"So that I may finish my course."—Acts Xx. 24.
"I have finished my course. '—2 Timothy, iv. 7.
It is not likely that Paul in prison and in sight of martyrdom remembered his words at Ephesus. But the fact that what had been his aspiration, whilst he was in the midst of the race, came to be calm retrospect at last is beautiful and suggestive. His conception of life as a course was a noble one, if we remember that he uses the word with distinct reference to the race-course, and therefore connotes in it effort, strain, and continuous progress in a definite direction.
Paul's aspiration should be ours, as his conception of life must be ours, if we are not to live ignobly. What was that aspiration? It was not merely to finish his course in the sense of ending it. That would be a poor aim, and a very superfluous one, for time will do that for us all. But an ended course may be an unfinished one; and the apostle's desire was not merely to get through, and have done with, but to fulfil, his course, or, in other words, to do and be all that God meant him to be and do. Some early transcriber of the Acts mistook Paul, and, thinking that to finish meant merely to end, inserted probably on the margin and with the best intentions, the unfortunate supplement "with joy," which appears in our Authorised Version, but is no part of the genuine text. Paul was not thinking about the joy at the end. What he wished was to do all his work to the very last particle, and he knew that then there would be joy, but that does not bulk in his mind. Let us be eager to finish our course, and be sure that the joy will punctually come.
It is easy to cherish such an aspiration when nothing lies across the course to hinder progress, but it is a different matter when, as in the case of Paul, there lie before us some dangers clearly discerned, and others that have all the more power over the imagination because they are but dimly seen. Many a man would march up to a battery without a tremor who would not face a hole where a snake lay coiled. "Not knowing the things that shall befall me," said Paul, but he did know that "bonds and afflictions abide me," and his ignorance and his knowledge both made it hard for him to say, as he did say, "None of these things move me." In absolute devotion to God-enjoined duty there is power to give us a "solemn scorn of ills," and to lift us clear over every stumbling-block that cumbers the course and every enemy that would contest our progress. An express train is not stopped by stretching a bit of pack-thread across the rails, and if a man has yielded himself fully to that great conception of God's will as impelling him along a Godprescribed path, it is neither in sorrow nor joy to arrest his steps. They may roll all the golden apples out of the garden of the Hesperides in his path, and he will not stop to pick one of them up; or Satan may block it with his fiercest flames, and he will plunge into them, saying, "When I pass through the fires He will be with me."
Paul's aspiration was realised, and at last he could look back and declare, with the same lofty meaning in the word: "I have finished "—that is, fulfilled— "my course." It has been thought singular that he who was always preaching the folly and sin of selfrighteousness should, at the end, fall into such a strain of apparently self-complacent retrospect. But he did not mean, of course, to assert that his career had been free from faults and failures. Only one man could say with absolute truth, "It is finished," and Christ's retrospect of a stainless life in full and unbroken accord with the divine ideal is not repeated in the experience of any of His servants. But still, if in the thick of our toil and struggle we habitually gather up our strength, and aim at accomplishing that part of our life's duty immediately before us, the believing effort will not be in vain, and at last we may hope that, like Paul, we shall be granted a time of calm recollection, in which we shall be able to look back on a career which, though stained with many imperfections, yet on the whole has realised the divine purpose, if not with completeness, yet sufficiently to warrant even us to say that we have finished our course.
No one but a follower of Jesus will be able to say so. Life looks very different in retrospect. Pleasure, ease, comfort, popularity, wealth—all these seem very attractive when viewed from the front, but they are like the scenes of a theatre, dusty and squalid when we get round on the other side of them. God's will often looks hard and unwelcome, when we are advancing towards some difficult duty. But when we look back, all the joys that could be bought at the price of the smallest neglected duty or perpetrated sin dwindle and dwindle, and the light is gone out of them, and they show for what they are— gilded nothings, painted emptinesses, lies varnished over. But, on the other hand, to recognise God's will and to seek to do it in dependence on Him towers up then into greater nobleness, and at last there seems to be, as there really is, nothing else worth living for. We shall have to review our deeds from another standing point, and with new illumination on them. The one course that a man can bear to look back on is the humble, faithful, continual discharge of appointed duty for the Lord's sake. If whilst work and troubles last, we truly say, "None of these things move me, so that I may finish my course," we, too, with all our weaknesses, may be able to say at the last, "Thanks be to God, I have finished my course."