Among the Last of the Sermons in Aberystwyth
Geoff Thomas completed his ministry of over fifty years recently in Alfred Place Baptist Church (Independent) in Aberystwyth, and this was one of his final sermons.
2 Timothy 4:6-8 ‘For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store 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 longed for his appearing.’
These words are the climax of this letter. No words of Paul are touched with his eloquence and genius and assurance and hope as we find in these magnificent words. There is no greater expression of victory when death is immanent in all the Bible as has been read in your hearing now. The words are so personal and individual, this great ‘I am’ with which they start. ‘As for me’ the apostle is saying, for he’s already said these words to Timothy in opposition to this in verse 5 ‘But as for you.’ You see this memorable contrast, Paul ending his ministry and Timothy beginning his. The human termination of the relationship meant it was all the more vital for Timothy by himself to keep his head in all situations, to endure hardship, to do the work of an evangelist, to discharge all the duties of his ministry because soon he was going to be very much on his own. No Paul to consult and quote and shelter behind. They were days of succession, as we see them in the Bible, Joshua succeeded Moses, and Solomon succeeded David, and Timothy succeeded Paul – and, on a much lower level today – Rhodri Brady is succeeding me. From all we have seen in the Houses of Parliament in recent days you will appreciate that days of succession are difficult times
Then what can we learn, what can I learn from this? Do you see in these verses Paul is first looking round at the present situation he was facing, and then that he looks back at what the grace of God has done for him, those glorious achievements of the apostle’s life, and finally Paul looks ahead. He is soon to die, his life on this earth is all behind him, but he is looking ahead. He has a future. The Christian on his deathbed has a future. Let us consider first of all Paul looking around.
1. WHAT PAUL SEES AS HE LOOKS AROUND.
Paul’s time was short; he was on trial in Rome; he had chosen to go there, to appeal to Caesar to speak up on behalf of every Christian, to give the church the liberty to meet for worship and to evangelize freely. He had been brought safely through the first hearing (v.17), but he fears that he is not going to escape the clutches of Nero for the second time. What did he see as he looked around the cold prison cell with his chain attached to a bored legionnaire? He was sure the end was near; he was facing the final curtain, but he says two things about his coming death. ‘For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure’ (v.6). Let’s look at them both . . .
i] ‘I am being poured out as an offering to the living God who accepts me.’ I am in another’s hands. As the compere often says in the antiques programme Bargain Hunt, ‘We are in safe hands.’ The Lord is grasping Paul firmly in love, and he will not let him go, and what he is doing is pouring him out like a drink offering. You know what is described for us in the Levitical code, how the Israelites would make a sacrifice of a lamb without blemish, and then also of the first-fruits of the different crops, but they would also take a wineskin of the finest wine and they would pour it out alongside the altar in thanks to the living God who had sent the sun and rain on them and given them good health. They would symbolically be giving back to God what God had first given to them. Paul is saying, ‘My life was grasped by God before the foundation of the earth, and again definitively on the road to Damascus, and then again and again every year, every month and every day in all I did for him he held me and kept me fast and my life has been one long pouring out before God, my mind, my physical strength, my spiritual energy, my labours, my passion, my relationships, my hopes and dreams all poured out before him.’ We talk of some people whom we’ve judged to be immensely talented and gifted and yet they’ve poured away their lives in their pursuit of pleasure and fun. They poured their life away, football players like George Best, actors like Richard Burton. Waster lives.
Some of you can remember Malcolm Muggeridge who died 26 years ago, a journalist, TV personality, author, polical correspondent and the editor of Punch He wrote his auto biiography in two volumes called Chronicles of Wasted Time (it’s a line from a sonnet of Shakespeare). But he had a son Len who was converted, went to London Bible College and became a missionary in Austria. He prayed for his parents and Muggeridge softened in his attitude to Chrisitanity and ultimatelyprofessed faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Last Sunday Joshua Reynolds was ill with wisdom teeth problems and he could not preach in my daughter Catrin’s church and I ws asked to deputize for him. There in the front row in a wheelchair was Len Muggeridge, brought there each week by his daughter and son-in-law who prayed with me before the service began. So not all of Malcolm Muggeridge’s life was waster time.
But for Paul his whole life and all his actions were an offering to God. That was how Paul was seeing his relationship with God. ‘He has me every day and every passing moment, and I am spending my life and being spent even for him, in joyful thankfulness for all God has done for me. This is my libation to the Lord.’
