1 Corinthians 9: 24 – 27
The early church may not have had a World Cup Final, but they were all familiar with athletic contests. The Olympics started in that part of the world. No doubt wives have been shaking their heads for thousands of years wondering why their husbands get so excited. Athletic contests are important. Paul even used athletic contests to illustrate spiritual truths. The principles which apply to athletics also apply to living the Christian life. Each man on the field will be playing to win. But there is more to winning than what we see on that day. The outcome of the game will be the result of a process begun a long time ago.
The same is true of the Christian life. If we desire to win at life as a Christian then we must apply the same principles that athletes apply. After all, our Christian life has been described as a race and warfare. The goal in a race or in warfare is to win, not to come in third. This is especially true if you are in a war!
Corinthians - seen the athletic contests and races, perhaps even participated in them. They knew the dedication of the runners and the prize the winner received - a garland of pine from a nearby forest formed into a crown. Paul takes this illustration and applies it to the race we run as Christians. He is giving us a blueprint for success. He is telling us how we can play to win.
1. Be Determined v. 24
The whole idea of the Christian life as a race is an intriguing one. Why compare it to a race? In other places, the Christian life is compared to a pilgrimage, and a walk. But here - a race. Same idea - Christian life is compared to a warfare, or a fight. It is the idea that we are engaged in a strenuous activity. While a traveller can stop off at any beautiful spot along the way to rest, those engaged in a race must push themselves to the limit, straining muscles and heart and lungs - if they are to win.
So we are involved in hard work. After all, we are in a race that has for its prize an eternal reward. We are in a race where eternal issues are at stake. So, if any people ought to be hard at work, we ought to be, because we are working for the things which really count. Compare our race with those who run for earthly things. Paul uses illustration of Greek athletes - we may use the illustration of modern day athletes as well. Also be applied equally well to those of our day who are involved in spending their energies and focusing their dreams on material success.
Have you ever noticed how hard some of us work at attaining some of the things we think will make us happy or give us pleasure? People everywhere give themselves to what is important to them. That is the point of the text. The Lord is asking us to evaluate what our priorities should be. Look at the things people are working so hard to attain. They may be working for financial security - working for business success - giving them a life of pleasure. Still others may be working for material possessions. The runner in the worldly race receives a crown which perishes. The garland which the Greek runner received was a symbol of the temporary pleasure and honour afforded to the one who had worked so hard for so many months in training for that race. What was so hard won, so quickly faded away.
But what do we receive when we run the race of the Christian life successfully? We receive an eternal reward, and imperishable crown, which never fades away. Our labour, our faithfulness, wins for us an enduring crown in glory. Our treasure is being laid up in heaven where no one can take it from us. Now what is the plain implication of the text? What is the central lesson for us? If people work so hard for those things which are temporary, how much more should we work for the things which are eternal? What do you suppose would happen to the church if we all did? It would revolutionize the way things were done. What would happen in your own life if you totally abandoned yourself to God - to the point where it affected your lifestyle?
We have a race to run, and we need to run it to win - we must run it with determination. We must desire the things of God to the point where we work hard for them. We must give ourselves to the race, and not just in our spare time, but completely. Lenin said that he wanted fewer but better followers, men who would give him not just their spare evenings, but the whole of their lives. Jesus needs men and women like that. We must have a desire to win. We must run the race with determination to succeed.
2. Be Dedicated v. 25
It takes more than a desire to win - we must have determination that we are going to run the race all out - to win. But good intentions are never enough. Prisons are full of people with good intentions. What we must do is what the athlete had to do.
Training - we must train in such a way to compete, but more than just compete, to win. That will take dedication. There must be a commitment to prepare, and to stick to it no matter what. We must train when we feel like it and when we don't.
Otherwise, we will grow weary and give up - fail to finish.
Weariness, after all, is a reflection of our training. Those who are in good shape grow less weary than those in poor shape. It is a function of their conditioning. It is a reflection of their training. Sometimes we grow weary in the work as Christians and then blame it, not on ourselves, but on other things. All of us get weary. When we are weary we need to be refreshed. But if we give adequate attention to our spiritual conditioning, then we will grow less weary and we will not let our weariness cause us to give up. Jesus never said that all would be easy. But He did promise us that He would be with us in all things. Things sometimes get tough, and that is why we need to be ready to handle them. We need to be in good spiritual shape, and to do that we must train.
So how do we train? How do we prepare? Our text says that we must take charge of ourselves –
Prepare for the race - Hebrews 12: 1 – 3
A. Shed those things which slow our progress - encumbrances, weights and sins. We must lay aside these weights and sins. They slow our progress. In order to run well, you must run light. Any excess baggage can make the difference in whether you finish or not. Sins obviously make a big difference. Not merely a special sin but all sin. All sin entangles us. It trips us up. It impedes our progress.
