Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, 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. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. – 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Paul here is drawing an illustration from Isthmian games, a sort of local Olympics, if you will. And these Olympics were an important for the Corinthians, as they were basically next-door neighbors to the event. And the games were not something casual, but almost sacred to the community.
The foot race was the most prominent event, and that’s where Paul goes first. He talks about how all the runners run, but only one gets the prize, and he exhorts them to run after a prize themselves. Just as with any analogy, we don’t want to read too much into its meaning. Paul is not suggesting that only one Christian is going to be saved. Neither is he saying that we must earn salvation on our own. (Paul would be last in saying that, based on everything else he’s written.) What he’s calling the Corinthians to is a life for Christ that is more sprinting than strolling. If runners in a race crave the prize and sprint after it, how much more should we sprint after Christ?
And this is done through self-control. He continues the analogy by saying that all athletes exercise self-control. Leading up to these games, Greek competitors would go into a strict training regimen for ten months. Everything they did was to prepare themselves for the games. And athletes only do it for a perishable wreath, made of leaves, essentially. Christians are striving toward eternal glory with Christ. How much more should Christians be self-controlled in their preparation?
Paul then turns to himself as an example. He wasn’t one that was running aimlessly. He wasn’t boxing as one beating the air. In other words, he wasn’t shadow boxing. He was there to knock somebody out. He disciplined his body, and he kept it under control. Remember, he’s not talking about physical fitness here, but spiritual discipline.
One reason he was so disciplined was for fear that after preaching to others, he himself would be disqualified. Not only was he preaching urgency and self-control in the Christian walk, but he practiced what he preached. And from what we know about Paul, he is a strong example for us. We can imitate him as he imitates Christ.
How are you living your Christian life, sheep? Are you like these Greeks who are passionate about the games, so much so that they train hard for it for months and they play to win? Or are you more like a spectator, an armchair quarterback? All who believe in Jesus are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Him. The last thing we should do is be lazy followers, in response. An understanding of Christ’s love will spur a Christian on to life of diligence and self-control in a desire to make the name of Christ known and to shine His greatness all over the world.
Let us not run aimlessly. Let us not box the air. Let us sprint and strive toward Christ, by His grace and for His glory.