The world won’t see it like this. ‘He’s a criminal,’ Rome said. ‘He deserved his lifeblood to be poured out in bloody execution. He was a liar, and a blasphemer, and a revolutionary, and a disturber of the peace, preaching a false god. A quick bloody death was too good for him.’ But Paul said, ‘I am being held by a love that will not let me go and the offering I make of myself to God is accepted by him all through Jesus Christ.’ Then he says this . . .
ii] ‘This is the time of my departure.’ You see the picture? The ship is leaving port and off it quietly moves. The anchor is weighed; the ropes are slipped and away from the quay it’s moving, the gap widening between the quayside and the vessel minute my minute. As Tennyson wrote.
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark . . .
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
That is the Christian approach to death. It is not annihilation; we are not facing eternal darkness and non-existence. For Paul his dying is setting out on a journey to the most wonderful place in heaven and earth; dying is the beginning of a new life. C.S.Lewis puts it like this in The Last Battle; the children are told that at death ‘they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read, which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before’ (C.S.Lewis, The Last Battle, p.184). But the word Paul uses here ‘departure’ is also used for the prisoner’s departure from jail. Think of it. Five years in jail, the days to the release counted off one by one, and now his whole sentence is complete and he is a free man again. Free at last! Free at last! From this groaning universe of sin and death under the prince of the power of the air into the liberty of heaven. That is Christian dying; it is going somewhere incomparably better. Paul throughout his life had a desire to depart and be with Jesus. That was far, far better. That was what Paul was seeing as he looked around.
2. WHAT PAUL SAW AS HE LOOKED BACK.
Three great convictions; three causes of glorious doxology; ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’ (v.6). Let’s look at them one after the other;
i] I have fought the good fight. The Christian life is a fight against the god of this world, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience, against principalities and powers, also against the unbelieving world system and indwelling and original sin. It is a fight against religious and pagan opposition, against lies and errors, against persecution and perils. Paul could neve be off-guard for a moment. He was ‘in danger from bandits, in danger from [his]own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers’ (2 Cors. 11:26). Whatever direction he faced, wherever he went there was no truce with the beast that comes out of the sea with seven heads, but Paul never ran away from it; he was no coward.
Kent Hughes describes the apostle imaginatively standing at the end of his life clothed in all the armour that Paul describes in Ephesians 6. His belt is salt stained through sweating through many long campaigns. It is as comfortable as the old harness on a shire horse. The belt of truth! His tarnished shining breastplate is criss-crossed with many grooves from the slicing sword blows that have rained down upon it. That breastplate has kept his heart and lungs and vital organs safe. The breastplate of righteousness. He stands in his studded war boots; they grip the ground so that he can take on any enemy without stumbling or slipping down; they are the footwear of the gospel of peace – peace with God through the reconciling grace of Christ which also gives him the peace of God, the shalom! He holds in his hand a shield which has protected him from spear thrust and fiery dart in many a close encounter – the shield of faith. None has broken through and wounded him. On his old grey head is a worn helmet that has seen better days. It is dented from blows that have struck him, but that helmet has saved him from death again and again – the helmet of salvation. Then there is Paul’s sword, as sharp as a razor, a deadly weapon, the ultimate offensive weapon – the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God. What a man to be your bodyguard and companion and guide. He has led me through life in his teaching. How he stood in that armour when he met Kings Felix and Agrippa and also the officials of Rome – the consummate warrior. This colossus never gave an inch, and yet he had the heart of a child of God. In all that he did he was more than conqueror through the love of Jesus Christ the Captain of his salvation. He could look back through his many journeys and his entries into new countries and cities sometimes as the only Christian in the metropolis. So as he thought of his embattled life he could say, ‘I have fought the good fight.’ This is not some ugly fight against civilians, women and children, torturing, looting, raping, murdering. This is a morally good fight. Every challenge is good, Every skirmish is good. Every battle is good. Every war is good. Every victory is good, and even every temporary defeat is also good. So, we too, all of us, are in the middle of a fight. Going home in the car tonight, tired and short-tempered, we soon discover we are in a fight. Looking after a member of the family with dementia it is not long before we realize that we are in an ongoing fight, but Paul had ended his fight. Then as he looked back he also said . . .
