1 Corinthians 9:24-27
There is a unifying theme the student will observe in 1 Cor. 8, 9 & 10. The theme is self-discipline. The problem that led into this (in the Corinthian church) was the awkward and selfish treatment of each other respecting the issue of "things offered to idols." Some in the church were asserting their knowledge about things sacrificed to idols, but without love that edifies and without regard to wounding the weak conscience of a brother (1 Cor. 8).
That topic is introduced in chapter eight where Paul warns: "...beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak," (8:9). Reading these three chapters it is easy to picture brethren acting impulsively, asserting their answers without any sensitivity toward the weak. Paul is responding to that ugly spectacle.
In chapter nine, Paul's life shows the pattern of self-discipline. He was willing to forego various "rights" in the greater interests of the cause of Christ. Chapter ten applies the matter of self-discipline to the general issue of temptation, then Paul re-introduces the original topic of meats sacrificed to idols. Thus, the entire section of three chapters can be studied as connected by this theme of self-discipline. At the heart of this is the last paragraph of chapter nine.
"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." (1 Cor. 9:24-27)
In illustrative material (like parables), not every detail can be pressed into interpretive conclusion. Paul is not recommending that Christians compete against each other; we know from other passages, we are to help each other (Phil. 2:1-4, etc.). Further, we cannot see any implication that of all the Christians, only one will be rewarded (see 2 Tim. 4:8). Those two elements of the race imagery do not apply.
The emphasis of the illustration is how runners prepare and how they run. "Run in such a way...," etc. Not everything about running a race applies. Not everything about sports and competition applies. This is about the discipline indispensable in running a race.
This appears very well in Philipps' translation: "...you ought to run with your minds fixed on wining the prize." The competitive element (beating others) has no place in Paul's teaching. He is talking about self-discipline (just as he did in the chapter previous to this, and the chapter after this.) To study this further, ask yourself ...
When you witness a good runner, what do you see?
You see the result of training. You see undistracted effort. And you see arrival at the destination. This is all about self-discipline.
Christians need training. You cannot come up from the waters of baptism into a state of final maturity, keen knowledge, appropriate zeal with a healthy set of attitudes! You must read, study and apply the Word of God. This is why Jesus said, after baptizing people, teach them "to observe all things that I have commanded you," (Matt. 28:20). Christians are trained for service all their lives by the inspired Word of God (see 2 Tim. 3:16,17). Quit training and you can no longer run. Our "running" depends on our training.
Christians must exert undistracted effort. Once-in-a-while effort doesn't fulfill this. We must "lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us," and "run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus...," (Heb. 12:1,2). When a runner in a track event starts watching other racers or pays attention to the audience, precious time is lost. Daily effort is essential, in self-examination, prayer, obedience and watchfulness against temptation. (Compare the words "disciple" and "discipline.")
Christians (who have accepting divine training and have put in the effort) will arrive at the destination. We can look forward to what Paul anticipated: "...there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing," (2 Tim. 4:8). The self-discipline will pay this great dividend. It would be enough to have the privilege of living your life here morally right, honoring Christ and glorifying God. But there is something for us at the end, granted by a gracious God. "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." Discipline develops excellence, and that excellence is rewarded, though the reward is far beyond the merit of our best efforts.
Paul lived his life as a Christian, exemplifying this self-discipline he taught. "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."
It's all about the self-discipline we can develop by trusting and obeying the Lord. That's the unifying theme of these three chapters in First Corinthians. And this can be the unifying energy and fullness of your life. Forgetting the things that are behind, Paul urges us to stretch forward to the things which are before. He said, I PRESS ON (see Phil. 3:13,14).
By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 13.7; July 2006