Christians As Athletes
Sporting events of various kinds and in many places are doubtless familiar to people of many nations and cultures. On an international scale perhaps none is so widely known than the highly publicized and commercialized Olympic Games. The origin of festivals and games in ancient Greece at Olympia is likewise familiar to residents of the western world. In ancient Greece similar events were also held in other centers such as those at Delphi, Nemea, and especially in the Isthmus of Corinth. These occasions drew competition from throughout the Greek world. The games at the Isthmus of Corinth were extremely popular, occurring biannually the year before and the year after those at Olympia. Here many different contests were featured such as the arts (music and poetry), personal combat (e.g., boxing and wrestling), and chariot races. The main attractions, however, were foot races of various lengths.1
In the following study, we shall note examples of the use of the imagery associated with sporting events. We shall see that the race/running is especially used by the Apostle Paul in his delivery of the Gospel message. Having examined these texts, we shall close with some helpful applications to everyday living for the Christian believer.
Paul and the Image of Athletics
In I Corinthians
In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul concludes his teaching with regard to a believer’s concern for another’s spiritual condition by referring hypothetically to the possibility of one believer’s witnessing of another believer’s eating of meat sacrificed to idols. If in so doing this “weaker” brother is tempted to copy this practice-- only to have his conscience condemn him-- the “stronger” believer shall have placed a spiritual stumbling block before his fellow believer. Accordingly, Paul declares, “If food causes my brother or sister to sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I may not cause one of them to sin” (I Cor. 8:13; cf. I Cor. 10:14-21). Verbrugge observes, “If eating a certain type of food in a certain place will cause a fellow Christian to stumble and be destroyed, love demands of Paul that he will never eat meat again, so as not to cause that fellow Christian to stumble.” 2
Building upon this principle of giving up one’s rights for another provides the basis for Paul’s further discussion concerning his apostolic position. Paul had inherent rights as an apostle of Christ, specifically that of financial support by other believers (I Cor. 9:1-14). He was nevertheless willing to give up this (and any other) right for the sake of the advancement of the Gospel so as not to be a spiritual offense or hindrance to others (I Cor. 9:15-21): “I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some” (v. 22). The most important thing for Paul was the spreading and teaching of the Gospel message: “I do all these things because of the gospel, so that I can be a participant in it” (v. 23). Therefore, Paul was willing to labor for the cause of Christ without expecting the financial support of others.
Thus Paul disclosed his willingness to toil and labor both physically and spiritually in order to carry out his resolve to fulfill his ministry. In so doing Paul often utilized several Greek synonyms to emphasize graphically his all-out effort. Indeed, several Greek words for labor are found in the New Testament and three appear as distinct synonyms: mochthos, “hardship,” was often used to describe the physical or mental toil that is the common lot of all men; ponos, “effort,” suggested that the task in which a man was engaged demanded his whole strength; and kopos, “weariness,” emphasized the fatigue resulting from extreme toil. Although none of these three occurs in the context we are considering, Paul does use all three in his epistles. They serve to illumine further the extent of Paul’s willingness to labor for Christ. Ponos occurs four times in the New Testament always in conjunction with kopos to express the idea of a heavy exertion that has passed over into the full effect of pain. Paul uses it once in describing Epaphras’ full commitment in prayer and concern for the saints in Asia Minor (Col. 4:13). Mochthos is used three times to underscore the actual hard work that Paul experienced in his efforts to minister the gospel to others (2 Cor. 11:27; 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8). The idea contained in kopos is utilized more frequently, the root appearing either as a noun or a verb some forty times.
Paul indicates that he must labor to support himself as a gospel minister (1 Cor. 4:12; 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8) and points out his toilsome efforts in that ministry (1 Cor. 15:10). He knows that Christian service is no empty labor (1 Cor. 15:58). Yet he was consumed with a passion to make Christians fully aware of the power and potential of the indwelling Christ, so that he might have the pleasure of seeing people grow in their commitment to Christ. Accordingly, he expended all his being with the full force that only Christ’s energy could provide (Col. 1:27-29). Yes, Paul knew no greater joy than such labor for Christ—and it was worth it all (Phil. 2:14-17)!