ii] I have finished the race. Paul is speaking about the course that God had set before him. Men talk about a ‘race-course’; our race may be a sprint; it may be three miles; it may have a lot of jumps or it may be flat. God had set a specific course before Paul. The Lord Christ at Damascus, at the beginning, spoke like this to him; ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ (Acts 26:16-18). That was the race course set out by God for Paul and the apostle never quit. He kept on and on in his marathon. He made no boast that he’d won the race, just that he’d finished it. There was no ego here just gratitude that he had completed the course. Like Dr. J. Gresham Machen, dying in a hospital in one of the Dakotas in the middle of winter and sending a couple of telegrams to John Murray, one of them saying ‘Isn’t the Reformed faith grand?’ and the other giving thanks for the active obedience of Christ, that ‘there was no hope without it.’ Think of Stephen the first martyr finishing his course by praying for those stoning him to death. His final words are there in the last verse of Acts 7, ‘Lord do not hold this sin against them.’ Or think of Lloyd-Jones explaining how he could have spent so many years of his race at Westminster Chapel, but gone on and on, ‘because I didn’t do any stunts.’ He finished his race.
Now every one of you has a course set out for you. The writer to the Hebrew Christians exhorts us to ‘run with patience the race that is set before us’ (Hebs.12:1). Every one of us has a unique course. I cannot ask you to run my course, and I am not able to run yours for you. Some are relatively straightforward while others seem unbelievably difficult. Some seem to go through darkness for miles and miles. Others are uphill. All seem to be long, but all are enormously satisfying – we would not change our blest estate for all the world calls good or great – yet some like the courses of David Brainerd, and Henry Martyn, and M’Cheyne, and Jim Elliot – are all too brief. But it is our heavenly Father who has mapped out each course and he will provide the stamina and determination to finish the course he has set before us. Paul meets with the elders in Ephesus near the boat that is going to take him away from them for ever, and he gives them a charge and he speaks about his own future and his longing, ‘if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord’ (Acts 20:24). Now ten years have passed and he is finishing his course. His longing is fulfilled. ‘I have finished the race.’
I preached once in the Christmas Carol service for C.I.C.C.U at Cambridge University. It was held in Holy Trinity Church where Charles Simeon had had his long ministry and it contains still the famous oil painting of Henry Martyn the missionary to Iran who died when he was 31. I looked at it remembering the words of Charles Simeon about that very painting. Simeon loved Martyn and that portrait, and he would say to visitors, ‘There! See that blessed man! What an expression of countenance! No one looks at me as he does, and he never takes his eyes off me, and seems always to be saying, “Be serious, be in earnest, don’t trifle . . . don’t trifle.”‘ Paul finished the race. Then Paul says . . .
iii] I have kept the faith. Paul was not always popular, nor was he always comfortable, nor was he always easy to understand, but he was always faithful to his calling. Many of you are reading Holiness by J.C.Ryle and you must in the next days jump some chapters or go back to the chapter in the book which is based on tonight’s text. It is the chapter called ‘Assurance.’ Read it again! This is what Ryle says about this phrase, ‘I have kept the faith.’ Paul is saying, ‘I have held fast that glorious gospel which was committed to my trust. I have not mingled it with man’s traditions, nor spoilt its simplicity by adding my own inventions, nor allowed others to adulterate it without withstanding them to the face . . . The Christian is happy who, as he quits the world, can leave such testimony behind him. A good conscience will save no man – wash away no sin – nor lift us one hair’s breadth toward heaven. Yet a good conscience will be found a pleasant visitor at our bedside in our dying hours. There is a fine passage in the Pilgrim’s Progress which describes the passage across the river of death of a Christian called Old Honest. ‘The river,’ says Bunyan, ‘at that time overflowed its banks in some places; but Old Honest in his lifetime had spoken to a man called Good Conscience and asked him to meet him there at the banks of that river, the which he did, and he lent him his hand, and so he helped him across.’ It is a good conscience that helps Paul to say at the end, ‘I have kept the faith.’
