Dear Radio Friends,
The passage that we have chosen today is found in II Timothy 4:7, 8. We read: “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.”
When we hear these precious words of God, we often think of older people, at the very end of their life. “I have fought a good fight. I have finished my course.” And that, of course, is true. The Spirit shows here that there is a grace that will be given at the end of a Christian’s life, the grace of confidence and assurance.
But while that is true, I believe the apostle Paul speaks those stirring words for young people. He speaks them for Timothy, his spiritual son. They are to be understood not simply as his own personal confidence as he awaits his execution and death in Rome, but they are to be understood as words of encouragement to the youth who are listening to him. We should apply these words, not simply to the aged and to the end of life, but to youth and to every day of life.
For, first of all, you will never be able to say the words, “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,” at the end of your life, if you have not lived those words every day of your life.
But, still more. The apostle Paul’s intention is to describe to Timothy exactly what a true Christian life is all about. And, who better to tell us what a Christian life is all about than one who has lived that life and has now come to its end and is able to reflect upon that life? Paul says to us: “This is what it means to live a true, faithful, Christian life.” In II Timothy 4, Paul is saying goodbye to Timothy and laying before Timothy the most crucial thing for him to remember. In the opening words he says to Timothy: “Preach the word” (v. 2). He goes on in verse 5 to say to Timothy, “Make full proof of thy ministry.” Fulfill your calling as a minister. Why? Well, he goes on in verse 6 to say, “Because I am not going to be around. For I know that the time of my departure is at hand. I am ready now to be offered. I am ready, literally, to have my life poured out as a thank-offering to the Lord. I am ready to depart.” The word refers to an unmooring of a ship. The cables and the ropes are being let go. “I am ready now to be with my Savior in glory. But my departure from the church, Timothy, means much more responsibility for you. So, I need to tell you very clearly what it means to live a faithful, Christian life.”
There will be many who will say that they lived a Christian life, but they are not. Paul goes on in the chapter to speak of a man called Demas, who had forsaken him. In verse 16 he speaks of other men who, for awhile, had a good word for him, but they forsook him at the moment of test. There will be many, says Paul, who say they are Christians, but they have no stomach for the fight; they have no heart for the race. The eternal prize of Christ is not their love, and when self-denial for the sake of Christ gets too great, and the price becomes too high, they will cut and run. But this is what it means, Timothy, to live a true Christian life: Fight a good fight, finish your course, and keep the faith.
What is it then to live a true Christian life? It is to be committed to keeping the faith.
Paul says three things: I have fought a good fight. I have finished my course. And I have kept the faith. The first two (I have fought a good fight; I have finished my course) are figurative—taken from the Olympic Games. Then, in the third, Paul drops all figures of speech and says, “This is what the Christian life is all about—keep the faith.”
The faith that Paul was committed to keep is the same faith that we confess today from the Holy Scriptures. It is centrally saving and gracious union to Jesus Christ, Son of God, and only Savior of sinners. It is the faith whereby I know and am assured that I am saved by His grace alone, as revealed upon Calvary’s cross, and that Christ now lives in me.
The apostle said to Timothy in II Timothy 1:12, “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him.” The Christian faith is a saving union, by grace, to Jesus Christ.
But it is also a belief in a body of truth. It is the faith. It is all the truth of the Holy Scriptures as it revolves around one hub, or central point—God. God is sovereign. God’s grace in Jesus Christ. It is a body of truth summed in the creeds of the church—Reformed and biblical creeds. The apostle Paul would say to Timothy in II Timothy 1:13, “Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me.” The apostle Paul himself had committed a body of truth, a summary of the Christian faith, unto Timothy.
And still more. The faith is a way of life. It is to live solely and completely unto Christ Jesus in repentance and humility.
