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The Christian Race

Gracious Discipline to Undisciplined Brothers: 1 Corinthians  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented
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Stand for the reading of our passage this morning.
1 Corinthians 9:24–27 (ESV) 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.


The Olympic Games in Ancient Greece. [1]

The Olympic Games as we know them today have a long his­tory which goes back to ancient times. Everything started in the Peloponnese, in Greece, some 3,000 years ago. Sports competitions were organized at Olympia and were named after their location, hence their name of Olympic Games. Nobody knows exactly when they began, but the first writ­ten mention of the competitions is dated to 776 BC. These Games were held at the same place every four years. This four-year period acquired the name Olympiad, and was used as a date system . . .
On the occasion of the four Panhellenic Games, a sacred truce was proclaimed. Messengers went from city to city announcing the date of the competitions. They called for all wars to be halted before, during and after the Games in order to enable the athletes, as well as the spectators, to travel to and from the Games sites in total safety. A climate of peace was considered important during the period of competition.
For the Olympic Games, a city selected the best athletes from its gymnasium. The athletes chosen still had to train hard for several months. Once the sacred truce had been proclaimed and the date of the Games announced, the athletes and their train­ers left for Olympia. The journey could be long and difficult. When they arrived in Elis, near Olympia, the athletes trained for one month at the city’s gymnasium, the last stage of qualifying for the Games. Those who were finally selected went to Olympia and took an oath, as did the judges. They promised to take part in the competitions in an honourable way, abiding by the rules.
PAUSANIUS: Beside this image it is the custom for athletes, their fathers and their brothers, as well as their trainers, to swear an oath upon slices of boar’s flesh that in nothing will they sin against the Olympic games. The athletes take this further oath also, that for ten successive months they have strictly followed the regulations for training.[2]
At the modern Olympic Games, the first, second and third — placed athletes are rewarded, respectively, by gold, silver and bronze medals. At the Panhellenic Games, there was only one winner whose prize was a wreath or crown of leaves. . . . The glory of the victorious athlete brought reflected glory to all the inhabitants of his home town. When he returned from the Games, he was given a hero’s welcome and received numerous benefits for the rest of his life.
To show that he had become famous, the victor had the right to have a statue of himself erected. He could also ask a poet to write verses telling of his feats. Because they were proud of him, his fellow citizens sometimes made coins with his effigy on them, so as not to forget him and to make him known throughout the Greek world.
The prizes awarded in local competitions had a greater material value. . . . In spite of this, the prestige of the Panhellenic Games remained unequalled. The modest crown of leaves was the highest possible reward in the Greek world, as it guaranteed its holder honour and respect from everyone.
The modern Olympian. The modern Olympian is not all that different than the ancient. There is a consistency in Olympian, ancient or modern. They all are singular in their focus on a particular prize. The gold medal may not be incredibly valuable, but a whole lot more goes along with that gold medal – prestige, honor, adulation, etc. This singular focus is seen in the sacrifice of their time and money. Consider Michael Phelps training schedule. He averaged about six hours of swimming per day, six days a week. He also lifted weights for about an hour three days a week.
What is your singular focus in life? Isn’t true how so many things invade our lives and seem to consume our time, energy, and emotions? Some of these things may be sinful habits, but many of them may be perfectly acceptable activities that simply consume too much of us. Paul’s going to exhort us through this passage in 1 Corinthians 9 to . . .
Purpose Statement: Run the Christian life with purpose, discipline, and self-control, motivated by an eternal reward.[3] This morning I would like to address this purpose by answering two questions? What is the goal? And, how do we get there?

What is the goal? Explain why we run.

To receive the eternal reward

The context is quite clear as to what the reward is in this race. If we look back just a few verses, what do we find that Paul wants to be a fellow partaker of?
1 Corinthians 9:22–23 (ESV) 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
We looked at this last week. Paul wanted to win some to eternal life. He wanted to save some from God’s wrath and eternal destruction, and he wanted to be a fellow partaker in eternal life. It is that eternal life that is the reward in these four verses. This is further reiterated by Peter.
1 Peter 5:1–4 (ESV) 1 So I exhort the elders among you . . . as . . . a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed. . . . 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
A corruptible crown Στεφανος [Stephanos] (crown) is from στεφω [stephō], to put around the head, like the Latin corona, wreath or garland, badge of victory in the games. In the Isthmian games it was of pine leaves, earlier of parsley, in the Olympian games of the wild olive. “Yet these were the most coveted honours in the whole Greek world” (Findlay). . . . Favourite metaphor in N. T., the crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8), the crown of life (James 1:12), the crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4), the crown of rejoicing (1 Thess. 2:9), description of the Philippians (4:1).[4]

An imperishable reward.

