Down the Road, Paul and the End

September 7, 2014

A hanging always attracts  a crowd. 
And I would suspect that a stoning was no different.  That’s where our journey began back in June
when we discovered Saul of Tarsus witnessing the brutal execution of one of the
leaders of the early church.  A man named
Stephen. 
We don’t know that Saul actually threw any of the
rocks that resulted in Stephen’s death, but we do know that he was in the
crowd. And instead of fueling his sense of injustice at the senseless death of
this man who was described as a righteous man it seemed set fire to a desire to
eradicate the church that Stephen had embraced and that had embraced
Stephen.  One of the first descriptions
of Saul tell us Acts 8:3 But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went
from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison.
This man was obviously an enemy of the church and
an enemy of God.  But in this strange
display of Grace God reaches down and speaks into the life of Saul and we see
this incredible transformation that turns one of the churches greatest enemies
into the church’s great statesman. 
And it isn’t long before Saul becomes Paul.  No big mystery here, Saul and Paul are the
same name.  Saul is the Hebrew and Paul
is the Greek.  Kind of like Denny is the
English and Denney is the French. 
And it was at the point of Saul’s conversion that
we joined him on a journey that has taken us all of the summer of 2014 to
complete.  We have seen him preach and
sing, he has shown up in the courts of kings and prison cells last week we
found him on a ship in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea in a terrifying
storm.  We have met his mentors and his
protégés and now we are at the end of his journey.  The centre of the universe for many of Paul’s
contemporaries, the great city of Rome. 
And it is here that Paul’s story and life would
end, but his writings and influence would shape the early church and eventually
much of the world.  It is in the writings
of Paul that we discover what it means to be a Christian and to live a spirit
filled life.  And the very foundation of
the church was laid by Paul and many of the foundational doctrines of the
church are found in these letters.
But now the journey is coming to an end. Paul is
under house arrest in Rome and I’m sure that as he reflected back on his close
to thirty years of ministry that this might have been his theme song. (My Way
by Frank Sinatra)
The scholars tell us that the last letter that
Paul wrote, or at least the last letter that we have a copy of is probably 2
Timothy, and that’s where I want to take you today on our journey. 
This letter was written to Timothy who was one of
Paul’s protégés, Paul had met him in Lystra and began his training taking
Timothy with him on his travels, eventually leaving him in charge of the church
in Ephesus.  And that is where Timothy is
when he receives this letter from his mentor.
Paul has been under house arrest but he is still
under arrest.  There is a soldier with
him all the time and Rome is becoming more and more hostile toward the
followers of the Nazarene.  They are no
longer seen as simply a Jewish sect but because of their refusal to join in the
yearly worship of Caesar they are viewed as dangerous rebels, after all if they
refused to do something as simple as offer a pinch of incense and use the words
“Caesar is Lord” then what else were they capable of?
And so Paul has seen the writing on the wall, he
understands that his days are numbered. 
And so it is with this in mind that Paul pens these words to his friend
Timothy.
2 Timothy 4:6-8 As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to
God. The time of my death is near. I have fought the good fight, I have
finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits
me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give
me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who
eagerly look forward to his appearing.
As for me, my life has already been poured
out as an offering to God.   
This
is one of those references that is lost on us. 
An offering poured out to God? 
That may not make sense to us but would have made all kinds of sense to
the person the letter was written to. 
From what we read about Timothy we discover that his mother was a
believer who had been raised a Jew and his father was a Greek.  And both traditions had some form of “Drink”
or “Liquid” offering.  In the case of the
Jews it was spelled out in the Old Testament in the books of Exodus, Numbers
and Leviticus.  And it wasn’t a
sacrifice, it was an offering to enhance the sacrifice.  The sacrifice was either a lamb or a ram and
after it had been sacrificed a portion was burnt.  And it was while it was on the hot coals that
a cup of wine would be poured over it. 
So you understand that while the meat was hot the
wine was poured on it and evaporated leaving only the steam and the scent.  Numbers 15:6-7 “If the sacrifice is a ram, give a grain offering of four quarts of
choice flour mixed with a third of a gallon of olive oil, and give a third of a
gallon of wine as a liquid offering. This will be a pleasing aroma to the LORD.
Paul was not saying that his life had been a
sacrifice, the sacrifice was made by Christ. 
We are told in 1
John 2:2
He
himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the
sins of all the world.   But
Paul’s life had added to that sacrifice, it was poured out to enhance the
sacrifice.  And because of what Paul
offered, his life, his talents, his ability the sacrifice of Christ became a
pleasing aroma to the known world. 
Remember when Paul came on the scene that the gospel had basically
stalled in the Middle East.  It was Paul
who saw it spread across Asia and into Europe. 
It was Paul who not only started the new churches but put the systems
into place for the leadership and administration of those churches.  He laid the foundation for the church as we
know it.
It’s interesting that this isn’t the first mention
that is made by Paul of being a drink offering. 