I can say it too. I can say it because of God’s grace to me, that I too have kept the faith. I have kept the testimony. I have kept the pulpit. I have kept the Table. I have kept the membership. I have kept the Book Shop. I have preached the saving faith of Christ. I have lived it. I have been faithful to it. My life has been and remains a gospel life. It has not diminished one bit. I am not like some men who in middle age disparage the evangelical faith they once held by saying, ‘Ah, when we were young Christians we thought we knew it all.’ I am not one who knew all the faith when I was a young Christian, and I certainly do not know all the faith today. But I can say today what Principal Ernest Kevin’s father said to him on his deathbed. ‘Son, the great truths of the gospel I have believed all my life. I believe them yet.’ God has a right to my full faith, an undoubting faith, an unhesitating faith. We do not live on our first faith in Christ but through our continual faith in him because it is not faith that we live on, our faith did not die for us or rise for us or intercede for us at the throne of God. It is Christ. We can no longer live by yesterday’s faith than we can see by yesterday’s light, or find strength from yesterday’s food, or our thirst slaked by water we drank yesterday. Paul was still keeping his faith in Christ.
So these are the three famous claims that Paul makes. This is a remarkable statement. It does not mean that Paul had been perfect. In Romans chapter 7 he tells us the other truth that the good he would have done so often he did not do. He refers to himself as the chief of sinners, but he had accomplished what God called him to do. He had overcome as he battled for the truth – he did not succumb to false teaching and threats and dangers. He did not drop out of the race; he crossed the finishing line. He had been faithful, and he tells this to Timothy – not boasting to him, not at all bragging, but because he wants Timothy and every mere Christian to see that this is attainable. You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. Some of us will not be alive ten years from today, who knows whether he or she will be alive in ten days’ time. Even at this late date in your life then, is there still more to do? Yes! For others of you, hear one old servant of God who has been a Christian for over 62 years, see how a Christian at the end can testify that the grace of God, that is, the omnipotent energy of God acting in us to save and keep us, that can preserve us from unbelief and hell and enable us to do God’s good and perfect will, so that we die helped by our friend Good Conscience. And so lastly this . . .
3. WHAT PAUL SAW AS HE LOOKED AHEAD.
‘Now there is in store 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 longed for his appearing’ (vv.7&8). What does Paul anticipate as he looked ahead?
i] Paul anticipated facing an evaluation of his life, a judgment, a vindication and a reward. We live in a moral universe in which what men sow that they will also reap, and if they sow to themselves lust and pride and unbelief they will eventually, invariably and inexorably, reap to themselves destruction. That which a man spits against heaven shall fall back on his own face. Absolute evil calls for absolute judgment. There are too many atrocities in the history of our world for there to be no day of judgment. The instinct of retribution is one of the strongest instincts in the human heart. God put it there. Sinner you know this, however much you protest and call my words ‘obscene.’ You have some inkling of judgment to come. At 3 a.m. on some mornings God awakens you and reminds you of this great appointment ahead. But if men fight the good fight, and run the race and keep the faith then they are assured of eternal blessing. All are to be judged. We can no more escape the judgment than we can escape dying. God does not pay weekly but the unavoidable God does pay at the end. How powerful this thought, that Augustine once had, ‘Nothing has contributed more powerfully to wean me from all that held me down to earth than the thought, constantly dwelt upon, of death and the last judgment.’ Rebels, you will get from God who you have chosen and what you deserved. As death leaves us, so judgment will find us. Secular sanctions do not work. Political exhortations do not work. Effective morality needs the divine sanction of an ultimate judgment day. It is so if Jesus is true for he spoke of it tenderly often and sometimes in tears. And in that day there are just two verdicts, justified or condemned. God holds a golden scepter and an iron rod, and those who will not bow to the one shall be broken by the other. We must fall into the arms of Christ or into the flames of hell.
Just as the tree cut down, that falls to north or southward, there it lies;
So man departs to heaven or hell, fixed in the state wherein he lies.
Then as he looked forward . . .
ii] Paul anticipated meeting the Lord, the righteous Judge. He would not meet ever again a judge like the Sanhedrin, or Felix, or Festus, or the magistrates in Philippi who whipped him and Barnabas and put their feet in the stocks in the lowest dungeon, or Nero’s lackeys who had passed the judgment of long incarceration on innocent Paul. Paul was not going to face the judges of the middle east, or of North Korea, or of other fiercely anti-Christian judiciaries or even politically correct judges. No! Paul and every Christian would face the only righteous Judge in heaven or on earth, whose throne is built on justice, who must see righteousness prevail, the God who knows every fact, every pressure that had been brought to bear upon him, all Paul’s weaknesses, all the factors that had made him act badly as he had, speak the foolishness he had spoken, hurt the people he loved and who depended upon him. This Judge would bring everything into consideration. This Judge would judge him as someone joined to Jesus Christ, who in Christ had already been condemned for Paul’s every deviation from God’s holy law, for many things Paul had long forgotten and for the things he never realized at the time were wicked. Paul’s unconfessed sins Christ had borne in his own body on the tree.
