“Aiming High”
2 Timothy 4:6-9
December 30, 2007
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn

In this fourth chapter of the last canonical letter he ever wrote the Apostle Paul is solemnly appealing to his young friend Timothy, still at the headwaters of his Christian ministry, to make the sacrifices a faithful service requires and to undertake his calling with determination. To encourage Timothy to a maximum effort Paul turns, in v. 6, to himself and to his own example. At the very end of his life the great Apostle to the Gentiles looks back upon his career as a Christian and a Christian minister, upon what he has done as a servant and soldier of the Lord Jesus Christ. And what a life and what a service it was!

He who can part from country and from kin,
And scorn delights, and tread the thorny way,
A heavenly crown, through toil and pain, to win –
He who reviled can tender love repay,
And buffeted, for bitter foes can pray –
He who, upspringing at his Captain’s call,
Fights the good fight, and when at last the day
Of fiery trial comes, can nobly fall –
Such were a saint – or more – and such the holy Paul!
[Anon. cited in Schaff, Church History, i, 316]

The unmistakable implication of this personal reverie is that Timothy should give himself without reservation to the work in the same unstinting way so that he will be able to speak of his life as Paul could speak of his now that it was nearly over. That is Paul’s simple argument. As he said in v. 1, Timothy should serve the Lord with the specter of the judgment day always before him. And now, for Timothy’s sake, and for the sake of every servant of Christ, Paul pictures himself soon to face that judgment and shows Timothy what a privilege it is to face that judgment with confidence, knowing that the work to which he had been called has been faithfully done.

Familiar as we are with Paul’s noble words, accustomed as we are to take it for granted that no one had a better right to speak them or write them than did the great apostle, we may fail to notice something very characteristic in the way in which he speaks of faithful Christian service and its ultimate issue. Clearly, as v. 8 indicates, Paul considers neither his own life nor its reward as peculiar to himself. “And not only to me,” he says, “but also to all who have longed for the Lord’s appearing.”

What Paul is describing in his own case is a faithful, fruitful life of service, a life of accomplishment. The context of his remarks is a Christian’s service. It is in that context, it is with regard to his calling, his work as a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, that he has fought, finished, and kept. We should not think that Paul would have expected such words to be used of, say, the Christian workers he describes in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, whose Christian service was so poorly rendered, whose contributions to the kingdom of God were so inept, whose keeping of their charge so ill-considered and so half-hearted that their work will be destroyed by fire on the Great Day, though they themselves will be saved, but only as those who escape through the flames. There are Christians who can say what Paul says here of himself and Christians who cannot. Christians in both cases.

And this is confirmed by Paul’s saying that the crown of righteousness he will receive will be “awarded” to him on that day. The word Paul employs here, the lexicographers and commentators inform us, “suggests the idea of requital or reward.” [Bernard, The Pastoral Epistles, 144; Büchsel, TDNT, ii, 167-168] It is used this way often enough in the New Testament, as, for example, in Romans 2:6: “God will give, that is requite, to each person according to what he has done.”

This sense of the word as Paul uses it here is confirmed by the phrase with which the statement begins: “Now there is in store for me…” “It is an expression which [had in that time] almost become technical in edicts of commendation, in which recognition [for services rendered] was bestowed on someone by oriental kings.” [Dibelius/Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles, 121] Paul is using a familiar form of words to describe the reward received from a king for services rendered. In other words, Paul here is not saying that he will have the reward of the righteousness of Christ, of the forgiveness of his sins, of entrance into eternal life when he stands before the Lord Christ on the Great Day. He will have that to be sure, as he says often enough in his letters. But here he is speaking of something else. He is speaking of the reward that will be his for the faithfulness with which he has served the Lord. And he speaks of other Christians in the same way. Such reward is reserved for those “who have longed for Christ’s appearing.” To describe someone as longing for the coming of the Lord is a beautiful way to describe a faithful, earnest, and consequential Christian life. It is the life of a Christian who lived in the active prospect of the appearing of Jesus Christ and the Judgment Day to follow. It is the life of someone who lived fully aware that Christ was coming again and making the most of his life in the prospect of what would matter on that great day. No wonder that he should say such things in commending to Timothy, his young assistant, a dutiful, hard-working, sacrificial, noble life of Christian service.

We connect here, in a very personal and important way, with Paul’s teaching in many places in his letters and supremely in 2 Corinthians 5:10, where the champion of free grace and justification by faith alone nevertheless asserts unapologetically that how he lives his Christian life and the faithfulness and zeal with which he serves the Lord will be taken into account in the Lord’s judgment of his life.

