It makes sense. If you set out on a journey not knowing your destination, you will get lost. Not even the most accurate SatNav will save you from that embarrassment. If you don’t really know where you are going, how can you hope to arrive safe and sound?
You don’t need to be Einstein to figure that out with regard to car travel, but it’s a truth that has wider application. The Bible sometimes describes the spiritual life of the people of God in the language of a journey. We set off at conversion, with our first experience of the saving grace of God, we continue through the lifespan God allots by the same divine grace, and ultimately we arrive at our destination, still totally dependent on grace. But where are we going?
Before we pass into the glory God has prepared for his people, we surely want to reach the place where Paul found himself at the end of his life of service. Not a prison cell, of course, although for some of our brothers and sisters across the world that is exactly where they will find themselves. No, our goal is rather to be able to identify with Paul’s estimation of his life and ministry recorded in 2 Timothy 4:7-8, some of the most moving words in the entire Bible. Here is the place we seek to reach when the journey is done.
‘I have fought the good fight’. The word Paul uses refers to a sporting contest rather than to a military engagement. Perhaps he had in mind the wrestling matches that were so popular in the ancient world. The whole Christian life is a contest, a striving towards definite goals. Paul uses the term from which we derive the word ‘agony’: ‘I have agonised the good agony’, he says. Of course there are times of wonderful blessing and joy in the Christian life, but it is not a gentle stroll in the park, no matter how strong our faith. Jesus warned his disciples that in the world they would experience ‘tribulation’ (John 16:33), and it has always been so. The Christian journey requires our very best, using all our gifts and strength, in a spirit of self-denial.
It is also essential, however, to note Paul’s comment in Colossians 1:29 when he refers to ‘struggling with all his energy’. God provides the strength we are to draw on and we must travel in constant dependence on him. To do otherwise is a recipe for disaster. And it is, Paul says, a ‘good’ fight, using a word that suggests nobility and beauty. There is a spiritual beauty about the Christian life, however mystifying that thought is to the watching world. By God’s grace something beautiful is being created as he gradually conforms his children to the likeness of his firstborn Son.
‘I have finished the race’. The language of a race indicates the need for effort if the goal is to be attained. There is no place for self-centredness or self-indulgence in the Christian life. As the writer to the Hebrews says, we must ‘lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely’ (Hebrews 12:1). It is ridiculous to contemplate running the race with the billowing robes of sin and self-absorption wrapping themselves around us, yet how often we try.
Thankfully the picture of a race reminds us that there is a planned course set before us: we are not left to blunder along at random. It is supremely comforting as we engage with the challenges of running to know that our sovereign God, in his love and wisdom, has mapped out the specific course each of us will follow, leaving nothing to the vagaries of chance. Thus we are comforted in our struggles and trials. This is God’s assigned race for us.
‘I have kept the faith’. By God’s grace Paul had been faithful to his commission and had passed on the deposit of divine truth uncorrupted. Many forces still try to deflect God’s people from wholehearted commitment to the truth revealed in Scripture, and the pressure will more than likely increase in the coming years. God’s people, especially his pastors and teachers, must not waver in their adherence to what is, after all, ‘the word of life’ (Philippians 2:16). What else do we have to offer a perishing world?
God is truly no man’s debtor. As Paul knew, grace would bring him safely home: ‘Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness’. Faithful service will not lack God’s reward. Our destination is clear and the means to arrive safely provided. We need no more.