Strong to the Finish

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Strong to the Finish

by Craig Brian Larson

Text: Hebrews 12:1-3

Topic: How to finish the race of life well, with God’s help.

Big idea: People are remembered for how they finish – their lives, their relationships, their ministry. When life gets tough, God helps us run the race before us.

Keywords: Endurance; Perseverance.


  • Illustration: When Vincent Foster, adviser to President Clinton, committed suicide in 1993, Clinton said, “It would be wrong to define a life like Vincent Foster’s in terms only of how it ended.” Nonetheless, that’s how Foster will be remembered – by how he finished the race.
  • The end of a life—or anything—defines all that went before it.

Hebrews 12:1-3 is not only about running the race, but finishing it well.

  • Illustration: A cross-country course is marked off with flags. Runners can’t [KM1] choose to cut corners and shorten the race. They must run the race marked out for them. It’s the same in the Christian life.
  • Someone else’s race might seem easier than your own,

but God says, “I want you to run this race. Don’t think about others.”


If you’re going to finish, you’ve got to keep running until you reach the finish line.

  • Illustration: At the 1968 Olympics, an hour after the marathon’s winner crossed the finish line, Tanzania’s John Stephen Akhwari limped across the finish line, injured in a fall early in the race. Asked why he didn’t quit, he said, “My country did not send me 7,000 miles to start this race. My country sent me to finish.”
  • So it is with God. He didn’t send just send us to start the race. He sent us to finish.
  • Sometimes the race is filled with pain, but God wants us to run through it and finish strong.

- Illustration: In this detailed illustration from the Chariots of Fire, Scotland’s Eric Liddell was knocked down early in a 440-yard race. He sat dazed for a moment, and someone yelled, “Get up and run!” He was 20 yards behind the others, but caught the rest of the pack and won in an amazing performance.

Sometimes we don’t persevere because of “Heartbreak Hill.”

  • The Boston Marathon’s Heartbreak Hill, at mile 19, tests runners to the core. It is life’s long, steep hills, like the one in the Boston Marathon, that test our faith and trust in the Lord to the core of our being.
  • James 1:12 says to us, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial . . .”

- Illustration: At the 1992 Olympics, Derek Redmond tore a hamstring early in the 400-meter race, collapsing. He got up and limped toward the finish line. His father barreled out of the stands and helped his son to the end. Our heavenly Father does [KM2] that for us.



  • Like Paul, we want to be able to say, “I’ve finished the race. I’ve kept the faith.”



! Strong to the Finish

God equips us not only to run the race, but also to finish it well.

by Craig Brian Larson


It was a hot day—Tuesday, July 20, 1993, in Washington, D.C.—as Vincent Foster sat in the Rose Garden. That morning he watched as President Clinton announced his new FBI director. Foster returned to his White House Counsel’s office after the ceremony. He took care of some legal business, then talked with President Clinton, his boyhood friend, for a few moments. He ate lunch that day at his desk.

A little after one o’clock, Foster left the office, telling his staff he would return. He pulled his Honda Accord onto the streets of Washington, D.C., and drove to a little-visited national park on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River. He got out, leaving his suit coat in the car. In his hand was an antique, .38-caliber revolver. He walked across an open field. Standing beside a cannon pointing out over the woods, Vincent Foster took his own life.

When President Clinton heard the news, he called together his staff to console them on the loss of someone that they all loved. Then President Clinton said these words: “It would be wrong to define a life like Vincent Foster’s in terms only of how it ended.”

Clinton is right in one sense. But the sad fact is that no matter how much Vincent Foster’s friends, family, colleagues, and workmates try to put the end of his life out of their minds, how his life ended will always overshadow his memory. Because how a life, a ministry, a job, or a relationship ends defines and colors all that goes before it.

Think of Jim Bakker at PTL. Whether you liked him or not, tens of thousands of people would tell you that they were tremendously blessed and encouraged by his ministry. He did many wonderful things during his ministry, yet what is his ministry remembered for? How it ended.

