gladly accepted the summons and never wavered in his commitment, trusting that he would soon experience “an eternal glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
My father did not suffer as much as Paul. Nevertheless, he had his fair share of sufferings. The devil used various methods and people to derail him. His small circle of friends walked away when he became a born-again Christian. He faced ridicule for taking God seriously. His siblings criticized him for forsaking the Catholic values. He was persecuted for preaching the Gospel. Still, his faith was as solid on the day of his death as it had been the moment, he first believed twenty-eight years ago. It was evident from his lifestyle that he pressed on forward with his eyes fixed on the prize. In which ways do you suffer today as you press forward to reach the goal Christ has placed before you and how is it affecting your race?
Let’s revisit the three things you must do to finish well. (1) You keep on fighting with your eyes fixed on the Lord (2) you keep on running with your eyes fixed on the prize (3) You guard the faith faithfully until you leave this world for good one day. How do you know whether you finished well or poorly? You don’t. But I do know my God the righteous Judge will reward you because he is much more interested in the attitude of your heart than the outward performance. What kind of reward am I talking about here? In ancient Rome, the victorious athletes were crowned with a wreath, (1 Corinthians 9:25). They were made of laurel and withered after a day or two. Even the Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals awarded to our athletes are not imperishable although they last longer than a wreath. Jessie Owens once said, “I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals” stressing the useless state of the medals he had won. It’s not that kind of perishable reward God has for us. Paul calls it the crown of righteousness. Whether it’s a physical crown or not we do not know. However, the Word of God has clearly outlined the benefits we shall inherit with it.
(A) According to 2 Timothy 4:8, we shall put away our garments of sin and be clothed with garments of righteousness. It’s the crown Jewel.
(B) According to 1 Corinthians 15:52, our bodies shall become imperishable because salvation is not only for the soul but applies to the body and the mind also. It’s the icing on the cake.
(C) According to Revelation 21:4, God will wipe every tear from our eyes as we shall be reunited with our loved ones that went before us. It’s the cream on top.
The Bible says in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 24 verse 13 “But whoever will persevere until the end will have life.” (Aramaic Bible in Plain English). Tonight, I can sleep well knowing that my father’s soul is at rest. As I bring this message to its conclusion it’s my prayer that the Holy Spirit will help us persevere until the end and finish well so that we shall have eternal life.
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