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,
that each one may receive what is due him for the things done
while in the body, whether good or bad,”

That thought prompts Paul to go on immediately to remark that the prospect of that judgment, that evaluation, that reward or diminishment, serves as an inspiration, a goad to him in his serving Christ:

“Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to
persuade men.”

So clearly is this Paul’s meaning here in 2 Tim. 4, so unmistakably is he speaking of the greater reward that faithful Christians will receive for their greater faithfulness, that some scholars of the more critical persuasion have denied Paul’s authorship of these famous words precisely because Paul speaks “only of his success and not also of his weakness” and because he draws attention only to “his actions and not much rather God’s action.” [Dibelius/Conzelmann, 121]

But of course it is Paul who here speaks; Paul who throughout his letters emphasizes as no one else ever has that justification is by grace alone and by Christ alone. But it is the same Paul who over and again commends to every believer a life of consequential service in the kingdom of Jesus Christ with the promise that such a life shall have its reward. Paul never thought either that free grace or a Christian’s continuing sinfulness – of which he was also brutally frank – meant that a man or woman could not serve the Lord faithfully and fruitfully or that there was not a real and very important difference between Christians who served the Lord well and those who did not. Paul was the very last man to think that justification by the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ meant that Christ did not care about how his followers lived their lives and would not take care to make proper distinctions between them according to their faithfulness, their zeal, and their fruitfulness. Paul is urging Timothy not to be among those who are saved though as through fire, but to be among those whose faithful and fruitful service the Lord Christ will requite with a crown on the Great Day!

And so Paul does not say here that Christ has fought, but that Paul himself has fought; not that Christ has kept the faith but that he has; not that Christ has finished the course, but that Paul finished it. It would eviscerate Paul’s statement to turn it into a confession of imputed righteousness and it would undermine the exhortation that Paul is making to a young man embarking on a life of Christian service. Paul is not talking to Timothy about what Christ has done for him but about what Timothy must do for Christ! Let no one take our crown in the proclamation of salvation by grace alone and justification by faith alone. Your peace with God is God’s gift to you; your righteousness by which you stand forgiven before the Judge of all the earth; your acceptance with God by which you become a member of his family, that is all the work of Christ for you. Let it be true of us as Robert Murray McCheyne said it was true of one of his ministerial friends, a Glasgow pastor named, John Muir: “Muir is imputed righteousness to the backbone!” But let us, at the same time, be Christian faithfulness, Christian devotion, Christian heroism to the backbone; the kind of noble service of the kingdom of God that is not, alas, always to be found in the Christian life. This is Paul’s appeal to Timothy and, in him, to everyone who aspires to a life of serving Jesus Christ.

There is a tension here and nothing can be done about it. Martin Luther said that in his time if a preacher said in a sermon that salvation did not consist in our works or in our way of life but in the gift of God’s grace, some people took that to mean that they could live a lazy, ungodly life. And if the preacher emphasized the importance of a godly and devoted life others would soon be found trying to build ladders to heaven. [“Evangelista” in The Marrow of Modern Divinity in Works of Thomas Boston, vol. 7, 236] Well not in Luther’s day only; in every day. Our hearts are so unreliable in respect to the relationship between free grace and a Christian’s achievement, free grace alone and a Christian’s full reward, our utter inability to save ourselves or even to contribute to our salvation, on the one hand, and our absolute responsibility to make something of our lives on the other; Christ’s atonement with our attainment, that it is perennially a key problem of Christian thought and life. We must believe both; we must practice both. But, let there be no mistake about this: it is of the Christian’s attainment that Paul is speaking here and of attainment that I want to speak to you as the New Year, A.D. 2008 begins.

How ready the Bible is to summon us to such a life. How like our heavenly Father and our great Captain to care how we live and how we fight. How often the Word of God appeals to our sense of honor and our desire to do great things for the one who did indescribably great things for us. What else could be meant by the astonishing summons, one would think the utterly impossible summons, to walk worthy of the calling we have received, to live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (Phil. 1:27), to live worthy of the Lord and to please him in every way (Col. 1:10), to live lives worthy of God (1 Thess. 2:12), worthy of the kingdom of God (2 Thess. 1:5), or to act in a way worthy of the saints (Rom. 16:2). And why else should the Lord Jesus, in teaching his disciples, lay such stress on the heroic element – courage, sacrifice, high purpose – in authentic Christian discipleship. C.T. Studd the pioneering missionary was only being faithful to Jesus and Paul when he condensed the spirit and the principle of Christian living into one memorable aphorism:

“If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can
be too great for me to make for Him.”

