Perspective in Life and Death
As we’ve been working our way through 2 Timothy, we have been looking at Paul’s instructions on how to live to leave a legacy. Paul knew his own death was imminent, and knew these would likely be the last words he ever got to say to Timothy, so he wanted to make sure he told Timothy everything he wanted him to know.
After several months in 2 Timothy we turn our attention this morning to Paul’s final bit of teaching, and we get a clear insight into Paul’s mind as he prepared to die. In a society that fears death, a society that will do seemingly anything to prevent it, Paul’s perspective is a wonderful corrective. These verses are filled with vivid imagery that gives us a glimpse of how he viewed his own impending death, as well as what he thought about his life as he looked back on it. In these few verses Paul shows us how to die, and he helps us to see how we should live.
Paul’s View of Death
Paul starts by telling us about the way he viewed his own impending death.
6 As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. (2 Timothy 4:6, NLT)
Paul knew he was going to die. He had been imprisoned many times before, but this time was different. He knew he was going to be executed and that any day now the footsteps he heard coming down the hall could be the footsteps of the executioner.
In spite of this, however, Paul did not despair. He used two images to describe his impending death. In the first he said his life was being poured out like a drink offering to God. That phrase doesn’t mean much to our modern ears, but it was a phrase with rich meaning to Timothy and others who were familiar with the Jewish faith.
A drink offering was an offering of wine that was poured out on the altar in conjunction with an animal sacrifice. Depending on the type of animal you sacrificed, you might be required to pour out anywhere from 1-2 quarts of wine on the altar. The drink offering was the last part of the sacrifice to be performed. It was a final way of honoring and worshiping the Lord.
Paul said that his life was being poured out before the Lord just as wine would be poured out at the end of a sacrifice. He saw his death not as something tragic, but as the completion of a life that had been poured out to God. Paul may have even had in mind the manner of his death here. As a Roman citizen, he could not be crucified, so he would likely be beheaded. It’s possible that in his mind his own blood would be literally poured out before the Lord. He was determined that his life would be an offering to God right up until the very end.
It’s a good perspective for us to maintain—we should keep living for the Lord as long as we are here. I once had a conversation with a woman who had received a diagnosis of a terminal and degenerative disease. She wanted to kill herself because she felt her existence was pointless. In the process of our conversation I told her the story of someone in a similar position and said that they had resolved they would live until they died. That statement proved to be a revelation to her, and she said it changed her entire outlook on life.
This was Paul’s outlook, and it should be ours as well. As long as we are alive, we can continue to serve the Lord. What that service looks like may change as our bodies wear out, but like Paul, we should endeavor to live until we die.
The second image Paul uses for his death actually isn’t very clear in the New Living Translation. In the original language (and several other English translations) Paul says, “The time for my departure has come.” The word for departure is an interesting one—it is a word that was used for a ship that was setting sail. It meant letting loose the moorings, pulling up the anchor, and setting out on your voyage. This was Paul’s perspective: death is not the end; it is the beginning of a new journey!
The Christian has confidence that there is life beyond the grave through Jesus Christ, so this is how we should view death as well. At the end of the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis closes with these words,
And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before. (The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis)
The world doesn’t view death in this way. For people who do not trust in Jesus Christ, this kind of hope is absent. In a view of life that says you live, you die, and that’s it, death is the ultimate enemy. But the Christian’s view of death is different. When we view this life as merely a prelude to the life that is to come, it changes things. It helps us see that this is only the beginning—death is not the end, it is the start of a new journey.
Paul’s Look Back on Life
As people reach the end of their lives, they have a tendency to look back and think about how their life has been spent. People who know they are about to die often have a much clearer view of what is most important. Their priorities change because they begin to see what really matters. In the next verse we see how Paul evaluated his own life as he looked back.
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. (2 Timothy 4:7, NLT)
As Paul thought back on his life, he had a feeling of accomplishment; he could feel proud of the way he had lived. He had honored the Lord until the end. Paul uses three different images to describe how he viewed his life.
The first image is I have fought the good fight. Paul had endured a lot of battles through the years. He had endured battles with government officials (and was still engaged in such a battle), he had endured battles with Jewish people who tried to lead Christians astray, he had endured battles with people who twisted and distorted the message of the gospel in order to lead people into lives of immorality, and he had even battled against his own sinful tendencies. Through all of this, Paul reached the end of his life and said he had fought the good fight.
