Monday, July 10, 2006

Finishing Well

Watching the World Cup final on Sunday, I could not help but be disappointed and saddened to see Zinedine Zidane's departure from professional football marred by his expulsion from the game for headbutting Italy's Marco Materazzi in the final minutes of the match. It was an ugly departure for one of the world's finest players but who demonstrated that he could not control his temper as skillfully as he could control the ball. I am sure that this is not how he wanted to finish his illustrious career.

It is a sad fact that one's success is often judged by how one finishes. Faithful service over many years can be tarnished when one fails to finish well. I recall a youth pastor I once served with whose ministry had been outstanding for a number of years. For reasons I still do not understand, however, he had accumulated some unresolved grievances during his tenure and during his last few months, he felt free to express them in a way that made me wish that he has resigned months earlier. I wish he could have finished as well as he had served.

In more recent years, I have witnessed this tendency in a number of other situations involving friends and colleagues, where restraints that had upheld godly character in place for years of faithful service seemed to come unraveled at the end. And I have been repeatedly been reminded of Paul's final words in 2 Timothy 4:6-8:

"For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 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."

The phrase "I am already being poured out as a drink offering" is rich imagery. It is reference to the Old Testament sacrificial system where wine was poured in the altar (Numbers 15:5,7,10; 28:7) presented daily (Exodus 29:40), on the Sabbath (Numbers 28:9), and on feast-days (28:14). In Numbers 6:16,17, we see the drink offering as part of the peace and grain offerings which were voluntary acts of worship, expressing one's gratitude to God for His goodness and for the fellowship that the worshipper enjoyed with God after having dealt with sin through the sin offering or trespass offering and committing himself completely to God through the burnt offering.

In the Jewish worship prior to the destruction of the temple, the worshipper would lay his hand on the sacrificial lamb he had brought to the tabernacle or temple, confessing his sins. He would witness the lamb slain, and the blood sprinkled over and around the altar. Then he would see the animal skinned and its body cut in pieces, placed on the altar and consumed in the fire of God's wrath. In response to this atoning sacrifice, by which he was assured of his acceptance with the Lord (Leviticus 1), he then would offer a grain offering (Leviticus 2) as symbolic of his whole devotion to the reconciled God who had atoned for his sins. Then, in the drink offering he would lift up a cup of wine and pour it out over the ashes of the lamb and the grain, to express his hearty concurrence with all that he had seen and offered, as he witnessed, by faith, what had transacted between the Lord and him-his heart poured out in gratitude to God's glory of all mercy, love, and forgiveness.

It is this joyous sense that we find in Paul as he finishes his life (and in Philippians 2:17,18). God has used him to proclaim the message of reconciliation between God and man, made possible by the sacrificial death of His Son. He has lived out his life as an act of sacrifice before God of commitment in response to that sacrificial death and now, at the end of his life, Paul sees his martyrdom as the drink offering being poured out as a final act of worship. Then, like the worshipper at the tabernacle/temple, he would depart. His service of worship will have concluded well.

To come to the end of your life knowing that you have accomplished the task that God had called you to do is what all of God's servants should strive toward. To know that you have lived your life as a sacrifice to God, giving life to others in the process-surely this is the kind of life that will receive the rewards of heaven. What a contrast to the all-too-common sentiment expressed by many at the end of their lives: "If only I had had more time. If only I had done more for God. If only my life could have counted for more. If only I could live my life again, I would do it differently. If only..."

This is not Paul's sentiment, however, as he switches metaphors in verse 7 to that of a fight and a race. He says that he has fought a good fight and finished the race. He is now ready to receive his reward.

But lest we begin to think that Paul somehow deserves the accolades and praise for his ministry to the Lord, he is careful to point out that all that he has accomplished is done by the Lord. It is His work, and to Him alone belongs all the glory. As he looks ahead to his "homecoming" he knows that it is God who has delivered him and will bring him safely to his destination (4:17,18). Therefore to Him goes all of the glory (4:19).

1 comment:

Thomas "Duffbert" Duff said...

Another prime example... Ken Lay of Enron. He was, by all accounts, a hard worker raised in a Christian home. He was well known for giving. And for his first 60 years, he had a wonderful reputation. But look what the last four years did to him, and his death cements that reputation. No matter what he said or did could erase that.