The key to such basic Christian service lies in Paul’s well-known commendation to the Thessalonian Christians: “Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labor of love, and endurance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:3). Here he declares that a full commitment to the three great spiritual excellencies--a dynamic, active faith a deep and all-encompassing love, and a settled and confident hope (cf. 2 Cor. 11:13)--is necessary in the believer’s service for Christ. Indeed, without that commitment, a believer’s work, labor, and patience may fall short of full godliness (cf. Rev. 2:24). One might paraphrase Paul’s words to the Thessalonians as stressing the work that faith produces, the laboring toil that flows out naturally from love, and the steadfast and patient endurance that hope inspires. A vital faith, a virtuous love, and a victorious hope will inevitably produce a Christian servant who so labors that he will expend himself totally in wearisome but joyful work for Christ.
All of this helps us to gain a more extensive insight into Paul’s resolve to do whatever is necessary in the way of personal sacrifice for the sake of the gospel and his Lord. Bearing this in mind, we can appreciate more fully Paul’s personal dedication in what follows in I Corinthians nine as he describes his commitment to his calling by using imagery associated with athletics.
Paul’s use of such imagery is in harmony with other early sources, such as the Greek philosophers, “who commonly used athletic illustrations to describe their striving for truth and wise living.”3 He begins his discussion by turning to the key athletic event in the Greek games—the foot race. Although several different races of various lengths were developed in later games, the earliest event was termed a “stadion,” which was the length of the track (c. 630 feet).
Paul emphasizes the crucial element of competitiveness: “Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize?” (I Cor. 9:24). There was great honor for the one who won the race. “The prestige of winning the event was such that the winner’s name was often attached to the set of games; Greek historians refer to the year in which “x” won the stadion at the Olympic Games.”4 Thus competing in a race was not sufficient; it was of utmost importance to win. In applying this principle to the Christian life, Paul’s point of emphasis is that believers should strive to complete successfully the course that God has set out for them. Such was not to be done merely from a sense of duty or obligation, but with a great desire and determination to succeed, much like the winner in the foot race. For Paul personally this meant the spread of the gospel message so that wherever he went, people would be saved and grow in spiritual maturity.
Paul goes on to point out that in order to compete successfully in foot races, it was necessary for a man to exercise intense self- discipline. In fact, a strict and rigorous training code was often demanded of all participants (e.g., at the Olympic Games). If, then, competitors would go to such lengths in order to compete and win in a foot race, Paul reasons, much more should the believer “exercise self control in everything.” For unlike the secular athlete who applies self- discipline and dedication just to win a perishable crown (e.g., a pure garland wreath or crown of dry celery at the Isthmian Games), the Christian believer looks forward to an “imperishable crown” (v. 25). Indeed, the believer looks forward an eternal “crown of life that God promised to those who love him” (James 1:12; cf. Rev. 2:10). For his part, Paul also longed for that “crown of righteousness” which, “the Lord, the righteous Judge” would award to him “in that day” --not only to him, “but also to all who have set their affection on his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8).5 Such hope made his denial of anything that would impede his spiritual progress and ministry virtually insignificant.
Paul’s point of view is exemplary for all believers. Far better than earthly pleasures and rewards, as united to Christ the believer has not only been granted positional righteousness (cf. Rom 6:1-14; 9:30-32) here and now, but can also look forward eagerly to a full and final righteousness. Such should provide for believers motivation and determination to live a life characterized by righteousness in their earthly spiritual journey. Whatever inconveniences or even outright suffering they may experience now pales in comparison with the joy and glory they will experience in the eternal state. Therefore, they may with confidence cast all their cares upon the Lord (1 Pet. 5:7) and be strong in their faith (v. 9) knowing that, “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory in Christ will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him belongs the power forever” (vv. 9-10; cf. Rom 8:16-17).
Paul expands upon the thought of an assured crown by declaring that he conducts his ministry in a consistent and appropriate manner. Using imagery associated with both running and boxing, he declares, “I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air” (v. 26). As a runner in a race, he has his eye fixed on the ultimate goal of receiving a crown. Paul does not intend to stress competition or comparison with other believers in their lives and ministry. Rather, he serves as one who is certain of the final goal and his ultimate reward. Under the figure of a boxer, he distances himself from any combatant who merely trains by shadow boxing rather than with a live opponent. Nor would an untrained and undisciplined boxer succeed in landing a blow against an opponent in a real boxing match. Whether in a foot race or in a boxing match, then, a participant must be one who exercises rigorous self discipline and thorough training if he is to be successful.
