1 Corinthians 9:24-27
July 8, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 15:20 in the audio file.
Or, Three Ways to Lose the Race
Marathons can be brutal. Even for those in peak physical condition, if they run to win, they will finish exhausted. I’ve run three marathons in my life, though I only really trained for two, and I was spent by the end though I was running more than twice as slow as the winners. The race is grueling, grinding, as much a test for the mind as for the body.
Most people I talk to don’t like to run at all, let alone long distances. Running certainly isn’t the only exercise, but it’s one that doesn’t require too much equipment or expertise. What it does require is discipline to get out of bed or off the couch, discipline to complete the mileage, and discipline before and after in rest and diet or else the run itself will feel miserable.
Paul knew about running, as in, actual, foot-racing contests. Whether he himself laced up his track sandals, athletic competition was popular in his day throughout the Roman Empire, and he used sports illustrations regularly in his writing, and presumably his preaching. He talked often of wrestling, boxing, and running. He commanded the Corinthian Christians: Run to win. It wasn’t just a motivational poster, it was a call to focused and fervent effort for every believer, not just the Christian Professionals or All-Star Team.
Run, run until the finish, run to finish in first place. This running is imperative, not optional, and there are at least a few ways to lose. It is a lot easier to quit, it’s even easier to sit in the stands and watch.
The final four verses in chapter 9 transition from Paul’s exhortation to give up their rightful rights for the sake of others, to a reminder about Israel’s failure of worship in the next chapter.
There are two parts in this first verse of the paragraph, the starting point and the command itself.
With his most used phrase in 1 Corinthians Paul begins with a shared assumption. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? Of course they know this, or if they didn’t, they should have.
To call this a race is fine, but the Greek word is stadio (σταδίῳ, referring to an arena or stadium. It’s a race track with seating for spectators. There were four, well-known Games, with the Olympic Games being most popular and the Isthmian Games (on the Isthmus of Corinth in Greece) the second most popular (there were also the Pythian and Nemean games). Documents show that the Isthmian Games took place in AD 49 and 51 which would be around the time of Paul’s writing. Documents also show that the city of Corinth sponsored and organized those games, including “the renovation of buildings and the provision of banquets” (Thiselton). Perhaps Paul even made tents for some of the athletes or attendees. The Corinthians knew about the games, even if they didn’t attend them, like a modern day citizen of Seattle knows about the Seahawks even if he doesn’t know the difference between a tight end and loose end.
The starting point is not that there are races. The fact of runners running around a track is not what’s important. The shared assumption is that in a race, only one receives the prize. Who knows how much longer it will continue, but even today, unless there is a tie, only one gold medal is given and one national anthem is played. Sno-cones and participation trophies are a modern invention for envious kids raised by parents suckled at the self-esteem bottle. There are lots of runners, only one winner. The winner goes and gets it.
We could be tempted to edit Paul, or at least be surprised by his exhortation. So run that you may obtain it. Or, “Run in such a way that you may win” (NASB). Go get first place. Run in order to take home the trophy.
Now that we’re here, what does it mean to run? Paul hasn’t used that language previous to verse 24, and in light of the comparison in verse 25 he does not mean that everyone should gird up their loins and join a track team. In context of his comments in verses 26 and 27 he also does not mean that running is the same as preaching, but something done alongside of preaching, at least in his application.
So, the command to run means to live as Christians in an active rather than passive way. It means to work rather than watch, it means to move rather than take it easy. It does include what we do in our bodies; this is no dualistic, all-in-your-heart command. But the spiritual pilgrimage can be likened to a race, and we are on the track not in the stands.
This running is not a spiritual gift for some; everyone runs. This running is not an occasion for socializing; it’s for winning.
There are two parts in this verse, as Paul points out the obvious in two ways.
Of course there are exceptions in real life, but when it comes to serious runners, they are all-in. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. Or, “all of the ones engaged in a contest control themselves in all things.” Or, No pain, no gain. Or, pick your pain; discipline or losing.
Athlete is from the word agonizomai, one who struggles, one who fights. He “competes” (NASB), he’s a competitor, not merely a participant; he’s striving to win, to defeat someone else who’s trying to defeat him. If you’re not into sports metaphors, fine, but “the popularity of the athletic metaphor as a tool in moral discourse flourishes in Epictetus, Seneca, Plutarch, and Marcus Aurelius” (Thiselton). It is also typical in the New Testament.
