Near the end of his life, the Apostle Paul wrote these words to his young protégé, Timothy, in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” From the time of Paul’s conversion to Jesus Christ in 37 AD (see Acts 9) until his death as a martyr thirty years later in 67 or 68 AD, he “ran the race” and never stopped even in the midst of severe and ongoing persecution. Let’s read from his own account in 2 Cor. 11:24-29:
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?
Before Paul’s own conversion to Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road (see Acts 9), he persecuted and approved of the murder of Christians and was proud of it. He “came from a well-respected family in Asia Minor (Turkey today) where his father was an official. He excelled in his studies and became a devout Pharisee. As a young man Paul–whose Jewish name was Saul–was sent to Jerusalem to study under the great teacher Gamaliel. He hated Christians and participated in the first execution of a Christian leader, a man named Stephen. Paul was determined to murder all those who followed Jesus, not just in Jerusalem, but elsewhere (Acts 7:54-8:3)” (quote source: “The Life of the Apostle Paul” pamphlet published by Rose Publishing). Of course, Jesus Christ dramatically changed the direction of his life on the Damascus Road as he was on his way to persecute more Christians, and he was never the same after that experience. He went from being the arch-enemy of Christianity to it’s greatest missionary and he is also known as the “Apostle to the Gentiles.”
The Apostle Paul was never one to shy away from controversy, and the same zeal he used to persecute Christians as a Pharisee, he used to serve the very cause he sought to destroy–Christianity. Jesus Christ made all the difference, and he never looked back after the day he met Jesus on the Damascus Road. He went from being esteemed and respected as a Pharisee (“living the good life” as we might say today), to becoming an outcast who was beaten, shipwrecked, stoned, imprisoned, betrayed by friends and false believers over and over again during the course of the thirty years following his conversion until his death (see 2 Cor. 11:24-29). And during that time he wrote a quarter of the New Testament in his thirteen letters, and he made the following statement that echoes down through the centuries to us today when he stated in Philippians 3:8-15:
What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.
I wonder how often we as Christians count “everything as loss” compared to the “surpassing worth” of knowing and following after Jesus Christ. The point was brought home this morning when I read a devotion titled, “Life is a Marathon,” by David Jenkins, a retired Southern Baptist pastor and freelance writer, in “Open Windows” published by LifeWay Publications, and he wrote the following (devotional passage is taking from James 1:12-15):
Life is a Marathon
“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because,
having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life
that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”
As pastor of the first-century Jerusalem church, James reminded his fellow believers that all would be tempted, and that temptation, not resisted, followed a deadly path. It begins within us as desire, and then it becomes sin, which unchecked, becomes a real killer. Every believer is involved in a race–a spiritual marathon. Obstacles and detours into sin are always present. But God provides us the strength to endure, and He will reward us at the finish line with “the crown of life.”
A high school athlete, who had trained faithfully, was determined to win the trophy for the fastest runner in the marathon competition. On the last lap, he stumbled and sprained his ankle. His coach and trainer ran out to support him, but he waved them away. Suffering great pain, he hobbled across the finish line in last place. He received more cheers from the crowd than the first place winner because of his heart and endurance.
The Christian life is indeed a marathon, and Satan’s weapon of choice against us is temptation. We prove our faith and love for Christ through our endurance, gaining strength as we overcome temptation.
~Father, make us sensitive to temptation today,
and give us strength to endure to the end.~
While most of us are not called to endure many of the hardships that the Apostle Paul endured over the thirty years of his ministry on earth, as followers of Jesus Christ we are called to endure the hardships that do come our way in whatever form they present themselves. And we who are Christian are called to run that race to the finish line, keeping the faith as our ancestors did before us (see Hebrews 11). And faith requires perseverance and endurance as our “faith in action” (see James 2:14-16).
In an article titled, “Becoming a People of Perseverance in a ‘Now’ Generation, Part 1” (“Part 2” is available at this link), by Bernard Messing, national lead facilitator for SVM2 in Cameroon, he defines perseverance and endurance as follows:
Let’s define perseverance as “steady persistence in adhering to a course of action, a belief, or a purpose; steadfastness,” endurance as “the act, quality, or power of withstanding hardship or stress,” but in another second definition we define endurance as “the state or act of persevering.”
While they are synonyms and each word carries in it the idea of “continuance,” perseverance lays stress on a given course of action in the face of difficulty or opposition. Endurance perhaps more strongly adds the idea of continuing under resistance or the adversities of life, to carry on in spite of hardships.
Patience refers to the quality of enduring pain, hardship, provocation, or annoyance with calmness. Either perseverance, endurance or patience all are qualities of Christ-likeness (quote source here).
In our “instant access” and prosperous society here in America (whether or not we as individuals are prosperous) it’s easy–in fact, far too easy–to succumb to the temptations presented to us to the point of where we show little or no resistance at all anymore. We just “give in” (and no, I’m not going to list any specific temptations as you know what I mean). In other words, instead of “running the race” we’ve been given to run as followers of Jesus Christ, we often “coast in neutral,” instead, to our detriment. And we take ourselves out of the running by caving into temptation over and over again.
And it’s time to get out of neutral . . . .
We are called, like Paul, to finish the race and finish it well. And Hebrews 12:1-2 tells us how to do it, too . . .
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses (see Hebrews 11), let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
So instead of coasting in neutral, let us throw off everything that hinders us along with the sin that so easily entangles us . . .
And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us . . .
Looking unto Jesus . . . always and forevermore . . .
Amen . . . .
YouTube Video: “Stay Strong” by the Newsboys: