Question: "What did Paul mean when he said he had finished the race?"
Answer: “I have finished the race” is the second clause of three within a passage written by the apostle Paul to Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). The apostle wrote these words near the end of his life. These three statements reflect Paul’s struggles in preaching the gospel of Christ and his victory over those struggles.
In the 1st century, the Romans celebrated both the Olympic Games and the Isthmian Games. Competitors would spend up to ten months in arduous physical training. Because the Corinthians were very familiar with these events, Paul used the games as an analogy for a believer’s life of faithfulness. He wrote the church in Corinth saying, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25). Paul’s exhortation is that believers should be as focused and dedicated as those ancient runners in the games. Our motivation in serving Christ is much higher; we “run” not for a temporary crown, but for an eternal one.
In his letter to Timothy, Paul is not commending himself for having “run the full distance” (TEV); rather, he is simply describing what the grace of God had enabled him to do. In the book of Acts, Paul says these powerful words: “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace” (Acts 20:24).
So, by declaring “I have finished the race,” Paul is telling Timothy that he had put every effort into the work of proclaiming to all the gospel of salvation. He had completed the course set before him; he had left nothing undone. He was ready to cross the finish line into heaven.
In a race, only one runner wins. However, in the Christian “race,” everyone who pays the price of vigilant training for the cause of Christ can win. We are not competing against one other, as in athletic games, but against the struggles, physical and spiritual, that stand in the way of our reaching the prize (Philippians 3:14).
Every believer runs his own race (1 Corinthians 9:24). Each of us is enabled to be a winner. Paul exhorts us to “run in such a way as to get the prize,” and to do this we must set aside anything that might hinder us from living and teaching the gospel of Christ. The writer of Hebrews echoes the words of Paul: “Lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
May we be diligent in our “race,” may we keep our eyes on the goal, and may we, like Paul, finish strong.