Earlier he had written to the church in Philippi saying Philippians 2:17 But I will rejoice even if I lose
my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful
service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy.
The difference is that in Philippians Paul writes
“Even if I lose my life, pouring out like a liquid offering.”  He is talking in the theoretical, he is using
the word “If” but here it becomes a certainly as he says in 2 Timothy 4:6 As for me, my life has already been
poured out as an offering to God.   Why the difference?  Paul spells it out in case Timothy misses it,
The
time of my death is near  
Paul
has now spent the better part of two years under house arrest in Rome,
sympathies have turned against Christianity. 
Rumours about the Christ followers are spreading.  We are told that the early church often
referred to their common meals and celebration of Communion as a love feast,
some outside the church took the low road and began to speculate what might
happen behind closed doors at an event referred to as a “Love feast”. 
When some heard that at the communion service the
body and blood of Christ was shared not everyone understood the symbolism of
the statements and so there were rumours of cannibalism being practised by the followers
of Jesus.
It seemed that things came to a head after the
great Fire of Rome in AD 64, Nero had assumed the throne and it was under Nero
that the systematic persecution of the Christians began.  WE are told that when Rome burned that by some
accounts, Nero came under suspicion for causing the fire and to deflect
attention from himself he used the early church as a scapegoat, after all there
was much in their rhetoric about fire and the end days. 
And so Christians were ordered to recant and give
up their faith or face the executioner. 
Tradition tells us that it was at this time that Peter was executed, and
that he was ordered to be crucified like the Christ he followed.  Peter though insisted that he wasn’t worthy
to die in the same manner as Jesus and so he was crucified upside down.
But Paul was a Roman citizen and so his execution
would be more merciful, quicker and less painful.  He would be. . . beheaded.  And we kind of look at this as barbaric, you
know I am opposed to capital punishment, but when you read headlines of how
they sometimes mess up executions in the States with botched chemicals and
faulty electric chairs you gotta think that maybe the guillotine might not be a
bad option. 
And so Paul would have been offered the choice,
recant and live or don’t recant and die. 
How difficult could it be, all he had to do was proclaim the words “Nero
is Lord” and he would live.  But Paul
decided that he would rather bow to the executioner than to bow to Nero.
And I’m sure that Nero and those who demanded the
death of the early church leaders were convinced that the church would die with
its leaders.  But it was Tertullian who would later write as a warning to
the Roman Government concerning the persecution of the church, “The blood of the martyrs is seed”
Tertullian’s words
continue to ring true, in 1982 Chet Bitterman a bible translator with Wycliffe
was kidnapped in Columbia by a M-19 a communist guerrilla group, the group
demanded that Wycliffe remove all of their missionaries from Columbia,  Wycliffe refused and the terrorists murdered Bitterman.
As a result Wycliffe offered to release any of their staff from service in Columbia.  Without exception every bible translator
wanted to stay and 200 volunteers offered to fill Bitterman’s place. 
Today in
Columbia M-19 is only a memory but you will still find linguists from Wycliffe,working
at translating the bible into the 62 language groups represented in
Columbia.   “The blood of the martyrs is still seed”
It’s interesting to see the analogy that is used
here by Paul, the NLT simply translates it as “the time of my death is near”,
but other versions translate it as “My departure is near” and the word that
Paul uses here is a term that was often used for the process of loosening the
lines on a ship.  They haven’t yet been
cast off, but they are being prepared for that.
And now Paul uses a series of analogies for his life that
all come from sports.  And this is a
theme that he returns to time and time again in his letters.  That would make me believe that Paul had
either been a jock or an athletic enthusiast. 
Because communicators often default to what they are familiar with.  And so you can jump to all kinds of
conclusions about the lack of sport illustrations in my messages and the fact
that I often tell sea stories. 
I never took part in organized sports as a kid, now that’s
not say that I wasn’t involved in sports, I wore out a couple of bikes and the
kids in the neighborhood were always involved in a game of baseball with chunks
of wood or flat rocks as bases, or touch football, sometime with fairly rough
touches or a capture the flag.  Do kids
still play like that or does everything need to be organized now?  Again a tangent. 
 
And so Paul begins by saying, I have fought the good fight Some Christians take this way too
literally they will fight over anything and everything.  And social media has made it worse.
Some
of the things church folks tussle over, really it doesn’t matter what colour
the lobby is, doesn’t matter if you have a pulpit on the platform or not,
doesn’t matter if the pastor wears jeans or suit, doesn’t matter if we sing old
songs or new songs.  Seriously get a grip.  Remember what Solomon warned us of in Proverbs 17:14 Starting a quarrel is like opening
a floodgate, so stop before a dispute breaks out. Or Proverbs 17:19 Anyone who loves to quarrel loves
sin.  Pastors could take heed to 2 Timothy 2:24 A servant of the Lord must not
quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with
difficult people. And in the New Testament we find quarrelling listed
time after time in lists of behaviour that is unacceptable for followers of Jesus.  Romans 1:29 Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed,
hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip.   Romans 13:13 Because we belong to the
day, we must live decent lives for all to see. Don’t participate in the
darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral
living, or in quarreling and jealousy.   Time
after time it comes up including when Paul lists the acts of the sinful nature
in Galatians 5.  And when people do read
these verses then they quarrel about what the bible means when it talks about
quarreling.  Stop it. Another tangent.
