“But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have FOUGHT THE GOOD FIGHT, I have FINISHED THE RACE, I have KEPT THE FAITH.
Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:5-8, New King James).
This text is one of the most classic texts of Paul’s letters. I love reading Paul’s letters to the churches, but none comfort me more than this passage. Ironically, this passage happens to be Paul’s “farewell”. Who could get such comfort out of a “farewell,” a “goodbye”?
And yet, I find myself coming back to this passage time and time again for motivation to continue running the race that is set before me (Hebrews 12:1-2).
In this passage Paul gives Timothy some lasting advice: “Be watchful in all things, ENDURE AFFLICTIONS, do the work of an evangelist, FULFILL YOUR MINISTRY” (v.5). Paul has just told Timothy in verses 2-4 to stand firm because “the time will come when they [hearers] will not endure sound doctrine...and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (vv.3, 4). There would come a day when those who had once listened to Timothy, who had once heeded biblical instruction, would turn away from the Word of God as the ultimate authority and pay attention to myths and falsehood. In verse 5 Paul tells Timothy to “endure afflictions,” which means he must suffer hardship. For “no one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier” (2 Tim. 2:4, NKJV). Timothy was a soldier of Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 2:3), so his focus had to be on pleasing Christ. Christ was the one who enlisted him into the Army of the Lord, and Christ was the One he would have to please in order to hear the Lord say “well done, my good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).
In verse 7, Paul shows his assurance of a race well-run: “I have fought the good fight...” The word for “fought” is “egonismai,” which comes from the word “agonizomai,” meaning “to engage in a contest, fight, struggle.” The word “agonizomai” is where our word “agonize” comes from. And what does it mean to “agonize”?
Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary gives us the following definition:
“to suffer agony, torture, or anguish; to struggle.”
What does it mean to “struggle”?
1 : to make strenuous or violent efforts in the face of difficulties or opposition
2 : to proceed with difficulty or with great effort
When Paul states that he “fought the good fight,” he’s saying that he struggled to stay strong despite the opposition—but with the Lord’s strength, he did.
Next, Paul states that he has “finished the race.” Here he knows that his departure is at hand (v.6), he is soon to die, so he’s looking back and evaluating his life. He recognizes that life is a “race,” and that he has finished the course of his life. Paul recognizes here that he lived the full time of his life and has used all the years he was given by God to the fullest. Every year and day God designed for him has taken place. He has not cut his life short one day in the plan of God. Every day allotted to him is a day that has been spent.
Finally, Paul states, “I have kept the faith.” This little sentence is so important because it shows us Paul’s theology in a succinct sentence. Why is “keep[ing] the faith” even important? Because the only way to win the race is to keep the faith.
Read Paul’s words to the Corinthians:
“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it.
And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.
Therefore I run thus: NOT WITH UNCERTAINTY. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air.
But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:24-27, NKJV).
Here in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul gives an analogy of running the race. Notice he says “they do it to obtain a PERISHABLE crown, but we for an IMPERISHABLE crown” (v.25). Our crown is not made of earth, is not earthly, and is immaterial. We are running for something that is everlasting—and that is a “crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 4:8).
“Keeping the faith” is not only the way to win the prize—it is also the message of the Scriptures. In Luke 8 in the Parable of the Sower, we find that the seeds “on the rock” only “believe for a while” and then fall away because of temptation (Luke 8:13). Only the seed that falls on good ground is the seed that “keeps” the word and “bears fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15, NKJV). The seed that falls on good ground is the seed that “believes” and receives eternal life (John 3:16).
“Keeping the faith” was also the message of exhortation by the apostles in the early church. In Acts 14, we find Paul and Barnabas traveling back to churches they had already started, “exhorting them to continue in the faith and saying, ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God’” (Acts 14:22).
In verse 7, all the actions listed are in the perfect tense (“have fought...have finished...have kept”). According to A.T. Robertson, these three verbs are placed in a specific type of perfect tense, known as the “extensive present perfect”, which is:
“a completed state. This act may be durative-punctiliar...with a backward look” (A.T. Robertson, ”A Grammar of the Greek New Testament In The Light of Historical Research.” Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934, page 895).
