FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT

For I am already being poured out as a drink-offering; my departure time has arrived. I have fought the good fight; I have completed the course; I have kept the faith. What do I still have to look for? The crown of righteousness! The Lord, the righteous judge, will give it to me as my reward on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing. [2 Timothy 4:6-8 (NTE)]

Although the Apostle Paul seems to have mixed figures of speech by referring to the military with “fought” and “fight,” athletics with “race,” and religion with “faith,” all three references relate to athletics. The word used for fought was agónizomai (the root word for the English word “agonize”) which meant “to contend for a prize” or “struggle.” The word translated as “fight” was agōna, meaning “a gathering, contest, struggle.” Rather than a conflict or dispute, it referred to a gathering to see contests like the ancient games held at Olympia or the games themselves. Paul’s audience would have understood that he meant something grueling and, in their 1st century world, athletic competitions were so fierce and brutal that even the winners usually carried scars.

Continuing the theme of athletics, the word usually translated as race or course, was dromos and literally meant a race course or track and the word translated as faith, pistis, referred to a guarantee or warranty that the contender fulfilled his obligations honorably. When Paul spoke of the crown awaiting him, rather than diádēma, meaning a royal crown made of gold and precious stones, he used stephanos which was the circular wreath or garland awarded to victors in ancient athletic games. We could paraphrase Paul’s words as “I have competed well in the struggles of life. I followed the course God set before me, wasn’t disqualified, faithfully finished what I began, and won the victor’s wreath.”

When reading Paul’s words, I remembered the story of John Stephen Akhwari, a marathon runner representing Tanzania in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Having come from a nation with an average altitude of 2,769 feet, the over 7,300-foot altitude of the city caused the runner to cramp up early in the race. Nevertheless, Akhwari kept going. When jockeying for position at the 19K mark, however, he collided with another runner, fell down, injured his shoulder, and cut and dislocated his knee. Seeing his injuries, spectators assumed he would quit (as 18 of the original 75 runners eventually did). The Tanzanian runner, however, chose to fight the good fight and complete the course. After getting his leg bandaged, in spite of the altitude, heat, pain, and knowledge that he couldn’t even place in the race, Akhwari continued.

More than an hour after the winner had crossed the finish line and the medals had been awarded, when the sun had set and the stands were nearly empty, John Stephen Akhwari hobbled into the stadium to complete the 42K race he’d begun nearly three-and-a-half hours earlier. With the few spectators remaining in the stadium cheering him on, Akhwari stepped up his pace and finished the race by running the last hundred meters. When asked why he finished the course, he simply replied, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”

Akhwari didn’t receive a medal or a wreath at the 1968 Olympics, but he was the real hero of that race because he did more than start—he finished what he’d begun in spite of overwhelming obstacles. He kept the pistis. Do we have that same kind of determination to fight the good fight—against Satan, disappointment, discouragement, discomfort, and pain? Are we as determined as were the Apostle and Akhwari to finish the course that God has set before us? Will we keep the faith by finishing our course without fouling out or quitting? Of course, in an athletic contest, there’s only one winner—only one gold medal or wreath to place on the victor’s head. The crown of righteousness, however, is available for all who fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith!

Just as coaches use Akhwari’s story to inspire their runners, Paul is encouraging young Timothy to let the Apostle’s story inspire him. May both of their stories inspire us!

Life is a fight, and only the faithful will finish strong. [Brian Tome]

Don’t you know that when people run on the race-track everybody runs, but only one person gets the prize? Run in such a way that you’ll win it. Everyone who goes in for athletics exercises self-discipline in everything. They do it to gain a crown that perishes; we do it for an imperishable one. Well then: I don’t run in an aimless fashion! I don’t box like someone punching the air! No: I give my body rough treatment, and make it my slave, in case, after announcing the message to others, I myself should end up being disqualified. [1 Corinthians 9:25 (NTE)]

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IT’S OKAY

Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything. [2 Corinthians 6:10 (NLT)]

lilac breasted rollerToday’s email contained a meme of that lovable loser Charlie Brown with the caption: “The smile on my face doesn’t mean my life is perfect. It means I appreciate what I have and what I have been blessed with. I choose to be happy.” The meme reminded me of words spoken by Jane Marczweski when she appeared on America’s Got Talent last week: “You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore before you decide to be happy.” Known as Nightbirde, the 30-year-old vocalist sang an original song called “It’s Okay” and received the “golden buzzer” from judge Simon Cowell. She said she wrote the song as a reminder that, “You can be happy and also be going through something really hard at the same time—you don’t have to pick one or the other.”

