"Run to Win"
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
(Delivered at Bethany Bible Church on Sunday, July 30, 2000. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
I heard about someone who had the opportunity, a few years ago, to spend a day with Dr. Billy Graham. Just like most of us, this man was a great admirer of Dr. Graham and his ministry; and he felt that the time he spent with the famous evangelist was a great privilege.
Near the end of their time together, this man asked Dr. Graham what it was that made him so different. Most of us who are concerned with living a faithful Christian life would love to hear Dr. Graham's answer to such a question. As I listened to the man on television tell what Dr. Graham said, I leaned forward and listened with great anticipation. But I was sort of surprised by the answer. Dr. Graham apparently said, "I don't have anything on anybody. I just try a little harder than most Christians."
I don't know how the man who asked the question felt about the answer; but to be honest, I was sort of disappointed with it at first. I'm not sure what sort of answer I was expecting; but that one didn't seem as profound as I was hoping Dr. Graham's answer would be. But the more I've thought about it, the more I realize that it's a very wise answer.
The truth is, Dr. Graham really doesn't have anything on the rest of us. He isn't made of a superior sort of 'flesh and blood' to our own. He doesn't really have a unique access to the throne of God that the rest of us have don't have. The real fact of the matter is that Dr. Graham has been so greatly used of God -- as is true of any other great hero of faith throughout the Church's history -- mainly because he made a greater use of the resources in Christ than most Christians typically do. Dr. Graham has all that we have in Christ; but he just worked harder at using what he has. He has been willing to believe God for bigger things than most of us have been willing to believe. He has been prepared to make greater sacrifices for Christ than most of us are willing to make. He has lived his life before Christ with a greater sense of intentionality than most of us do. He has said "no" to many of the distractions and trivialities of life that we've tended to say "yes" to, in order to say "yes" to the greater things of God that we've tended to say "no" to.
Now to be sure, God has called Dr. Graham to a unique place of service; and God's call for you or I is not going to be the same as his. But in the end, Billy Graham is the great Christian that he is because he really has tried a little harder than most Christians.
I was reminded of this story about Dr. Graham as I studied the words of another great Christian -- a man that I'm sure Dr. Graham would agree is the greatest Christian in all of history. The apostle Paul wrote these words to his brothers and sisters in the ancient city of Corinth. Listen to how he urges these believers to be serious about their walk with Christ.
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
I believe these words of exhortation are meant for all Christians -- including every Christian here this morning. A half-hearted commitment to the Christian life is not God's desire for us. Instead, He wants each one of us -- no matter how young or old we are; no matter how low or high on the social ladder we may be -- to throw ourselves, with all that we are and have, into living completely for Jesus Christ.
It isn't that God wants to turn you into another Billy Graham, either. He already has someone doing that job. Instead, He wants to do something even better than that. He wants to turn you into the best 'you' you could possibly be. He wants you -- the very 'you' He made by design -- to be so consumed with love and devotion for Jesus, that He can send you out into the place in this world that He assigned for you, and use you to transform other people in this world for His Kingdom's sake.
God already knows the place in this world that He has assigned for you; and He knows what great adventures He has in store for you in it. You don't have to come up with any of that. All He wants from you is a passionate devotion to Jesus Christ, and an earnestness in your walk with Him.
Paul's words call us to put a more serious effort into our Christian walk than we have in the past. In fact, he urges us to throw ourselves into the task of living the Christian life with all the zeal, discipline, focus and effort of a world-class athlete. God, through His servant Paul, calls us to make an authentic walk with Jesus in every area of life the burning passion of our souls. God calls us to take the truths of the faith seriously, and live in accordance with their true value.
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Consider the context of these words. The Christians to whom Paul wrote were living out their Christianity in the midst of their culture with anything but earnestness. They had several problems that Paul sought to deal with; and among them was the liberty they felt to eat meat that had been used as a sacrifice on the alter of a pagan temple. It may sound like a strange problem to us today, but it was a very relevant problem to them in their day. In fact, it was such a serious problem that Paul spent three chapters of his letter (chapters 8 through 10) dealing with it.
The Christians who lived in ancient Corinth lived in the midst of a very ungodly, and very paganistic culture. Many people made sacrifices in the temples to various idols; and once the meat of the sacrifice had been offered to an idol, it was typically sold in the temple for private consumption. Many of the Christians to whom Paul wrote were sensitive to the fact that this meat had been offered to an idol, and so they felt that it would be wrong to eat it.
Other Christians, however, had no such qualms. They believed that, since there's no other god but the one true God, and the meat wasn't really offered to anything anyway, there's nothing wrong with eating it -- even in the temple itself. These Christians thought themselves to be "knowledgeable"; that is, they knew what the real situation was, and ate such meat without hesitancy and with a sense of freedom. But in the end, they were doing so in such a way as to hurt the consciences of their brothers and sisters in Christ who believed it was wrong to eat. These self-proclaimed "knowledgeable" Christians were concerned only with practicing their "freedoms" and "rights" -- without regard for who they might harm in the process. They were practicing their liberties in a way that demonstrated very little love toward and concern for their more sensitive brothers and sisters.
One of the things that Paul does in dealing with this problem is to point to himself as an example. He himself had been willing to set aside some of his own "freedoms" and "rights" in order to advance the cause of the Gospel. He was personally willing to give up these legitimate rights and forgo using them, in order to adapt to the spiritual needs of others. He was willing to do this any time that doing so would advance the cause of Christ in another man's or woman's life. His walk with Jesus Christ was more important to him than any "rights" he might have or "freedoms" he might be able to practice. He spends all of chapter 9 explaining this. He tells them, in 9:19-23,
"For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without the law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under the law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel's sake, that I may be partaker of it with you (9:19-23).
