Let me invite you, if you would please, to take your Bibles in your hands and turn with me to Paul's letter to the Corinthians once again; 1 Corinthians chapter 9 on page 957 of the church Bibles. 1 Corinthians chapter 9. Paul, you will remember, has been defending himself against those who have been criticizing his ministry. As he does so, in the second half of the chapter, we've seen him give us something of an extended discussion of his own approach to Gospel ministry. And last time, you will recall, we were in verses 19 to 23 and we noticed the direction in which Paul is turned and which he is facing. He's facing outwards in verses 19 to 23 toward others as he explains to us his missionary principles. Here is the approach that he took in reaching out with the good news about Jesus to the world. We saw that there is an evangelistic imperative and impulse that drives him. He says that he will do everything he can in order to win people to Jesus Christ.
And then he matches that evangelistic impulse and imperative with an evangelistic strategy to implement and live it out. And so he says, “I will be all things to all men that by all means I might save some.” Here’s a strategy of faithful flexibility. And then as he implements that evangelistic strategy in response to the evangelistic imperative, he enters into an evangelistic blessing. There is a joy and a blessedness that those who are used by God to see sinners saved, that only they really know. A joy of being an instrument in the hand of the Holy Spirit at the new birth of a Christian. So he’s turned outward in verses 19 to 23 as he talks about how he reaches out.
And in our passage this morning, verses 24 to the end of the chapter, he’s turned not outward, but inward, in a moment of self-reflection as he discusses his personal priorities. So last time we were looking at missionary principles; this time personal priorities as he faces himself. And if you’ll look at the passage, verses 24 to 27, you will see immediately the dominant metaphor that directs his thinking. He takes us, as it were, into an ancient Greco-Roman arena and he says that the Christian life is like entering one of the competitions, like running a race or boxing in a boxing match. And so he calls us, he summons us to run so as to win the prize. Probably in the background here were the Isthmian Games, sponsored by the city of Corinth, second only to the Olympic Games in prominence and importance. Held every two years, actually held in AD 51 when we think the apostle Paul was actually in Corinth planting the church to which he is now writing. So he’s using imagery that the Corinthians knew well. They were very proud of the Isthmian Games and so Paul is tapping into something deep in their thinking, something actually that resonates with us all still. We’ve all cheered for our children at the track events, haven’t we? Or we’ve screamed and yelled and rejoiced with gladness when our favorite athlete runs home ahead of the pack and crosses the finish line first at the Olympic Games. We get the metaphor. The Christian life is a race we’re all called to run, and we are to run in such a way that we might win the prize. That’s Paul’s big idea.
Before we look at the specifics, I want you just to bear in mind three things to be on the lookout for as we read the text together in light of that big metaphor. Three things to be on the lookout for. First of all, the target Paul aims at in his own life as he runs the race. Then secondly, the tragedy he is seeking to avoid. And then finally, the training that he undertakes that he might not fall foul of the tragedy but may win the prize at which he takes aim. So the target, the tragedy, and the training.
Now before we read the passage together, let me invite you, if you would, to bow your heads with me as we pray together.
Our Father, we pray for the ministry of the Holy Spirit to work by the Word in our hearts and in our minds, transforming us by the renewing of our minds that we might not be conformed to the pattern of this world. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
1 Corinthians 9 at the twenty-fourth verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.
So Paul is using really one of his favorite metaphors, images for the Christian life, here. We are, he says, like athletes, running in a great race in an ancient Greco-Roman arena. And in the passage, you might say that Paul adopts the stance of an athletics coach, giving us a training regimen, that we, like he, might run our race and win the prize. And if you’ll look at the passage with me, I want you to notice first of all the target at which Paul himself takes aim in all the discipline and the training through which he puts himself. What is it that he is looking for? In verse 24, he calls it the prize. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run, run in such a way, in such a manner, with such an attitude, that you may obtain the prize.” Verse 25 tells us a little more. He says athletes train so hard “to receive a perishable wreath.” He has in mind the victor’s laurels, the crown with which the winner in an athletic contest was rewarded. And he wants to contrast the perishable wreath that runners and wrestlers and boxers in ancient Greek games competed to win with the imperishable prize that Christians are to pursue.
