READ : 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, 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. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27, RSV
Think with me today about winning. That’s a prospect that delights us all. We aspire to be victors, to come out on top, to be Number 1. A coach of fabled memory once put it this way: “Winning isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.” Everyone wants to be a winner.
The problem with this outlook in the world of sports, of course, is that everyone can’t win. Among all the football teams that play on a given weekend, only half can possibly emerge victorious. In a race with 500 entrants, only one can come in first.
The apostle Paul in writing to his friends in Corinth, in the 9th chapter of his first letter, seems to make precisely this point. Listen: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” Paul, of course, is talking about another kind of race here, a bigger game. He’s writing about the course we run in living our lives, about fulfilling our ministry, about accomplishing God’s purpose for us. He doesn’t say that only one person can gain the prize. No one in this race is disqualified by the success or superiority of someone else. Each has his or her particular course to finish. The question here is not how many will win, but rather, what it takes for any of us to be a genuine winner. Now these things have their application in any kind of sport or contest, but supremely they do in this biggest game of all. How does a person win in the great race, the supreme struggle of our life?
GUARDING AGAINST COMPLACENCY
First: it’s how we finish that counts. The race, you see, is for a lifetime. You don’t cross the finish line until you meet the Lord. Paul is reminding us that starting the race and taking part in it are not the same as winning. Some runners come out of the starting blocks very impressively but never finish the race. Every baseball team during spring practice thinks it has a good chance to “win it all” this year. They start the season even with everyone else. But that doesn’t mean that they will necessarily reach the goal of a world series championship.
Now that’s true in the Christian race as well. The apostle Paul makes it very personal. He applies it to his own situation. He envisions the possibility that after preaching to others, he himself could be disqualified. Imagine that! This is Paul the great apostle writing now. He had met the risen Lord on the way to Damascus and received a commission directly from Him. He was a genuinely converted man, evidently devoted to Jesus Christ His Lord. He had labored tirelessly in the gospel and suffered greatly for the sake of the name above every name. But in Paul’s mind, all of this was no guarantee that he would be a winner. He could still fall by the wayside and fail to finish. He could still step out of bounds and be disqualified. His good start and heroic efforts might conceivably come to nothing. Nobody wins just by starting or by getting half way through the race or even by nearing the end. It’s crossing the line, reaching the goal that makes us winners. Nothing short of that will do it. So for all of us, it’s the remaining part of the race that’s always crucial.
Again, Paul is not saying that only one can win. There can be many winners. His point is that none of them can afford to be complacent. None dares imagine that he can coast. None of them will be so confident of victory in mid-course that he lets down and thinks the race is won.
How many basketball teams have stopped playing all out and tried to protect a lead only to see their advantage vanish and the game lost! How many runners have felt sure of victory and looked confidently back, only to be passed by someone lunging for the tape? Yogi Berra once pronounced the baldest of cliches, but it is so telling that everyone remembers it. “It isn’t over ‘til it’s over.”
HEADING FOR THE GOAL
Here’s another necessity for winning: keeping a clear sense of purpose. Paul says, “So run that you may obtain the prize.” In other words, make it your steady intention to win the race, to get to the finish line.
Did you know that people sometimes run in major track events without that intention? I was watching a meet not long ago in which at least two runners competed with no intention of winning the race. They were functioning as what someone has called “rabbits.” They took an early lead and kept up a blistering pace. They knew they couldn’t sustain it. They were really out there to help the best runners, to stretch them. When the job of setting the pace for a while had been finished, they dropped out of the race. They never completed it.
People sometimes run just for the exercise, don’t they? They may even run for show. But then they will not be winners because winners keep their eyes on the goal and bend every effort toward reaching it.
Sometimes people seem tentative in the race of life. The commitments they make are with reservations. They say on their wedding day, “Til death do us part,” but what they really mean is, “I’ll try this for a while and see how it works out.” They begin to follow Jesus but they hold on to their other options. If that way should become too difficult or too unpopular, they may consider something else. They haven’t burned their bridges behind them, as it were. They aren’t in it for the long haul. They’re not completely sure where they’ll end up. They aren’t running like those determined to go the distance.
Paul, on the other hand, is perfectly clear about his intentions. Listen to him, “I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air.” No one would ever be in doubt about the apostle’s direction in life. He’s not wandering here or there or pausing to look over the countryside. He’s headed straight for the goal. He wants to get there with no wasted motion.
And when he fights, Paul isn’t merely going through the motions. He isn’t showing off his footwork while he shadow-boxes. Every bit of effort for him is purposeful. People may not approve of the way he contends but no one can doubt that he is in dead earnest. Winners are like that. They know where they’re headed. They set a goal for themselves. Or better, they have a goal set for them. And they have eyes for nothing else. They may get distracted at times or even knocked off course, but they keep pressing on. They say as Paul did in another of his letters: “This one thing I do.”
