Instructions for Church Unity
“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.”
~1 Corinthians 9:24-27
This passage may sound very familiar. It’s a popular one with a powerful and compelling message. Paul often uses word pictures to better illustrate his points and connect with his readers. The image of an athlete striving for a prize is one that Paul used in other letters as well and would have resonated with the Corinthians since athletics and sports were a big part of their culture.
This illustration also resonates with us today especially since we just came off of the 2020 summer Olympics. We understand the extreme discipline, self-control, and dedication required to compete in the Olympics or at a professional level. However, we often use this verse out of context from the point Paul is making in 1 Corinthians 9. While it is a good passage to remind ourselves to always run to win the prize that Christ has set before us, when we look at these verses in context, we also gain an extra layer of meaning.
Remember that throughout 1 Corinthians 9, Paul is making the case that while he has rights and privileges as a person and especially as an apostle, he refused to make use of those right so that the gospel could go forth without hindrance. Therefore, when Paul concludes his point with this training metaphor, we must keep the context in mind and look at it from a different perspective.
Discipline means strict control and the ability to bring desires and actions under full submission. It requires sacrifice, intentionality, and great will power. And Paul says that he actively disciplines his body (which in the context would include personal rights, desires, and freedoms) so that he may not become disqualified. He did not live his life aimlessly or in a haphazard manner, but with purpose, direction, and great intentionality. And he exhorts and encourages us to do the same.
Paul’s life’s aim was to win the lost and run to win the prize. Olympic athletes devote their lives to training with strict schedules, countless hours of exercises and drills, and tenacious discipline all to gain a perishable reward, but we are pursuing an eternal prize. Therefore, let’s run and train to win. Let’s discipline ourselves, sacrificing personal rights and temporary pleasures for the eternal reward that awaits us.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”