Something that’s been on my heart this year is to be intentional, to keep going when things get tough. To run the race.
To know my purpose, bend rather than break, stay in community while showing and receiving grace.
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To keep my eyes on the prize, rather than the million little daily distractions that can put my sight elsewhere.
In that vein, I think today’s study is pretty appropriate.
A Little Context
A few times in the New Testament, Paul talks about “running the race.”
It seems like a pretty straight-forward metaphor, but is there more to it? (When digging into Paul’s writings, the answer to that question is usually “yes.”)
In order to figure out what Paul really meant when he used this saying, we should check out what was going on at the time.
First, let’s dig into Acts 20. These events are happening at the end of Paul’s third missionary journey, and things are starting to change very quickly.
For the past several years, Paul has been traveling with his small team around the areas of Greece, Macedonia (now the area around northern Greece), and Asia Minor (now Turkey).
They have gone through many trials, but have also taught and started churches among many Gentile groups throughout these areas.
Paul, being incredibly driven in his purpose of bringing the gospel throughout the known world, has (as far as we know) set his sights on western Europe.
On the way, he desires to go to Rome. Things are looking up.
But God has different plans. And while His plans aren’t often easy, they are good.
God compels Paul to travel to Jerusalem; he doesn’t know what fate awaits him there, but he does know that “jail and suffering lie ahead.” (Acts 20:23)
He is not only looking ahead to very difficult times, he is watching his goals and plans slip away.
For someone as driven as Paul, that’s not an easy thing to do.
The Road to Assos
A few verses earlier, there’s a line that most of us just skip over. “Paul went by land to Assos, where he had arranged for us to join him, while we traveled by ship.”
This line doesn’t mean much to many of us today, but it was something that people in the first century would have picked up on.
A couple of years ago, my son spent a few weeks in Turkey as part of a study trip with his university.
While on that trip, he was able to walk a few miles on the road to Assos, and what he told me totally changed my understanding of this passage.
While his team took the easier route by sea from Alexandria Troas to Assos, Paul chose to walk alone along a 30-mile stretch of road.
This is apparently where a major transition happened in his life, and while it’s not obvious to us in that one sentence – “he went by land…while we traveled by ship” – it is apparent in his life.
He used that time to pray, to weep, to look back and look forward. He cried out to God, and God strengthened and equipped him.
In his speech to the Ephesian elders, the last words he would speak directly to them, he told them that his “only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me.” (Acts 20:24)
While he held his goals and plans dear, he held the plans of God ever more so.
Paul’s Words to Timothy
Fast forward a few years: Paul has been accused of crimes and sent to Rome to testify before Caesar, as is his right as a Roman citizen.
However, appealing to Caesar is not a quick process.
Paul was under what was known as libra custodia in Rome for something like three years before receiving his verdict and his fate.
He was free to see people as they came and went from his rented house, but his movement was seriously restricted. (Acts 28:30)
To most people, that looks like a miserable few years. Fortunately, God sees things differently.
Paul had to seriously change his idea of what serving God meant.
No longer could he travel the world, bringing the gospel to all who were willing to listen.
Now, he had to stay in one place while the world came to him, all while awaiting the decision of an emperor who was rumored to be mentally unhinged.
We can see that there were times he became frustrated, but he never gave up.
During this time, Paul had the opportunity to bring the truth of the gospel to members of the divided church at Rome as well as to those in Caesar’s household.
People from all over the known world came to see him, to bring him comfort and news while also learning from him.
In some ways, he was able to have a wider impact for God while being held captive, even though it was not the life he would have chosen.
He was also able to help others carry on his work so that it would not fall apart after he was gone – whenever and however that might happen.
Paul’s words to Timothy are those of a mentor to a student.
That student, however, has quickly become the young pastor of a growing church in the second-largest city in the empire.
This young man had a lot to try to navigate, and his mentor was far away.
Paul gave Timothy the most clear, useful information he could, and he did so in a way that still rings true and clear to us today.
Paul ends his final advice to Timothy with this: “As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God…I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful.” (1 Timothy 4:6-7)
It doesn’t really show in the English, since our grammar is set up a bit differently, but the verbs he uses are in a tense that means that they are both continual and final.
He has achieved, at long last, what God designed him to do.
Fighting the good fight, finishing the race, and remaining faithful are not one-time actions.
They’re certainly not passive events that happen to us.
They are continual, purposeful, conscious choices that we are called to make.
When Paul told the Ephesian elders that his goal was to “finish the race and complete the task,” this was not a one-time thing to check off his to-do list.
It was a daily choice.
When he told Timothy that he had “fought the good fight…finished the race…[and] remained faithful,” he was not calling out the highlights of his life.
This was not a list of the Facebook or Instagram-worthy moments, carefully crafted to portray an image.
He gave an honest account of his daily, continual choices and commitment.
Did he fall? Of course. Paul had his faults, and he was often the first one to point them out.
But he never quit.
Applying the Teaching
So…what does this mean for us?
We’re not likely to face the same things that Paul had to; most of our lives aren’t anywhere near as intense as his.
Because he’s such a “hero of the faith,” I think we sometimes forget that he’s not all that different from us.
He simply had a different calling.
Our calling can get pretty intense too, though, and can be difficult to navigate.
Very little is “black and white” about the world we live in today, and it can be difficult to know where to stand.
Pressures, distractions, and tasks pull at us from every direction, trying to direct us away from what God has called us to do.
Some part of society will tell us that we’re “doing it wrong,” critiquing everything from our choices for our kids to our belief systems.
We may not face those challenges to the extreme that Paul did, but we still do face them. So what are we to do?
Fight the good fight. Finish the race. Remain faithful.
Keep your eye on what it is that God has called you to do in your family, your ministry, your business or job, and your relationships.
Choose to be the one that impacts those around you for Him, whatever that might look like.
When life takes a direction that is uncomfortable, look for His purpose in that new turn rather than your discomfort.
And wait patiently to see the impact. It might be years before you see it – it often was for Paul – but God will be faithful to act.
Keep your eyes on Him. Run the race well. You can do it.
It’s not easy, but the results are well worth it!