Now, concerning that faith, that union to Christ, that body of biblical truth, that way of life, Paul says, “I have kept it.” And the word keep means more than simply to file away in a safe place. The word “keep” refers to the action of one who has been entrusted with something precious by one who loves him and whom he loves. It refers to one who is surprised at the honor of being entrusted with this precious treasure, to one who knows the preciousness of what is being committed to him, and, therefore, guards it and preserves it and cherishes it and dies for it. Think of a mother on her deathbed, as she unclasps a necklace that she has worn for fifty years. And she says to her daughter, “Your father gave this to me before we were married, when he left for the war in Korea.” The daughter opens the necklace (it’s a heart), she opens the clasp, and inside she finds inscribed the words: “The angel of God encampeth round about those that fear him. All my love. Charles.” And her mother says to her, “I want you to have this. I want you to keep this.” It will be very precious to her, will it not?
So also the faith. Why is it so precious? Because it has been entrusted to us by our Lord Jesus. It has been purchased for us by the very blood of Jesus Christ. It has come straight from the heart of God. And now it is entrusted unto us to keep it even unto the end.
What is it like to keep the faith? Well, Paul says, now we need to go to the Olympic Games. Everybody knew about the Olympic Games in Paul’s day. Those games had begun in 776 BC and they continued all the way to AD 393, held every four years. Paul refers particularly to two games that were intended to pull your heart out: boxing and the marathon. “I have fought a good fight.” When the apostle compares keeping the faith to fighting a good fight, he means that there are opponents who are set to overcome the faith that is committed to us of God. There are opponents who are intent to tear it away, and to intimidate us, and to tempt us to leave it. There is the sinful flesh—your sinful flesh. There is the whole wicked world of men. And there is the devil. They will all attack.
The apostle says, “I have had contentions for this faith over false doctrine. I have had contention over fears. I have lost friends. There are many who think that I am a fanatic. I have lost status and reputation in the academic world. I have been scorned and I have been imprisoned. Timothy, fight the good fight of faith. That is the Christian life—a holy struggle against your sin, a holy struggle against being conformed to the world, a holy struggle against the devil and his temptations.”
And it is most graphic. The apostle Paul says in I Corinthians 9:26, “So fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection.” The apostle says, “I am not a shadow boxer. I don’t simply float like a butterfly. But I get in the middle of the ring and I beat upon my opponent.” There was intense training; training and prayer; training and Bible study. Fight the good fight of faith.
And then the apostle says, “I have finished my course.” The course that he refers to is not a college course. It is not a sprint. It is not a hundred-yard dash. But it is the marathon of the Greek Olympic Games. And finish is not just to get out of the blocks. It is not simply to go as far as mile thirteen or mile twenty-one. But finish means to cross the tape line. He that endures to the end shall be saved.
So the apostle says there will not only be opposition to the faith, but there will be weariness, there will be discouragements, and there will be a thousand voices saying to you, “Quit.” To quit running is to say, “I’ve had enough of serving Christ. I’m through with following the path of obedience to my heavenly call. I’ll try to hang onto Christ for forgiveness of my sins, but I’m done with doing what He says. I quit. I’m done.” This would be to be disqualified from the race. It would be to be a cast-away from Christ. Paul says, I have run. I have finished my course. I have not quit.
The true Christian life means that you will live the way a boxer fights and the way a marathon runner runs. This means that the true Christian life is intense spirituality.
The Word of God does not picture us as spectators in the stands, clapping and cheering others on. The Word of God does not picture us, preferably in a shaded area, watching the Christian life and observing. The Word of God does not picture us as if we are in the booth—that is, the news booth, the sports booth—providing commentary on the Christian life and saying, “Well, I think they should have done this,” or, “Well, I think he should do this.” But the Word of God pictures us as participating, not observing and not talking, but intensely engaged in the Christian faith. The Christian life is the life of a race. It is like a fight in which we fight. Christianity is not a game. It is serious. The way we live our faith has eternal consequences. Not that we earn our salvation. But, you see, the gospel of Christ declares that when we have been given the faith of Christ and the life of Christ, then that will result in a transformed life. It will result in an intense spiritual struggle.