Sin is not the only thing. Also mentioned are weights. You may think these are the same as sins. But they are not. While all sins are weights, not all weights are sins. Something may be in your life, that, while not sinful, nonetheless slows your progress. What is in view is something which is unnecessary to the race. While it may be within the rules to run the Comrades Marathon wearing a three piece suit, it would be extremely foolish to do so. Sadly, there are many Christians running the race with loads of excess worldly baggage today. No wonder we get fatigued.
Ask yourself, do you have excess baggage in your Christian life? Many Christians are trying to see just how much of the world they can carry along with them and still finish the race. But we are not in the race to merely limp along, half-heartedly, while others pass us by. We are running to win. We must run the Christian race as eagerly as we run for our incomes, holidays, recreation. It will take sacrifice and work and the shedding of things which do not help us along the way. But it is worth it. We have an eternal incorruptible crown awaiting us.
B. There are things to put on - If we are to train effectively, we must train daily in communion with the Lord. This is the runner's diet. A daily time of feeding on the Word and communing with the Lord in prayer is essential to our having the strength not to grow weary. This is essential. You cannot emphasize this too much. Like a good diet, giving attention to your devotional life will cause you to increase in strength daily, until you are back in robust spiritual health. That is so important in running the race to win. The Greek runner trained with intense dedication for at least 10 months prior to the race. He put his physical body under strict discipline, training hours a day for a few minutes of earthly glory. How much more should we be dedicated to strengthening our spiritual selves in the things of God in order to gain an eternal crown of glory, which will never fade away? "A man is no fool to give up what he cannot keep in order to gain what he cannot lose."
3. Be Deliberate v. 26, 27
I run in such a way - not without aim - we have a purpose to our work. We must run deliberately for the goal, which has already been chosen in advance of the race. We must know where the finish line is, and everything we do must be designed to carry us toward that goal.
If you were to ask many people what their goal in life is, they could give some kind of an answer. Some - goal is to be able to get ahead financially so they will be able to retire in relative comfort. Others - goal is to put their children through university, thereby enabling them to have a better shot in life then they did. Some - goal is to own their own business, and be their own boss, so that they could have more control over their own lives and futures. The list could go on. All of these things are worthy things to work for. They are not bad or worldly. They are things we all think about. But if you were to ask many Christians what their goal in running the Christian race is, they may very well give you a blank stare. Many have never even thought of a purpose for their lives in terms of the Kingdom, much less planned out how they were going to get there. But we must clearly see the goal. And we must keep the goal in sight.
What is the goal? Well, Jesus is the goal, of course - not merely a simplistic answer. It may be if left at that. Let me attempt to define what that means and how it translates into daily living. When I say that Jesus is the goal, I am only saying what Hebrews has already said - Hebrews 12: 2. Jesus is both the end and the means to that end. He is both the goal of the race and the power by which we run. He is the author of our faith; He gives us the faith by which we run. He is the perfecter of our faith; He brings us to the place of maturity, of finishing the race victoriously.
Practically speaking, Jesus is our goal in that we must be committed to become like Him. That is the reason we run. We are being conformed into His image. That is the purpose of God for every believer, to be moulded in character, disposition, nature, heart and will into the image of Christ, who is the image of God. That is the only aim that is worthy to be the supreme and dominant one in your life. Is that your goal? Do you live in the light of becoming conformed to the image of Jesus Christ? Are you trying to order your lifestyle toward that end? Are you seeking to give yourself to Him as the Master of your priorities? Are you giving your time, energy, talents, and tithe to the local church - tangible expression of the Kingdom of God on the earth?
Only as you put your hand to the work do you put yourself in a position to be conformed to the image of Christ.
Salvation is never spoken of in the Bible as some past tense experience, as if once you've got it, there's nothing else expected. We must put our hand to the work daily, if we would be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Jesus is not only our goal, but He is the power to attain that goal. Jesus is everything. As we look to Jesus, as we fix our eyes on Him, as we commune with Him, as we draw upon Him, we will find ourselves on the receiving end of the resources we need to run the race victoriously. He gives you the strength to run with His goal clearly fixed in your mind. He gives you the power to run and not grow weary, to walk and not faint. This power is given to those who wait upon the Lord.
Look to Jesus - look at what He suffered so we would not grow weary and lose heart. Look at what He endured at the hands of sinful men. Surely, if we see what He endured for us, we should be willing to give our all for Him. He has shown us it will take our all. He has committed to us that He will give us His power to overcome. After all, He has already given us His all. So don't look at the task, look at the goal. Don't fret over the limited resources you have, draw upon His unlimited provision. Make Him your goal. Make Him your source. Wait upon Him. Give yourself to Him in a new way. Cry out to Him as your only hope. Come to the Lord and keep coming. Call out to the Lord, and keep calling. Don't give up until you have what you need. He will be there for you. To win in the race we must be determined, dedicated, and deliberate. An eternal crown is at stake.