The name of an elite runner from Tanzania was written in sports history books at the 1968 Olympics—without him winning one medal. John Stephen Akhwari joined the field of seventy-eight competitors in Mexico City for a twenty-six-mile marathon. Around the halfway mark, Akhwari suffered severe injuries when he became entangled with other runners, stumbled, and hit the track with full-body force. A medic team rushed to his aid, bandaging his bloody wounds and dislocated knee, and recommended the obvious withdrawal from the race. Akhwari refused to give up. The tenacious athlete limped in agony over the remaining thirteen miles to cross the finish line one hour after the race was over. When asked how he endured under excruciating pain and impossible odds, his answer is still remembered over fifty years later, “My country didn’t send me 5000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5000 miles to finish the race.” Akhwari was a man so focused on finishing he was willing to endure anything.
In 1 Timothy 4:7b-10 we find an instruction given by Paul to a young minister named Timothy to have similar type focus to that of Akhwari. Paul writes, “On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance. For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.” Paul tells Timothy that “For this (speaking about the “promise for the present life and also for the life to come”) that we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God.” We can see that in Akhwari’s story how he fixed his eyes on the finish line, but what does it mean to fix our hope on the living God? To answer that, let’s examine a man in the New Testament who perfectly displays someone who fixed their hope on God and set their eyes on the finish line, Paul the apostle. One who we could say had “finish line focus.”
Paul was one who was strong from the very start of his faith. We see in Acts 9:18-20 how right after the moment he was baptized, he started preaching the good news. “And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized; and he took food and was strengthened. Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”” This is no doubt both admirable and even inspiring, but many Christians have had strong starts to the life of faith; and as most Christians can attest, this isn’t always a sure sign they will run the distance. We all probably know of someone who put on Christ in baptism, started their spiritual race in a full spring and had a heart, mind, and body willing to serve God – and then lost momentum and passion as the trials or time went by. In track and field when a runner sprints out to an early lead and then falls behind it is called a “burst & bust.” However, in Paul’s life we know that this initial bust of passion and energy for the Kingdom never waned, Paul kept his eyes on the finish line till the day he met it.
He would write in Philippians 3:12-14 about this determination, “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Just like Akhwari, Paul presses on toward the goal for the prize. He sets his eyes on the finish line and no matter the situation, setback, or obstacle to overcome – Paul presses on. May we echo the life of Paul in our own efforts to focus on the finish line and do whatever it takes to make it there. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”