Paul goes on to say that if athletes can strive to fulfill their fixed goals, how much more should he in his spiritual ministry! “I submit my body and make it my slave so that after preaching others I myself will not be disqualified” (v. 27). Paul thus declares his willing self denial in order to achieve his high calling in Christ Jesus. No selfish plans, desires, or ambitions would be allowed to distract him. He was totally dedicated and committed to the task for which he had been called by the Lord.
He expresses another pressing concern: having shown others the way of true Christian faith and conduct, Paul is anxious that he himself would not do anything that would compromise his continuing in the ministry. Although Paul uses the word rendered “disqualified” elsewhere in referring doctrinally to indicate people’s unsaved condition (e.g., 2 Cor. 13:5-7; 2 Tim. 2:5), it is unlikely that he does so here. Indeed, Paul has often emphasized the believer’s assurance of salvation (e.g., Rom. 8:38-39; Eph. 1:11-14). Moreover, words have their primary meaning in accordance with the flow of thought in the context in which they are found.6 For him,7 “The integrity of the gospel is at stake if Paul does not follow his own advice. It might be possible for Paul to offer encouraging teaching to the Christian community at Corinth but then succumb to the same temptations they faced.” Not only was the integrity of the gospel at stake, but Paul’s own driving desire and calling to preach the gospel so as to win others to Christ and encourage them in their faith could be compromised.8 As Baker remarks, “Everything must be thrown off that hinders this evangelistic success. Preaching the gospel with personal sacrifice offers the optimum opportunity for success in helping people to accept the gospel.”9
In the “race of life” Paul was always mindful of his full dependence on Christ. Accordingly, later in this epistle, based on the assured basis of Christ’s resurrection, he reminds and encourages the Corinthian Christians by saying:
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! So then, dear brothers and sisters, be firm. Do not be moved! Always be outstanding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord (I Cor. 15:57-58).
May we like Paul have a great burning desire to serve and put our full confidence in the Lord. As Wilkinson expresses it:
May I run the race before me,
Strong and brave to meet the foe,
Looking only unto Jesus
As I onward go.10
It is distinctly possible, then, for believers to live a successful, even triumphant, life through their union with the One who was triumphant over death and sin. As Paul declares elsewhere, “But thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:14, KJV). The background of the Greek words rendered “triumph” gives insight into Paul’s precise meaning. Interestingly, the Greek verb had an unsavory history before its utilization in the New Testament. The verb derives from the Greek noun thriambos, a hymn sung in the festal processions connected with the Greek god Bacchus (or Dionysius), whose base and sensuous rites were aimed at understanding the mysteries of life, death, and immortality. The noun thriambos passed, via the Etruscans, into the Latin triumphus, descending ultimately in our English word triumph. The Latin noun was used characteristically of the triumphal processions of Roman generals who returned from their successful campaigns, carrying behind them their spoils of war and leading their captured foes before the on-looking multitudes. This derived meaning can be felt in the Greek verb thriambeuō, which appears in the Greek papyri and later writings to designate the person over whom a triumph is gained, the spoils displayed in a triumphant scene, or in a general sense of putting something on public display.
Paul adopts much of this later imagery and relates it to God’s victory in Christ and of the believer’s position as united to Christ. Paul rehearses God’s great victory in Colossians 2:15 saying, “Disarming the rulers and authorities, he has made a public disgrace of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” The force of the Greek text here indicates that God stripped off, as one casts off a constraining garment, the powers of evil that veiled His glory over which Christ achieved the victory at the Cross. Henceforth, the now defeated, discarded, and powerless antagonists are boldly displayed as spoils of Christ’s triumph. Moreover, the cross, the place of seeming defeat, has become the instrument of ultimate triumph for all who know Christ as Lord.
The image of a triumphal procession is in view in Paul’s declaration in 2 Corinthians 2:14 as is reflected in most modern translations of the Bible, such as the NET: “Thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and who makes known through us the fragrance that consists of the knowledge of him in every place.” Thus Paul thanks God that he stands captive in Christ’s victory procession (cf. Eph. 4:7-8)). In contrast to Colossians 2:15, where the powers of evil are portrayed as the spoils of the victory Christ gained at the cross, believers who were at one time enemies of God (Rom 5:10; Col. 1:21-23) and servants of sin (Eph. 2:1-3) are pictured as those who have found freedom from sin and victory in life. This has been accomplished by becoming trophies of Christ, the victor over sin and evil. In Christ believers find reception by God, for they stand accepted in the Beloved One (Eph. 1:6). United to the resurrected Christ they find enablement for godly living as the Lord leads them in continued triumph and makes them to be vessels through whom the sweet fragrance of Christ is released.