Applying Robertson’s grammatical analysis to the verbs in 2 Timothy 4:7, we find that Paul has given a “backward look” to his life, that he is reflecting on all he has done in Christ. He has “completed” his course (“finished the race”), and he is looking back to all the things that have brought him to his current state: “for I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand” (2 Tim. 4:6, NKJV).
In verse 8, Paul discusses the joy that lies ahead for him:
“Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8, NKJV).
Paul says that, because he has run his race, because he has endured to the end, he will receive “the crown of righteousness.” I want us to notice two things about this crown.
First, the Greek word for “crown” is “stephanos,” which can mean “crown” but can also mean “prize” or “reward” (“A Reader’s Greek New Testament, Second Edition” by Richard J. Goodrich and Albert L. Lukaszewski. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007, page 461).
How do we determine the meaning of the word “stephanos”? We do so based on the
context of the passage. As we can see, Paul has discussed his life as a “race” (“I have finished the race,” v.7). He has also used the analogy of competing for a crown to show Timothy that hard work and effort win the prize:
“And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not CROWNED unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Tim. 2:5).
If this isn’t enough, we have Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9, where he discusses his fear of being “disqualified” from the race:
“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown” (1 Cor. 9:24-25).
Notice that in verse 25, he talks about “crowns,” while in verse 24, he refers to a “race,” the act of running, and “the prize.” In verse 24, Paul is very general with his analogy, but becomes more detailed in it when he arrives at verse 25. As I just mentioned, the word for “crown” can also be used generically for “reward,” so it becomes clear to us that Paul is able to use these words interchangeably because of the nature of the word “stephanos.”
Secondly, notice what Paul says about the recipients of the crown:
“the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and NOT TO ME ONLY, but also TO ALL WHO HAVE LOVED HIS APPEARING” (2 Tim. 4:8).
Did you notice that? Paul says that “all” believers will receive the crown of righteousness. According to Zane Hodges and others who advocate the loss of eternal rewards, there will be a hierarchy of rewards in eternity; however, here, Paul says that EVERYONE who is a citizen of glory will receive this reward—no believer in glory will be left out! The question then becomes, is this a reward given to everyone (which contradicts the hierarchical rewards idea), or IS THIS REALLY ETERNAL LIFE being discussed here?
This depends on what Christ “will give” to all believers. But don’t fear—Scripture is here!
“And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation” (Hebrews (9:27-28).
So what will He bring with Him when He comes? Salvation.
Jesus discusses His return in Revelation 22:
“And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work” (Rev. 22:12).
But what is the “reward” that He will bring? We read John’s words in verse 14:
“Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have THE RIGHT TO THE TREE OF LIFE, and may enter through the gates into the city” (v.14).
So having “the right to the tree of life” means to have “eternal life.” John tells us this same truth in 1 John 2:
“And this is the promise that He has promised us—eternal life” (1 John 2:25).
Remember the Fall in the Garden of Eden? What did the Lord God say after punishing Adam and Eve?
“Then the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the TREE OF LIFE, and eat, and live forever’—“(Gen. 3:22)
So the Lord decides to send Adam and Eve from the Garden because He had promised them that they would die if they ate the forbidden fruit. Now that Adam and Eve had done so, they would not avoid their punishment. God had warned them of death, and He would execute the punishment. Adam and Eve would not live forever by eating the fruit of the tree of life (and thereby, do away with their punishment). To keep Adam and Eve from eating of the tree of life, God sent them from the Garden and put an angel at its entrance (Gen. 3:24). The Tree of Life, then, is what the children of God will "eat" from, which means that, when the Lord returns, they will be given eternal life and will live forever with Him.
The “reward of righteousness” then, in 2 Tim. 4, is not a golden crown that we think of from the Olympics. Rather, the “crown of righteousness” is the prize to be won at the end of a life well-lived: in short, the crown is “eternal life.”
2 Timothy 4 shows us the importance of keeping the faith and striving to enter the kingdom of God. Paul labored for Christ unceasingly, and it was now time for him to be received into the arms of His Savior, whom, as Paul writes, “loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).