This life is not the place for you to prove your strength and your stamina. But it is the place for you to demonstrate the strength of Him in whom you trust. It is to fight the good fight of faith. This life is not the place where you simply show the power of your intellect to know the truth, but to show the wisdom of Him who has revealed the truth to you in the way you live. This life is not the place to demonstrate the power of your will, but to show that Christ has conquered your will and ravished your heart, in the way that you obey Him. Christ did not save you to sit in the stands, or to dangle your feet in the pool, or to sleep on the track. But He has put His faith, the saving faith of Christ, in your heart so that you fight, and you run to the end, with unflagging zeal.
The apostle says that there are great encouragements and inspirations in the Christian faith. He says, “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day.” The Christian life, as I said, is not lived to earn salvation in heaven, but because we have been given salvation in heaven. We fight, we run, we keep, not to earn the crown, but because the crown has been given to us of grace. It is “laid up,” says the apostle. It is laid up for me in heaven. This is a riddle that an unbeliever cannot solve. If, indeed, says an unbeliever, it is yours already, why do you put yourself out for it? Indeed it is a riddle. It is a riddle to our sinful flesh, but not to faith and not to love. It is no riddle to love at all. Because Jesus Christ has done all, earned all, obtained all, therefore, we fight, we run, we keep.
The crown of righteousness refers to final perfection, the full pardon of sin in the blood of Jesus Christ. It is laid up for me, and, says the apostle, the righteous Judge will give it to me. He will give it not only to me, says Paul, but to all them that love His appearing. What that is saying is that one sight of Jesus Christ in all of His glory is more than enough to compensate for all of the struggle and tears and sorrow and weariness and loss that we experience in this present life. There is something about the appearing of Christ in His majesty, in His glory and power, that is infinitely delightful and satisfying, and more than enough compensates for any loss that we endure in this present time.
We read in a versification of the Psalms: “Thy likeness, Lord, when I awake, will satisfy my heart.” When the risen Lord appears in all of His glory, then no sacrifice will seem to be too much, no struggle too great, no weariness too deep.
And so, would you live the Christian life, the true Christian life? Then run, fight, and keep the faith. Live the Christian life with zeal for the glory of God.
Run the way a runner runs. He runs hard. He gives everything he has. Beware of apathy, halfhearted, lukewarm effort in the Christian life. That is a horrible sin.
But you do not run in your strength. You do this in Christ who has called you, in the strength that He supplies, and to whom is all the glory.
But still more. Live the Christian life with self-control, with temperance. The apostle says in I Corinthians 9:25, “And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things.” Temperance, control, through prayer and through the Word of God in the Christian life is our calling. God calls us to resist the impulses of our flesh. Decide how you are going to live. Do not ask the question, as a Christian, “What’s wrong with that?” If that is the way you live the Christian life, then you are a minimalist at best. And if you ask, What’s wrong with it, that will never stir up zeal for God. But ask questions like this: What will make me more earnest in prayer? What will make me hunger for the Word? What will strengthen my love for Christ? What things drag me down, innocent though they may seem to be?
A serious athlete does not ask about how little he can get by with in his training. A serious athlete does not show up at the gym and say, “Well, show me the minimum that I have to do.” A serious athlete understands that he must maximize his performance. God is not calling you to do just enough to get by. What can I do and still be a Christian? Take the Christian life seriously.
And understand that the price of faithfulness to Christ and to the faith is rising in our society and world. The days of suffering are ahead for the church of Jesus Christ in the world, and in America too, for all those who will live a true Christian life. Before we are dead, before our departure, we will see significant suffering for the faith of Christ. Already it comes upon many brothers and sisters throughout the world today. And soon it will come to us as well.
Besides, you to whom the cause of Christ is being passed, you must go to the ends of the world with the gospel and declare it. Count the cost. Know what the Christian life is. Keep the faith. Fight the fight. Run the course. Do not swerve from the path of obedience to Christ. And be assured that He who showed Himself strong in the past will show Himself strong to you.
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for the precious Word of God. May we ask for the work of the Spirit to seal it unto our hearts. In Jesus’ name do we pray, Amen.