“Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain” (I Cor. 9:24).
Did you know that if you are a Christian, you are in a race? Imagine being in a race and not knowing it! When this writer turned 40, he realized he was in a race against time, and time was running out! It was time to get serious about life! As Christians, we too are in a race—not against each other, but against time, and time is running out! (Rom. 13:11-14). Its time to get serious about the things of the Lord!
While the ancient Olympic games were held in Olympia, the Isthmian games were held in Corinth, and so Paul was using an analogy, the details of which these Corinthians understood, but which must be explained to us. For instance, the “prize” they raced for was not Roman citizenship; you had to be a citizen in order to compete in these games. Likewise, Paul is not speaking about racing for heavenly citizenship, for you must be saved in order to compete in this race. Additionally, it is said that participants in the Isthmian games had to be free of all legal entanglements. If a man were guilty of a felony, or even up on charges, he could not compete. Thank God, grace has freed us from all legal entanglements! We are “free from the law,” and cleared of all charges by the blood of Christ!
At the Olympic or Isthmian level, no runner would even think about taking a step backward during a race, for such a step would take you in a direction opposite of your goal! And so it is when you sin, you take a step backward from your goal, and you are losing ground spiritually! Then too, no runner would think of taking a step sideways, for every runner knows that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Sometimes Christians ask if it’s acceptable for God’s people to watch TV, gamble, or engage in other such marginal activities. While such things are not always wrong, they are often steps sideways, and won’t help you win the race at the eternal level.
The writer of Hebrews seemed to understand this too. He challenges us to “run with patience the race that is set before us” (12:1), and his advice is to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us.” Obviously the weights he has in mind are not sins, for he mentions them separately. Doubtless he was thinking of these marginal issues, things that are not steps backward, but things that will weigh you down and make it more difficult for you to run the race successfully.
This writer was once working as a house painter in an apartment building that had two sidewalks that led to the door. Since trips back and forth to the truck for equipment take time—and time is money—pacing had to be employed to determine which was the shorter route! But in the race in which we are engaged as Christians, time is much more important than money. Thus it behooves each of us to examine our Christian lives and cast aside any extra weight, straighten out the curves, and eliminate all steps backward and sideways.
When Peter walked on the water through the storm to our Lord, do you think he meandered hither and yon to admire the crashing waves and great ocean swells? Hardly! No doubt the raging sea caused him to set a straight course for the Lord. May the storms that rage in your life cause you to do the same!
Peter’s experience teaches us another valuable lesson, “for when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid” (Matt. 14:30). In order to see the wind, he must have taken his eyes off the Lord, and the writer of Hebrews tells us that we should always be “looking unto Jesus” (12:2). Runners know they must focus on the goal. Sin and marginal issues are a distraction that cause us to take our eyes off the prize!
Our Lord is described here in Hebrews 12:2 as “the author and finisher of our faith.” Many race courses are straight lines, and the starting line is different than the finishing line. Obviously, Hebrews 12:2 speaks of the more circular form of race course, where the starting line is the same as the finishing line, for our Lord is the beginning of the Christian life, but He is also the goal!
But while Christ is our goal, what specifically are we racing for? I’m glad you asked! God doesn’t expect you to engage in a race for an unknown prize. Philippians 3:14 says:
“I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
So what is “the prize of the high calling of God”? Well, before we can determine what “the prize of the high calling” is, we must first define “the high calling of God.” Paul speaks here of our high calling as opposed to Israel’s low calling. While believers in Israel were promised an earthly hope, believers today are promised a heavenly hope. Thus Israel’s hope is a low calling only in a geographical sense.
But what then is “the prize of the high calling”? Again, we find the answer when we compare what we have to what Israel has. The prize of Israel’s low calling was greater opportunity to rule and reign with Christ on earth. The twelve apostles were promised thrones in Christ’s earthly kingdom (Matt. 19:28), and faithful Jews in general will be rewarded with authority over the peoples of the Gentiles (Luke 19:17,19). As the parable in Luke 19 indicates, the extent of their reign will be in direct proportion to the extent of their service. What then is “the prize of the high calling”? Surely it is the extent of our reign with Christ in the heavens, which will be in direct proportion to our faithful service for Him.
To win this prize, Paul says that he concentrated on “one thing” (Phil. 3:13). Before 1871, D. L. Moody was interested in many things: the YMCA, social issues, Sunday School work, etc. But after the great Chicago fire devastated his city and took many lives, he determined to focus on one thing—evangelism! Similarly, there are many issues that Christians today can be distracted by: politics, protesting abortion and gay rights, etc. But let us, like God Himself, focus on one thing, and work with Him to “have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4).
But after we extend a lifetime of effort in this race, can it be that only “one receiveth the prize” (I Cor. 9:24)? No, Paul offers this by way of contrast to the way participants in the Isthmian games were rewarded. How heartening to read Paul’s words earlier in this epistle, where he speaks of how when “the Lord come…then shall every man have praise of God” (I Cor. 4:5). His words in Chapter 9 are given to encourage us to run as if only one were going to receive the prize, that is, with the same intensity as the Isthmian runners.
“And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible” (I Cor. 9:25).
Here Paul turns our attention from the racetrack to the Isthmian wrestling arena. We know from Ephesians 6:12 that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places,” the demons that currently reign in the heavens, fallen angels who aren’t looking forward to members of the Body of Christ taking their place. We must wrestle against the “doctrines of devils” (I Tim. 4:1) that these rulers of darkness teach. We must try to enlighten those whom they would keep in spiritual darkness.
As we strive, we must remember to be “temperate” or moderate in all things. Pastor Stam’s father was a workaholic city missionary. He died a premature death, and Pastor Stam never forgot this lesson. He tempered his own ministry by occasionally taking time out for his diversions, which included photography, chess, and other interests.