Paul also discusses the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection and its crucial importance to living a full and enjoyable Christian life in his Epistle to the Philippians. Thus in Philippians 3:9-11 Paul assumes the historical validity of Christ’s literal, bodily resurrection from the grave. This is a truth he affirms distinctly elsewhere. Indeed, Paul gave formal testimony to having personally met the risen Lord Jesus (Acts 22:6-11; 24:15, 21; 26:15-23). He made Christ’s Resurrection the central theme of many of his sermons (e.g., Acts 13:29-33; 17:29-31). He explained to the early Christians that Christ’s resurrection was not only a historical fact but integral to the believer’s salvation (Rom. 5:8-10; 1 Cor. 15:1-19).
Elsewhere Paul taught that Christ’s resurrection is the full proof and assurance of the believer’s own resurrection (Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:20-51). And not only that, but Paul declared that the risen Christ has taken up His abode in the believer in vital, spiritual, organic union with him (Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:18-20, 27-28). Accordingly, the believer has a ready source for living an abundant life in Christ with great power and personal godliness (Rom. 6:5-14). Like Paul, Christians should also have a deep concern that all may come to know the crucified and risen Christ as Savior and Lord (2 Cor. 5:14-21).
All of these truths, taught so clearly elsewhere by Paul, are in view in Philippians 3. With an impassioned eloquence Paul moves from the mention of Christ’s resurrection after His suffering at the cross (Phil. 3:10) to the reality of the believer’s new life here and now as he awaits his own resurrection with the saints to a glorified life hereafter (v. 11):
The usual word for resurrection in the New Testament, both for Christ’s bodily resurrection and for the believer’s resurrection, is anastasis (cf. John 11:25-26; Acts 4:2; 1 Peter 1:3, etc.). This is the word Paul uses in verse 10. In verse 11, however, Paul uses the unique noun exanastasis, a word found nowhere else in the New Testament. This noun and especially its kindred verb were used elsewhere in the Greek language—always in a forceful way. For example, they were used of a man’s rising to action such as in speaking or departing, or of causing others to rise. It was used of one who lent his strength to assist a weaker person to rise. Therefore, it is an ideal word to express the force of Paul’s fervent desires.
Paul’s emphasis is that as a believer he longs to know Christ with a living intimacy of experience, and to know fully Christ’s resurrection power, which is available to him. He also expresses his desire to have an active participation in our Lord’s sufferings. In that way, having died together with Christ and risen with Him (cf. Gal 2:20; Eph. 2:6-10), he now can live with the sure hope of taking part in that great future “first resurrection” of the saints (1 Thess. 4:16; cf. 1 Peter 1:3-5; Rev. 20:4-6; see also, Job 14:14-15; 19:25-27; Dan. 12:2). While accomplishing this goal, Paul also lives with the accompanying hope of attaining in some measure a life of full victory over sin (cf. Rom. 6:5-7).
In Philippians 3:12-14 Paul once again employs athletic imagery, using the figure of a foot race. Earlier in this epistle he had utilized the same figure by combining it with the thought of laboring as he gave a charge to the Philippian believers:
Do everything without grumbling or arguing so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without blemish though you live in a crooked and perverse society, in which you shine as lights in the world by holding on to the word of life so that on the day of Christ I will have a reason to boast that I did not run in vain nor labor in vain. (Phil. 2:14-16).
Theirs was to be a full salvation—one that not only brought about a changed relation to God, but produced godly character and conduct in their lives. Thus Paul was also concerned that his ministry be truly effective in those to whom he ministered. To this end He was happy to do whatever was necessary to accomplish that for which the Lord had called him to do—even if it meant his life:
But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice together with all of you. And in the same way you should be glad and rejoice together with me (vv. 17-18).
Were Paul to die in the Roman prison from which he was writing, his death would be much like a drink offering to their dedicated sacrifice (cf. the OT burnt offering) and service (cf. the OT meal offering), which the Philippian believers faith had evidenced.
In our text in Philippians 3:12-14 he declares that his ministry and personal goals were not as yet fully realized. In giving an explanation of this he builds upon his thoughts in his previous remarks (vv. 8-11) by turning to the figure of the foot race. He begins his discussion by saying,
Not that I have already attained this—that is, I have not already been perfected—but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me (v. 12).
