2 Timothy 4:6-8
For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. 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, (vv. 6-8)
We may well call this “Paul’s Valedictory.” Someone has designated it as “Paul’s Swan Song.” I think I quite understand what he meant. But, personally, I do not feel like speaking of it in that way. You know they say—it is an old fable—that the swan is silent all its life, but opens its bill and begins to sing just as it is dying. I have never been present at the death of any swan, and so I could not witness to the truth of this. But Paul did not wait until death to start singing. From the time he was saved by God’s grace, he had a song in his heart which he continued to sing all his life. The night he was in prison in Philippi with his companion, Silas, they both sang praises unto God, even though their feet were fast in the stocks and their backs terribly lacerated by the cruel flogging they had received. Paul said, “I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also” (1 Cor. 14:15). He did not begin to sing just as he was about to die.
This letter has peculiar interest. It is Paul’s final message, not only to his young friend Timothy, but also to the church as a whole. We should remember some of the circumstances under which these words were written. The Apostle was now an old man. He had been preaching the gospel for over thirty years, perhaps about thirty-five years. He had been confined for some months in the Mamertine Prison in Rome. There is no window in that prison where he could get a whiff of fresh air, just a hole in the roof through which they dropped whatsoever food they cared to give him, and through which water was lowered down to him. As I stood there I noticed a cleft in the floor, and you could look down and see the dark water of the river rolling beneath the cell. From that foul and dismal dungeon Paul sent forth this glad, triumphant message.
He was a lonely man. He tells us farther on in the chapter of one after another who had left him, going out to minister the gospel in various places. “Demas,” he says, “hath forsaken me, having loved this present world… Only Luke”— faithful Dr. Luke, whom Paul called elsewhere, “The beloved physician” (Col. 4:14)—“only Luke is with me.” Luke remained with him to the last no doubt, ministering in every way that circumstances permitted.
Under such circumstances you might forgive a man if he were discouraged and disheartened, and if, looking back upon his long years of service, he felt that God had not fully appreciated what he had done. But Paul had no such thoughts as these. He says, “I am now ready to be offered,” literally, poured out. In writing to the Philippians, he says, “Yea, and if I be offered [or, poured out] upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all” (2:17). The reference is to the drink offering. If the burnt offering was a sheep or a lamb, the parts were placed upon the fire on the altar, and the priest took a flagon of wine and poured it out upon that which was to be burnt. This was called the drink offering. It symbolized our blessed Lord Jesus pouring out His soul unto death for our redemption on Calvary.
Paul was to drink of the same cup. So he says, “For I am now ready to be offered.” He was ready to yield up his life, for it belonged to Christ; He had saved him and now Paul was glad to die for Him. That is really what he meant. He adds, “The time of my departure is at hand”; literally, “The time of my dissolution is at hand.” The hour was near when his spirit was to be separated from his body, to depart and be with Christ. He did not mean merely that the time of going out of the world was nigh, but rather the time of the separation of spirit and body. In 2 Corinthians 5:1 he says, “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” He speaks of dwelling in this body while living, and going out of the body in the hour of death. At death the Christian goes out of the body and goes home to be forever with the Lord. So Paul says, “The hour of my dissolution [the end of present conditions] is at hand.”
Then as he looked back over scores of conflicts with unseen powers in heavenly places, the world-rulers of this darkness, of which he speaks in the epistle to the Ephesians, he was able to say, “I have fought the good fight.” It is not exactly as we have it in our King James Version, “I have fought a good fight.” To say that would be to pass on his own ability as a fighter, as though to say: “I have done very well; I have fought a good fight.” What he really said is this, “I have fought the good contest.” He was on the right side in the conflict. Some of us may feel that we have not done very well as Christian soldiers, but at any rate, we will be able to thank God in that day that we were on the right side. We were on Christ’s side in the war against iniquity and unrighteousness. That is what Paul means, “I have fought the good fight.”
“I have finished my course.” In the twentieth chapter of the book of Acts, where Paul addressed the Ephesian elders, perhaps some six years before he wrote this letter, he told the elders that his one great concern was to finish his course with joy (v. 24). He had run well by the grace of God for nearly thirty years since that day he met the Lord on the Damascus turnpike. His earnest desire was to finish well. He did not want to break near the end. Oh, how many have fought a good fight for years and then in some way, even in old age when we think one should be free from temptations, they have been broken down, perhaps because of self-confidence! They have gotten their eyes off the Lord. Some who made a good record for many years have had a dishonorable old age.
I will never forget, as a boy, how I used to be amazed as I heard an old preacher say in public prayer, “O Lord, keep my eyes on the Lord Jesus. Don’t let me become a wicked old man.” I used to wonder why he prayed like that, but I have since seen many who had a testimony for Christ in their early days break down and become wicked old men because they got their eyes off Christ.
I am not talking about losing one’s soul. I am talking about our lives counting for Christ here in this world, and the danger of losing one’s testimony for Him.