The question we should be asking is how do we fight the good fight? What does that mean, and what does it entail? How do we go about fighting the good fight in our lives?
I’ve concluded there are two things that determine whether we have fought the good fight or not. The first is what we choose to fight for. There are lots of opportunities to fight in this world, but not every battle is worth fighting. Paul was proud that he had fought for what was right, not for his own preferences. He fought when people challenged the gospel message, he fought when people tried to twist the Scriptures, he fought to hold onto the truth. He didn’t fight over petty things. He didn’t fight over preferences. Often he even didn’t fight for his own so-called rights. He often allowed himself to be wronged in order to advance the gospel message. If we want to fight the good fight, we need to choose to fight for things that are good, and let the other things fall by the wayside.
The second thing that fighting the good fight involves is fighting in the right way. It’s possible to fight for the right things but to do so in such a way that our actions undermine everything we stand for! Elsewhere in Paul’s writings he tells us to speak the truth in love. We need to speak the truth, we need to stand up for what is right, but we must never forget to do it in love. We must treat those we view as our adversaries with the same love that God has shown to us.
This is hard to do, but Paul had a secret weapon in this. The thing that enabled him to fight in a good way was remembering who the real enemy was.
For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12, NLT)
He reminds us that the real enemy is not other people, it is not an opposing political party, or even a competing ideology or religious belief. Our real enemy is evil. It is the devil himself. So in order to win this battle, we don’t fight with the weapons of the world. We don’t attack each other (either physically or with words), and we don’t resort to the tactics of the world. It’s possible to win the battle, but to lose the war, and if we use worldly tactics, we lose even when we win. Instead we use weapons that are far stronger: prayer, love, and the truth of Scripture. If we can remember who the real enemy is, then we can not only fight for the things that are good, but we can do so in a way that honors the Lord.
The second image Paul uses is I have finished the race. This is another image that is rich, and one that many of you can actually relate to. Here’s what I find interesting; Paul did not say he had won the race, he merely said that he had finished. He was proud that he had finished and not given up—he had kept running until the end.
I suspect this is the way marathon runners feel. Most people are proud simply to have completed a marathon. They are not concerned with how they finished compared the other runners; victory for most marathoners is in finishing the race itself. It is in continuing to run even when their bodies and their minds might be arguing they should stop. A marathon is less a race against other people than it is a race against yourself. A marathon runner is proud because they didn’t quit running when things got hard. This is why you see people with the stickers that say 26.2 or 13.1 on their cars. They may not have won, they may not have placed in their age group, but they finished the race—and they are proud of doing so!
What a great picture of the Christian life! The Christian life is not a sprint, it is a marathon. It requires us to keep running toward the Lord until we cross the finish line. The writer of Hebrews used a very similar analogy,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. (Hebrews 12:1, NLT)
Have you ever watched the last mile of a marathon? The runners are doing all they can to simply keep going, many look to be on the verge of collapse. Then they reach the throngs of cheering crowds in the final stretch. The runners change completely. They stand up straight and finish strong. We do not run the race alone—the Church is like the cheering crowds. The Christian life is hard, and it’s even harder when we try to run alone. And God didn’t intend for us to run it alone! That’s why it’s important for us to run the race together. We need each other. We should encourage each other to keep going, to keep moving forward. The key is to keep running the course God has set for us. Keep seeking to honor the Lord in all you do. Keep living for Him even when things get difficult. Run with endurance, so that like Paul, you too will be able to say proudly, I have finished the race.
His third image is I have remained faithful. There are two ways we can understand what Paul meant by this image. First is that he was saying he had kept his promise to the Lord in running the race He had given him. Certainly this would apply to Paul, as he was wonderfully faithful in carrying out his commission from God.
The second way of understanding this is that Paul is saying he has held firmly to the truth of the Christian faith. Again, this would certainly apply to Paul, much of 2 Timothy is focused on telling Timothy to hold fast to the truth no matter what, just as he had.