Consider the Seattle Supersonics basketball team of the previous two years. Two years ago they had the best regular season record in the NBA. But in the first round of the playoffs they were beaten by the lowest seed in their bracket, the Denver Nuggets. Last year they were again one of the top teams picked to win the championship. Yet they were beaten in either the first round or the second round of the playoffs. For the Supersonics, the last two seasons were not glorious successes. Because of how they finished, they were looked upon as ignominious failures.

Think of Judas. Judas decided to follow Jesus. Judas heard Jesus teach. He went out two by two with the others, healing the sick and exorcising demons. Judas did a lot of disciple kinds of things. Yet he is remembered solely for how his relationship with Jesus ended.

How a life, a ministry, or a relationship ends is absolutely crucial to everything that goes before it.

That is why Paul spoke the words of 2 Timothy 4:7 as he sat in a Roman jail, knowing that he was soon to be martyred for the faith. You sense the incredible relief in his spirit as he says, “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.”

Hebrews 12:1-3 is not only about running the race, but finishing it well.

I want to talk to you this morning about finishing the race.


In Hebrews 12:1 it says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders.” Paul is moving into a metaphor of running.

“Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance.” There’s that “P” word we don’t enjoy very much.

“Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

When I was in college, the cross-country team ran on the golf course. The officials for the race would go out ahead, placing flags on the course to show the runners where they were supposed to run. A certain color indicated “left turn.” Another color meant “right turn.” Another said “straight ahead.”

There was a race marked out for the runners; and if they had any intention of taking home a medal, they had to follow the race-course marked out. You couldn’t decide, “Boy, this is a six-mile race, but I’ve only got four miles in me this morning. I’m going to take a short cut. I hope nobody minds.”

You can’t look at a particular hill and say, “That hill just looks nasty. I’m not going to tackle that one today. I’ll just skip around it.” You have to run the race marked out for you.

So it is in the Christian life. God has gone before you. He knows your end from your beginning. He knows all the days of your life. In his great foreknowledge, he has gone ahead of you and planted these flags ahead of you. And the Scripture says, “Run with perseverance the race marked out for you.”

Each race is unique. Yet I tend to compare myself with other people. When my race seems tough, and I want to feel sorry for myself, it’s easy to look at someone else and say, “Boy, if I had his race to run, no problem. I could handle that. If I had his paycheck, I could run with perseverance the race marked out for me. If I had a husband or a wife, I could run with perseverance. If I had his health; if I didn’t have this disability.”

We can rationalize to the point where we say, “It’s okay for me to quit. I don’t have to run with perseverance because my course is so much harder than that of other people’s.”

But God says, “I want you to run this race. This is what I hold you accountable for. Don’t think about others. You just look at me. And together, we’ll run your race.”

If you’re going to finish, you’ve got to keep running until you reach the finish line.

If you’re going to finish, you’ve got to keep running until you reach the finish line.

By 7 p.m. on October 20, 1968, at the Mexico City Olympics Stadium, it was beginning to darken. It had cooled down as well.

The last of the Olympic marathon runners were being assisted away to first-aid stations. Over an hour earlier, Mamo Waldi of Ethiopia had charged across the finish line, winning the 26-mile, 385-yard race looking as strong and as vigorous as when he’d started.

As the last few thousand spectators began preparing to leave, they heard police sirens and whistles through the gate entering the stadium.

The attention turned to that gate. A sole figure, wearing the colors of Tanzania, came limping into the stadium. His name was John Stephen Akhwari. He was the last man to finish the marathon in 1968. His leg was bandaged, bloody. He had taken a bad fall early in the race. Now, it was all he could do to limp his way around the track. The crowd stood and applauded as he completed that last lap.

When he finally crossed the finish line, one man dared ask the question all were wondering. “You are badly injured. Why didn’t you quit? Why didn’t you give up?”

Aquari, with quiet dignity said, “My country did not send me seven thousand miles to start this race. My country sent me to finish.”

So it is with God. God didn’t just send you to start this race. He didn’t just send you to begin a noble task or a noble relationship. God sent you both to start and to finish.