Here’s another necessity for winning, and this is the one that Paul is emphasizing most: self-discipline, self-control, self-mastery.
Everyone in Corinth was familiar with the Isthmian games. They were held in the vicinity of the city on the Isthmus of Corinth. The contests were in chariot, horse, and foot racing, boxing, wrestling, and hurling the spear. Every participant was required for ten months before the games to undergo a strenuous training program. They all had to follow a prescribed diet and a daily regimen of exercise. Many young athletes today who aspire to be Olympians are in rigorous training for several years. They eat only certain foods, in certain quantities. They get a prescribed amount of rest. They have to say no to the common indulgences that most of us allow ourselves, not just once or twice but as a steady pattern of life.
For all athletes today, success in competition demands superb conditioning. In sports where hundreds of athletes are blessed with great natural abilities, it is often the degree of self-discipline and mental concentration that makes the difference. Winners pay a price in self-restraint. They know that keeping themselves to a routine of practice is what enables them to perform at their best when everything is on the line.
What about Paul, runner of the Christian race? Does he see self-discipline as vital? Listen: “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” He recognizes that his biggest battle is with himself. The greatest struggles of his life are with his own inclinations. If he can control himself, he’s on the way to victory. So he leads his body and all its members into subjection.
The apostle isn’t demeaning the body here. He’s not contending that our physical makeup is somehow evil. He is rather saying that the body with all its members can serve more than one master. When our physical desires are given free rein, they become cruel and rash masters. The body, though sometimes unwilling, must be made to serve. Paul wants to discipline every aspect of his life, all of his members. He wants to exercise thorough-going self-control.
It would be easy to misunderstand the apostle here. We could picture him as a man preoccupied with his own inner struggles, focused on himself, trying in some legalistic way to keep himself in check, but that would be a caricature. This is Paul the apostle speaking, Paul, the man in Christ. He knows that self-control is not a heroic human achievement but, as he writes to the Galatians, it’s “the fruit of the Spirit.” He knows that we only learn self mastery when we are ruled by our rightful Lord, that we only keep the body in check in a wholesome way, when our whole lives are governed by the Holy Spirit. Paul wants to lead his body in subjection, not to an iron self-will but to the service of his Savior. Here is Paul’s secret, and ours: “The love of Christ controls us. He died for all that we who live should live no longer for ourselves but for him who died for us and rose again.” It’s discipline, all right, total self-discipline. But it springs from devotion to Christ and reliance on the Spirit’s power. Has that become true in your life?
VALUING THE PRIZE
That leads us to the last essential for winning life’s race: rightly valuing the prize. The athletes at the Isthmian games and the aspirants for Olympic glory today endure training, exercise self-discipline, submit to rigors that most of us know little of, all in hope of the prize. Do you know what it was in the ancient games? A garland of pine leaves. That was the most coveted treasure in the ancient world! Imagine it! And our athletes today do it for Olympic gold, or silver, or bronze. Those seem somewhat more substantial, more enduring, but who would ever pawn one of those medals or melt it down for its value? It’s the symbol of victory that is precious. It’s what the medal stands for that counts.
Paul calls such prizes “corruptible.” The pine leaves would shortly wither. Winners today sometimes lose their medals or have them stolen. They can even be taken back when contestants are disqualified. And who even remembers the winners who contended twenty years ago?
We Christians, on the other hand, run, says Paul, for an incorruptible crown, an enduring treasure, a glory that doesn’t fade. Those who win in the great race, the divine Invitational, have something that lasts. What is the crown that doesn’t rust or wither? What is the glory that never fades? You’ve heard Paul talk about it: “that I might by all means save some.” There it is, the joy and privilege of being instrumental in the salvation of others. It’s being agents of a love that does others deathless good. Yes, and the crown is also to partake of that same gospel ourselves, to share in its benefits because we partake of its spirit. Our prize is to be with the Lord, to behold His glory, to worship and celebrate Him forever. Best of all, the crown is to finish the course He has set for us, to be a joy to His heart, to hear from His lips, “Well done!”
Do you want to know how Paul felt about that promised crown? He wasn’t willing to trade it for anything, even his safety or his life. When well-meaning friends tried to dissuade him from completing his race, this is what he said, “None of these things move me. Neither do I count my life dear unto myself, that I might finish my course with joy and the ministry that I have received of the Lord Jesus to testify the gospel of the grace of God.” Then when his hour had come at last, he confessed: “I have fought a good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith.”
A great host of us can be winners, friends, a multitude that no man can number. All who believe in Christ can be winners. Let’s remember then that it’s how we finish that counts. Let’s keep a steady eye on the goal. Let’s bring all of life into subjection to the lordship of Jesus, and let’s do it all for love’s sake, for Jesus’ sake. That’s what it takes to be, at the end of the race, a winner!