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The last words of the apostle Paul

By George O. Wood

The legal term “hearsay” means that words spoken outside of the courtroom are inadmissible as evidence because those words are not subject to cross-examination or other tests for veracity. There are several exceptions to the hearsay rule — and one such exemption is a dying declaration.

The presumption is that a person facing imminent death will speak the truth and, therefore, his or her words can be relied upon.

Among the very last words of the apostle Paul are those found in 2 Timothy 4:6-8, his dying declaration in which he sums up who he is and what he has been about.

“For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store 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 longed for his appearing.”

Whenever I hear contemporary accusations brought against the apostle Paul — that he invented Christianity, condoned slavery, preached the subjugation of women, wrongly condemned homosexuality, and taught intolerance through his exclusive claims for the truth of the gospel — I go back to the veracity of his dying declaration to find the truth.

Paul lived by a principle that Steven Covey did not first discover. Covey wrote the best seller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey’s second principle is, “Live with the end in view.” He advocates that every one of us should sit down and write out what we want people to say about us at our memorial service — and then go live the rest of our lives in such a way that what we want said can actually be said!

In his dying declaration, the apostle Paul summarizes five vital perspectives by which he lived — perspectives that invite us to do the same.

1. An offering

Paul summarizes his impending execution by saying, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering.”

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His mind is on the moment in the temple when the priest lifts the goblet of wine to pour as a liquid sacrifice upon the altar. He himself is now that wine, or as Moffatt’s translation puts it, “The last drops of my own sacrifice are falling.”

From day one of his Christian journey, Paul had put himself at the disposal of Jesus. He had consistently emptied out his life — he considered “everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus [his] Lord, for whose sake [he had] lost all things” (Philippians 3:8, NIV).

The cause of Jesus Christ is weakened when His people only give offerings from their substance. The offering that best advances the gospel is the giving of ourselves. “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).

With Paul, there never was a holding back. He walked thousands of miles to spread the gospel, endured great suffering and hardship, and time and again faced the opposition of make-believe apostles and make-believe Christians. He didn’t do it for himself. First, last, and in between, it was “all for Jesus.”

Facing imperial capital punishment by decapitation, Paul refuses to look upon his violent death as execution, but rather the completion of pouring out his life as an offering to God.

Frances Ridley Havergal’s great hymn “Take My Life, and Let It Be” aptly summarizes what it means to give your whole life unreservedly to Christ.

Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.

Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.

Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love.

Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee.

As an offering to the Lord, Paul lived out Christ’s agenda rather than his own. His most frequent preposition associated with Christ is the little word “in.” Everything (creation, salvation, forgiveness, redemption, justification, sanctification, glorification, healing, eternal life) is in Christ. Paul lived and died as a man in Christ.

2. A fight

Paul’s dying declaration states, “I have fought the good fight.” The original language from his pen literally says, “I have agonized the agony.”

Throughout his epistles, Paul returns to the theme of struggle and agony (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 1:30; Colossians 2:1; 4:12; 1 Thessalonians 2:2; 1 Timothy 6:12). He struggled against spiritual powers, natural or metaphorical wild beasts, false apostles, adversities of many varieties, and persecution from his own kinsmen. Everyone God uses will have powerful forces arrayed against him or her.

Mikhail Khorev, a blind Russian gospel minister, said these words several years after the collapse of communism: “Our enemy is at work today, trying to lead the church into a quiet rut, a life with no struggles and no victories. Beware of this.”

You don’t win converts, plant churches, or mentor disciples in an opposition-free environment. Every one of the 10 churches Paul planted was established in the face of adversity: Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, Philippi, Berea, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth and Ephesus.

Notice Paul says that he fought the “good fight.” Not all fights are good. One has to make a strategic assessment as to which fights to fight first. Paul chose not to openly take on the institution of slavery, but to fight it from within by insisting on a different behavior for believers. The strategy worked — Christians reformed the Roman Empire from inside out. He took the same tack regarding the role of women — planting the seed of equality (Galatians 3:28) underneath the concrete of culture — knowing that the living power of the seed would ultimately penetrate and supplant those aspects of culture that would limit the degree to which the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh.

Paul had Spirit-directed wisdom to know what to fight and when to fight. Too many Christians today are in bad fights — senseless, self-serving fights that even if won do not advance the gospel.

3. A race

Paul’s dying declaration draws an analogy not only to the athletic event of a fight, but also of a marathon. He states, “I have finished the race.” Earlier in his life, he talked of winning the race (1 Corinthians 9:24); now he’s content to finish.