But, at the same time, how honest the Bible is in admitting that not all Christians serve Christ and the gospel as sacrificially as others, not every believer is as devoted to the cause, as careless of his or her own comfort and welfare, as are other believers. And so there is this appeal, this urging upon us of higher, better things. And so there is this promise of reward, of the Savior’s notice, of his requital of all his servants’ hard work and of all his soldiers’ courage. How characteristic of the Bible to urge upon all of us who believe in Jesus Christ a life of great accomplishment, of noble deeds, and of self-sacrificing service. Christ is our Savior. He is also our example. He left us an example that we should follow in his steps. And what example did he set for us but that of a life of devotion to his Father’s will, of great sacrifice willingly made on behalf of the gospel, of heroic effort to secure the interests of God in his own heart, in the hearts of other men and women, and of a short life of intense labor ended in exhaustion.

Even before the incarnation of the Son of God, it was the inexorable logic of redeeming grace that those who were given to know God, to have their sins forgiven, that those who received the promise of eternal life in defiance of their ill-desert, should live in a way that adorned God’s love and demonstrated the immeasurable greatness of God’s gifts to his people. The wise man who teaches us the way of life in Proverbs laid it down as a rule:

The wicked man flees though no one pursues,
but the righteous are as bold as a lion. [Prov. 28:1]

In the terrible times of persecution in the middle of the 2nd century B.C., the righteous, Daniel said long before the event, “would show strength and act.” [11:32] I like the KJV better: “the people who know their God will be strong and do exploits.” And so they did. We read in 1 Maccabees that “They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant” and many of them did die for their loyalty to Christ. And the heroic resistance of those inter-testamental believers, the sacrifices they made and the hardship they endured in God’s name to restore the worship of his temple won for them a place in the hall of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11.

How could it be otherwise than that people who know the living God, who know him and love him should live their lives high above the ground and should aspire to accomplish great things in the name and for the sake of their God. Why, the Bible from beginning to end is a record of great men and women whose exploits in the service of the King of Kings ennoble the name of Christian and inspire the hearts of all those who think that the love of Christ deserves great things in return. The Word of God is in a great many of its pages the Holy Spirit’s own commendation of those who have served him nobly, even at great cost.

Now, I say again, Paul’s appeal – frank, honest, searching, solemn and deeply theological as it is – is one that can strike modern evangelical hearts and minds as strange, even off-putting. The promise of reward for accomplishment can strike Christians as threatening to sola gratia and sola fide, the thought of serving with some thought of reward may seem to them selfish and vain, and the implication of distinction based on accomplishment can strike anyone infected with the spirit of modern American egalitarianism as elitist.

Some of this reticence we have inherited from our modern culture. In certain ways the whole notion of heroic accomplishment has fallen on hard times. In a culture that has made the principle of victimization fundamental to its public theology, the heroic ideal can scarcely fail to smack of heresy. The one who rises above the rest by reason of the commitment of all his powers to certain achievements mocks the multitude who see themselves as the helpless victims of circumstance. The change at first was subtle but now this viewpoint is a staple of our public discourse. I remember first being struck by the change at the time of the Iran hostage crisis during the Carter presidency. Those hostages in Tehran we began regularly to hear referred to as heroes. So far as anyone knew there was nothing particularly heroic about their conduct. They were in fact victims. They had not fought to prevent their capture and been overwhelmed in battle. They had not died rather than be taken. They had not endured torture rather than reveal our nation’s secrets. No dishonor in that: but the fact is they had, simply put, been at the wrong place at the wrong time. But that was enough to make them heroes in the new way of thinking. The new hero is simply the very public victim. Nowadays it has gone further still: to be a hero one has only to fall into a well and have it take several days to get you out.

In a day when we are no longer sure that men should remain on the Titanic so that there will be adequate room for the women and children in the lifeboats, the one who is willing and determined to make the sacrifice of many things, even one’s life, for higher causes must seem a reproach to the rest who have been taught that it is not only permissible but right to see first to one’s own interests; to look out for number one or, as we hear every time a professional athlete enters salary negotiations, to do what is best for his family (as if securing such immense sums of money could be said to be genuinely good for anyone’s family).

The hunger of men and women for heroes is, of course, not by any means extinguished in our culture. Human beings are made in the image of a God who loves heroes, who makes heroes, and whose Son was the Hero of all Heroes. 9/11 became an occasion for heroic accomplishment. A witness to Paul’s attitude about life, however faint, however muddled lives on in our life, however conflicted about heroism and accomplishment we have become. But these things are too clearly and emphatically taught in Holy Scripture for Christians to be muddled about them. God expects us sinners saved by his grace to make something important and beautiful of our lives and we are to set out to do so in the active hope that the Lord will be pleased and will not fail to add his reward.