You probably know that in the Olympic Games the crown was a laurel wreath. Rather bizarrely, at the Isthmian Games, the crown was a wreath of wilted celery! So you train hard, you know, you kill yourself finally winning the event, you climb the podium amidst the cheers, and what's your reward? It's salad on your head, I guess! It's not just celery now; it's wilted celery! You know you burn more calories chewing the stuff than you do taking it in. I don't get it, but there we are! Wilted celery was the reward. It's a perishable prize. And yet athletes devoted themselves to winning the prize. And Paul wants to say, "Well, okay, in contrast, look at the prize held out to us who are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. We have an imperishable crown of righteousness and glory ahead of us. When we finally cross the line, when by God's grace we finish the race marked out for us, our Lord will reward us with unfading glory.” There is a prize to be won, and Paul personally presses hard after the prize that he might take hold of it.
He’s actually spoken about this whole subject of rewards in the Christian life already in 1 Corinthians; you will remember back in chapter 3, verses 11 to 15. 1 Corinthians 3:11-15. The metaphor is a little different there. There, he’s talking about a building site; here he’s talking about an athletic competition. But the point he’s making is very similar indeed. Listen to 1 Corinthians 3:11-15. “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become manifest for the day” – referring to the return of Christ – “the day will disclose it because it will be revealed by fire and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved but only as through fire.” There is a reward, an imperishable wreath, an eternal reward for you for which the Scriptures call us as Christians to work and strive and at which we are to take careful aim.
I wonder if you have noticed a tendency today in some Christian circles to suggest that the only motive for Christian obedience is gratitude for the finished work of Christ at the cross. Now that is to be our primary motive; the main motive that animates our desire to please God really ought to be gratitude for all that has been done already at the cross of Jesus Christ. He died that I might live; He obeyed that His righteousness might cover my disobedience and unrighteousness. The wrath and curse of God I deserve has been met and paid in full in the person of Christ at the cross. Praise God for the cross. Seeing all that Jesus has done ought to melt my heart and move me to love Him and cause me to pursue His praise and glory as I express my gratitude.
But it is not the only motive for Christian obedience in the Scriptures. And so Paul holds out another motive here for us. He says, verse 24, "run so as to win the prize." The prize, when you cross the finish line, is a motive, an inducement to cause you to run in a certain way. "So run, run in such a way that you may win the prize." Reward, the promise of rewards, is a legitimate, even an important reason for growing Christian obedience. Now part of the joy of the promise of reward is that the Christ whose work for me, two millennia ago at the cross, that makes me want to love Him and serve Him, is Himself the reward given to me, for the love and service that I offer Him. Isn't that wonderful? The same Jesus who gave Himself for me at Calvary and who saved me and keeps me still and is changing me by His grace, is the same Jesus who will give Himself to me in a fullness of sweet, intimate, unbroken, unending fellowship forever. He Himself is our hidden treasure. He is the pearl of great price. He is our very great reward. We're not simply to look back to the work of Christ at the cross in the past, but we are also to look forward to fellowship with Christ in the world to come. Jesus is the prize, and Paul has his sights trained on winning the prize and he takes careful aim at it. So he can say Philippians 3:12, "This one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward, stretching every muscle and sinew forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. I want to win the prize. I want to take hold of the promise of reward, of being with Christ, and knowing Him as fully as He knows me."
How are You Running?
And then at the end of his life, as an old man speaking to Timothy his young protégé, he’s still saying the same thing. 2 Timothy 4:8, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, will reward to me on that day.” There is no coasting across the finish line for the apostle Paul, is there? No slackening of his pace as he comes to the conclusion of the race. No, he can say with a good conscience, “I have run my race so as to win the prize. From the moment the starter’s pistol fired till I broke through the tape at its end.” And now he turns to us in this passage and says, “What about you? How are you running your race?”