In saying that he had not “already been perfected” (NLT, “reached perfection; HCSB, “fully mature”) Paul points out that he has not achieved his ultimate personal goal of spiritual perfection. That still lay ahead as he grew in Christ in his earthly walk and ultimately when he reached the final state. He has already mentioned that he was certain that this would be the case for the Philippian Christians: “I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6). Doubtless he shared the same expectation for himself. Paul clearly teaches elsewhere (e.g., Gal. 6:9; Eph. 4:15) that accepting Christ as Savior is not the total picture. For the believer’s spiritual maturity is a process that continues on until the final righteousness that comes with the reality of Heaven and eternal life in the presence of Christ. As that process continues, the fruits of the Spirit are evidenced in the believer’s growth in grace (1 Pet. 2:2) and victory over sin cf. Rom. 8:1-2, 26-30). For his part, the believer must surrender himself to the control of the Lord (cf. Rom. 12:1-2), so as to enjoy fellowship with him in progressive spiritual maturity and in the knowledge of Christ, while continuing in the Lord’s service (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18; Heb. 12:1-2; 2 Pet. 3:18).
Accordingly, Paul does not consider that his ministry for Christ is over or complete, for ever since that time on the Damascus road Paul has been Christ’s “chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15) No less than the Philippians (cf. 1:7) he realizes that he must press onward if he is to realize the full potential of his reward. “The athletic imagery here is clear: Paul viewed his pursuit of knowing Christ and being Christlike as running in a race. … Christ laid hold of Paul so that Paul could lay hold of Christ. As such, Christ became the prize Paul was seeking. He wanted to know Christ and live for Christ during his lifetime (1:20) and he looked forward to knowing him perfectly in the next life.”11 For Paul, “living is Christ and dying is gain” (Phil. 1:21). He therefore pressed onward with his eyes fixed on Christ and on his final goal.
In verse 13 Paul reaffirms his previous statement that he does not consider himself to have attained his goal. His very choice of words here displays his deep-seated personal conviction. He first had used the more basic root form (Greek lambanō) in verse 12 in saying, “Not that I have already attained.” Now he turns to a compound form (Greek, katalambanō) employing it for the third time. This word expresses the idea not only of attaining, but of obtaining, or laying hold of”) some objective or object. In so doing he uses this more emphatic term, a word that he has just used (v. 12) to express Christ’s laying hold of him. Although the risen Christ has “laid hold” of Paul, Paul has not yet similarly “laid hold” (NET, “attained”; v. 13) of the perfect knowledge of Christ. That goal remains to be accomplished.
Paul’s focus is on the goal, which the Lord has set for him. Therefore, he does not think about his past, whether as a Pharisee who strictly obeyed the law of Moses or about what he may have accomplished in his ministry. Rather, he was like a dedicated runner in a foot race “with his body bent over, his hand outstretched, his head fixed forward never giving a backward glance, and his eyes fastened on the goal.”12 Indeed, a dedicated runner does not look backward and thus lose his stride, momentum, and focus. Rather, he strains every muscle as he keeps his eyes fixed on the finish line and the achieving of his anticipated goal. Paul also has this same commitment, which he has already indicated in his previous remarks (vv. 10-11). His goal is to know Christ fully, whether in this life or the next.
Continuing the athletic imagery Paul reasserts with strong conviction his all-consuming life-directing goal: “I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (v. 14) His choice of Greek verb here expresses his intense commitment to achieve his goal and reward. In a foot race, “At the end of each race, officials had their heralds proclaim the winner and call him up to receive his prize.”13 If Paul has this in mind in his choice of athletic imagery, “This prize is the prize is the reward that awaits him at the end of the race… and he visualizes the heavenly judge at the end of the age calling him to ‘come up’ to receive it.”14 Such appears to be Paul’s intention here, for it is in harmony with later words to Timothy during his second (and last) imprisonment in Rome. There he relates to Timothy that he now considers the “race” to be over:
I am already being poured out as an offering and the time for me to depart is at hand. I have competed well, I have finished the race; I have kept the faith! Finally the crown of righteousness is reserved for me. The Lord, the righteous Judge, will award it to me in that day (2 Tim. 4:6-8a).
