Finishing What?

Finishers Conference | Chicago, Illinois

The following is a lightly edited transcript

I’d like to begin by directing your attention to a passage of Scripture in the Book of Numbers and then one in the Book of Habakkuk. Then I’d like to pray one more time just for my own help and for your heart too. Numbers 14:20–23 says:

Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word. But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers.

I want you to see in verse 21 those two phrases that he puts back to back — “as I live” and “as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord.” None of those who’ve seen that glory and tested him will enter my land. It is as certain as the being of God that the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord. “As I live” and “as this earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord” — those two are parallel, equally certain realities. If God is, then this earth will be one day filled with the glory of the Lord.

Then listen to Habakkuk 2:12–14, which says:

Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity! Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

There is coming a day so much different from today, where the earth will be covered with the knowledge, and the love, and the savoring, and the worshiping, and the delighting in the glory of the Lord to a depth and a weight and a pervasiveness and a saturation that it is like the waters cover the sea. If you want to finish well, you must join God in this purpose. He’s going to finish this. This will be finished. You may either join it or miss it everlastingly, because there is a reality outside the earth that will fill the earth with the glory of the Lord, where all the wicked and all the unbelieving, and all who have heard of the glory of the Lord and have not responded, but tested him these 10 times over will be abandoned.

You don’t want to be there. You want to be here on the new heavens and the new earth that will be filled with the glory of the Lord. This will be finished. This is what God will finish. The question is, will we join him in his passion for his glory? Let me pray one more time that God would help us see these things and join him in it.

Three Vignettes of Finishing Well

I want to begin with three pictures, or vignettes. These pictures are meant to lead into the book of Hebrews where I’m going to be lingering for these three messages, particularly in order to lead us into some insights from the Book of Hebrews about what’s involved in finishing well for the glory of God.

Here’s the first picture. I’ll paint it for you, though you’re familiar with these pictures, at least two of them. It’s on a beach in Miletus, a little south of Ephesus. Paul is on his way to Jerusalem. He wants to say goodbye to the elders that he had spent two and a half to three years with. He planted a church and loves them dearly. They will kiss his neck. They will weep over him for saying goodbye, just like we’ve wept over this saying goodbye here. As they say farewell for the last time, he wants to say a few things. Among the things that he says to them, Acts 20:22–24 says this:

I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

Finishing well for Paul was more important than life. He said, “I account my life as of no value, if all only I might finish well.” For Paul, finishing well meant testifying every day in the face of affliction and sure imprisonment to the grace of God in the gospel, which means he would have found all of our excuses for not going incomprehensible, especially the excuses of the so-called “closed country.” What is a closed country? It’s a country where the Holy Spirit testifies to you that imprisonment and affliction awaits you if you testify to the grace of God. It’s incomprehensible that we do not go.

Making Martyrs

I will reveal to you one of my aims in being here. I am here to see to it that there be martyrs in this room, and I mean that with all my heart. I am on a crusade to recruit martyrs, not mainly people looking for a significant second half to their life. My biblical warrant for that is not only the apostolic vision that the Holy Spirit testified to Paul that affliction and imprisonment awaited him in every city, but also Revelation 6:11, where the martyrs who have already died in the cause of Christ are under the altar, waiting and crying out, “How long, how long, oh Lord, until you vindicate our blood and demonstrate to this world the value of your glory and the rightness of our decision to go to the impossible place? How long?” The answer comes back astonishingly with these words:

Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

Now, let me paraphrase that for you because there is so much in our heart that does not want to believe certain scriptures that we can manage not to hear them and to distort them beyond recognition. What that text says is that God looks in great pity, patience, and love upon the martyrs whom he had received into his fellowship after excruciating suffering. We could document the horrors of the torture, which would throw our surroundings here into a little strange light, wouldn’t it? The Finisher’s Conference is in a Westin Hotel, isn’t that odd? I suppose in America you don’t have too many choices, but you should feel odd. It really should feel odd to us all. I’m sure it does to Rod Nelson.

But the angel says to them “rest a little while” — and then it gives the precondition of the vindication that comes with the climax of the age — “until the number of your fellow servants is complete, who are to be killed as you have been killed.”

There’s a number and I’m here to get you in it, some of you, and I mean that. We will not finish without fatalities. Shall you bequeath that to your children? Will you say, “No not me, but my children.” Some parents we are if that’s the case. What will be the legacy? Will we say, “Carston, Benjamin, Abraham, Barnabas, and Talitha, you do it. I don’t take risks. I’m working on my retirement plan anyway, and it’s not quite big enough”?