When Paul says he has fought the good fight he
isn’t talking about a military fight he is speaking of the type of fight that
was a competition.  Yep, he’s talking
about wrasslin’.  Throughout his letters
Paul speaks of the struggles that he encounters and that we will encounter as
Christians.  As we wrestle with self and
our sinful nature, as we struggle with temptation and doing what we should even
when it isn’t what we’d prefer to do. 
Note he doesn’t say that he won every fight but he fought to the best of
his ability.  I wish I could say that I
win every time I struggle in my Christian life, but that’s not reality.  Probably in your life, but not in mine.  But I want to be able to say that I fought
the good fight, that I didn’t just roll over and give up.
And then Paul continues with the sports analogies saying; I have finished the race.   There is no greater compliment
then that you finished well.  Probably
the history’s most famous race is the marathon. 
Do you know the history behind the race? 
The Battle of Marathon was probably one of the decisive battles
of the ancient world. It was here that the Greeks came up against the Persians.
 Imagine if the Persians had won. The
glory that was Greece would never have happened, the language, the art the
philosophies.  If the Persians had of won
that day there would have been no Aristotle, or Plato, no Archimedes.  And the Persians should have won, they had
won everything else, they had superior forces but Darius and his forces were
defeated that day by the Greek forces in a town called Marathon. 
But our story revolves around a runner named
Phillipedes.  Legend tells us that
Phillipedes had run to Sparta from Marathon to request assistance against the
Persians.  A round trip of 240 km, and
then after the Greek victory he was sent to deliver the news to Athens, and
legend has it that he ran the 40 km in the summer heat, delivered his message,
“We have won.”  And then he fell
dead.  He had completed his course and
done his work. 
Over and over again the analogy of the race is used to
describe our Christian life, and it always speaks of how we finish, not how we
start.  How often in life do we see
people start a venture but never finish it. 
But it is the finishing that counts in the end.  And so Paul could look back and say I’ve
fought the good fight but more important I have finished the race.  To which he adds I have remained faithful.   At least one commentator says that this statement continues in the
sports analogy, that the greatest games of all in that era were still the Olympics.
And the day before the games began all the competitors met
and took a solemn oath before the gods that they had spent at least ten months in
training and that they wouldn’t resort to any dishonesty to win their
competition.
If this was the case then Paul was saying; “I have kept the
rules: I have played the game right.”  It
was William Barclay the author of the Daily
Study Bible who said “It would be a great thing to
die knowing that we had never transgressed the rules of honour in the race of
life.”
Remember the Ben Johnson fiasco in the 1988 Olympics.  He was the Canadian runner who won the 100
metres final in Seoul.  Well on September
24 we celebrated him as the Canadian who won the 100 metres.  Prime Minister
Brian Mulroney said “It’s a marvellous
evening for Canada.”  Three days
later he was derided as the Jamaican who tested positive for illegal
steroids.  Canadian Swimmer Mark Tewksbury, hung a sheet out of his window of
the Olympic Village with the words “Hero to Zero in
9.79”.  Johnson had finished the
race but he had not remained faithful.
My prayer is “Lord, let me finish well.”  Because of what comes next, Paul continues to
write And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness. In
the Olympics the greatest prize was the laurel wreath.  There were no medals, instead they were crown
as victor.  And this is the picture that
Paul paints for us here, the athlete who has fought the good fight, finished
well, competed honourably and now is awarded his crown. 
Paul is telling us that he is now turning from the judgement
of man, to the judgment of God.  He knew
that very shortly he would stand before the judgement seat of Rome and would be
found wanting, the trial could only have one end.  But even though he knew what Nero’s verdict
would be, but he also knew what God’s verdict would be.
We will never be able to please everyone, and really when it
comes to our eternity the approval or condemnation of man isn’t relevant.   For the believer our crown comes when we
stand before God after our time on this earth is done and hear his words, “Well
done good and faithful servant.”

I can’t control when I will
die or how I will die.   I really can’t control that.  Kind of like the bumper sticker that says “I
want to die in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming like the passengers
in the car.” 
So I
can’t control when or how I will die.  I
often say I want to die well, but who know I might be crying and begging for
drugs.  I hope not but. . . I have no
control over when or how I will die.
However
I have all kinds of control over how I will live, and my prayer and hopefully
yours will be that as our time of death draws near we will be able to say   2 Timothy 4:7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I
have remained faithful.