At this moment of time, I’ve preached 901 sermons in my years at Tri-State Fellowship. And everyone knows about my passions for running and coaching runners. And so, I was really surprised to look back and see that I have only ever once preached on this 1 Corinthians 9 passage. I did not include it in the “Life Race” series of 2017, nor did I feature it in our recent studies through selected passages of the two Corinthian letters.
The Apostle Paul says … “Run in such a way as to get the prize.” Is that true of the way you are living? Is that your goal? Or are you running just enough to somehow make it to the finish line without any sweat or pain?
Back in my coaching years in Williamsport from 2000-2012, I had more than a couple kids on my high school teams that were like that. They were super nice kids and among the most likeable and fun to have around. Some even appeared to have plenty of natural talent and potential; but they didn’t like to sweat too much. But on the other hand, I had a huge number of champion kids – each one of whom achieved at a high level because of great effort and diligence in many different aspects of their lives.
The context of today’s passage in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 – chapters 8 and 9 – is about Paul’s discussion concerning the eating of meat that was offered first to idols before being sold in the markets. Paul calls them to a higher standard, while agreeing that, yes, there is freedom, and that that they possessed certain “rights” … but there is a higher calling that should balance those rights and freedoms. Paul himself had certain rights and freedoms he had given up due to his position, and these verses are an illustration of this concept.
1CO 9:24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Here are three main thoughts for these verses…
- Race like a champion. (24)
- Train like a champion with his eye on the prize. (25)
- Discipline yourself like a champion who refuses to lose. (26-27)
So, first – race like a champion.
“Do you not know…” is the same thing as saying, “Of course you are well acquainted with…” And they were familiar with runners and races and athletic games. These athletic events were called the Isthmian Games. Begun about 581 BC, they were held at Corinth as complementary events to the Olympiad. While like the Olympics, they were held on a smaller scale. They were very popular and obviously well-known to Paul’s readers. At this time, the winner’s prize was a wreath of pine components, so not something very impressive.
There is one winner in a race. And the idea here is to run in such a way as the runner who wins. Many people compete, but one wins. There is a difference between the two. The winner has a certain strength about all they do, while the mere competitor is just out there for survival. So Paul is saying to “make it the goal of your life to live like that the guy who is out there with plans to be a winner.”
Secondly, they should train like a champion with his eye on the prize.
Everyone who competes … the Greek word is agonizomai,… from which we get the English “agonize.” It takes effort to be good, there is no way around it.
And indeed, success in running takes a long-term plan – set out months ahead with goals, and intermediate goals, specific tasks of both running long miles, and running fast miles, along with plans for rest in between. Certain diets are involved, especially close to races. And the whole focus is the final championship race of the year.
Paul, speaking of those in the Games, said that “they do it to get a crown that will not last” – essentially a wreath of leaves that probably dried up in a week or two.
The point is this: if an athlete can put so much effort into gaining a reward that will not last very long, surely the Christian should put much more effort into his life toward gaining a prize that will last forever. So, discipline/training in the Christian life is more than just avoiding the sinful things, but also denying lawful pleasures if they hinder spiritual progress. And it is the addition of a specific plan of growth. It certainly involves food – what one puts into one’s mind and life – God’s Word. And it certainly involves an action plan, with intermediate goals.
Just as a runner has no shot at being a champion without a long-term, well thought-out plan of training and racing, you have no shot at being a champion in the Christian experience without a plan of growth and development. We are talking about things that are eternal, and such things are worth a plan – worthy of your concentration and effort.
Thirdly, discipline yourself like a champion who refuses to lose.
Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
- “aimlessly” – conveys the idea of being lost as to possessing a reason for doing something – or of where the end result is, or what is the purpose.
- “beating the air” – one of two meanings – shadow boxing – or swinging and missing – either works.
- “beat my body” – a boxing term – “to give a black eye.”
- “make it my slave” – so as to lead it about like a slave.
- “preached” – a word meaning the one who heralds… a. the guy who announced the rules of the contest… b. the preaching of the Gospel.
- “disqualified” – a word that means “not passing the test.”
Paul is saying, “I have goals for my life that involve personal discipline, that involve on the negative side – the giving up of certain rights and pleasures, and on the positive side – involve certain goals and specific efforts. I do not want to be one who has the name of being a herald for Christ, only to suffer the ignominy of not living up to what I claim to be.”
All of this was a huge challenge to the Corinthians – who were prone to go up to, and over, the edge of sin. And therefore Paul gives a new standard.
We need to receive this as a challenge as well. We need to re-phrase some questions in our lives…
- It is not, “How far can I go with the significant other in my life before I cross a moral boundary for unmarried people?” … but… “How can we together fashion a relationship that is disciplined for moving each other toward greater Christlikeness in ALL aspects of our lives!”
- It is not, “How many Sundays in a year do I minimally have to attend church, and how can I do it in a way that the leaders there don’t know who I am and ask me to teach a children’s class?” … but … “How can I free up most of my Sundays to be at the place where God’s people gather, and how may I get to know them well, and serve together with them to be a functioning part of THE THING that God is doing in the world today – building the CHURCH (the body of Christ) – and investing my life and energies is training up generations of followers of Jesus in this community?”
- It is not, “How do I work and work and work to gain a secure retirement so that I can relax away the many years of retired life?” … but … “How can I fashion my life plan so that, if God does bless me with a full life of years, I can become better and better in serving Him in my family, church and community?”
- It is not, “How much time or money do I have to give to God to be close to the minimum expected of me?” … but … “How can I use the time I have left in my life, and the resources God has given me, so that one day, on the other side of this life I may hear Him say, ‘Well done’!”
So essentially, my question for you is what do you need to do to hear “Well done”? What do you need to eliminate? Or better stated, in terms of this series: “What goals do you need to add to your life that make you fit to finish your race well? You finish well – you’ll hear your “well done” and be truly ETERNALLY thankful for the day you allowed a passage like this one to move you to LIFE CHANGE and to commitments toward conscious energy – “agonizomai” – to things that last for eternity. Seriously? Seriously!