The falling asleep of servants of the Lord, some in advanced life and some much younger, ought to be a voice to those of us left behind. None of us knows the length of our time here for that is known to the Lord alone. The course of James and Stephen was short, while that of John and of Paul was much longer, but all ran well to the close. By contrast, certain of the Corinthian saints were removed from the race—their course brought to a premature end and not really finished (see 1 Cor. 11: 30). It will be profitable then to briefly consider some of the Scriptures that speak of the heavenly race with a view to stimulating those of us that remain to keep pressing on. We need to finish well!
The city of Corinth hosted the famous Isthmian games, and so the Christians of that place understood well the figure of the race that the apostle Paul set before them. He did so in order to stir up their sluggish souls: "Know ye not that they who run in [the] race–course run all, but one receives the prize? Thus run in order that ye may obtain. But every one that contends [for a prize] is temperate in all things: they then indeed that they may receive a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible" (1 Cor. 9: 24, 25). However, unlike those who competed in the earthly games, Paul seeks to help his fellow–runners with his own experience. Thus he kept the course—"I therefore thus run, as not uncertainly" (v26). Nor did he allow his body to be a hindrance—"I buffet my body, and lead it captive" (v27). And he always held in view the prize of his Lord’s approval—"lest [after] having preached to others I should be myself rejected" (or "disapproved").
In Gal. 2: 2 he again alludes to his own case in the words "lest in any way I run or had run in vain", and while he commends the Galatians for making a good beginning (doubtless under his own inspiring example) he has to ask why they had kept not on: "ye ran well; who has stopped you that ye should not obey the truth?" (Gal. 5: 7). They still were zealous (see Gal. 4: 17), but they were no longer running on the prescribed course of obedience to the word of God. The apostle’s exhortation to Timothy to "contend lawfully" (2 Tim. 2: 5) was written to guard him and us against a similar danger. In an earthly race there is a requirement for strict obedience to the rules or the prize is lost, and in the spiritual race we have to heed "every scripture" (2 Tim. 3: 16) if we are to have our Lord’s approval.
In Philippians 3 the heavenly race is vividly brought before us, and we see the apostle stripped, as it were, of every encumbrance, stretching out toward the goal of "the prize of calling on high of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3: 14). This is made all the more interesting because, as to his physical frame, he was tied with a chain. Inactive in some eyes, but energetic as regards the heavenly things!
The Hebrews, like the Galatians, had greatly failed in the race, and to them heavenly things were unfolded with marvellous fullness to win them onward again. Putting himself with them in their exertion, Paul would fix their eyes on the Lord Himself: "Let us … run with endurance the race that lies before us, looking stedfastly on Jesus the leader and completer of faith" (Heb. 12: 1, 2). They were not to be "weary" (v3), fainting in their minds, and they were to lay "aside every weight, and sin which so easily entangles us" (v1).
In Acts 20 the apostle told the Ephesian elders of his soul’s desire—"that I finish my course" (v24), and for this he made no account of his life as dear to himself. By the grace of God he was able years afterwards to write, on the very eve of departure "I have combated the good combat, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth the crown of righteousness is laid up for me, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will render to me in that day; but not only to me, but also to all who love his appearing" (2 Tim. 4: 7, 8). May his example, and that of many others, cause us to gird our loins afresh, and seek grace to finish our course in victory!