That’s picture number one. If not us, then who? What kind of metal are we made? What kind of posh, trifling, soft people are we? Well, we’re not. You didn’t come to this conference because you dream soft dreams, at least I hope not. You’re the kind of people I will talk to. You’re ripe. You’re martyr material.

For Christ or for Comfort?

Here’s picture number two. It’s not from the Bible this time, but from Reader’s Digest in February 1998. Here it is:

Bob and Penny . . . took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their thirty foot trawler, playing softball and collecting shells.

This is unbelievable. Where is Bob Dylan when we need him? I can hear the lyrics: “The death knell as we collect the shell,” or, “the way to hell, collect the shell,” or something better, I’m sure. I think this is meant to be attractive, I really do. I gasp that this paragraph at the beginning of this article is meant to be attractive to us.

What planet does that person live on? This one. Well, how did they get there? These folks were riding in their trawler, playing softball, and collecting shells for the last 20 years of their lives. How did they get there? “We saved as much as we could,” Penny says. “We participated in every retirement savings plan at work. If there was any money left at the end of the year, we put it into our regular investment account.” Then the rest of the article is about 401k retirement plans and IRAs, to which I say in the words of that great Baby Boomer translation of the Bible that we all cut our teeth on in the 1960s — the Phillips translation — I quote it from Acts 8:20, where Peter said into the face of Simon the Sorcerer:

To hell with you and your money!

That’s a good translation. Every other translation softens it down to something like “May your money perish with you.” Well, that’s the way I think we need to stand up and talk even to some Christian folks who, for all kinds of good reasons, try to get us to think a lot about our money.

Let me contrast these two pictures for you. Paul says, “I do not count my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I might finish my course and the ministry that Christ has given me to bear witness to the gospel of his grace in the face of continual affliction and imprisonment.” That’s picture number one. Picture number two is floating on your trawler, playing softball, and collecting shells.

Now, I think the question that Landa Cope was posing for us last night was, how do you beget and sustain the first picture and overcome the temptations to the second picture, which have left American evangelism and its transportation overseas powerless? Everybody is pursuing the retirement dream in Phoenix instead of Saudi Arabia. Well, I’m not quite ready to give you the answer to that yet, though I think I have seen an answer, and I’ll try to make it plain in these three messages. Therefore, I hope to render some account of how we should respond to her just indictments last night.

Poured Out as an Offering

Here’s picture number three. Paul is at the end of his life. He’s in prison now. It’s the last time he’s in Rome, and in 2 Timothy 4:6–8, which is in his last letter, he says:

I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 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.

And I would add more than life. There will be no finishing without a fight, and there will be no finishing without fatalities. Paul said, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course.” Brothers and sisters, the opposite of fighting is drifting and coasting.

No Finishing without a Fight

That takes us now to the book of Hebrews, which is the biggest, strongest, most powerful indictment of drifting and coasting in all the Bible. It is a devastating book for lukewarm, careless, non-vigilant, non-running, non-fighting, non-laboring Christians. What I want to do first to bathe you in Hebrews is to just summarize the book with a dozen or so texts like bullets. The focus of the book of Hebrews on fighting, as Paul said, “I have fought the good fight.” I’m just going to list these verses. You won’t have time to look them up. If you want to jot them down, that’s fine:

  • We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it (Hebrews 2:1).

  • How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? (Hebrews 2:3).

  • Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:12–13).

  • Let us strive to enter [God’s] rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience (Hebrews 4:11).

  • We desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises (Hebrews 6:11–12).

In other words, don’t be sluggish. Don’t get up in the morning and turn on the television. Don’t brood over the variety section of the newspaper without having bled over your Bible. Don’t be that way. It breeds weak, powerless churches.

  • Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith…Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering … (Hebrews 10:22–23).

  • Do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance … (Hebrews 10:35–36).

  • We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls (Hebrews 10:39).

  • Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1).

Putting Aside Every Weight

Let me pause over that last verse. It said in the brochure that most of our kids are grown. I have a three-year-old. We decided to start over so we could empathize with those who are in their 30s that are doing it — that’s not the only reason. I also have a 15-year-old, an 18-year-old, a 23-year-old, and a 26-year-old. When they are listening to a particular kind of music that I don’t like, or going to a movie that I disapprove of, and they say, “What’s wrong with it?” I always respond the same way: Wrong question. I say, “Don’t ask minimalist Christian questions in this house.” They are still following the Lord, believe it or not. With tears I could tell you stories of hard times. Nobody’s raised teenagers without tears. But I say, “Don’t ask minimalist Christian questions, ask maximum Christians questions in this house.”