I’m not sure which sense Paul had in mind. It’s quite possible that he had both in mind. Certainly both are things we should strive for in our own lives. We should strive to be faithful to the task God has set before us, whatever that may be, and we should also strive to hold carefully to the truths of the faith. We should hold fast to the Bible, ensuring that we do not allow ourselves to be led astray by the world.
Ultimately our goal should be that we can reach the end of our lives and make the same declaration as Paul. Our hope is to be able to say at the end that we have fought the good fight, we have finished the race, and that we have remained faithful.
In the last verse of this passage, Paul explains the hope which drives him. Listen to what he says in verse 8,
And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:8, NLT)
He says that awaiting him in heaven is a prize, namely the crown of righteousness. In the ancient Olympic Games the victor was given a laurel wreath which he wore on his head like a crown. It was a way of declaring to everyone that he had competed valiantly and been victorious. Paul was saying that when he gets to heaven he will receive a similar prize. The laurel wreath, being made of leaves, would soon wither and disappear, but the prize given to us by the Lord will never fade away.
What is this crown of righteousness? I don’t know exactly, but I know it is a blessing God will bestow on those who have lived faithfully for him. I also know (because Paul tells us here) that it is a crown that is given to us by the Lord Himself! He will declare us victors, He will declare us righteous!
Think about the comfort this would have been for Paul. He was sitting in prison, having been declared guilty by an evil judge, the emperor Nero. He was awaiting his execution at the command of the emperor at any time. What was a comfort to Paul was that at the same moment that Nero declared him guilty and carried out his death sentence, the Lord, the righteous Judge would declare a different verdict. While Nero condemned Paul, God would commend Paul! Paul knew that one day soon he would stand vindicated before the Lord, and the Lord’s opinion was far more important to Paul than Nero’s or anyone else’s.
Paul tells us this blessing is not unique to him. He says that everyone who eagerly looks forward to Christ’s return will receive the same prize. All who are true believers, who earnestly seek Him, who fight the good fight, finish the race, and remain faithful have the confidence that one day we will stand before the Lord and receive the crown of righteousness as well. The Lord Himself will one day honor us for our faithful service.
Why does this matter? It matters because it should help us maintain perspective. We often feel unjustly accused and attacked in this world. This verse reminds us that ultimately all that matters is the opinion of the Lord. It means that when we serve the Lord and we get hammered by the world, we can have the confidence to keep going, knowing that the He will one day honor us for our service.
This sword cuts both ways though. We need to remember that the only opinion that matters is the Lord’s. So when the world attacks us for doing right, we can have the confidence to keep going. By the same token, however, we must remember that just because the world may be cheering us on, it doesn’t necessarily mean what we are doing is right. The question we must ask ourselves is this: how will the righteous Judge view my actions? If we will live with that as our focus, then we can live with the same boldness and confidence Paul had.
People don’t like to think about death. They don’t like to make wills, buy life insurance, or put together advanced directives. The reason is very simple—if we do those things, we are admitting to ourselves that we will one day die. Death is something that every person will face. Every one of us in this room will die if the Lord does not return first.
While you may think it’s morbid to think about death, I think it’s wise. People at the end of their lives often have a clarity that is absent in other phases of life. They are able to see what’s really important and what isn’t worth worrying about. That is part of what makes Paul’s words so powerful. Here was a man who looked back on the way he had lived and didn’t regret how he had spent his life because he had spent it serving the Lord.
So here’s the challenge for each of us. Put yourself in Paul’s shoes. Imagine you knew you would die within the next month or two. How would you evaluate your life? What things would you wish you had spent more time doing? Would you wish you had spent more time working, making money, playing sports, partying, or buying stuff? Probably not. More likely you would wish you had spent more time showing love to your family, teaching your kids the lessons you’d want them to know, and building a legacy you could be proud of.
Throughout the book of 2 Timothy Paul has been showing us how to live to leave a legacy. There has been one common thread in his message—consistency. The way we will be remembered will be on the general pattern of our lives. What is the consistent pattern of your life? If the Lord were to examine your life, what would be His verdict? Would He say you have been consistent in living for Him, or that you have been lackluster? Whatever the verdict, there’s good news—you’re not dead yet. The fight isn’t done and the race isn’t over. So run the race, fight the good fight, strive to be faithful to the Lord and to His Word and don’t quit until you cross the finish line.