Our safari guide knew exactly what we wanted, and he was determined that we would not be disappointed. With his keen eye continually surveying the terrain, we crisscrossed the wildlife preserve until he finally gave us a hushed indication that he had spotted something at the edge of the waterhole — something that he was sure would make us happy: lions! Yes, there were lions — and the encounter was even more exciting than we had expected. The lions were not just lounging in the sun; they boasted a recent kill. One lion sat on top of a zebra that it was holding under water in an apparent attempt to drown it. She wanted to ensure that it was dead before letting go of the grip she held upon her prey. An occasional snarl and roar warned the other members of the pride every time they tried to get a little too close to her treasure.
I must admit that it was a heart-stopping thrill to be so close to such an Animal Planet scene — only in real life. Although we weren’t there for the kill, it was easy to conjure up images of the National Geographic episode that must have played out only minutes before our arrival. The lion had stealthily stalked her prey as the unsuspecting zebra paused for a morning drink. When with a sudden bound of energy the predator burst from the tall grass, the zebra raced away at break-neck speed. Exerting every ounce of energy she could muster, the lion pursued her target, finally bouncing upon its hindquarter and bringing it crashing to the ground. As the zebra thrashed and struggled to get loose, the lion only tightened her clamp upon the defenseless subject. With claws securely anchored into the zebra’s flesh, the lion was able to release the grip of her powerful jaw and move into position to attack the jugular vein. After long minutes of anguishing struggle the zebra began to grow less and less resistant until it lay almost limp under the massive feline. Then the predator began to drag her prize to the nearby waterhole to guarantee that her next meal would not surprise her by suddenly bounding back to its feet.
Well, it’s quite a thrilling story, but at the same time it is a powerful illustration of a great biblical truth that we can find spelled out in I Timothy 6:11-12:
But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses.
In this passage, the apostle called his son in the faith a man of God and gave him four directives. The first directive was to flee away from certain harmful things. As I read that warning, I get a sense of what is instinctively bred into all zebras: watch out for lions — and when you see one, run like you life depends upon it; it does! The zebra that we saw face down in the Kenyan waterhole had somehow failed to learn — or at least, to practice — that all-important lesson. The great apostle strongly admonished his young protégée to be more diligent than our unsuspecting zebra. Knowing how deadly the enemy’s grasp can be, Paul told Timothy to flee from greed. The apostle did not choose a milder word such as “avoid” or “ignore” greed; rather, he used a term that suggests pumping every drop of adrenalin in his system into his veins and charging away with Olympian speed. In a statement from his follow-up letter to this young disciple, the wizened mentor broadened his scope of potential predators from which the young man must flee to include youthful lusts (II Timothy 2:22). In his first letter to the Corinthians, he warns them of two foes that constantly preyed upon them: fornication (verse 6:18) and idolatry (verse 10:14).
When considering the tragic fate of our hapless zebra, Paul’s admonition becomes dramatically poignant. How often do we nonchalantly excuse, endure, and even entertain lustful thoughts, images, and conversations and casually disregard covetous emotions and greedy motivations. Paul warns us that such unwary grazing by the waterhole may well result in our spiritual demise.
The next three admonitions from the apostle are depicted in the lion’s side of our scenario: follow after, fight, and lay hold on. The Greek word translated “follow after” is actually a much stronger term than is communicated in the English version. It is most frequently translated “persecute” and should be rendered with at least the emphatic sense of “pursue” in this context. The lion’s breathless chase after the panicking zebra accurately coveys the import of its usage in this text. Following the chase, the lion struggled with the zebra until it was felled; Paul’s admonition to Timothy was that he do the same: fight the good fight of faith. Once the zebra was subdued, the lion dug in her powerful claws, clamped her mighty jaws, and threw her entire weight upon her prey, guaranteeing that it would not escape from her clutches. Paul goes further in his instruction to his young follower: lay hold on eternal life.
Paul instructed Timothy to pursue after several great qualities. The first prize he challenged him to target was righteousness — right standing with God. This prize is certainly a treasure worth chasing because, according to Romans 14:17, it is literally the manifestation of the kingdom of God. Jesus Himself admonished us to literally hunger and thirst for it (Matthew 5:6), a directive that conjures in my mind the image of the lion’s appetite for zebra flesh. Jesus added that putting righteousness at the very top of our list of priorities and pursing it relentlessly would result in supernatural provision of every other significant need in our lives (Matthew 6:33).
In the book of Romans, Paul explained that righteousness is attainable only through and by faith. (verses 3:22, 9:30) Using the example of Abraham whose belief in God was counted as righteousness for him, Paul explained that our righteousness is imputed or accredited to us through faith rather than through actual deeds of merit. (verses 4:3, 6) Perhaps this is why Jesus instructed us that our righteousness should exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees; they had no faith when they performed their meritorious deeds. (Matthew 5:20, 23:23)
Righteousness is available to us by only one means — faith in the propitiation of Jesus’ blood that cleanses us from all unrighteousness. (Romans 3:25, I John 1:9) Pursuing such cleansing grace means to relentlessly chase after forgiveness even if we have to repent and avail ourselves of God’s mercies seventy times seven times each day. (Matthew 18:22)
The next quality Paul instructed Timothy to chase after was faith — right relationship with God. Remember what we learned about Sara’s definition of faith — that she counted Him faithful who had promised. In other words, faith is trusting in the faithfulness of God. We must tirelessly pursue the kind of relationship with our heavenly Father in which we never doubt His most minute assurance or His most outrageously grandiose promise.
When the apostle instructed his pupil to pursue love, patience, and gentleness, he was challenging him to go after the fruit of the Spirit — right manifestation of God. It is through such qualities that are not naturally evident in humans that we demonstrate that the divine nature of God has really been deposited inside of us.
Next Paul admonished Timothy to fight the good fight of faith and to lay hold to eternal life just as the lion struggled with and clamped down on the zebra after chasing it down. The promises and provisions of God are worthy of every effort we must exert to get and to retain them. Certainly, we can’t earn any of God’s blessings, but we certainly must not let any of them slip through our fingers or be stolen out of our hands. (Hebrews 4:1)
In his follow-up letter to Timothy, Paul gave his apprentice the inside secret of what it takes to become the man of God he had addressed him as in the first missive.
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. (II Timothy 3:16-17)
This all-important key is to apply the inspired Word of God constantly to our lives. Paul used several words that we often wish to ignore when talking of the Christian life: reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. Understandably, we prefer to focus on blessings and edification; however, if we desire to obtain the prize of eternal life we must submit ourselves to the corrective and frequently reprimanding instruction of God’s Word. The pursuit of righteousness may be as grueling as was the chase for the lion, but at the same time it will be equally exhilarating as we set our focus on the prize we are to attain: being complete and thoroughly equipped for every good work!