When you’re in that sort of struggle you’re looking for an advantage, and that always starts with oneself. The word translated self-control means “to keep one’s emotions, impulses, or desires under control” (BAGD). And Paul emphasizes what kinds of things he has in mind: all things. Olympic athletes have always been known for ruthless discipline regarding nutrition, exercise, sleep, and even sex. Two of those, what you eat and who you sleep with, relate to the past few chapters of Paul’s letter.
To win you must be chief of you, to be boss of you, to have and exert power over you. Socrates and Aristotle talked about the virtue of self-control. Restraints that stick for more than a moment, or a month, but that dictate choices. Food, feelings, conditioning and rest, and all things pointed toward readiness to run to win.
Paul doesn’t back off of the analogy at all. Even though we are justified by faith alone, real faith runs. Self-control in all things in the Christian race is even more important, not less. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. On the one hand, world-class athletes devote their lives, or at least significant seasons of their lives, to get a wreath. This is a wreath for your head, not your door. It meant high status, either royalty or victory, and at the end of a race, it crowned the winner. Such crowns were typically made of pine, leaves, or celery, even “withered celery” (Garland). Such consuming personal sacrifices for sake of withering, perishable, vegan foliage on your brow is something.
What is more is an imperishable wreath, an indestructible crown, impervious to corruption. Christians have an even greater motivation to run to win. Paul doesn’t go into all of the reward, but in some ways the fact that he doesn’t go into detail means it is that much more obviously good. He already referred to heavenly rewards earlier in the letter. It takes faith to expect this reward. We see it in God’s various promises in His Word, we do not see it displayed. But the crown comes to those who run to take it.
Paul moves from exhortation to an explanation of his own application. He uses the running analogy and then adds another analogy from a different sport. He ran for the finish line. He fought to hit the target.
So I do not run aimlessly. He has a goal. He was not uncertain about where he was running. This was not a meandering pleasure jog, it was focused pursuit.
[Christians] cannot amble nonchalantly around the track and expect some kind of trophy simply for participation. They are to run as if their life depended on it. It does. (Garland)
The second illustration is from boxing. I do not box as one beating the air. This could mean that he doesn’t just shadow box, to spar with an imaginary opponent, or it could mean that he doesn’t take a swing and miss.
He is intentional. Run for the finish line. Punch to knock the opponent out.
Not only was he intentional, he was intense. He wasn’t playing, But I discipline by body and keep it under control. The original word for discipline is more colorful. It (ὑπωπιάζω) is defined as “to blacken an eye, to strike in the face.” Paul is not beating up the air, he’s beating up himself. I’ve heard preachers with a flair for KJV language say, “I buffet my body.” (American Standard Version, late 1800s) His “opponent is his own body!” (Ciampa & Rosner). He “punishes” it (NRSV). Some are their own worst enemies; they beat themselves, they’re not beat by someone else.
The phrase keep it under control could be translated “I enslave,” still referring to his body. This, therefore, is more than his theology, though he always paid attention to his teaching, too. But this refers to his appetites. It isn’t separate from the food/meat he ate. It certainly connects to his life in the flesh. So, glorify God in your body (1 Corinthians 6:20).
In his case as one who proclaimed the gospel, he would be judged with greater strictness (see James 3:1). His fierce self-control wanted the prize, and there would be no prize if he was disqualified: lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. He didn’t want to fail the test, be removed from the competition.
There are three ways to run poorly in this paragraph.
This is not just for Christian preaching but for Christian practice. This is not only for Paul, apostles, and those who proclaim the gospel, though it certainly applies to them. This is for every believer, and it is far more than a motivational poster.
Thinking about quitting, or being tempted to quit, is natural according how difficult the race itself is and how weak we ourselves are. But this is not a sign that you are on the wrong track.
Sometimes it hurts, even just to take another step. Paul knew. He underplayed his running pains. And if you compare yourself with others, you’ll probably be able to find someone who has it worse. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deplete you. But that doesn’t mean you can quit. It’s a gut check. Maybe you haven’t been running. Start running. Maybe you’re running and it feels like the people around you are just sitting and watching you ugly-run. Don’t collapse into a pity-puddle in the middle of the track. Cry out for grace, the finish line is close.
If we won’t run, we are in danger, both of discouraging our brothers, and potentially of losing our own reward. God’s people run. Israel started well, and then they started to “desire evil” (1 Corinthians 10:1-13).
It is a marathon, not a sprint. It is a fight that is a fight of faith. Stay the course. Exercise self-control in all things. Run to win.
Run, beloved, run. Run to the finish line. Be the boss of yourself, with the Spirit’s help, for the sake of your run. By God’s grace, don’t quit. Run to win.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2, ESV)