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How to Finish

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I have always been afraid of not finishing what I start. As early as age eleven, I worried that I could not say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

How did Paul remain faithful through more than thirty years of prisons, floggings, stonings, shipwrecks, danger, sleepless labor, and daily concern for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:23-28)? The answer is that Christ lived in Paul by the Holy Spirit. That indwelling presence manifested itself in a specific survival mechanism: Paul cherished Scripture. This kept him in the fight.

Likewise, if we intend to keep the faith until the end, we must adore God’s Word by taking it into ourselves regularly and letting God transform us through it.

Paul wrote 2 Timothy from prison in Rome, where he would later be executed. Still, he asked for his personal copies of Scripture to be brought to him (4:13). Paul did not give up when the Christian way got hard. He did not cower from speaking about Jesus when suffering for Him. The only way we will do the same is if we follow the example of keeping Scripture close, especially when we face problems.

Christian challenges

When we recount all that Paul endured, our difficulties seem minor. But Paul would understand them. He did not say that he had run his race but that he had run the race that is common to all believers.

Our trials may not be the magnitude of Paul’s, but they are real and hard. Christianity is not easy. Following Jesus is riddled with persecutions and broken relationships. As Paul acknowledges in 2 Timothy 3:12, there is no way to live a godly life in Christ Jesus and not “suffer persecution.”

The truth is that we cannot align our lives with Jesus without facing repercussions. Saying “Jesus is Lord” intimidates all who desire to control us. They spend billions annually in manipulating us to feel worthless if we don’t buy the new car, acquire the new look, and elect the new leader.

The good news that God finds us worthy to die for threatens these people. In the politics of ancient Rome and today, citizens who find their primary identity in Christ instead of nationality are menaces to the governing powers.

Straying from who God created us to be further complicates our Christian lives. Loving our enemies, forgiving as Jesus forgives, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and loving God more than life itself often run contrary to our natural drives.

On top of all this, the sources of peace and rejuvenation for the Christian are often strained when we refuse to let the Holy Spirit change us. In his imprisonment, Paul had been deserted by everyone (4:10, 16). Perhaps this solitude near the end of his life gave him time to think about an argument he had regarding Mark. Years earlier, they went their separate ways and apparently never reconciled. The disconnection weighed on Paul; he wanted Mark back.

Our church and Christian relationships often have struggles. Further, our relationship with God goes through many seasons of silence and distance filled with pain and doubt. We come to God longing for restoration, yet receive only silence. This fact awakens the scared child in all of us. Like Paul, will we be able to follow Jesus all the way and celebrate persistent faithfulness to Him in thirty years?

External obstacles

We have good reason to believe that no external factor can thwart our commitment to God. In the past, Jesus’ followers were not overcome by “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” (Romans 8:35). They survived oppressive regimes and persisted through ages of doubt. The firm conviction they clung to is that our God, who gave His only begotten Son, will withhold nothing that we need to follow Him.

A few years before his imprisonment in Rome, Paul wrote to the church there, declaring, “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (v. 37). Neither the power of death nor the struggles of life nor any influence of evil in this universe “shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 38, 39). Persecution, sin, broken relationships, and feeling distant from God will all be overcome.

External obstacles cannot stop God from drawing us to Himself. He has already reconciled all things to Himself by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:18, 19).

Internal obstacles

Given the truth of God’s triumph over external obstacles, one question remains: Will we continue to believe that Jesus is our only hope of salvation? Or will we allow internal obstacles to divert us?

With saddening frequency, Christians stop following Jesus. Maybe they allow the busyness of life to creep in, so they leave their relationship with God for calmer days. Perhaps they get hurt in a Christian relationship and decide they are done with the faith. Or they encounter evil and pain and can’t see how God can still be good.

I don’t want that to happen to me, and I assume because you are reading this, you don’t want that to happen to you either. So how do Christians last? The key seems to be that they repeatedly fight the battle of their minds with Scripture and theology.

Right before declaring that he finished the race and kept the faith, Paul commanded Timothy:

Continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:14, 15).

I have encountered the same advice from faithful mentors. A previous pastor in Lodi, Loren Stacy, is an avid reader of the Bible. So was another previous pastor, Melvin Reuscher. Before he died, Melvin was bedridden for twenty-three hours each day, yet he never waned in his daily Bible reading. He still wanted to study.

The advice he gave continues to nurture me. I was a young, able-bodied, new pastor. Melvin didn’t say, “Since your body is working just fine, go and do work for God.” Instead, he commanded, “Spend as much time as you can taking God’s mission in Scripture into your own mind.” In essence, he was saying, “Get your mind right so you can think as the authors of Scripture think.” That is the only way to live as the authors of Scripture lived: faithful to the end.

Mind power

The mind is powerful. We control what we put into it. If we fixate about our jobs, the ways we have been mistreated, or how we can get even, that will shape our behavior. However, if we renew our minds, then good actions will follow. If we put into our minds God’s rescue of creation from sin and the destructiveness of evil and death, then our lives will be changed.

We must think about the world the way God does, to see it as designed to give Him glory, redeemed into relationship with Him, and loved beyond comparison. Paul said it best: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2).

The truth is, we don’t have an obstacle problem; we have a thinking problem. Our minds will keep trying to find ways to get more power and wealth, rather than give more love. Our minds will continue to feel shame for what God has forgiven, rather than celebrate His liberation. Our minds will continue to see ourselves as worthless, rather than realize that God has given us infinite worth.

Our minds need to be aligned with Jesus’ completed work. The best way to do that is to frequently come to Scripture
and think about it until we think like it.

That is why any Christian who has finished the race will not only tell young Christians to study Scripture, but will continue to lead by example.

Exemplary verse

I love 2 Timothy 4:13 for this reason. In prison and knowing his time was near, Paul wrote one last letter to his mentee and friend: “Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come — and the books, especially the parchments.” Paul wanted his books so that he could keep studying.

In thirty years, if that is not our attitude, then we will probably not finish the race. If we think that we will be more studious at the end of our lives, but not today or any busy day, then we will probably not finish. Without the constant renewing of our minds through studying Scripture, internal barriers will block our way.

This is not to say that the Bible saves us; only Jesus does. However, the saints who finish cultivate deep relationships with the Word of God. They cherish it.

Let’s follow the same steps to finish the race that Paul did. Bring us our God-breathed books!

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Jonathon Hicks and his wife, Danielle, serve the Lodi, CA, Church of God (Seventh Day) congregation, who has taught him much and given incalculable support. He is seeking to love those he has the privilege of speaking to week after week.