The young woman knows what she’s talking about. After being treated for breast cancer in 2017, numerous tumors in her lungs, liver, nymph nodes, ribs, and spine were discovered in December of 2019. The overwhelming diagnosis of terminal cancer came with the prognosis of six months to live and only a 2% chance of survival. But, as she optimistically says, “2% is not zero. 2% is something and I wish people knew how amazing it is.” Although declared “cancer-free” after her second battle with cancer, she recently was diagnosed with this terrible disease a third time. At the time of her audition, she had “some cancer” in her lungs, spine and liver. Although Jane received more treatment after the audition, it is too early to know the results. But, as she so aptly puts it, “2% is not zero!”

As Christians, we shouldn’t need a cartoon character meme or even an amazing young woman’s example to remind us that circumstances need not determine our state of mind. Regardless of what we happen to be going through, as Christians, we know we are blessed every day in every way. Faith is trusting God’s plan, as inexplicable (and unpleasant) it may be. Faith is being able to smile in the midst of pain because we know that, in spite of our anguish, God loves us. Faith is being able to rejoice in the Lord regardless of what He throws at us because we know that we are not alone. As Christians, we know that faith is not about everything turning out okay; faith is about being okay regardless of how things turn out! Faith is being able to echo the words of Job: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.” [1:21]

But here’s one thing I do know: when it comes to pain, God isn’t often in the business of taking it away. Instead, he adds to it. He is more of a giver than a taker. He doesn’t take away my darkness, he adds light. He doesn’t spare me of thirst, he brings water. He doesn’t cure my loneliness, he comes near. … And I guess that means I have all the more reason to say thank you, because God is drawing near to me. [Jane Marczweski (Nightbirde)]

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. … You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy. [1 Peter 1:6,8 (NLT)]

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

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EXTRA BIBLICAL EVIDENCE

We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life. This one who is life itself was revealed to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and proclaim to you that he is the one who is eternal life. He was with the Father, and then he was revealed to us. We proclaim to you what we ourselves have actually seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that you may fully share our joy [1 John 1:1-4 (NLT)]

hibiscus“The luckiest traitor ever,” are the words historian Mary Beard used to describe Flavius Josephus, a first-century Jewish general who ended up allying himself with the Romans—the very people who destroyed his homeland and demolished the Temple during the Great Revolt (66-70 AD). Born in 37 AD, Josephus grew up in Jerusalem and studied with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes before serving as a general during the Jewish rebellion against Rome. According to Josephus, when fleeing the Roman army, he led his troop of 40 men into a cave. Rather than surrender, they agreed to commit suicide and drew lots to determine the order in which they would die. Either Josephus was incredibly lucky or he’d fixed the lottery but, when only he and another man remained, he convinced him to join in surrender to the Romans. In support of his story, excavations at Jotapata in the 1990s revealed the remains of 30 to 40 men assumed to have been Josephus’ men.

As an enemy general, Josephus was taken to the Roman general Vespasian. Presenting himself as a prophet, he used Balaam’s Messianic prophecy [Numbers 24:17] to predict that Vespasian would become emperor (which he did two years later). Shrewdly, Josephus then allied himself with the Romans by advising and translating for Vespasian and his son Titus.

Following the Judean war, Josephus returned to Rome with the victorious Titus where he was provided with an apartment in Vespasian’s house, given an annual pension, and made a Roman citizen. Josephus volunteered to write a history of the war for the Romans, The Jewish War, that provides an eye-witness account of the Great Revolt and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. His second work was a twenty-volume Jewish history called Jewish Antiquities.

In his Antiquities, Josephus wrote of Herod’s fear of, “John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism.” [18:5] Josephus also made the earliest existing non-Christian referral to Christ. Since many scholars believe Christian copyists later may have added to Josephus’ words by calling Jesus the Messiah and mentioning his resurrection, I am only including what is believed by most to have been the ancient historian’s original account, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonders. He drew many after him. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” [18:63-64]

Josephus also reported the trial and death in 62 AD of James: “But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent … assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” [20:9.1]

The Bible doesn’t require outside sources to prove its truth and, as followers of Christ, we don’t need an ancient Jewish historian to tell us that Jesus actually existed. Nevertheless, it’s good to know that it isn’t just believers like Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, and Peter who attest to His existence. We have Josephus’s account along with the Greek historian Thallus who wrote of the darkness during Jesus’ crucifixion, Pliny the Younger who wrote of dealing with Christians who sang hymns “to Christ as if to a god,” Tacitus who wrote of the “pernicious superstition” (Christ’s resurrection) that broke out in Judea following Jesus’ crucifixion, and the Greek historian Mara bar Serapion, who referred to Jesus as the “wise king” of the Jews.

