I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it. Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:23–27 NASB)
When Paul wrote these words to the Corinthian Christians, he assumed that they all knew about the games. The Olympic Games took place in Greece every four years without interruption from 776 BC until they were suppressed by the Emperor Theodosius in AD 393. That’s 1,169 years. Everyone knew about the games. So Paul didn’t have to explain the games. Everybody was aware of the games then. And everybody is aware of the games today.
Levels of Reality
What Paul did with the games — just like he (and Jesus) did with everything else in life — was to see them in relation to God. Paul was so saturated with Christ and the gospel that he couldn’t see anything without thinking of how it related to eternity and the great issues of the Christian life.
So he took the games and he taught the Christians to transpose them into a different level, and to see in the games a reality very different than everyone else was seeing. He said in effect,
The games are played at this level of reality. They run at this level. They box at this level. They train and practice and deny themselves at this level. They set their sights on gold at this level.
Now I want you to see all that at another level. I want you to transpose the temporary struggles and triumphs of the Olympic Games onto a different level of reality — the level of spiritual life and eternity and God. When you see the athletes run, see another kind of running. When you see them boxing, see another kind of boxing. When you see them training and denying themselves, see another kind of training and self-denial. When you see them smiling with a gold medal around their neck, see another kind of prize.
That’s what Paul was trying to do in this text for the Christian Corinthians, and that is what I am trying to do this morning for you. I want you to transpose what you see and hear into a different key. Every time you turn the television set on, I want you to hear God talking to you through the games. If I understand Paul in this text, the games in Barcelona are meant to be seen and heard by Christians as a tremendous impulse to fight the fight of faith and run the race of life with nothing less than Olympic passion and perseverance.
The reason I take two weeks on this text is not just because the games last that long, but because there are at least two tremendously important things that demand our attention in this text.
One is the prize, the crown, the finish, the triumph. What is it? What’s at stake in the race of the Christian life? What are we to run for and fight for? And is that okay? To have a great prize in view as we fight the fight of faith?
The other thing in this text that needs our attention is the running itself. How then shall we run? What is it to exercise self-control? Are we to buffet and pummel our bodies and make them our slaves? What does this look like in real life? And how do you do it if you are weak and lying in the coronary care unit of Abbott-Northwestern Hospital or tied to a bed with a broken hip at age 95 at Augustana?
Today we look at question one: What is at stake in this race? What is the prize and the crown?
Spoils of Victory
Paul gives the answer to this question in four different ways in four different verses. In two of them he talks about what is at stake in the way he runs his own race. And in two of them he talks about what’s at stake in the way the Corinthians run the race. It’s the same thing for both. He wants them to see that what’s at stake is the prize. And he uses himself as an example. He is in the race with them.
1. Fellow Partakers of the Gospel
First, in verse 23 he comes to the end of his description (in verses 19–22) of how he is willing to become all things to all men in order to save some (verse 22), and he sums up this passion for people and for the gospel like this in verse 23: “And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow-partaker of it.”
“Paul was so saturated with Christ and the gospel that he couldn’t see anything without thinking of how it related to eternity.”
There’s the first description of what is at stake in the way Paul runs the race of his life. “ . . . that I may become a fellow-partaker of the gospel.” “ . . . that I might have a share in the gospel.” “ . . . that I might obtain what the gospel promises.”
Now what the gospel promises is salvation — salvation from sin and death and hell. “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe” (Romans 1:16; see 1 Corinthians 15:1–2). So what Paul is saying is this: “I live for the sake of the gospel — I preach it and become all things to all people, not only that they might be saved, but that I might inherit the same salvation with them.” He said the same thing to Timothy, “Take heed to yourself and to your teaching, hold fast to that; for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16, RSV).
God has called Paul to preach the gospel. Whether he does or not is evidence of his living relationship to Christ. It is evidence of whether he has been born of God and given a new heart of love to Christ. And therefore what hangs on Paul’s running in the path of obedience and his fighting the fight of faith is the reality of his own standing in grace, his own participation in the gospel.
