I love the Olympics. I love cheering for fellow countrymen and women, admiring their physical ability, and pretending to understand the many obscure events (After all, who doesn’t know the details and scoring penalties of the canoe slalom?).
Our admiration of the athletes deepens as we hear their backstories and see the challenges they have had to overcome. They have put in countless hours of training to be the best in the world. Often have I pondered this as I nod off to sleep on the couch or get another cookie from the kitchen.
The contrast is not lost on me. I consider myself a disciplined person, but the shallowness of my commitments is highlighted as I see these elite individuals. After suppressing my guilt with another cookie, I think of the spiritual analogy that we can draw from these competitors. If they spend years training for a one-minute (or less) race, should not our pursuit of God and service to Him at least look a little like this?
The apostle Paul certainly thought it should. He drew on athletic analogies several times in the New Testament. Let us look at the one in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.
I’ll pause so you can open a new tab or grab your Bible and give it a read…
Paul writes this in the midst of a section about how we are to make choices in our lives. It is a charge to exercise self-control for the sake of the Gospel and service to God. We know that we are not to compromise in our lives, but this goes a step further and shows we are not to compartmentalize. Our whole life is for service to Christ.
To reinforce this point, Paul brings in the analogy of the elite athlete. He anticipates the question that may arise from his readers asking “Does it really matter how we live? Is the little we do not sufficient? How much are we really to focus on it?”
In response to this, Paul’s analogy and argument are unassailable. He begins by giving them the illustration of the attitude of the athlete (24-25a, then contrasts the preciousness of the prize of the athlete to the prize of the Christian (25b), and finally concludes with a call to be dedicated to discipline (26-27).
Attitude of the Athlete
All runners in a race have one goal: to win the race. They are not out on a light jog. They do not pick their own track and destination. The course is before them, their competitors beside them. Their ears cancel the noise of the crowd as one object is before them. All of their mental and physical faculties are brought to bear to win the race.
The gun goes off, and they run.
But every athlete knows that the race is not won on game day. How foolish would I be to show up at the Olympics and expect to win the 100m backstroke with no prior training? Try as I might, it would not go well (do they have world records for slowest times?). The competition is not won on game day. It is won on the practice field. It is won in the gym where they train. It is won in their kitchens where they eat. In their beds where they sleep. It is won when they wake up earlier and stay on the track later than everyone else. It is won by the choices they make to forego indulgences (like cookies) for the sake of their fitness or training. As Paul puts it here, they exercise self-control in all things.
The athlete has a singularity of focus. Their life is dedicated to winning the race. It is not enough for them to get a participation trophy. They are not there just to get a t-shirt. They want to win.
The Preciousness of the Prize
These athletes competed for a perishable wreath. John MacArthur notes that Paul likely referred to the Isthmian games which took place in Corinth, and the prize was a pine wreath. Anyone who has had a real pine wreath during Christmas knows that it starts to fall apart by the second helping of Christmas pie. A week later, the wreath that was once so decorative and festive is now a pile of needles on the floor getting eaten by the cat. Even the intangible prize, the fame and glory, only lasts for a few years at most. A decade or so on, and the athlete who earned the applause of the world is remembered only by a name, a country, an event, and a year. Once great, now barely remembered. The glory of this world fades and falls like the needles on the wreath.
But, Paul says, the prize we seek is not like this one. It does not perish or fade. It does not wither and die. It is set securely beyond the corruption of this world. It is promised, held, and given by the One who Himself does not change. The sun in its glory will one day burn out. The mountains in their grandeur will fall. But the prize that is promised to us will never perish.
The Dedication to Discipline
In light of this, how much more ought we to seek and strive for the reward than those on earth who seek a passing prize? If an athlete sets the course of their lives to win a prize that will fade away, how much more ought we to exercise self-control in all things for the sake of the Gospel? If a runner has singular dedication during a race, not allowing himself or herself to be distracted by those in the stands or planes flying overhead, how much more should we have singular focus during our short time on earth?
Encouragement and Exhortation
If you have not placed your faith in Christ, my call to you will not be to run. It would be easy to take this and strive for perfection, but that would be catastrophic. While we are called to run as hard as we can and do the best that we can, the standard by which we will be judged is not our level of effort. The standard is perfection. And the Judge who reviews our conduct sees all and will clear no misstep. Perfection is required, and you are not perfect.
But here is the good news. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, has come to earth. He has run the race and perfectly kept the law of God. He has the righteousness we cannot attain. Likewise, on the cross He took the punishment for our sin. He died and took the fullness of God’s wrath, and He rose again in victory over sin and death. Now, we can receive forgiveness of sin when we repent, and we can obtain His righteousness through faith. To you I do not say run, but trust. Trust in Christ alone for salvation!
To those who have trusted Christ, know that we are called from victory to victory. We are more than conquerors in Christ because He has won the victory for us, but we are called to run. Do not now falter when our victory is sure! Do not stop halfway down the track! Let the athletes in the games be an example to us. Let their pursuit of a lowly honor spur us on in our pursuit of a great one. I urge you, exercise self-control for the sake of the Gospel. Do not let the cares of this life distract you. Press on toward the prize!
To those who are already running hard. You daily strive to put off sin and earthly desires and live for the Gospel but wonder if you can endure. You strain toward the prize but feel your muscles and motivation starting to fail you. You wonder if it is worth it. Press on! Our reward is sure! When asked what his strategy was for running a race, Olympic athlete Eric Liddell reportedly said that he would run the first half as fast as he could, and then with God’s help he would run the second half even faster. May this be the story of our lives. Praise God that you have run hard and resisted sin and lived for the Gospel. With His help, may you have strength to run even harder today!
Press on fellow runners! Our Savior bids us run. May we live each day and take each step for the sake of the Gospel, for His service, in the hope of His reward, and for His glory!
References: MacArthur, John. 1984. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians. The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Chicago, IL; Liddell, Eric. Quoted in https://quotes.thefamouspeople.com/eric-liddell-4272.php.
Mike Engelsgjerd recently separated from the U.S. Army after 15 years of service. Towards the end of his service, Mike began to feel God’s call to full time Christian ministry. In following this call, He is pursuing an M.Div. at TMS with the goal of becoming a Chaplain in the U.S. Military and a Pastor.