Many of you know the story of Eric Liddell, the British runner who refused to compete in the event for which he had trained, the 100 yards sprint in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, because as a Christian believer, he would not break the Sabbath. And everybody mocked him, the pressure upon him to compromise was enormous, but he held his ground and stayed true to his convictions. And instead, he entered another race, held not on Sunday – the 400 yards, for which he had not trained really very much at all. And when the starter pistol fired, he came out of the starting blocks with all the strength he could muster. He ran the race flat out. He actually covered the first 200 yards inside the world recording setting time that his rival, Harold Abrams, had set the day before in his 200 yards' race. So he ran the first 200 yards of the 400 yards faster than the world record 200-yard runner could do. And everyone thought there's no way this 100-yard sprinter can keep up this kind of pace over 400 yards. But he proved them all wrong, didn't he? You know the story. Way ahead of the pack, he raced home, breaking all the records and winning Olympic gold.
That much of the story, I suspect, is widely known. What you may not know is that after he won Olympic gold, he went on to give his life as a missionary in China. When the Japanese invaded China, he sent his family to live in Canada for safety, but he remained behind to minister to the Chinese people. He was interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and there he served the prisoners in Jesus’ name. When Winston Churchill arranged for his release in a prisoner exchange, he gave up his place in favor of a pregnant woman who had been interned in the camp along with him. A fellow inmate of his said, in years to come looking back, “He gave me two things. One was his worn out running shoes, but the best thing he gave me was his baton of forgiveness. He taught me to love my enemies, the Japanese, and to pray for them.” Just before the end of the war, he died of a brain tumor, giving his life, still imprisoned for the sake of the Gospel in China.
When he was asked in later years how he won the 400 yards’ race, his famous reply, in many respects, sums up how he lived his whole life and is how Paul is calling us to live ours also as Christians. He said, “The secret of my success over 400 meters is that I run the first 200 meters as fast as I can. Then for the second 200 meters, with God’s help, I run faster.” You see, he did not slacken the pace in the home stretch. He ran the second 200 faster.
Now that is where some of us are today. Isn't that so? We're on the second 200 of our 400 meters' race. Some of us actually are nearer the finish line, if we're honest, then we are the starter's line. Well, how are you running? How are you running? Are you still running so as to win the prize or have you slackened the pace? You ran well the first 200 yards, with all of your might for Jesus’ sake. Do you think now you can cruise home, coast home? Are you seeking to coast your way into glory? Has zeal for Jesus grown dull? Have you decided you’ve done enough; it’s someone else’s turn to serve now? There is no retirement in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. You know that, right? There is no slackening of the pace. Liddell ran his race flat out until he crossed the finish line. How are you running your race?
In verse 26, if you will look there for a moment, Paul says, “I do not run aimlessly. I do not box as one beating the air.” “I know where I’m going,” he says. “I have the tape firmly in my sights and I am running flat out to cross the line. I’m not shadowboxing in a corner when there’s a fight in the ring waiting for me. And when I enter the ring, I do not swing a punch and miss my target. Every jab counts. Every hook hits the mark. I am running to win. I am fighting for the prize. What about you?” That’s his question. What about you? “Fading is the worldling’s pleasure; all his boasting pomp and show. Solid joys and lasting treasure, none but Zion’s children know!” Right? There’s a reward, a glorious reward held out to us. Solid joys and lasting treasure. Are you running so as to take hold of the prize or have you maybe taken your eye off the prize? Or are you even perhaps pursuing a perishable crown with all your energy and strength – something temporary and fleeting and ultimately not worth so very much. Are you running aimlessly? Are you beating the air in futility or are you pressing on to win the prize for which God in Christ has taken hold of you? There is a target at which we are to take aim. We are to run in such a way that we might win the prize.