The Christian life is not a 100-yard dash. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon that requires effort and endurance. Paul never retired from doing Christ’s will; he never eased up. He kept on running right until the end.

In the 1968 Mexico City Olympics marathon, the most famous runner came in last. John Stephen Akhwari, from Tanzania, fell badly early on in the race but continued on a bloodied and bandaged leg, wincing in pain at every step of the long 26-mile and 385-yard marathon. Thousands remained in the stadium to cheer as he limped into the stadium for the last lap to the finish line. He was asked later why he had endured the pain since he had no chance of winning. “I don’t think you understand,” he replied. “My country did not send me to Mexico City to start the race. They sent me to finish the race.”

Paul finished the race because all along he had determined to run the whole distance. Will we do similarly?

4. A trustee

“I have kept the faith,” Paul says. The “keeping” is the action of a trustee.

In legal terms, there are four elements that make up a trust: the trust itself, the trustor or benefactor, the trustee, and the beneficiary.

Suppose I give you $10,000 to hold for the benefit of my children. (I am the trustor, you are the trustee, the trust is the $10,000, and the beneficiaries are my children). You have a duty to treat that $10,000 with more care than if it were your own money. You could give your own money away, or risk it on a speculative venture. But, you have a higher duty to guard a trust, and you cannot use that trust to enrich yourself. When it’s time for you to hand the trust over to my children, the money needs to be all there because you carefully guarded it.

It’s almost laughable to hear some so-called scholars accuse Paul of inventing Christ or remaking Him in such a way that the Christ of Paul is different altogether than the Jesus of Nazareth. Nonsense. As a trustee, Paul knew he was under obligation to keep the trust (1 Corinthians 11:23).

What is the trust? The gospel — the good news that God sent His Son to save us from our sin and give us eternal life. Jesus — born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died an atoning death, rose from the dead on the third day, ascended into heaven, poured forth the Holy Spirit which He received from the Father, and is coming again. That’s the “trust” — the core content of the gospel. Paul did not make that up. He passed it on — he neither diluted the trust nor changed its character. The trust had been given to him by the Trustor, Jesus himself. Paul, as the trustee, had kept the faith (the trust), and we are all the beneficiaries.

Will we, on our watch, also safely guard the priceless treasure of the gospel and keep the “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3)? Or, will we let it be whittled away, reinterpreted, compromised and eroded?

Paul’s critics today want to do that — they want to change the nature of the trust. They hate Paul because he kept the trust. Look at the compromise within large segments of the so-called “Christian” world — major denominations that no longer hold to the exclusive claims of Christ, dismissing such claims as intolerant. They then endorse heterosexual and homosexual lifestyles that are in clear opposition to God’s Word, distorting the moral code given by Moses and Jesus. They ordain apostates and the sexually perverted.

No, my friends, Paul did not betray the trust. The trust is being betrayed by those who claim the name of Christ but seek to change the very nature of the faith (the trust).

5. A crown

Finally, Paul’s dying declaration captures his expectation of what’s next — “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness.” Caesar’s execution order may sever Paul’s head, but on the other side his head is back on his shoulders, ready to receive the crown.

In the Greek language there are two words for crown: stephanos and diadem. The latter is metal and bejeweled (like the crown of a king or queen) while the stephanos is a laurel wreath — worn by a bride on her wedding day, the winner of a race, a military victor. Christians are never seen as wearing the diadem — that belongs to Christ (Revelation 19:12). We receive the crown (stephanos) of a winner, a bride, a victor. This crown is not only a crown of righteousness, but also a crown of life and glory. Even though it’s a laurel wreath — it does not fade away (James 1:12; Revelation 2:10; 1 Peter 5:4).

Paul had faced much injustice during his life — he was beaten, imprisoned, persecuted and unappreciated. What kept him going? He knew that at the end he would stand before the Righteous Judge. That Judge would approve him, acquit him, and sentence him to everlasting life!


Paul died the way he lived. He saw his life as an offering, a fight, a race, and a trust as he journeyed toward the crown. Do you see your life in the same way?

Paul’s dying declaration reminds us that the crown is not for him alone but “for all who have longed for [Christ’s] appearing.”

Paul lived always with the end in view. May we do the same.

George O. Wood, D.Th.P., J.D., is general secretary of the Assemblies of God and a member of the California Bar.

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