For we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We saw his majestic splendor with our own eyes when he received honor and glory from God the Father. The voice from the majestic glory of God said to him, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.” We ourselves heard that voice from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain. [2 Peter 1:16 (NLT)]

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THE SHEMA (Part 2)

The tassels will help you remember that you must obey all my commands and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt that I might be your God. I am the Lord your God! [Numbers 15:40-41 (NLT)]

great blue heronIn its entirety, the Shema consists of three sections: Deuteronomy 6:4–9, Deuteronomy 11:13–2, and Numbers 15:37–41. The second paragraph of the Shema repeats the first one’s commands regarding the binding of God’s words to hands and forehead, writing them on the doorways and gates, teaching them to the children, and talking about them throughout the day. The primary theme of this paragraph, however, is that the promised land and the people’s enjoyment of it depended on their faithfulness to God. As long as they loved God and served Him with heart and soul, the people and land would be blessed but, if they turned aside to serve other gods, God’s wrath would result and things would not go well for the people or their land. In this warning, that is repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament, we see the fundamental Jewish belief that reward and punishment are based on the fulfillment of God’s commandments.

The third section of the Shema required the wearing of tassels or fringes (tzitzit) on the hems of clothing. Like the tefillin and mezuzot commanded in the first two sections, the fringes were a visual reminder to obey the commandments and “be holy to your God.” The final command of this last section was to remember the Exodus and that it was the Lord who brought them out of Egypt.

It was a Biblical commandment to recite the Shema twice a day. Morning and night, the Israelites were to acknowledge the one God, who they were to love with heart, soul, and strength, and whose commandments they were to keep. Twice a day, they were reminded to impress God’s word on the next generation and, twice a day, they repeated God’s warning that things would not go well if they abandoned Him or turned to other gods. So, what went wrong? Did the Israelites put so much emphasis on performing rituals—repeating these words twice a day, putting on their tefillin, measuring the length of their tzitzit, and placing their mezuzot—that they forgot the rituals’ meanings? Did they let rituals replace loving God with their heart, soul, and strength? Were they so intent on doing the right thing that they forgot to be the right people? Did they start trusting in themselves rather than God?

God gave the Israelites a simple command—love the Lord alone, with heart, soul, and strength—and He gave them an equally simple choice—a blessing or a curse. He makes the same offer to us. The blessing, however, isn’t a reward; it’s a result. When we revere God, love Him fully, and put His word into practice, life will go well for us because God’s way is the right way and the right way is blessed. Like the blessing, the curse is the result of our choice and is found in the life we choose. A life lived without God is a cursed one. Even with tefillin on their arms and heads, mezuzot on their doorposts, tassels on their hems, and the continued repetition of the Shema’s words, the Israelites forgot the Lord and went their own way; let us not make the same mistake.

Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life. [Deuteronomy 30:19-20 (NLT)]

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THE IMPOSSIBLE

He replied, “What is impossible for people is possible with God.” [Luke 18:27 (NLT)]

Several years ago, we took our daughter and grand-daughter to a magic show. On the way home, we explored various scenarios to figure out how the $50 bill, signed by my husband, that we’d witnessed going up in flames, ended up in the middle of an uncut orange, that was in a paper bag, inside a locked box, inside another locked box, that was way across the stage. While we tried to find an explanation for the trick, my grand piped up, “Stop trying to figure it out. It was magic!”

While it was an entertaining show, we adults knew it wasn’t real magic—just carefully orchestrated and well-executed sleight of hand. But, not wanting to disillusion the little one, we waited until she was out of ear-shot before trying to find an explanation for what we saw. There is something about us that wants to make sense of that which makes no sense, which probably explains the popularity of the CW’s Penn & Teller: Fool Us in which magicians perform tricks and the hosts try to figure out how they’re done. To determine whether they’ve been fooled and yet avoid exposing the trick’s secrets to the audience, the duo use cryptic language when speaking to the magician to describe the methods they suspect he used. On rare occasions, Penn and Teller are perplexed and the guest receives a trophy. Yet, even when that happens, the audience knows it’s just an illusion rather than anything supernatural.

