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. 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. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
I Corinthians 9:24-27
Paul has just finished speaking about how he does his best to become all things to all people so that “by all means [he] might save some” (v. 22) when he decides to use a metaphor to drive his point home. He wants to show the Corinthians that he uses self-control and self-discipline of the highest sort to ensure that he continues to give God his best. Paul wants to call them to a single-minded commitment to do the same. So, he uses a metaphor that would have been familiar to them: an athletic competition.
The ESV Study Bible explains that Corinth “was the location of the biennial Isthmian games, at that time second in fame only to the Olympic games. Paul’s stay in Corinth during his second missionary journey (Acts 18) may have even overlapped with the games in either A.D. 49 or 51.”* Paul claims that like these athletes, he is no poser. He does not run aimlessly or shadowbox. He practices intense self-discipline because he knows that he is competing in a race, a race that he wants the Corinthians to run with him.
Paul points out that in the races of their day only one runner gets the prize. At this time in history that prize would have been a “crown made of foliage” (ESV Study Bible*). He says that they should run in such a way that they might hope to obtain it. Paul is not saying that only one believer in all of history will receive a heavenly crown. Scripture teaches us that there will be more than one person in heaven receiving crowns. Rather, Paul is drawing attention to the fact that just like in the races of their day not everyone receives a crown. It is only those who run in a certain way that will be rewarded. So too with Christians. Only those who run the race that Christ has set before them with self-control and single-minded commitment will be counted worthy of a prize.
Paul also points out that the prize for which we strive is of far greater worth than the crown of foliage athletes received which quickly withered. Our crown lasts for eternity. So we have all the more reason to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1). Yet, too often we turn Paul’s advice on its ear. Both as spectators and as athletes we often exercise greater self-discipline in sports than we do in our relationship with God. We leave church early to get to games. We eliminate Wednesday night church altogether because it conflicts with our practices. I would imagine that even the most dedicated Christians among the athletes in my youth ministry spend more time every week in practices and games than they do serving God or studying His word.
Personally, I love sports. I am not advocating that we get rid of them. Instead I challenge you to keep them in their proper place… prioritized beneath your relationship with God. Teach your children to do the same. Our culture will challenge you at this point. Almost every sports league out there for children, teens, and adults schedules practices and games during times that used to be reserved for church. I challenge you to prayerfully consider how best to handle this issue as you commit to follow Paul in being single-minded in your commitment to serve God faithfully, knowing that one day there will be a prize for those who have run well.
For further reading...
- Acts 18- Read up on one of Paul's visits to Corinth.
- Hebrews 12:1-3- The writer of Hebrews also uses an athletic metaphor but in his image the great heroes of the faith are around us in the stadium cheering us on.
- I Timothy 4:7-9- Physical training has some value, but godliness has more.
*Thielman, Frank S. Study Notes on First Corinthians in The ESV Study Bible. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2007), p.2204.