Everyone knows that if you want to win a prize you need to compete for it. That’s why when I get a flyer in in the mail that says I have won a prize I look at it with some skepticism, actually a lot of skepticism. As I read the flyer closely the words appear, “all you have to do to claim your prize is…” That’s when I end up throwing the “prize” out with the rest of the disposables. Have I ever won a prize, a trophy, a first-place finish? I remember a couple of track and field trophies, and one bowling trophy, and there was that time I won a raffle in the Marine Corps for a 72 hours pass, but other than that I can’t remember ever winning first place at anything. The fact is, I am not that good at anything. When I was a runner, I was too slow to be a sprinter and didn’t have enough endurance to be a strong long distant runner. Some people are considered all-around athletes, well-coordinated people, gifted with speed, strength, and endurance. They have been blessed with the ability to make playing sports look easy. For me? I’m happy that I can put one foot in front of the other without tripping over my own feet…most of the time.
Which brings me to the Scripture I would like us to consider for our mediation today. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.”
Now, you need to know that this passage has always been somewhat problematic for me. If everyone is competing for the same prize and only one will receive the prize, what chance do I have coming in first place? I have already shared with you I am no first-place kind of guy, I am just the opposite. Have I ever finished in last place? Yep! Have I ever finished in the middle of the pack or near the end of the pack? Yep! So how am ever to imagine that I stand a chance of coming in first place and claiming the prize that the Apostle Paul is talking about? Better stated, how are any of us supposed to come in first place and receive this prize? I want to be inclusive here because we are all competing for the same prize.
To answer that question, we need a little background in understanding Paul’s thought process in this passage. Richard Pratt Jr. writes in his commentary on First Corinthians, “The Corinthians loved athletics. They sponsored the biannual Isthmian Games, which were second in importance only to the Olympic Games. They held these games only ten miles from Corinth, so most people in Corinth would have been familiar with the goals and practices of the games. Paul was in Corinth in A.D. 50-52, so he would have been present for the Isthmian Games held in the spring of A.D. 51.
The games included six events: wrestling, jumping, javelin and discus throwing (one event), and most importantly for Paul’s analogy, racing and boxing. Competitors in the Olympic Games were required to train for at least ten months before the games in order to qualify for participation. It is possible that a similar requirement existed for the Isthmian Games, which may explain Paul’s references to strict training and disqualification. Winners received crowns either of pine or of celery, both perishable materials.
So, what is Paul’s end game here? Sorry no pun intended. To understand this passage you need to take in consideration the context of chapter 9. Paul considers his own apostleship, and the evidence of it was the life he poured into those who made up the church at Corinth. He was as much of an apostle as Peter and had every right to eat on a regular bases, to have a wife like the rest of the apostles, and to be supported by the church instead of working two jobs, night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone. But Paul realized that much more was at stake. He realized that in order to serve all men, Jew, Gentile, free or slave he had to live a life of self-denial. So Paul went without eating and sleeping, he had no wife to go home to at night, and he supported himself when no one else would look his way. Why? Why go through all the self-denial, all the sacrifice, all the pain and suffering? Simply put, the Gospel. Paul writes in 9:11-12, “If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things? If others are partakers of this right over you, are we not even more? Nevertheless we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ.” Paul gave up his right to be supported by others in order not to hinder the spread of the Gospel. Paul saw serving others, all men, more important than his own personal welfare. Paul saw his life of self-denial, a life of serving others with no strings attached in order to get the good news of Jesus Christ out to all people more important than his own comfort, safety, and rights.
We live in a society where the main goal for life is ease and comfort. We avoid pain, stress, worry, agitation and a host of other things in order to live what we perceive as the “good life.” Yet to run the race that Paul is talking about, to live for others at the expense of our own comfort, dare I say at expense of our own rights–that takes something different. It takes a spirit of discipline. We all like prizes, we all want that crown, we all want that first place finish. Sounds great doesn’t it? But to win it, it will take a disciplined life.
John MacArthur once wrote, “A great difference between those races and the Christian ‘race’ is that every Christian who will pay the price of carful training can win.” I believe he is spot on. But if you want the prize that will not fade away you will have to take the race serious and work to win. To do life in Christ, to do it the right way will always take spiritual discipline. It will always take me to say no to self, no to my wants, no to my rights, and no to my desire for easy, and yes to self-denial. Paul said he disciplined his body, literally means to give it a “black eye.” Was Paul cruel to his body? In a way yes. He would not allow his body comfort to get in the way of the gospel or the service to others in the name of Christ.
Perhaps my ramblings are giving you pause for concern. I pray this is so. You want to run well, you want the prize, what is hindering you? If you want the prize you cannot be disqualified. If you want the prize you cannot train like someone jogging when they should be doing wind-sprints. If you want the prize you cannot just punch the air and think you are making contact with something. To win the prize you need to get off the couch and get into training and that will take a spirit of discipline.
This is Pastor Pat FROM BEHIND THE PEN—wishing you joy in Jesus!