“I have kept the faith.” God grant that everyone of us who confess the name of Jesus may be able to say that when we come to the end—“I have kept the faith!”
Some years ago a fearful railroad wreck took dreadful toll of life and limb in an eastern state. A train, loaded with young people returning from school, was stalled on a suburban track because of what is known as a “hot box.” The Limited was soon due, but a flagman was sent back to warn the engineer in order to avert a rear-end collision. Thinking all was well, the crowd laughed and chatted while the train hands worked on in fancied security. Suddenly the whistle of the Limited was heard, and on came the heavy train and crashed into the local, with horrible effect.
The engineer of the Limited saved his own life by jumping, and some days afterward was hailed into court to account for his part in the calamity. And now a curious discrepancy in testimony occurred. He was asked, “Did you not see the flagman warning you to stop?”
He replied, “I saw him, but he waved a yellow flag, and I took it for granted all was well, and so went on, though slowing down.”
The flagman was called. “What flag did you wave?”
“A red flag, but he went by me like a shot.”
“Are you sure it was red?”
Both insisted on the correctness of their testimony, and it was demonstrated that neither was color-blind. Finally the man was asked to produce the flag itself as evidence. After some delay he was able to do so, and then the mystery was explained. It had been red, but it had been exposed to the weather so long that all the red was bleached out, and it was but a dirty yellow! Oh, the lives eternally wrecked by the yellow gospels of the day—the bloodless theories of unregenerate men who send their hearers to their doom instead of stopping them on their downward road!
No wonder the faithful Apostle cries, “Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). And lest any should think he spoke in haste, not weighing his words, he adds, “As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:9). To trifle with souls is an awful sin.
How many there are who once bore a faithful testimony and proclaimed salvation through the precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, but who, after some years have gone on, have failed to carry out the commission given to them, and their message is no longer that of the blood of Christ. It is a dirty yellow flag of man’s personal acceptability to God on the ground of his own character and good works, and the result is that many are being lured on to their eternal doom.
There is no other real message than that of the cross. “Without [the] shedding of blood [there] is no remission.” “The blood of Jesus Christ [God’s] Son cleanseth us from all sin.” When we get home, the blood will be the theme of our song for eternity. “They sung a new song,” says John, “saying, Thou art worthy…for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9).
Paul had kept the faith, and now 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: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” In 1 Corinthians he speaks of crowns and rewards. The crown is to be distinguished from salvation. The crown speaks of approval; salvation is by grace through faith, but rewards are for service. Our blessed Lord, the righteous Judge, will give rewards for the work done in the body. So Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:27, says, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” Or, literally, should be set to one side; should fail of the reward. He draws an illustration from the arena. How carefully young men train that they might receive the prize. He says, “They do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible” (1 Cor. 9:25). And so through the years he had kept a prayerful watch that he might not allow himself to give way to the desires of the flesh. He did not allow the body to dominate, but, he says, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection.” Instead of permitting his body to master him, he mastered it. At the end of the race he could say, “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day.”
There is a difference between the gift of righteousness and the crown of righteousness. Every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ receives the gift of righteousness. All of us are made the righteousness of God in Christ. We have no righteousness of our own. That which we fancy to be our righteousness is but as filthy rags in God’s sight. When we believe in the Lord Jesus, our faith is imputed to us for righteousness, and we stand before God cleared of every charge. That is our justification. That is perfect. That is complete. But the crown of righteousness is something quite different. It is the reward that is given to those who have lived righteous lives as they have waited expectantly for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. So Paul 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 Lord, the righteous Judge, will sit on the judgment seat where the works of believers will be examined.
This is different from the Great White Throne where the unsaved are to be judged. We find the expression “the day of Christ,” and sometimes, “the day of Jesus Christ,” and in one place, “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” These terms always refer to the time when “the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:16-17). Then we shall stand before His judgment seat. That will be the day when we will give account of the deeds done in the body.
Observe that expression, “deeds done in the body.” I do not know of any Scripture that promises reward for post-mortem gifts for the work of the Lord. There are some who accumulate vast fortunes, forgetting the Lord’s warning about laying up treasure on earth. Then when they are about to die they bequeath their wealth to Christian enterprises. It is far better to give what you can while in the body, for if given as unto the Lord this assures reward in that day.
If you have money you are not going to need, put it to work while you are in the body. To do it for Jesus’ sake is to assure a reward in that day.
Paul adds, “And not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” He is not thinking of himself only. He was not the only one who will have a crown of righteousness. It is for all them also that love Christ’s appearing. Do you love His appearing? Are you waiting for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ? Is that the lodestar of your soul? We read, “Every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). The hope of the coming of the Lord is the most sanctifying thing I know. If you are living day by day as one expecting the early return of your Lord, you are not going to be carried away by the trend of the times. You are not going to yield to the solicitations of the world, the flesh, and the Devil.
May God grant that in that day not one of us will come up empty-handed; that not one of us will have to look back with regret upon years that might have been lived to the glory of God but were not, or upon hoarded wealth that might have been put to use for Christ!