Secondly, there is a tragedy to avoid. A tragedy to avoid. What is at stake here? Suppose Paul was to run aimlessly after all. Suppose his boxing amounted to nothing more than beating the air, never hitting the mark. What difference would it make? If Paul were to forego the training and the discipline that marked his Christian life, well then so what? Look at verse 27, please. You see his concern? He is anxious, lest, "after having preached to others, I myself might be disqualified." It's a sobering line to read, isn't it, from the pen of the apostle Paul. There is a tragedy he is seeking to avoid. Well now, he's a preacher. He's the mighty apostle Paul! Surely, of all people, Paul has no reason to be concerned. He is a mortal lock; he is a sure thing. Paul will cross the finish line if anyone will! If Paul were here, we probably would rap him over the knuckles and scold him a little for being melodramatic and overly hard on himself.
But that is not Paul’s perspective at all. Now understand, he is not doubting the certainty of his salvation, but neither is he presuming on grace so that he thinks he can simply coast. He knows that those whom God redeems are those who work and pursue and strive with all their energy to live for Christ and win the prize. And so Paul understands it is possible to be a powerful preacher of the truth, to move people by your words, to touch them with your rhetoric, to sway them with your eloquence, to inspire people and impact them by your message. It is possible to preach the true Gospel with urgency and feeling. It is possible even that God, in His grace, would use such preaching to save sinners and encourage and comfort saints. And still, after having done all this, he knows it’s also possible that he himself might yet be disqualified. The word he uses there is an important one; the one for disqualified. It means “counterfeit.” Like false currency. It’s also used in Hebrews 6:8 to describe land that ought to produce a harvest but instead only produces thorns and thistles. Hebrews 6:8, “It is worthless.” That’s the same word translated “disqualified” here. “It is worthless and near to being cursed and its end is to be burned.” That’s the terrible tragedy that Paul is striving to avoid. He doesn’t want his Christian life to be false currency. He doesn’t want it to be wasteland that produces no harvest.
Now you may think that an unlikely prospect. He is, after all, the apostle Paul; the mighty, missionary-theologian of the New Testament. Surely he doesn't need to concern himself about being disqualified! But brothers and sisters, I can list, actually now I can list five ministers off the top of my head who once seemed to walk faithfully but for whom this word about disqualification fits precisely. One is now living an openly gay lifestyle. Another having walked away from the faith is nowhere with the Lord. A third has abandoned his family and run away with another woman. A fourth had multiple affairs and ended up committing suicide. And all of them left a train of pastoral devastation that will not easily be healed. "Do not think yourself," Paul is saying, "Do not think yourself beyond the danger of backsliding or of making shipwreck of your faith." Do not allow yourself to presume upon grace so that you neglect diligence in Christian obedience, lest after having preached to others you yourself are disqualified. Lest after having shown other thirsty souls in the desert where to find drink, water, you fail to come to Jesus and drink for yourself. "If anyone thinks he stands firm, let him beware, lest he falls. If anyone thinks he knows, he does not yet know as he ought."
There is a warning to heed, a tragedy to avoid. Run, Paul says, so as to win the prize and not be disqualified. Do not presume upon grace so that you stop striving and pressing on to take hold of that for which God has taken hold of you in Christ. Well then, how do we avoid disqualification? That brings us to the last thing I want you to see. There is a training to undertake. In ancient competitions like the Isthmian Games or the Olympic Games, competitors were actually required to swear an oath that they could commit themselves to a very specific set of training requirements, which, if they failed to meet those requirements would disqualify them from the competition. Paul is saying the training he prescribes for running a successful Christian race cannot safely be neglected. “You don’t want to be disqualified; we need to get in training.” And he offers us the training regimen that we need. There are no passive Christians after all, are there? There are no passive Christians. So he says to us in verse 25, verse 25, "Every athlete exercises self-control in all things." That's the hallmark of their life. Self-control is the mark of an athlete serious about breaking the tape at the end of the race. They're up early. They have a strict diet. They develop exercise routines to strengthen muscles and build stamina. And they assess every aspect of their life by one great question, "Will this make me stronger and faster and better? Will it help me win the race?" And if not, it has no place in the athlete's life. They exercise extraordinary self-control, Paul says, in all things; in every area.