He adds that such is not his reward alone, but is also for “all who have set their affection on his appearing” (v. 8b). Thus he informs and encourages the Philippians by saying that the prize for which he is striving “is the full and complete gaining of Christ for whose sake everything else has been counted loss. Paul tells the Corinthian believers: “Now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then face to face. Indeed, Paul’s greatest reward is to know fully, and so to be in perfect fellowship with the one who had apprehended Paul on the Damascus road. And this prize Paul wants his readers also to grasp.”15 Indeed, it is a goal, a prize, a reward that all believers should keep in mind as they continue the course laid out before them in their present “race” of living for Christ, while longing for that full knowledge of Christ that will come in the final state.
Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known (1 Cor. 13:12).
Athletic competition of various kinds appears to be a fixed feature in many lands and cultures across the world. It is small wonder, then, that imagery associated with athletics would be utilized by a biblical author. This was especially true of Paul who probably had visited the Isthmian Games while in Corinth. In any case, the Greek games were well known across the Mediterranean world in Paul’s day. Accordingly, Paul uses athletic imagery in presenting the gospel in several places in his writings.
Thus in his Epistle to the Corinthians as Paul refers to his rights as an apostle, such as to financial support and points out that he was willing to give up all of them for the sake of sharing the gospel message. In so doing he labored both physically and spiritually in order to win others to the Lord (1 Cor. 9:11-27). Armed with such qualities as faith, love, and hope he was determined to set self aside for the cause of Christ. Paul’s determination to live solely for Christ is nicely reflected in Ada Widdington’s classic hymn:
Not I, but Christ, be honored, loved, exalted;
Not I, but Christ, be seen, be known, be heard;
Not I, but Christ, in every look and action;
Not I, but Christ, in every thought and word.
O to be saved from myself, dear Lord,
O to be Lost in thee,
O that it may be no more I,
but Christ, that Lives in me.16
This was more than possible for Paul because Christ had been victorious over sin and death. Under the figure of a victor’s festal procession, he portrays believers as being led as members of Christ’s victory procession (2 Cor. 2:14). Thus Paul teaches that as united to the risen, victorious Christ, believers can live a vital Christian life being dead spiritually, but alive to God.
Paul declares that he can therefore run in the race of life with assurance, being careful to live a disciplined life so as not to do anything that could cause others to stumble or to compromise his testimony for Christ. Indeed he endeavors to live out his challenge to the Romans to, “present your bodies as a sacrifice—alive, holy, and pleasing to God—which is your reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1).In his words to the Corinthian Believers one senses that sacrificial living was no hardship. He considered it no real difficulty for him to give up those things that would be of no eternal value or could be considered an impediment to the cause of Christ. Accordingly, Paul was not self-centered in his service for Christ, but cared only to make Christ known (cf. Eph. 6:19-20). And all the while as he pursued his goal in the “race” of Christian service, he was confident that as united to Christ he could look forward to an “imperishable crown” (1 Cor. 9:25). Paul’s message to the Corinthians is applicable to today’s believers, for like Paul we, too, form part of Christ’s victory procession.
In his Epistle to the Philippians Paul also employs the imagery of the foot race to point out that he is aware that in this race he has a personal quest to know Christ more fully. Although he realized that in the final analysis that goal lay in the future (Phil. 3:12-14), nevertheless, he was determined to live a life of maturing faith in service for the Christ As he did, he was confident of reaching his final goal and the accompanying reward of eternal life in the Lord’s presence. With this goal in mind, like a dedicated runner, he does not look backward, but keeps his eyes fixed on the finish line and its reward Phil. 3:13-14). Believers can be well advised to follow Paul’s resolve. As the hymn writer expresses it,
I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining every day;
Still praying as I’m onward bound,
“Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”17
I have had the distinct pleasure of seeing former students carry the message of the gospel via Campus Crusade’s Athletes in Action. This ministry, which has many thousands of supporters in nearly 100 countries, is committed to seeing spiritual movements through the avenue of sports. Theirs is a desire to see people everywhere come to know Jesus Christ and become his active followers. For some of these students this has led to a life of full time ministry for Christ. One prime example is the well-known Dr. Dolphus Weary.18 Dr. Weary is president of R.E.A.L. Christian Foundation. Based in Richland Mississippi, it is a Christian ministry dedicated to rural education and leadership. As well, it is devoted to encouraging unity and harmony across racial and denominational boundaries through the gospel message and the Word of God. Although not all believers are athletically gifted, they can, like Paul, live out the goal of being dedicated Christians in the “race” of life. They can choose not only to live for Christ, but to bear in mind the needs of others (cf. Gal. 6:9-10), especially a lost mankind. In so doing, they will find true success in life and experience genuine joy or as the old Christian acronym slogan expresses it: JOY-- “Jesus first, others second, yourself last.