If he quit running, if he said, “I’ve had enough of this life of service; I’m through with following the path of obedience to my heavenly call; I’ll try to hang on to Christ for the forgiveness of my sins, but I’m done with doing what he says,” — if Paul quit like that, and never came back, he would be lost. He would not get the prize of salvation. He would be disqualified from the race and sent away in shame — like a sprinter guilty of unlawful steroids.
That’s what Paul says in verse 27, which is the second way he describes what is at stake in the race of life. He says, “I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.”
Paul will warn the Corinthians in the next chapter, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Now Paul applies it to himself: If I do not take heed, if I give way to some of the impulses of my body, I could find myself on the slippery slope of disobedience away from Christ, and get to the end of my life and hear the judge of the race say, “Disqualified! Yes, you prophesied in my name. Yes, you cast out demons in my name. Yes, you did many mighty works in my name. But you left the racetrack of faith and love and righteousness. You are disqualified. Depart from me. I never knew you” (Matthew 7:22–23).
The best evidence perhaps that this is what Paul means is the use of the word “disqualified” (adokimos) in 2 Corinthians 13:5. Paul says, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you — unless you are disqualified.” The word is exactly the same one from 1 Corinthians 9:27.
To be disqualified means that Christ is not in you. The race has been run in vain. It was a sham.
Run and Fight Like Paul
Now Paul does not believe that is true about his own heart. And he means to make his whole life a living demonstration that Christ is in him and Christ is mighty to save. The way he runs and the way he fights is not because he doesn’t have Christ and hopes to have him, but because he does have Christ and means to show it to the world.
The beautiful way he puts it in Philippians 3:12 is, “Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.”
The running and the fighting of the Christian life is a running and fighting for eternal life: “Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of eternal life” (1 Timothy 6:12). But it is a race and a fight in the confidence that we have been taken hold of by Christ for that very life. Our running and our fighting, with all its pain, is proof that the Christ who ran his race and fought his fight and endured his cross for the joy (the prize) set before him is alive and real in our hearts.
So Paul uses himself and his own race twice to show what is at stake in the way we run and fight. Now he says the same thing when he mentions twice what is at stake in the way the Corinthians run their race.
3. The Prize
Verse 24: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may seize it.” Run to win the prize.
“Not to get the prize is not to go to heaven.”
The word for “prize” is used one other time in the New Testament, namely, in Philippians 3:14: “I press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Not to get the prize is not to go to heaven.
So when Paul says, “Run in such a way as to win the prize,” heaven hangs on this running. That’s why next week’s message is so crucial. What is it? How do we do it?
4. Imperishable Crowns of Righteousness
The fourth description of what is at stake in our running is mentioned in verse 25, “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” The prize is an “imperishable wreath.”
The word is stephanos, crown, and the closest parallel to this use of crown is 2 Timothy 4:7–8 where Paul mentions the race and the fight just like he does here in verse 26. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course [race], I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord the righteous Judge will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing.”
The “imperishable crown” is the righteousness that finally fits us for heaven. We don’t have it yet. We still sin. We repent. God forgives. But we fight and we run in the pursuit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:14). We hunger and thirst for righteousness with the confidence, Jesus says, that “we shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). We do not run in vain!
Better Than Gold
And so the conclusion this morning is this: the Christian life is an awesomely serious affair and the stakes are infinitely high. What you do with your life — the way you run your race and fight your fight — will make the difference between sharing in the promises of the gospel or being disqualified. It will make the difference between attaining the prize of the upward call of God in Christ, or not. It will make the difference between receiving the unfading crown of righteousness or not. Life is serious business.
You will see in Barcelona this week the path of discipline and pain that athletes are willing to pursue for one gold medal and an hour in the glory of human praise. I urge you as you watch to transpose what you see from games into ultimate reality.
Above all, remember this: what God offers you and pledges to you in the gospel and in the prize and in the crown is ten-thousand times more valuable than all the gold in Barcelona.