The start of the race is a wonderful thing. Runners in the marathon are feeling strong and energetic. They’ve done the right training for years. They’ve followed a scientific plan prescribing what to eat and how much to rest. They are strong. They’re ready. They’re like rabbits at the start of the race.

The gun sounds. The crowd is cheering. They take off. There’s electricity in the air. When you start a race, you feel like a billion dollars. But when you get about sixteen miles into that marathon, it’s a whole different experience, isn’t it?

You get blisters on your feet and feel like there’s a knife in your side. Your legs are turning to oatmeal. Your muscles are screaming from the pain. Now this race is a completely different experience.

Often in life, we get down the road, and there’s pain involved. We say, “This hurts, so it must not be God’s will.”

Do you see the fallacy here? Pain does not mean it’s no longer God’s will. Sometimes the race God calls us to run is filled with pain.

But if God has called you to this, he wants you to run through the pain. God wants you not just to be a good starter. God wants you to be a great finisher.

Have you ever noticed that world-class runners have a “kick?” A kick is a technical runner’s term that means when they get to that last one hundred yards or so, the runner can still sprint. No matter how much he’s run before, he can sprint that last leg to the finish line and win that race. God wants you to have a kick. No matter what your circumstance, God wants you to finish strong.

Several years ago, I read a study of all the leaders in the Bible. One of the most alarming characteristics in that study was that most of them finished poorly. Not that they all fell into immorality or some other ignominious thing. But they did not finish with the same fervor with which they started. One of the defining factors of great leadership is finishing strong.

That is equally true of the Christian life. Can you finish every ministry, every relationship that God gives you, not just limping in, but strong, with a kick that brings glory to God?

Many of you saw the movie Chariots of Fire back about ten years ago. It was the true story of Eric Liddell, a man who ran for Scotland, then went on to become a missionary. You may recall that he refused to run on the Sabbath, forfeiting some of the awards he probably would have won in the 1924 Olympics.

Well, there was another scene in that movie that may have appeared like Hollywood fiction, but it was also true. One year before the pivotal event in the movie, Eric Liddell ran in a meet between England, Ireland and Scotland. He ran the 100-, 220-, and 440-yard events.

In the 440, he got off to a bad start. When that gun sounded, there was a lot of shoving to get in front to the inside lane, the advantageous position.

Liddell tangled feet with J. J. Gillies of England and tumbled to the track. He sat there dazed for a moment, not knowing whether he could get up, when the official screamed, “Get up and run!”

He jumped to his feet and took off after the pack, which was now a full twenty yards ahead of him. In a quarter mile, that’s a big distance to try to make up. In his unorthodox style of running he took off after the pack. He pulled into fourth place ten yards behind the leader, J. J. Gillies.

With forty yards to go, he pulled into third place, then second. Right at the tape he passed Gillies, stuck his chest out, won the race, and collapsed to the track in total exhaustion. Medical personnel had to assist him off the track that day.

An article appearing the next day in The Scotsman newspaper said, “The circumstances in which Liddell won the race made it a performance bordering on the miraculous. Veterans whose memories take them back thirty-five years and in some cases longer in the history of athletics were unanimous in the opinion that Liddell’s win in the quarter mile was the greatest track performance they had ever seen.”

There’s something glorious about getting up off the track after you’ve been knocked down and running again. Win or lose, you didn’t stay down.

Some of you have been knocked down. Maybe Satan has tripped you up. Perhaps you have made some foolish decisions. Perhaps other people have done you wrong.

When we’re down on the track we’re embarrassed. We’re ashamed. At times we feel self-pity. We’re depressed. At times like this, we just feel like staying on the track. But the only real shame is to stay down on the track.

God’s word to you is, “Get up and run!” Forget those who have wronged you. Forget what lies behind and run for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. You still have a race ahead of you.

Philippians 1:6 doesn’t say, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day you fail and flop on the track.” It says, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.”

Jesus looked Peter right in the eyes and said, “You’re going to deny me.” But he said, “When you turn back, strengthen your brothers.” Get right back into God’s calling and purpose for you. Don’t stay down on the track.

Sometimes we don’t persevere because of “Heartbreak Hill.”

