The Second book of Timothy was an epistle to Timothy and is noted for being Paul’s last letter before his death. Indeed, the idea of his looming death can be sensed throughout the entire book, and the essence of his sentiments are captured in 2 Tim 4:7. The entire book was written with a sense of urgency much like instructions upon his death, i.e. a death will. At the time of writing Paul was in his second imprisonment at Rome, but circumstances were vastly different from his first imprisonment – many of his comrades have deserted him (2 Tim 4:16), including Phygelus, Hermogenes (2 Tim 1:15) and Demas (2 Tim 4:10); and a metalworker known as Alexander had very likely testified against him (2 Tim 4:14-15). Paul wrote this letter with two clear purposes – firstly, to instruct Timothy to come over to Rome (likely because he wished to see his ‘son’ before his death) – 2 Tim 4:9, 2 Tim 4:21 – and bring along some of his belongings from Troas – 2 Tim 4:13. Secondly, to express his last words and instructions for Timothy, words that Paul would have said to him when he sees him, but was perhaps worried that Timothy may not make it in time before his death. Paul’s awareness about his looming death is indicated in 2 Tim 4:6 – For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure, and the subsequent verses relate his peace and hope.
Analysis: Fight the good fight
To fight the good fight is pretty much the theme of 1 Timothy, where Paul wrote at length to encourage his beloved spiritual son to continue his mission work, conduct his ministry, and oppose the false doctrines – 1 TIm 1:18 and 1 Tim 6:12 (Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses). This is a fight of faith. The work that Paul and Timothy were doing was described as a fight – and today we use the term ‘spiritual warfare’. Be courageous, be alert; be strong and be wary – amongst other things to be mindful of in a fight. Yet let us not forget the word ‘good’.
Good in Christianity goes a long way. In fact, it goes all the way back to the very beginning, when God created the world and saw that it was good (Genesis 1). We are fighting a good fight of faith. Despite the negative connotations behind a fight or a war, we must bear the goodness in mind. This reminds me of the words Jesus spoke to his disciples prior to his death – Luke 22:35-38.
35 Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?”
“Nothing,” they answered.
36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. 37 It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”
38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“That is enough,” he replied.
Jesus told his disciples to be equipped, as he wanted them to be ready for the fight. Yet in this fight we’re on the defensive rather than the offensive – hence two swords are more than enough. We’re not out to cause bloodshed and disharmony, yet we’re not going to stand idly by as our faith gets attacked.
Perhaps this is what Paul meant when he said it was a good fight.
Analysis: Finish the race
At a time when the Panhellenic Games were very hyped up in Greece and Roman territories, Paul often alluded to the idea of a race (or a contest) to describe the spiritual journey. The Panhellenic Games consisted of the Olympics (the ancient version of today’s Summer Olympics), which was held in Olympia; the Pythian Games, held in Delphi; the Nemean Games, held in Nemea; and the Isthmian Games, held in Corinth. Most notably, the Isthmian games became open to the Romans in AD 7, decades before the estimated date of his letters, especially his Corinthian epistles.
Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. [1 Cor 9:25-26]
This was most probably meant as a direct reference to the Isthmian games that were held in Corinth, and with the Isthmian games held every 2 years, the Corinthians were likely to be very familiar with it. Back then the panhellenic games were known as stephanitic games – there were no rewards for the winners other than a garland (in greek the word used was crown).
If the race is the mission that God has intended for Paul, then what does it mean to have finished the race? Paul was a man who knew very clearly God’s directions for him. He knew very clearly what he was called to do, and what he was meant to do. He knew that he couldn’t finish a lot of the work he started, and hence he left instructions to Timothy to continue what he began. He had an intimate relationship with the Lord, and he knew his time was up, and that he had done what God had willed for him to do. The finish of his race was not at the point of his writing this letter. To me, it was when he died and became a martyr for God. As an apostle, he knew he would one day die in martyrdom. That was his calling as well, an honour to him, in which he would receive his reward for in heaven.
Analysis: Keep the faith
Drawing on Luke 22 again, in the Last Supper Episode when Jesus pretold Peter’s denial – But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers [Luke 22:32].
Trials and tribulations may come our way, and at times, our faith may waver. But God will never allow us to lose our faith. He may allow tribulations and suffering to come our way, but He has made it so that we’re always able to keep this faith. At times it will certainly be hard – and it is a lifelong process – even if you have kept it up till now, things may happen that cause you to lose this faith before your last breath. Salvation is eternal, but it is certainly a blessing to be able to keep one’s faith.
Let us base our faith on the blessings that God grants us, but on an intimate relationship with the Lord, so that in trying times, when we cannot see Him, we will still be able to remember the good that He has done for us and believe that He is faithful. Let us keep our faith, hold on to His hand and cling on to His words even in trying times.
2 Timothy 4:7 is a common used as an eulogy by others for men of faith. I see it a lot in funerals posthumously, as if to comfort and reassure the friends and family of the deceased that he or she died because he or she has finished the race, fought the fight, and kept the faith. It’s a nice gesture, but rather hypocritical, no? It’s like posthumous titles – there is no meaning to it except to preserve some dignity and status in the family of the deceased.
2 Timothy 4:7 wasn’t a line said by Timothy about Paul upon his death – no! It is significant that Paul said this while he was still alive, albeit knowing that his death was looming. Paul knew very clearly what his life mission and purpose for God was, and he knew that his end was meant to be in martyrdom. Not many people are blessed to knowing their time of death, and even fewer are blessed with the faith to say that he or she has fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.
How harsh will our fights be? How long will this race last? Will we keep our faith, till our very last breath? I pray that in our dying breath, we will be able to utter this line with the faith, the peace and the hope of eternal life that Paul had at his time.