Paul compares the imperishable reward of a wreath and temporary glory to the imperishable reward granted to those who run the race of faith.
1 Peter 1:3–5 (ESV) 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

To not be disqualified

As we consider the Olympics, ancient or modern, there are many ways that a participant could be disqualified. They could be disqualified prior to the race itself. They could be disqualified due to certain actions during the race. Remember Pausanius? “The athletes take this further oath also, that for ten successive months they have strictly followed the regulations for training.”[5] Paul desires for us to consider the fact that we could as well find ourselves disqualified.
The statement, “lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified,” can be a bit startling and maybe even make us a bit nervous. Is Paul insinuating that if he doesn’t remain faithful in the Christian life he will somehow lose his salvation? Is he implying that our eternal salvation is somehow dependent on our own hard work and running?
Some have softened the severity of this word disqualified and assume that it refers to Paul’s being disqualified from ministry if he hadn’t run in a certain manner. While that certainly can happen, that is not what the word is indicating in this context. It is clear that the reward is eternal life, and to be disqualified seems to point to a loss of eternal life.
So then, does that mean you can lose your salvation? Absolutely not. The point of the passage is not to offer a theological treatise on eternal security. Instead it is intended to push and motivate Christians to not live the Christian life in a haphazard manner. John Piper says it well.
PIPER: The race of life has eternal consequences not because grace is nullified by the way we run, but because grace is verified by the way we run. “By the grace of God I am what I am and his grace toward me was not in vain, but I labored [I ran, I fought] more exceedingly than all, yet it was not I but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Paul’s running did not nullify the purpose of grace; it verified the power of grace.[6]
What Paul offers for us in this passage is a very practical plea. In the same way that the people of Israel failed to enter the promised land due to unbelief, we can as well fail to receive the crown of eternal life, due to unbelief, exhibited by falling away. Paul references the Israelites in chapter 10 as well, but let’s look at Hebrews 3 and Matthew 7 for a helpful cross reference.
Hebrews 3:12–19 (ESV) 12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15 As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” 16 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.
Matthew 7:21–23 (ESV) 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
We should run the Christian life in similar fashion to those who believe your eternal reward is dependent on your running. But, run with the confidence that your eternal reward is dependent on God’s gracious drawing and holding you.

How do we get there? Describe how we run.

With purpose.

Only one receives the prize. This specific analogy has its weak points. When Paul “all runners run, but only one receives the prize,” he could potentially be misunderstood as implying that only one can receive the eternal prize. The point of the analogy is not to establish that only one person or a specific number of people will ultimately win. Instead, the analogy is used to exhort us to race (and to prepare to race) like there was only one winner.
GARLAND: Christians not only must join the race, but also must put forth every effort to finish it well, because the laurels go only to the victor, in this case, a multitude of victors. . . . they are to run as if winning were not guaranteed with prizes granted to every entrant. They cannot amble nonchalantly around the track and expect some kind of trophy simply for participation. They are to run as if their life depended on it. It does.[7]
As an Olympic athlete trains and prepares for their Olympic race, for years they are willing to sacrifice a lot of things in order to prepare. They are singular in their focus. They sacrifice preferred foods, time with people, relationships, time for various forms of entertainment, etc. In so doing they are not declaring that the things they sacrifice or give up are bad, but that they are just not as important as that on which they are singularly focused. Their singular focus in no way sheds light on the morality or inherent value of other activities.
Singular focus. We are to focus on something that has immensely more value than any Olympic game. We are to be singularly focused on the Glory of God – being enamored by and satisfied in God’s glory and reflecting His glory. This does not mean that everything else is bad. It does mean, however, that nothing else matters all that much in comparison.
Consider those things that consume your life. Too often when we have discussions of this sort, our natural demeanor is to become defensive, and in so doing ask the question “what’s wrong with it?” That’s the wrong question. Something doesn’t have to be wrong with a certain activity or event to not be worth our time. There are a lot of things in life that are morally acceptable, but we may choose to avoid or give up so that we can be more focused on the eternal task at hand.

With discipline. (What I’m purposing to do.)

1 Corinthians 9:26–27 (ESV) So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
Paul offers to analogies to help us better understand the Christian race, those being running and boxing. In the same way that you wouldn’t run a race with no end line established, you wouldn’t
He then sets up the contrast to aimless running and beating the air. He disciplines his body. The literal meaning of this word is to “strike beneath the eye, give a black eye . . . beat black and blue; figuratively, of severe self-imposed discipline treat severely.”[8] While some have wrongly used this passage to justify personal self-flagellation, that is not at all the intent here. The body, in this context, is not the physical body but instead the body of the flesh. Paul punishes or suppresses his flesh. He beats it down. He refuses to let it control and reign his life.
TERTULLIAN: For the athletes, too, are set apart to a more stringent discipline, that they may have their physical powers built up. They are kept from luxury, from daintier meats, from more pleasant drinks; they are pressed, racked, worn out; the harder their labours in the preparatory training, the stronger is the hope of victory. “And they,” says the apostle, “that they may obtain a corruptible crown.”[9]
I love how Tertullian brings our attention back to the fact that these athletes are willing to endure these physical labors and all that for just a perishable, corruptible crown. How much more should we be willing to beat down our sinful flesh for a crown of much more immense value, a crown that is imperishable and cannot be defiled? This same type of willingness to take drastic measures in the Christian life is reflected in Christ’s teaching in Matthew.
Matthew 5:29–30 (ESV) If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
Be willing to do drastic things to fight against the control of the flesh in your life.