Don’t ask, “What’s wrong with something?” Who cares about that question. Instead, ask, “Does it set me on fire? Does it make me pray harder? Does it make me love my Bible more? Does it make me fall in love with Jesus more? Does it make me lay down my life? Does is make me courageous to witness?” I want to know that about this movie. I want to know that about this rock music. Do you come out of that aflame with love for Jesus?

Lay aside every weight and sin. I’m not mainly concerned if it’s a sin or not. That’s the wrong question. Does it help you run, son? Does it help you run for Jesus to the hard places and the hard people of the neighborhood? That plays, folks, with teenagers, or generation X-ers, or Baby Boomers — human beings want maximalist questions. Force them to ask the right questions. I will continue the verses from Hebrews:

  • Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted…you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood (Hebrews 12:3).

  • Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed (Hebrews 12:12–13).

  • See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God … (Hebrews 12:15).

Here’s the summary of those verses: There is no finishing well without a fight. I don’t know what your breed or brand of Christianity is, but there are many fight-less brands. Oh, the false security that runs abroad in America. There is false security in many churches. Jesus said:

On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ (Matthew 7:22).

And then he will declare to them, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23), even though they confessed his deity. There was no pursuit of holiness, as Hebrews 12:14 says:

[Strive] for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

There is false security in many churches, and there will be no finishing at all without a fight.

Pursuing Paul’s Aim

Now we’re close to the answer to the question that I heard last night. If you’ve got these two pictures, with Reader’s Digest on the one side, collecting shells on the way to the judgment, and you’ve got Paul on the other side, counting his life of no value if only he might finish his course of testifying to the gospel of the grace of God in the face of affliction and imprisonment — if you’ve got those two pictures and this is the one that if you became that way would change the world, how do you become that way? How do you sustain that? There are two parts to the answer that I’m moving into.

First, you must see that the fight is a fight for the magnifying of the glory of God, and second, you must see that the fight is a fight for the satisfying of your soul. You must see that these are not different fights. I’ll say it again. I’ll be spending the next two sessions unpacking this sentence. In order to become the kind of person that we see in Acts 20:24, you must see that the fight you are called to is a fight for the magnifying of the glory of God among the nations, and you must see that it is a fight for the satisfying of your own soul in that glory, and you must see that the first fight and the second fight are one fight.

Joining God in His Purposes

In the last five minutes or so that we have, if you have a Bible, you might want to look at Hebrews 13:20–21. Here, I think you have an answer to the question that might be rising in some of your minds. After that litany of passages from the book of Hebrews on our striving, our fighting, our not drifting, our not neglecting, our taking heed, our exhorting, our seizing, our not throwing away, and our my running, why shouldn’t I get the glory and not God? The answer is given in these two verses. This is Hebrews 13:20–21. It says:

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

You won’t get the glory if you finish well because you will only finish well if God finishes through you. God is the great finisher. In fact, I would say, risking overstatement, he is the only finisher. We will finish well if we recognize that what he aims to finish we must join him in finishing. More than that, from the text in Hebrews 13:21, if we are to finish it, joining him in his goal to fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of God like the waters cover the sea, we must finish recognizing that it is he who works in us that which is pleasing in his sight through Jesus, so that Jesus gets the glory.

Do you see the theological connection there? God is doing it. If you wonder, “How do I run? How do I strengthen my knees? How do I lift my drooping hands? How do I not drift?” The answer is that God does it in you and through you, through Jesus Christ. Why is it through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever? It’s because the giver gets the glory, the chief doer gets the glory, and the finisher gets the glory, and God means for Jesus to get the glory. Therefore, if you finish, Jesus finishes through you. You will not finish on your own.

There’s a text back in Hebrews 13:5–6 that relates to money. It says:

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”

What can man, whether Muslim, Hindu, animist, or atheist, do to you? They can only kill you, that’s all. Jesus said:

I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do (Luke 12:4).

Fear not, you can only be killed. If you’re going to finish well, it will be joining God in his purposes to glorify his name. It will be joining him in the strength that he himself, for the rest of your days, until your dying day, whether in or out of prison, will supply you with what you need because the giver and the finisher will get the glory.