May each of us so live as to enjoy the fruits of a victorious life of laboring for Christ, “For we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:1-2). May each of us as believers “always be outstanding in the work of the Lord,” ever being aware that our labor “is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58), so that by God’s grace others may be quick to perceive Christ in us, “the hope of glory”(Col. 1:27). May we live a life of faith, hope, and love together with a deep longing to know Christ fully and to be with him forever. May Paul’s example be reflected in us, so that, like Paul we forget “the things that are behind” and reach out “for the things that are ahead” (Phil. 3:13). As an old year ends and a new year begins, may we not be side-tracked by thinking too greatly of our past mistakes or accomplishments; for being overly preoccupied with either one could lead to spiritual stagnation. Rather, let us look forward to a year of growing spiritual maturity by being useful and useable instruments in the Lord’s hands, ever striving forward “toward the prize of the upward call of God” (Phil. 3:14). It would be well if all believers could reflect in their living the words of Sylvanus Phelps:
All that I am and have --Thy gifts so free—
In joy, in grief, thru life, dear Lord for Thee!
And when Thy face I see, my ransomed soul shall be,
Thru all eternity, something for Thee.
1 It is interesting to note that the image of racing may seem to be drawn upon by the author of Ecclesiastes, who points out that, “the race is not always won by the swiftest” (Eccl. 9:11, NET; N. B., unless otherwise noted, all scriptural citations will be taken from the NET). As Longman observes, “We would expect the fastest person to win a footrace…But Qoheleth reminds us that this is not always true” (Temper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes, The New International Commentary on the Old testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 233). Choon-Leon Seow, (Ecclesiastes, The Anchor Bible, eds. W. F. Albright and David Noel Freedman [New York: Doubleday, 1997), however, remarks that it is unlikely that there any connection with a sporting contest (especially with the Hellenic games and suggests that the imagery here is more likely that of the chase (cf. 2 Sam. 2:18-23).
2 Verlynn D. Verbrugge, “I Corinthians,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, eds. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, 13 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, rev. ed. 2008) 11: 333.
3 Craig S. Keeener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press: 1993), 472.
4 David W. J. Gill, “1 Corinthians,” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, ed. Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 149.
5 It should not be overlooked that God’s Son, the exalted Christ, will one day return to earth wearing a distinct crown symbolizing his authority and universal reign. Such is appropriate for him because of his final triumph over evil (Rev. 6:2; 14:14; cf. 19:11-16). For problems associated with the full understanding of Revelation 14:14-16, see G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 771-73.
6 See further, Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Wheaton: Scripture Press, 1991), 166; Andreas J. Kӧstenberger and Richard D. Patterson, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 610.
7 Gill, “1 Corinthians,” 150.
8 Verbrugge, “I Corinthians,” 341 suggests that Paul also may have in mind the idea of “degrees of reward in Heaven (I Cor. 3:10-15)… It is not impossible that he may have this notion of ‘prize’ or ‘reward’ in mind.”
9 William Baker, “1 Corinthians,” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, ed. Philip W. Comfort, 18 vols. (Carol Stream, Il: Tyndale, 2009), 15:137.
10 Kate B. Wilkinson, “May the Mind of Christ, My Saviour” (Verse 5).
11 Philip W. Comfort, Philippians,” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, 18 vols. (Carol Stream, Il: Tyndale House, 2008), 16: 205.
12 Gerald F. Hawthorne, “Philippians,” in Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word Biblical Commentary, 1983), 153 as cited by Comfort, “Philippians,” 206.
13 Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, 564.
14 David E. Garland, “Philippians,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, eds., Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, 13 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, rev. ed., 2006), 12: 245.
15 Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians, The New International Greek Commentary, eds. I. Howard Marshall and W. Ward Gasque (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 433.
16 Ada A. Widdington, “Not I, but Christ.”
17 Johnson Oatman, Jr., “I’m Pressing on the Upward Way.”
18 For details, see Charles McKellar, ed., Proud to Call Mississippi Home (Germantown, TN: Image Publishing, 2006), 254.