This Judge is himself the Christ who was loving him and hanging there in the darkness of the anathema of God on Golgotha with Paul on his heart. When we stand before Christ we will be standing in Christ. The Lord Jesus the Judge he was facing had himself made payment for every sin of Paul, and can God demand payment once against for those sins that he has already condemned in his Son? Never! No sin of Paul’s, no sin of omission, no secret sin, no sin against much light and blessing, no cruel sin that encouraged others to sin and fall has not been cleared by the royal death of God the Son. So the judgment that cries, ‘Pardoned! Justified! Well done good and faithful servant!’ to be passed in that day by this righteous Judge will pass the highest standards of God’s omniscient righteousness. Christ has vindicated Paul by his life and by his death. So he welcomes him into glory.
iii] Paul anticipated a crown of righteousness. What solemn and eternal words. Do we understand their weight? Do we understand this, that because we face the day of judgment secure in believing that we shall be justified and accepted into the presence of our Saviour that that does not mean that we’re to think of it in terms of dressing up to receive an honour from the Queen in Buckingham Palace and be photographed and have our name in the papers. This judgment and its rewards is not like a glorified school prize-giving day. Paul anticipates a coronation! And the crown is the righteousness of Christ, which of course is already imputed to him since the Damascus road, but now experienced, enjoyed, suffused through his body, soul, mind and spirit, enveloping him, transfiguring him so that not a cell in his resurrection body is not redolent with the righteousness of Christ. He is like him in every grace and virtue. That is his reward.
This is what Christ spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount in the beatitudes when he told this fishermen following him that great would be their reward in heaven. Not in this world where they would often be hungry and mocked and stoned. Dogs would be turned on them. They would die cruel deaths, but their reward in heaven would be great. There is nothing in the Bible about the so-called ‘nobility of disinterested virtue,’ that one did a thing because it was right without any thought of a reward, which one disdains. No. God says love your neighbour as you love yourself. Never forget the reward that lies before us. Remember that it is commensurate with the Giver himself. He doesn’t make empty gestures. He doesn’t give trinkets. Faithful service is rewarded on a divine scale. The King of kings gives a crown of righteousness to those who have served him in however small your corner may have been where your light has shone, in whatever obscure work you have done. The cup of cold water given in his name will be rewarded gloriously! The cup rewarded with a crown. What a magnificent reversal of Nero’s verdict. He gave Paul the axe, or the nails, or the sword and the execution block. God gave him glorification in the image of Christ.
iv] Paul anticipated every Christian to receive the same reward. ‘– and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing’ (v.8).There is nothing exclusive about Paul. His hope was as wide as the ocean and as high as the heaven above. All of us, Timothy too, and you, and me will be given a glorious welcome by God. Those gathered there will be as numerous as the sands on the seashore. Not one will be overlooked or fail to be awarded. Who are these people, these people who have fought a good fight, and finished the course and kept the faith? Pau defines them here as the people who have longed for the appearing of Jesus. They have longed for this day when they shall see him.
How wonderful, how glorious the sight of Thee must be
Thine endless wisdom, boundless power and awesome purity.
Father of Jesus, love’s reward, what rapture it will be
Prostrate to lie before They throne and ever gaze on thee.
All these disciples have longed to see him; they want to be with him; they want to be like him; this is their living hope. They know many a heartache and much disappointment in this world but for them it does not end in darkness and annihilation and nothingness but in the sight of the one was raised from the dead on the third day. The one who said, ‘I am going to prepare a place for you that where I am there you will be also.’ Because he lives we shall live also. O death where is your victory? This is our future. And the devil even now is whispering in your ears, ‘Too good to be true,’ because we are not ignorant of his approach, but the Holy Spirit has said it, it is here in the Holy Scripture of promise. What do you believe? Hunches and sudden thoughts or the words of Jesus Christ. Believe them O sinner, believe them. Believe this great message. It is true. As you look back then see how goodness and mercy have brought you to this day. As you look around see the evidences of God’s goodness and mercy that have followed you all the days of your life, how good God has been to you, and as you look ahead consider what Jesus’ blood has bought for all his people, this crown of righteousness. Receive it, O sinner, receive it! Believe the truth. Believe in Christ today. Entrust yourself to him.
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