After many years of diverse career experience, I was excitedly counting down the days until my retirement. I eagerly anticipated being in control of my schedule and time while enjoying a slower pace of life. I envisioned more days devoted to serving in ministry at my church and deepening relationships...
The Last Dance, a recent ESPN documentary about Michael Jordan, has been captivating the quarantined in recent weeks. Following the story of Jordan’s superhuman drive to success, we have been reminded why every kid on a court since 1984 has wanted to “be like Mike.” While our enchantment with champions can sometimes be unhealthy, great role models often inspire us to work hard and press on.
In every generation, God has given to the Church servants who so embody Jesus Christ in their lives that they become role models worth emulating. Christians around the world have been grieving the recent loss of such a servant and role model, Ravi Zacharias. He was Solomon-like in his wisdom, Daniel-like in his influence among world leaders, and Christ-like in his passion for the salvation of souls.
Less than three years ago, Ravi Zacharias performed the funeral for Nabeel Qureshi, another great Christian apologist who had worked alongside him in ministry. Ravi opened his eulogy by saying, “I come from India. Nabeel was from Pakistan. The two countries are not famously in love with each other.” To which those in attendance gave a hushed chuckle, knowing indeed just how amazing was their friendship.
One in Christ
The world could have made them enemies. Yet in Christ, Ravi and Nabeel became brothers who traveled the world together, testifying to the One who gave them eternal life. Peculiarly, they also both suffered and died from cancer within three years of each other, Nabeel at the age of 34 and Ravi at 74.
Their final days of suffering were shared with the world, allowing us to witness their steadfast faith in the face of death. Now Ravi and Nabeel are both in the presence of the Lord and are no doubt rejoicing together again. Their ministry and their stories have been an inspiration for countless Christians around the world, and rightly so. Their lives were an example of gospel unity and lifelong faithfulness. Along with the Apostle Paul, they could truly declare, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
Fight the good fight. Keep the faith. Finish the race. These three exhortations categorically outline the entirety of Paul’s two letters to Timothy. What Christian, in his last moments of life, does not want to be able to claim the same accomplishments as Paul? If these words are also to be our declaration at death, then they must first be our motto in life.
Fight the Good Fight
In his letters, Paul urges Timothy three times to “fight the good fight.” He clarifies what the good fight is by emphasizing what it is not, namely, useless disputes with other believers about peripheral issues. Seven times he exhorts Timothy to “have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels” (1 Tim. 1:4, 4:7, 6:4, 6:20; 2 Tim. 2:14,16, 23-24). Rather, the good fight is foremost the battle to keep a clean conscience, to keep loving others genuinely out of love for Christ, to avoid the snares of the devil, and to remember that our enemy is never flesh and blood but rather “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
Ravi and Nabeel are great examples of leaders who focused their ministry on what mattered most. They remained above reproach in conduct and avoided the snare of being side-tracked into irrelevant, divisive controversies. Their approach to apologetics was a means of winning people to Christ and never a means of shaming them, as illustrated by one of Ravi’s mottos: “Answer the questioner, not the question.” They proclaimed the gospel with gentleness and respect, so as to magnify the love of Christ. They fought the good fight.
Keep the Faith
Paul’s greatest desire for Timothy was that he would defend the doctrines of the gospel. He mentions this nine times, naming the ways it is possible to swerve from the truth (1 Tim. 1:3, 1:5-6, 4:1-3, 4:16, 6:3, 6:10, 6:21; 2 Tim. 2:18, 3:5-9, 4:3-4). When we tamper with gospel essentials, when ministers become fueled by greed, when congregations look for preachers who only tell them what they like to hear, or when the church sanctions immorality —these are all ways of swerving into error.
Followers of Christ are growing weary of hearing about another Christian leader or denomination throwing biblical authority by the wayside and straying from the ancient path. When we do hear of those leaders who remain faithful to the word of God their entire lives, it is truly worth celebrating! Ravi and Nabeel successfully defended biblical Christianity. They kept the faith.
Finish the Race
When Paul says that he finished the race, did he only mean that his time to die had finally arrived? Not quite. Paul explains that “an athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Tim. 2:5). And what is the rule by which we must compete? It is none other than the rule of suffering, for “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). Paul exhorts Timothy to endure suffering on behalf of Christ and not compromise in order to avoid it. Paul, writing from prison, repeatedly reminds Timothy of his own example in this regard (2 Tim. 1:8, 12, 16, 2:3, 9, 12, 3:11, 4:5-6).
Paul’s admonition against finishing the race without suffering is well-illustrated by the experience of athlete Rosie Ruiz. She was declared the women’s winner of the 1980 Boston Marathon. However, she lost the title the following week when officials learned that she had ridden the city subway for part of the race and re-entered only in the final mile. Her grand finish no longer mattered because she did not compete according to the rules. Loyalty to Christ, regardless of the cost, is the rule by which every Christian must compete in the race we are called to run.
Nabeel Qureshi certainly knew what it meant to endure suffering for Christ. Raised in a devout Muslim family, he had set out to disprove Jesus in college, but instead was compelled to follow him as Lord. For Nabeel, this meant painfully grieving his beloved family and bearing the shame it caused. But he knew the far greater worth of Christ, understood the rules of the race, and finished well.
Win the Prize
The best part about Paul’s three-pronged counsel is its attainability. At the end of his life, Paul did not say he had no regrets, or that he loved everyone perfectly all the time, or that he reached a level of personal holiness that surpassed all who came before him. But three things he did, and we can do them, too.
May the prize set before us motivate us as it did Paul. And as we strive to be like Christ, we can also remember to be like Ravi, and like Nabeel. The Holy Spirit helped these servants to fight the good fight, keep the faith, and finish the race. He can surely be our Helper, too, so that we can declare at the end of our lives:
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.
2 Timothy 4:8