For many years at our denomination’s annual conference our ministerial association would honor the dozen or so pastors who had reached 65 years as lifetime members. I remember my admiration for those men when I was young. I would imagine all the sermons they had preached, all the meetings they had attended, and all the stresses they had faced for the Lord’s sake. To me they were like old veterans who I’d see marching in the Fourth of July parade. I was proud to be in their company.
Now I am well past that milestone, so I read Paul’s farewell words to Timothy with different eyes.
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Tim. 4:6-7)
Sometimes in ministry, if you don’t look out to the time of your departure, you’ll throw in the towel like a boxer signaling that he won’t get back in the ring for the rest of the fight. If all you see are the meetings and the critics and the calendar, you won’t make it.
A drink offering was wine poured out on a burnt sacrifice, as though the life of the sacrifice and the lifeblood of the worshipper were offered together in fellowship with God. When we share in the sufferings of Christ—taking up the cross in trust and obedience—that dying is holy, our lifeblood mingled with Christ’s.
The expression, “I have fought the good fight,” stresses the sweat-stained exertion of a runner or wrestler. “Agony” is hidden in that Greek word. Pastoring is grueling, and sometimes all you can do is push through it by the grace of God and make sure you’re fighting the good fight and not one that matters little. We’re like the Australian prizefighter years ago who wired his father after a bout, “Won easily in 84 rounds.”
“I have finished the race” looks at the race course rather than the competition. (Contrary to our gut feeling, ministry is not competition.) I suspect if we had imagined our ministry future at all we would have pictured it as four times around a quarter mile track. Lo and behold, it was a tough and treacherous marathon! But from my aged perspective, what a privilege it was to run!
To tell you the truth, all my years I have wondered if, at the end, I would be able to say at the end, “I have kept the faith.” Sometimes Samson haunted me. The gospel entrusted to us will never be ripped from our grip. It doesn’t happen that way. A couple of lines later Paul writes, “Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me.” The world winks, waggles her finger, and whispers sweet nothings, so tighten your two-handed grip on the gospel entrusted to your care.
Now I not only look back on my own ministry, I also look at you younger shepherds who pour out your lives and wrestle to exhaustion, who tackle the twisting course before you, and who are valiant for truth. Once my pastoral heroes were those older shepherds. Now they are you—today’s Timothy and Titus, Phoebe and Priscilla—who come behind me, loving Christ, gripping your Bibles, learning to pray, determined to feed, lead, and guard the flocks God has entrusted to you. Dear ones, I am so proud to know you and be counted among you. And when the time of your departure comes, I will be waiting to welcome you into eternal dwellings.
Be ye glad!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He is the author of Feels Like Home: How Rediscovering the Church as Family Changes Everything and Pastoral Graces: Reflections on the Care of Souls (Moody Publishers), as well as being a frequent contributor to Preaching Today and CT Pastors. To learn more about his Pastors' Gatherings visit www.leeeclov.com.