With self-control. (What I’m refraining from doing.)

Not only does Paul exhort self-discipline, he encourages self-control. Self-discipline refers to the things we are willing to do, whereas self-control refers to the things we are willing to refrain from doing. Paul uses two different words to speak of self-control. First, in verse 25, he says, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.” In this case, this word refers to one’s ability to control oneself and abstain from doing something. Secondly, in verse 27, he says, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” In this case the word literally means to “lead into slavery, cause to live the life of a slave; figuratively, of disciplining one’s physical body bring under control, subdue, make ready to serve.”[10]
Let’s acknowledge a few things at this point. (1) This ability is a fruit of the Spirit.
Galatians 5:22–24 (ESV) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
(2) And, secondly, while we may experience self-control as something accomplished in our own will, we must always remember that even the will to do good is given to us by the grace of God.
Philippians 2:13 (ESV) for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
An athlete that desires to excel will willingly choose to sacrifice to a great degree his own comforts. He will restrict himself from the luxuries of normal life. His sleep, his diet, and his time of exercise are all placed under a restricted and strict regimen. He makes these choices willingly to refrain from being driven by his feelings, desires, and comforts. For years they will do this for a relatively cheap prize and the pride that comes with winning. In contrast to this, most people struggle being slaves to their own fleshly cravings and bodily desires. Their bodies direct their time, eating, exercise, etc. A victorious athlete cannot do this. “An athlete leads his body; he does not follow it. It is his slave, not the other way around.”[11]
Let’s not think that this entire battle is just a battle against sin. It’s more than that. This battle is against anything that keeps us from the single and primary goal.
GARLAND: Paul, however, is not talking about a constant battle with sin. He knocks out the body’s desires for amenities, comfort, ease, abundance, or even small pleasures – anything that would cause him to think twice about going without or making himself a slave of all persons.[12]


Paul is exhorting us to pursue the advancement of the Gospel with a singular focus, like that of an Olympic athlete.
To the young. It’s not too early for you to start using your time to prepare and focus on that which is truly important. That doesn’t mean that every YouTube video or Netflix movie you watch right now is bad. That doesn’t mean that the games you play on your Xbox or tablet are bad. It does mean however that there are things that are much more important and worthy of your time.
To those raising families. It’s easy to be so busy that you’re consumed with just getting through the day, making money, coming home to take a breath before diving back in, caring for your kids and home, watching their games or hobbies. We almost justify spiritual inaction or apathy as if it just doesn’t work at this point in our life. We figure we’ll focus on those things to a greater degree when we have more time.
To the not so young. There is no point in life at which we have the biblical allowance to retire from this pursuit. Our culture promotes and idolizes retirement. This acceptable practice within the work world has snuck its way into the church, and
PIPER: God has not saved you to sit in the stands. God has not saved you to lie on the track. God has not saved you sit on the edge of the pool with your feet in the water. God has saved you to spend yourself for the glory of his Son (Philippians 1:20). “You are not your own. You were bought with a price. Glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). The point of salvation is to make the glory of God visible in the universe. . . .Life is not a field for demonstrating the force of our will to make good choices. It’s a field for showing how the beauty of Christ takes us captive and constrains us to choose and run for his glory.[13]
[1] Olympic Museum and Studies Centre, The Olympic Games in Ancient Greece. Lausanne, 2002. Accessed October 12, 2016. This whole section is taken from this particular worksheet.
[2] Pausanias, Pausanias Description of Greece with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 Volumes. (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918). 5.24.9.
[3] Mark Copeland. Obtaining the Prize. BIG IDEA: The value of the eternal prize and the danger of disqualification motivate disciplined Christian living in the warfare against sin.
[4] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), 1 Co 9:25.
[5] Pausanias, Pausanias Description of Greece with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 Volumes. (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918). 5.24.9.
[6] John Piper. Olympic Spirituality, Part 2. Accessed October 12, 2016.
[7] Garland. 1 Corinthians. 440.
[8] Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Baker’s Greek New Testament Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 394.
[9] Tertullian, “Ad Martyres,” in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. S. Thelwall, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 694.
[10] Timothy Friberg, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, 120.
[11] John Macarthur. The Apostle Paul Disqualified? Accessed October 13, 2016.
[12] Garland. 1 Corinthians. 443.
[13] John Piper. Olympic Spirituality, Part 2. Message preached on August 9, 1992. Accessed October 12, 2016.
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