There are Christians who excel and Christians who content themselves with much less than they might have been and might have done. We are speaking of real Christians, people with living faith in Jesus Christ and the grace of God in their hearts. Among them are those who fight the good fight and those who are saved but only as those who escape through the flames and many others who are saved but accomplish much less than they should and might have. In a culture such as ours, a culture that has so successfully inured its people against self-imposed hardship, against sacrifices that bring no immediate and tangible reward, it is only to be expected that the level of kingdom accomplishment is less than it has often been. I don’t say that it is less than it has ever been. Surely not. But it is definitely less than it has often been.

I have been teaching Caesar’s Gallic Wars to my fourth year high school Latin class. You may remember that at the beginning of his masterpiece, Caesar explains that the Belgae were the bravest of the three peoples that populated Gaul because they were furthest removed from the highly developed civilization of the Roman province and so were least often visited by merchants with enervating luxuries for sale, and nearest to the Germans who lived across the Rhine, with whom they were continually at war. How unlike the brave Belgae we are as a people nowadays. Caesar has provided an almost perfect description of our effete culture: enervating luxuries in abundance and very little of that warfare that nerves and steels the spirit. Such has been America for many years and such its effect upon its people, Christians among them. Such has been its effect on me!

And what does that mean but that we of all people, we American Christians, we Christians of the West, must pay special attention to the Bible’s summons to lives of daring, difficulty, and sacrifice for the sake of the gospel and kingdom of Jesus Christ. The adversary of the kingdom is the same. His hostility to Christ and all his followers is unchanged. If the borders of that kingdom are to be advanced, men and women will have to be strong and do exploits; will have to be bold as lions. Now Paul’s question comes to us: will we make the effort? Will we apply ourselves to the work come wind, come weather as Paul urged Timothy to apply himself in this famous text. Will you give yourself to your calling, whatever calling it is, without regard to your comfort, to your reputation, even to your safety?

Can you not think rather easily of what needs to be done in your life? I just read an interesting and rather depressing autobiography of Steve Martin, the comedian and actor. His life was marked, as were those of his mother and sister, in very sad ways by an overbearing, harsh, critical, and unaffectionate father. He tells of their eventual reconciliation, but only on his father’s deathbed, with his father confessing to his son that his great regret in life had been that he had received loved but not given it. Is there a Christian father in this sanctuary this morning who faces the miserable prospect of having to say something similar on your deathbed, of forcing his children to struggle through their lives with the aftermath of his fatherhood? Well such is not to be the life of a Christian man who is a husband and a father. That is to be changed and it is to be changed no matter how much humiliation must be borne, no matter how much effort must be invested, no matter how many failures must be acknowledged, confessed, and overcome. And are there wives and mothers here who must make similar sorts of changes? Paul here is talking especially about ministry, the impact of our lives on other human beings, and that begins, of course, in the family. No ministry bears such mighty consequence as that of husbands and wives and parents.

And there are so many other things to think about, things for all of us: our witness to the lost, the mortification of our sins, the greater investment of ourselves in the lives of others, more faithfulness in the exercises of piety – public worship, reading God’s Word, praying for ourselves and others, the spiritual nurture of our children, and so on – the purification of our relationships and so on.

Whether, in your case, the difficulty that must be fought through is the fear of ridicule or the love of ease and pleasure, or the desire for reputation or an aversion to hard work, the great apostle is telling you that little enough will be done if you are not willing to push yourself, demand of yourself the changes you know full well ought to come. In mathematics they say:

Problems worthy of attack,
Prove their worth by fighting back.

In Paul’s argument here that is the burden of his remarks as well. We might very well say, and truly, that we must look to the Lord for help to make more of our lives than we have so far. Without him we can do nothing. Absolutely. But here, in this text, the point is rather that we must apply ourselves, do it, and let nothing stand in the way. The race must be run, the fight must be fought, and the faith must be kept. You must do it. Do it now or rue your failure to do it later. What you cannot do as a faithful Christian, what Paul does not allow you to do, is to throw in the towel or to refuse to take action to offer the Lord an unqualifiedly committed life and then count on God’s grace to make it as if you had lived that committed life when in fact you did not.

Peter, at the end of his second letter, urges us to “grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” [3:18] In chapter 1 he is more specific. He exhorts us to “add to our faith, goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness, and to brotherly kindness, love.” And then he goes on to say a most important thing. “For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:5-8). It is not enough to have these qualities, in some degree or another. One must have them in increasing measure. One must see them grow, deepen, strengthen.

The New Year beckons. The new beginning, the new opportunity. What will you make of it? Surely, you should make something of it. And, if you do, next year at this time you will not be any longer where you are now, but thinking instead of taking another step, beyond the step you took in the days and the months that followed January 1, anno domini 2008.