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On That Day

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. 2 Timothy 4.6-8.

Paul is almost at the end of his life on earth. He is in prison in Rome and is about to appear before the judgment seat of Nero; and he is in no doubt as to what the verdict of that unrighteous judge will be. He will be executed. But Paul doesn’t see it in those sort of terms. He sees the moment of his death in a number of different ways — all of them thrilling and vivid in the colours with which he paints them.

First, he sees that moment as being like the end of a Roman meal when a final cup of wine was poured but instead of being drunk was simply poured out onto the floor as a libation to the gods. That is the significance of the word spendo that Paul uses. Since that time on the road to Damascus when he encountered the risen and glorified Jesus, his life has belonged to him, and now he is about to pour it out at his feet.

Second, he sees the moment of his death as a time of “departure” — analysis in the Greek. The word comes from the Greek verb to “undo” and it was used in four particularly telling ways in Paul’s time. It described the unyoking of an ox from the plough or of a donkey from the shafts of a cart. It speaks of the day’s hard work being over and the time for rest being at hand. Analysis was used too to described striking camp — loosening the guy ropes, pulling up the tent pegs and moving on to the next stage in the journey. Paul, the tent maker, had spent most of his life moving from one place to the next, and now he was on the final stage of the journey to Jesus. That same thought is there when we note that analysis also described the casting off of a ship’s mooring rope, setting sail for a new horizon. And the word’s fourth use was for the unfastening of fetters, setting the prisoner free. Very shortly, for Paul, that would literally be what would happen as he was taken away to die, but he saw that as a setting free from all the constraints and limitations of his life in the flesh as he entered the Kingdom of God.

Now the picture changes again, and Paul’s mind fills with imagery from his beloved Games. “I have fought the good fight,” he says in almost every translation of the Bible to which I have access, and that is certainly the literal translation of the Greek; but the noun for “fight” — agon — was used in a technical sense for any athletic contest and the verb for “to fight” — agonizo — was used for “to compete”, so a good paraphrase of what Paul is saying here might be, “I have competed well in the contest of life.”

This fits well with what Paul says next: “I have finished the race.” The word translated “race” there is dromon which comes from the verb “to run.” The climax of the Games in those days was the 26 mile marathon race, and the runner who was first through the tape in the marathon, was given the highest of all honours at the Games … the stephanos, the crown, the victor’s wreath of laurel that Paul refers to at the end of this morning’s passage as “the crown of righteousness.” But before he gets to that, Paul says that he has “kept the faith.” This too is an expression that belongs to the Games. Before the contests started, all the contestants had to meet and swear an oath before the gods that they had done not less than ten months training and that they would not cheat or use trickery to gain victory. That was “the faith” and it is what Paul says he has kept. He has not taken any shortcuts. He has not used any dubious methods or tactics in carrying out his ministry and calling. He has played it all straight. And he knows what the “umpire” will think of him and what his award will be.

But here Paul’s analogy with the Games breaks down, and he knows it. There is only one winner in the marathon, but all Christians will be winners, just like Paul. There is a crown for everyone who has “loved his appearing.” I have a picture there of Aslan in C S Lewis’ “The Last Battle”, standing by the door as the old Narnia comes to an end and every creature in it streams towards him. Each has to look Aslan in the face. Some display only fear and hatred and swerve away into Aslan’s huge shadow. “But others looked in the face of Aslan and loved him” and entered in through the door to the new Narnia that lay beyond.

So it was for Paul. So it will be for me.

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