The Isthmian wrestlers strove for “a corruptible crown,” a leafy laurel that time would corrupt in just a day or two. But we strive for an “incorruptible” crown. Today we often use the word “corruption” to apply to government, when elected officials abuse the public trust. Thank God, when we receive our crowns and begin to rule and reign with Christ, there will never be any corruption in our heavenly government, as there was ages ago when a third of the angels abused God’s trust and corrupted the government in the heavens.
“I therefore so run, not as uncertainly, so fight I, not as one that beateth the air” (I Cor. 9:26).
As we run this race with Paul, there are three things we are not uncertain about. First, we are not uncertain about our salvation, for as we said, we are not competing for heavenly citizenship. Second, we are not uncertain about our rewards. We trust God when He says that every man shall have praise of Him. Lastly, we are not uncertain as to the rules of the game. The rules in professional football have changed over the years, and one thing is certain: if you play by the rules of a previous era, you’ll be penalized! Likewise in the dispensation of grace, if you play by the rules that God gave to Israel, you are certain to be penalized!
When Paul says “so fight I,” he has switched arenas again, this time to the boxing ring. Boxing is a studied art, but it all boils down to two essentials: hit, and don’t get hit! A hard-hitting boxer who can’t avoid his opponent’s blows will not succeed. But an artful dodger who can’t strike a blow is just as ineffective! As Christian boxers, some chant: “We don’t smoke and we don’t chew, and we don’t run with them that do!”—but they don’t do anything else either! They can dodge Satan’s darts, but can’t land a punch for the Lord. But we also have the opposite type, heavy hitters who are preaching and teaching and have the devil on the ropes, but who never learned to duck, and soon are down for the count, having disgraced their ministry by falling into sin.
Paul was not “one that beateth the air,” and neither are we! The only time a boxer engaged in beating the air, or “shadowboxing,” was when he was training, and you and I are never without an opponent! Our Berean Bible Institute students may be in training, but as far as God is concerned, they are already engaged in the conflict!
“But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (I Cor. 9:27).
The phrase “keep under” is a peculiar phrase used only one other time in the Bible, and in a way that tells us precisely what Paul means. In II Chronicles 28:10, we read:
“And now ye purpose to keep under the children of Judah and Jerusalem for bondmen and bondwomen unto you….”
Obviously, when Paul says we should keep under our bodies, he means we should keep them “as bondmen and bondwomen” unto us. Our physical bodies make wonderful servants, but poor masters. We must keep under them lest we find ourselves “a castaway.”
This doesn’t mean we might lose our salvation. In Romans 11 we read that God “cast away” the people of Israel (v. 1-15), but that didn’t mean that faithful Jews who died in faith lost their hope! It rather means that as a people they were sidelined from competition, because they didn’t follow the rules!
Paul knew from personal experience what this was like. After he had “preached to others” that we are not under law but under grace, he took a Jewish vow (Acts 21:18-26) that would have ended in an animal sacrifice (v. 26). Rather than let him cast such a dishonorable shadow on the Cross of Christ, God interrupted the vow (v. 27), had him arrested (v. 32) and subsequently imprisoned, cast away or sidelined because he didn’t follow the rules.
Indeed, it is this unfortunate event in Paul’s life that prompted the passage we are now considering. In I Corinthians 9:20, Paul regretfully admits:
“And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law; that I might gain them that are under the law.”
Paul says that he did this “that I might by all means save some” (v. 22). But are we to use all means to reach the lost and teach the untaught? No, we must be careful “lest that by any means” we are too zealous and break the rules! Paul’s words here are not given to encourage us to emulate his methods, but rather as a warning not to follow in his footsteps. He means for us to admire the zeal that motivated his actions, but to temper this zeal with an unwavering determination to play by the rules.
We know that Paul was willing to give up his rewards and be “accursed from Christ” for his brethren in Israel (Rom. 9:3). This sounds noble, and we are tempted to say, “Amen! You go, Paul!”, and be willing to give up our own rewards for the sake of those about us. But Paul learned the hard way that God doesn’t approve of it, and it doesn’t work anyway! Compromising the rules never accomplishes the goal, it only brings loss of rewards. Thus Paul tells Timothy:
“And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully” (II Tim. 2:5).
This passage in II Timothy has yet another tie to our text in I Corinthians 9. The Greek word for “castaway” is the negative form of the word translated “approved” in II Timothy 2:15. Thus, if we don’t rightly divide God’s Rule Book, we will end up a disapproved castaway! Every Isthmian contestant knew he must do more than just follow the rules of his competition, he also knew he must not mix the rules with those of other events. For instance, while it is perfectly all right to punch an opponent in the boxing ring, a runner who slugs a man who is gaining on him will find himself disqualified! It is likewise within the rules for fencers to use a foil, but the boxer who tries to use one is disapproved! In the same way, Christians today must be careful not to mix the rules given to us through the Apostle Paul with the rules given to the people of Israel, or we will end up “ashamed” at the judgment seat of Christ.
Perhaps you are thinking that you aren’t concerned with obtaining rewards, you would be embarrassed to reign with Christ, you are not the type who wants to rule and reign over anyone or anything. When you get to Heaven, you’ll be content to be “a doorkeeper” in the house of God (Ps. 84:10). If this describes you, you should know that while rewards may not be important to you, they are important to God. God is tired of watching the Academy awards and all of men’s other award shows, and seeing all the wrong people rewarded for all the wrong things! God is eager to see the right people rewarded for all the right things. May God help us to be as eager to be rewarded as He is to reward us! May God help us to get in the game, and live fervently for Him!