Magicians are in the business of fooling people but God is not. We can try to figure out a magician’s magic trick but we’ll never find an explanation for God’s miracles. It was not sleight of hand that turned water into wine, stilled a storm, healed lepers, fed a multitude, filled the net with fish, or blinded Paul. It was no illusion that held back the Red Sea, multiplied one widow’s food and another’s oil, caused the sun and moon to stand still, provided manna from heaven, or kept three men from burning in a fiery furnace. Nevertheless, it’s only human to wonder how God covered Egypt with darkness while light fell on the Israelites, caused Jericho’s walls to fall, made water to pour from a rock, turned Aaron’s rod into a serpent, or made a sundial go backwards ten steps. Much in the Bible simply makes no sense in a world ruled by the laws of physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry or any other science.

While magic is merely an illusion, God’s miracles—even though they defy human logic and reasoning—are not! Being the creator of the universe, God has His own set of rules that can be changed at will. One of the greatest minds of our generation was physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. An avowed atheist, he believed the universe is governed by the laws of science and said, “Religion believes in miracles, but these are not compatible with science.” That, however, is the point—a miracle defies human understanding because it transcends the laws we know of nature. If Hawking, Penn and Teller, or anyone else could explain or reproduce it, then it wouldn’t be a miracle.

While God doesn’t want unthinking believers, in the end, we must come to him out of faith, not logic. We come without understanding how a virgin gave birth to a God/man—without witnessing the Holy Spirit descend like a dove from heaven, watching Jesus walk on water, observing Lazarus emerge from his tomb, or viewing Jesus’ resurrected body ascend into heaven. Nevertheless, we believe! “There’s no way he can do that!” is only true when we are speaking of men; with God, all things are possible.

 Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature. [Augustine]

For we live by believing and not by seeing. [2 Corinthians 5:7 (NLT)]

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HE HAS HIS PURPOSE

“Why doesn’t the Almighty bring the wicked to judgment? Why must the godly wait for him in vain? … Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind: “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words? … You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” [Job 24:1,38:1-2,40:2b (NLT)]

Like Job, Richard Wurmbrand suffered unspeakably horrific circumstances and certainly had reason to ponder God’s purpose in his troubles. An evangelical minister in Romania, he endured more than eight years of Communist imprisonment and torture before being released. He immediately returned to his underground church ministry, was re-arrested, and sentenced to another 25 years in prison. After six more years of imprisonment, Wurmbrand was freed under an amnesty program and again returned to his ministry. When the Communist regime accepted a $10,000 ransom for him, Wurmbrand left his homeland and became a voice for persecuted Christians. When testifying before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee in 1966, he stripped to the waist to show the 18 deep scars that covered his torso—undeniable evidence of the brutal torture he and others endured at the hands of their Communist captors.

In his 100 Prison Meditations, Wurmbrand, who knew suffering first-hand, tells a story about Moses, who was meditating near a well. When a traveler stopped to drink from the well, the man failed to notice his purse fall onto the ground. After his departure, a second man came along. Spotting the purse, he picked it up, and went on his way. Later, a third wayfarer arrived who, after drinking from the well, took a nap in the shade.

When the first man discovered his purse was missing, he returned to get it at the well. Upon seeing the sleeping man, he woke him and demanded his money. When the third man pled his innocence, the first man became furious and killed him.

Speaking to God, Moses explained that it was times like that, when evil and injustice seemed to reign, that caused men not to believe in the Almighty. “Why,” he asked, “should the first man, who merely lost his purse, become a murderer?  Why should the second man get a purse full of gold without having worked for it? And why should the third completely innocent man be slain?”

God responded that once, and only once, He would give an explanation for all that happened. God explained that the first man was the son of a thief and the purse he lost was filled with gold stolen from the father of the second man. By taking the purse, the second man only took what was rightfully his. The third man, while innocent of stealing the purse, was a murderer who’d gotten away with his crime and had finally received the punishment he deserved. God finished His explanation by saying, “In the future, believe that there is sense and righteousness in what transpires even when you do not understand.”

For those of us who’ve never endured the misfortunes of Job or Wurmbrand, it’s easy to say that all things work for good until, of course, the things that happen are terrible! Nevertheless, Wurmbrand’s story came from a man who suffered in a horrific way because of his faith and knew first-hand how unfair and painful life can be. He also knew that all things are not good—there is nothing good about torture, oppression, slave labor camps or persecution. Nevertheless, Wurmbrand also knew that God, in His own time and own way, can take bad things and mix them together in such a way that they bring about something better—a better that is not dependent upon man’s understanding.

Rather than ask why, as did Job, let us believe in a God who loves us, who is at large and in charge, who has His reasons for all that happens, and who will achieve His purpose. “And what is that purpose?” we ask. Pastor Adrian Rogers answers, “To make us like Jesus. To be conformed to the image of His Son. There is no higher good than to be like the Lord Jesus Christ.”

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

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