Paul described how he ran with purpose, “Run in such a way as to get the prize….Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly….No…I make [my body] my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize“ (1 Cor 9:24-27). “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14). When Paul came to the end of his life, he wrote, “I have finished the race. I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
When an elite runner gets to the finish line, he doesn’t want any gas left in the tank. He wants to come to the end having spent it all in the race. That is the way Paul sought to live his life, “I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well” (2 Cor 12:15). Paul knew how to run hard.
Running Well Requires Risk
Today is a good day to evaluate how we are running the race. When we come to the end of our lives and look back, what would we like to say about our life and ministry? We cannot let the failures of the past lead us to despair. We still have plenty of race to run. Let’s press on toward what lies ahead.
One objection we can make to spending ourselves for the Lord is that we don’t know the outcome and how much it will cost us. It might be risky. But consider how Paul thought about taking risks for the sake of the gospel in Acts 20:23. The Holy Spirit communicated to him that imprisonment and affliction were waiting for him in every city. And yet, that did not slow Paul down. He kept moving forward, knowing that he had a mission to accomplish.
We too have a mission to follow our Lord by making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to follow everything Christ has commanded us. The Christian life demands that we take risks in order to advance the gospel.
John Paton, missionary to the New Hebrides, serves as a good example for us. Born in Scotland in 1824, Paton was the oldest of 11 children. As committed Christians, his parents regularly took the family to church, taught the Bible in the home, prayed together, and taught the children catechism.
Preparing for a Life of Sacrifice
During his teen years, John served as an evangelist for the Glasgow City Mission, where he preached and discipled people throughout the week. Paton went to the University of Glasgow and then the Reformed Presbyterian Divinity School. The church in Glasgow called Paton to be their pastor while he was in school. The church grew to love Paton and to depend upon him so much that they tried to persuade him not to go overseas. Here were their reasons: Paton was too gifted; ministering to cannibals would be a waste of his time and talent; the church would fall away if he left; there was better and more abundant work in Glasgow; and it would be too dangerous for him to go.
One Christian, Mr. Dickson, reflecting on a missionary worker who had been killed and eaten only 20 years earlier, begged Paton to stay, “The cannibals, you will be eaten by cannibals!” Paton responded, “Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my resurrection body will arise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer” (John Paton, An Autobiography, 89-91).
Spending Himself for the Sake of the Gospel
John and Mary Paton arrived in the New Hebrides on the island of Tanna in April 1858. The island was full of paganism. The Patons were accompanied by John and Mary Mathieson, and Joseph Copeland. Within a year, Mary gave birth to their firstborn. However, due to pneumonia and malaria, both Mary and the baby died. Two more couples joined the team, the Johnstons and the Gordons. The natives violently attacked and killed the Gordons. On another occasion, the natives attacked Paton and Samuel Johnston. Paton would recover, but Johnston would not. He died only three weeks after the attack. Paton’s good friends, the Mathiesons, would die just a year or so later. Paton had experienced so much loss: his wife, his child, the Gordons, the Mathiesons, Samuel Johnston, along with several native teachers.
But Paton did not give up. He continued to work to develop a written language as well as a translation of the Bible into the Tannese language. Paton headed home for a kind of furlough in 1864. At that time, he married Margaret, and he then headed to Australia to raise more funds. Two years later, they arrived on Aniwa, an unreached island near Tanna. After three years of labor, God produced some converts whom Paton would baptize. Margaret would give birth to 10 children in all, six of whom would survive beyond infancy.
The Final Lap
Paton spent his final years traveling to churches and encouraging believers to support the work in the New Hebrides. It wasn’t his favorite work, but he saw it as necessary work.
As he traveled, he would speak to packed-out churches. After one particular meeting, he wrote, “To one who had striven and suffered loss, or who less appreciated how little we can do for others compared with what Jesus had done for us, this scene might have minister to spiritual pride; but long ere I reached the door of that hall my soul was already prostrated at the feet of my Lord in sorrow and in shame that I had done so little for him, and I bowed my head and could have gladly bowed my knees to cry, ‘Not unto us; Lord, not unto us!’” (Autobiography, 440).
Married for over 40 years, Margaret died the day before John turned 81 years old. John died only a year later. He had lived to see thousands of converts on Tanna and Aniwa.
Are We Running Well?
When Paton looked back on his life, he felt sorrow and shame for not doing enough for Christ. For us now would be a good time to take an inventory of our lives as servants of Christ. Are we spending ourselves and being spent for the sake of the gospel? Or are we expecting to be carried to the clouds on flowery beds of ease?
One islander recounted the impact of Paton’s perseverance, “Had he stayed away for such danger, I would have remained Heathen; but he came, and continued coming to teach us, till, by the grace of God, I was changed to what I am. Now the same God that changed me to this, can change these poor Tannese to love and serve Him. I cannot stay away from them; but I will sleep at the Mission House, and do all I can by day to bring them to Jesus” (James Paton, The Story of John G. Paton, 111).
What kind of local or global impact can God make through us if we are willing to spend ourselves and be spent for the sake of the gospel?