There is another reason that we don’t persevere. Sometimes we face “Heartbreak Hill.” In the Boston Marathon, there is a legendary obstacle called Heartbreak Hill. Starting at mile thirteen of the Boston race course, there are a number of hills, climaxing at mile nineteen with Heartbreak Hill. It’s the longest, steepest hill in the race. What makes this hill even worse is that world-class runners “hit the wall” around mile eighteen or nineteen. That is, their bodies have depleted the glycogen stored in the muscles. That glycogen has been replaced with lactic acid.

The muscles are screaming for oxygen. And when you hit the wall, you just feel like you’re going to die. Heartbreak Hill tests runners to the very core of their determination and their strength.

There are Heartbreak Hills in life. Life is not on a level grade. We have problems. We have bigger problems. And at times we face Heartbreak Hill.

A daughter becomes pregnant out of wedlock. A loved one dies. We lose our job and suffer long-term unemployment. The pain of a divorce, a broken relationship. A financial catastrophe strikes. An emotional breakdown.

There are people here this morning who are in the middle of Heartbreak Hill. You are facing the most severe test of your life. It is the Heartbreak Hills that test our faith and trust in the Lord to the very core of our being.

I wish someone was able to give us all the answers for every heartbreak we face. But we don’t have all the answers. Sometimes there is a nice explanation for what’s happening, but it seems like most of the time at Heartbreak Hill, God does not show us precisely what is going on or why. But he calls us, rather, to trust him. Even though everything is confusion and senseless in your perspective, he calls you to trust him.

James 1:12 says to those at Heartbreak Hill, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial because when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”

I keep putting one foot in front of another, but it’s up to God to get me to that finish line. Hebrews 12:2 says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” He is the one who will get you to the finish line.

It was Monday night, August 3, at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. At the track and field stadium, the gun sounded for the 400-meter semifinals. About 100 meters into the race, Britain’s Derek Redmond crumpled to the track with a torn right hamstring.

Medical attendants rushed out to assist him, but as they approached Redmond, he waved them all aside, struggled to his feet, and crawled and hopped in a desperate effort to finish the race.

Four years earlier he had also qualified for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. Ninety seconds before his heat he had to pull out of the Olympics because of Achilles tendon problems. Following that injury, he had five surgeries. Yet somehow he had qualified again for this 1992 Olympics, and he’d just suffered a career-ending injury.

But he said to himself, “I’m not quitting. I’m going to finish this race.” He worked his way, hopping, crawling at times down the lane.

A big guy wearing a T-shirt, tennis shoes, and a Nike cap that said Just Do It across the front barreled out of the stands, hurled aside a security guard, ran to Derek Redmond’s side, and embraced him. He was Jim Redmond, Derek’s father.

Jim was one of these sports dads who changes his whole life for the sake of his athlete child. He changed jobs. He moved to find the best training for his son.

Now, arm around his son’s waist, Derek’s arm around his dad’s thick shoulders and neck, they continue down the track.

Mom and sister were watching this race back home on television. His sister, who was pregnant, went into false labor. Mom is weeping. There, at the stadium, the crowd is standing, cheering. Derek and his daddy work their way around the track until, finally, arm in arm, they cross the finish line.

If that’s the way an earthly father responds to his son who is determined to finish the race no matter what the price, how much more does God, our heavenly Father, run to the side of his son or daughter who says, “I’m finishing. I don’t care how much it hurts. I don’t care if I’m hanging on a cross. I’m finishing.”

God says as much in Isaiah 46:3-4: “Listen to me. You whom I have upheld since you were conceived and have carried since your birth even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he. I am he who will sustain you. I have made you, and I will carry you.”

That’s God talking. As he carries you, as you wrap your arm around him, God whispers in your ear: “Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15).

And he embraces you, squeezes you a little tighter, and he whispers again, saying, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” He whispers again, as he does in Psalms, “Wait for the Lord. Be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”

My prayer for you is that one day, like the apostle Paul, you will be able to say those words, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”

Craig Brian Larson is co-author of Preaching that Connects (Zondervan). He is pastor of Lakeshore Assembly of God in Chicago, Illinois.

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