“Finishing the race” is a Pauline illustration of completing the task, completely obeying, and persevering to the end. Near the end of his life he would draw on this metaphor again and say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)
Acts 9 tells us of Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road. Ironically, he was on his way to persecute Christians in the city of Damascus. Instead, Jesus visibly appears to him and the result is that he believed in the risen Christ. His heart changed. His life changed. Even his name changed.
Up to that point, he was a personally ambitious man. He was educated in the finest schools of the day. He was a Roman citizen and a Pharisee. He trafficked in the highest levels of power and society. His life was an impressive resume by any measure.
Then Christ appeared to him and all the priorities that up to that point had seemed so important to him, disappeared. It’s not that he no longer had priorities, rather, they were usurped by something that he quickly realized was of much greater value. What was that? Christ! As the hymn says, “All the vain things that charmed me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.” (When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Isaac Watts) Something went way down the list of priorities and something went up.
This is like the children’s playground fixture known as the teeter totter. Do you remember how a teeter totter works? As a review, it’s a long piece of wood with a fulcrum in the center and it moves up and down. Two children get on it at the same time (which is always an awkward moment and a little dangerous) and then they have to decide who is going to go up first. (Everyone wants to go up first!) But here’s the problem: you both can’t go up, can you? No. One has to go up and the other one has to go down. That’s how it works.
I think this is a good illustration of what Paul is getting at here. There is a zero sum priority relationship in the heart of the Christian. For me to live for Christ and his glory and mission requires an increasing dying to my glory and mission. They simply cannot coexist.
Listen to Paul in other passages echoing this priority statement:
- “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)
- “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” (Philippians 3:7-9)
- I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:20)
In each of these, a value statement is made and a priority is set forth. “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. “For me to live is Christ…” most Christians get. My life should be for his glory. I should live in a way pleasing to him. But “death is gain”? What? How could death be gain? Death is the loss of everything, right? The loss of relationship, the loss of possessions, the loss of dignity, the loss of vitality. What do you mean death is gain? What could we possibly gain in death?
What do we gain in death? Death is gain for a Christian because in death I am present with Christ. If he is my treasure on earth, he is my gain in death (thought drawn from Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper). Our struggle is not that we value our lives too much, but that we value Christ too little. Our lives show it.
“…There is in the air an absolutely relentless message from every corner that ‘you should be comfortable, do yourself a favor, minimize your pain, maximize your pleasure, reward yourself; the one with the most toys wins.’ Hardly anybody is saying, nor can anybody conceive, the message that he who loses his life for My sake and the Gospel finds it. And so the message that the greatest life is the life of suffering, sacrifice and risk is almost inconceivable in the modern American church.” (John Piper, A Pastor with a Passion for the Worship of God by All Peoples: An Interview with John Piper; missionfrontiers.org)
When Christ’s mission asks us to do a hard thing or to do an uncomfortable thing or just do something NOT our preference, we chafe inside. Why? Our priorities.
Heart values produce life priorities. When Christ is our supreme heart value, we prioritize him and his mission above all our other priorities and we will give up lesser priorities for the sake of the greater one.
Allow me to illustrate this. Would you trade a $10 bill for a $20 bill? How about a $5 bill for a $10? Or a $1 bill for a $5? Would it be crazy for you to do that? No! You would simply be doing what comes natural – willingly giving up a lesser thing for a greater thing.
From Paul’s perspective, we are crazy to live for the $1 things in life when we should live for what is infinitely more valuable, Christ and his mission.
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
©2012 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
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