And they do all of it, he reminds us, for a perishable wreath; for wilted celery. And our prize is so much more glorious; so much more worthy of all our energy and our effort. The truth is, though, if you’re like me at least, you will excuse your apathy. We will avoid developing systems and habits, embracing accountability. “That’s legalistic,” we’ll say. But it’s not. It’s just self-control. It’s just discipline. It is what grace produces as we seek to please the Lord Jesus. It’s an athlete’s attitude, getting himself or herself ready to run the race and to run so as to win the prize.
Isn’t that what Paul means in verse 27? Look there again please, verse 27. “I discipline my body,” he says, “and keep it under control.” Again, that word “discipline” is interesting. It means “to punch under the eye.” Literally, “to give a black eye.” It’s a knockout punch in the ring. He’s not saying that there’s something especially holy in self-harm. Not at all. What he’s saying is, “I am resolved to beat my sin into submission and to beat my bodily appetites that want to go, that want to go off the charts in the wrong direction. I want to bring them into conformity with the will of Jesus Christ, and that requires some gutsy fighting with myself.” Sin is like a bruiser in a bare-knuckle fight who wants to knock your lights out. He wants to destroy you. And though we may be inclined to shrink from the battle, to do so is to face disqualification. Paul is saying we are called to enter the ring. We are called to stay in the fight. I wonder if you’re signed a truce with sin. Have you signed a truce with sin in some area of your life? Paul wants you to get back in the ring and to fight on.
Sin seeks your destruction. You remember John Owen’s famous line? “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.” That is Paul’s exhortation to us here. Don’t think to coast. Don’t hear simply the message of rest and think that means you can be passive. Don’t hear in the Gospel, “Peace, peace” when there is no peace. No, there is a mortal struggle into which we are all called and we must fight on. But Paul asks us to fight on with our eyes fixed on the prize; fixed on Christ. We’re to “run our race with perseverance looking” – where? “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” He’s our reward. He is the one in whom we trust. And He Himself is the author and finisher of our faith. We don’t fight on our own. Do you see? In our own strength with our own energy. And so you can face that dreadful opponent of sin, and though it may be a painful battle – after all, our bodily appetites need to be held in check and it does feel like being given a punch the face sometimes to say “No” to that craving when we self-medicate or we give into sexual sin or we overeat or we’re given to too much alcohol. To say “No” when everything in us says “More! More!” is like a punch in the face to our body. And it’s hard to do, to keep swinging, to keep slugging. But we are in the fight not alone, not alone. Jesus Christ is the author and finisher of our faith. And because He will sustain us and keep us, we will be sure to win! Don’t sign a truce with sin. It is not a futile fight. Don’t give up! You will not be on the losing side as you trust in the Lord Jesus. Fight on! And so run, that you might win the prize.
Are you coasting? Are you trying to complete the homestretch of your race by taking it easy? Have you signed a truce with sin? Are you shadowboxing in the corner when you ought to be in the ring still? The Lord is calling us in His Word, isn’t He, to run so as to win the prize and to fight that we might win the battle. Let’s pray together.
Father, we thank You that Jesus does not simply call us into the ring; neither is He merely the reward once the battle is over. But He is the One who strengthens us in the fight that we might win. Would You help us to take hold of Him, by faith, not to lean on our own understanding or in our own strength, but to take hold of Him, to trust in Him, and to resolve, by His grace, to get back in the ring? Forgive us for having signed a truce. Help us to be committed to kill sin lest sin kill us. Help us not to back off or run away lest we be disqualified, even after ministering to others. Would You do that please, that Christ might get glory, that He might be made much of in our lives before the eyes of the watching world? For we ask it in His name, amen.
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