As my wife and I were boarding our flight from Gatwick Airport in London my cell phone buzzed. It was not a good time to answer it and I knew if it were important, the call would be repeated when we landed in California. Sure enough, as soon as our plane touched down in Los Angeles I turned on my phone and the call came immediately. The news rocked me—my brother Jim had died at home in his sleep—suddenly and unexpectedly. Memories flooded my mind as I expressed to his wife my sorrow for his family. Thinking about what I would say at his memorial service, God laid the apostle Paul’s final words on my heart from 2 Timothy 4:6–8.
6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up 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 loved his appearing. (ESV)
With these verses, God provided me with a better understanding of the sudden and unexpected departure of a faithful servant of our Savior. Here is a brief synopsis of what I gleaned from this significant biblical text.
God Takes a Faithful Servant in His Timing (v. 6)
Paul indicates that God is “already” (or, “at this time”—“right now”) pouring him out “as a drink offering.” ESV’s “I am being poured out as a drink offering” comprises only one word in the Greek (spendomai). The verb’s passive voice implies God’s agency (thus, grammatically identified as a divine passive). The verb occurs only twice in the New Testament—here and Philippians 2:17, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” The entirety of drink offerings went to God—none of it to the priests. Therefore, they were symbolic of total dedication and commitment—the apostle would leave nothing of himself, his entire person (body and soul) would depart this earth’s existence. God’s timing for Paul’s departure had come and Paul knew it. As far as God is concerned, there is nothing sudden or unexpected about His servant’s departure from this life to be with Him. God controls the timing, not His faithful servant—or the family of His faithful servant. In our grief we need to remind ourselves that no matter how inconvenient the timing might be to us, God’s timing remains perfect.
God’s Faithful Servant Has Completed His Ministry (v. 7)
Paul’s triple declaration rings with certainty and wisdom. First, Paul had “fought the good fight.” The verb carries the idea of a struggle and even perhaps a physical contest like wrestling. From the Greek we obtain the English word “agonize.” Calling it “good” seems almost like an oxymoron. How can anyone speak of “good agony”? It is the handling of the agonizing labor that takes on the character of being “good.” We strive, struggle, wrestle, and labor well—according to the Word, in the fruit of the Spirit, in prayer, and in preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ without wavering.
Second, Paul had “finished the course” that God had set before him. Addressing the Ephesian elders the apostle declares in Acts 20:24,
“But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
The apostle spent his life in Christ to proclaim “the gospel of the grace of God” wherever God sent him at any time. In Romans 15:15–21 he commented that he had “fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” from Jerusalem to Illyricum. His missionary goals had been completed.
Third, the apostle had “kept the faith”—he had persevered in both living and preserving the content of faith, the gospel concerning Jesus Christ. His perseverance resulted from God’s overflowing grace by which he was strengthened (see 1 Timothy 1:12, 14; 2 Timothy 2:1; 4:17). God provides the grace and strength for His faithful servant to deliver the faith to those who follow and carry on the preaching about Christ.
God Has Prepared a Crown for His Faithful Servant (v. 8)
God reserves (see “laid up”) the reward of righteousness for His faithful servant. The believer will be both clothed and crowned with righteousness—Christ’s own righteousness. Note that Paul identifies Christ as “the righteous judge.” God not only reserves that righteousness, but He also “awards” (an intensified form of the verb “give”) it to Paul and all those who love Christ’s second coming (see 2 Timothy 4:1). The reference is to agape-love—a voluntary, sacrificial love that constantly characterizes their lives and ministries. Such love keeps one alert and ready for the coming of the Bridegroom for His church, His bride (see Matthew 25:1–13).
At first blush, the sudden death of a faithful servant of Christ seems unexpected, surprising, and shocking. Our reaction betrays our own failure to love our Savior’s return in a way that keeps us alert in our hope-filled expectation. It should never surprise us that those who belong to God remain subject to His timing for every event and experience in their lives—including death itself. We need to be occupied with completing that which God has sent us to accomplish—the proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ. Every athletic contest has a concluding point, a final round, the finish line, and the granting of an award for contending well. “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5)—such should be our mission in life, our goal. When God takes His faithful servant from this earth to dwell forever with Christ, we ought to celebrate the way we celebrate the race that has been won, the fight that has been successfully completed, the lifetime of achievements worthy of honor. We should echo our Lord’s own commendation:
“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25:23)