Paul is saying that professing Christians who are only concerned with themselves -- who aren't willing to make personal sacrifices, and to suffer inconveniences in order to advance the cause of Christ in others -- aren't being earnest enough about their Christian walk. They're like athletes who are competing in a race, but who don't want to suffer any pain or discomfort, or make any personal sacrifices in order to win. That's the context of this morning's passage.
Corinth was one of the most important cities for athletic events in the ancient world. Every other year or so, the Isthmian games would be hosted in Corinth. These games were second only to the Olympics in importance. Folks would come from all over the world -- even staying in tents for several days -- just to watch such events as racing, wrestling, jumping, boxing, and throwing. The Corinthians were real sports nuts; and so was Paul. He uses the discipline and commitment of a world-class athlete in order to give the Corinthian believers an analogy of the sort of devotion and sacrifice their Christian walk demanded of them.
Notice how Paul tells us to live for Christ in this passage:
1. With a passion for winning.
Paul begins in verse 24 by stating the obvious: "Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize?" Nobody was more aware of this than the Corinthians. And so Paul says, "Run in such a way that you may obtain it."
In Paul's day, as in ours, a professional athlete didn't enter a race simply because he or she enjoyed the process; or counted it a privilege merely to be qualified to run. He or she entered the race with the intention of winning it. Not all who entered the race actually won and walk away with the prize, of course; but they all ran with the intention of doing so. If they didn't have such an attitude, they wouldn't have pushed themselves or made the sacrifices necessary to win. They all had to enter the race with a passion to win it, or else it wouldn't have made any sense to have entered it at all.
Likewise, all of Paul's readers were entered in the "Christian race" -- the walk with Christ. They were to live for Christ with the same sense of purpose that a runner runs in a race -- that is, with the passion to win. They were not just to run, but run to win.
Paul's meaning in verse might easily be misunderstood. He isn't saying that the Christian life puts us in competition with one another -- as if someone among us is going to be the winner and everyone else the loser. Jesus' disciples once asked Him who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:1); and they asked this of Him in the spirit of being in competition with one another. Paul isn't speaking of that sort of thing.
Being a winner in the Christian life isn't measured in terms of being out in front of everyone else. To be a winner in God's eyes is a matter of faithfulness before God. It's not a matter of out-performing one another; but rather a matter of standing one day before Jesus, having Him examine our life and our conduct as measured by our obedience to His commands and our conformity to His example; and then, of hearing Him say to us, "Well done, good and faithful servant!" (Matthew 25:21). Given that as the standard of winning, we could hope that everyone of us here this morning would finish the race winners. I believe you could paraphrase what Paul is saying this way: "Run the race of the Christian life in such a way as to hear Jesus say 'Well done!' to you when you reach the end." That's what it means to be a winner in Jesus' eyes.
I wonder if you have that sort of passion. Some folks are content only with the thought that they're saved and are going to heaven. That's all they want. Don't get me wrong; that's a wonderful thing! But what Paul is warning against is the attitude that simply says, "I'm a Christian; but I'm not going to knock myself out over it. I've trusted Jesus as my Savior; and I'm going to heaven. That's enough for me. I don't want to go too far beyond that. It'll be enough for me on that great day of review to know that Jesus didn't consider me to be much trouble. I'd be content just to hear Jesus say, 'Not a half-bad job, you sufficient and not-too disagreeable servant.'" That attitude of heart is nothing but self-centered complacency; and it's precisely the sort of attitude that Paul is warning against.
Earlier in the letter, Paul warned that there will actually be saved people -- saved, mind you -- who will enter into heaven with a sense of loss. He said,
"Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is. If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet as through fire (1 Cor. 3:12-15)."
It's good to remember this; don't you agree? I don't really want the only commendation I hear from Jesus to be, "Nice pile of ashes you've got there;" ... do you? Dear brothers and sisters, don't be content to just simply walk on the race-track. Don't let your legacy be mere wood, hay and straw. Run the race with a passion to please Jesus in all that you do. Run it in the hope of hearing Him say, "Well done!" Run it to win!
2. With a willingness to sacrifice.
Paul's next admonition follows from the first. "And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate [or, as it says in the NASB, 'exercises self-control'] in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable."
When an athlete trained for the race, he did so with his or her eyes on the prize. In fact, in ancient athletic games, the prize was usually set in plain view of all the runners -- sitting at the top a pillar on the other side of the finish line. It was usually a wreath -- a crown made out of leaves, or even of celery greens. It would usually already have begun wilting before the race began; but the runner wasn't running simply to have a semi-circle of celery on his head as his main goal. Rather, he wanted the honor and esteem and the privileges that the wreath represented. Those things were temporal too; but they usually lasted longer than the wreath itself.
The honors represented by the wreath were the motivation behind all the strenuous sacrifices that the athlete bore on himself in order to win. He would deny himself pleasures and comforts. He would force himself to inflict pain on his own body. He would spend large portions of his day in training. He would restructure his whole life-style in such a way as to best facilitate his ability to win the prize. And yet, it was all for something temporary. The wreath would fade; and eventually, so would all the earthly honors that it represented.
Paul says that we're in a race too. But in our case, the wreath isn't temporal. It's eternal. It's what the apostle Peter called "the crown of glory that does not fade away" (1 Peter 5:4). He called it "an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (1:4-5).
But the fact that it's reserved for us, and that we're kept safe for it, doesn't mean that we're to passively sit along the side of the race track until it gets handed to us. The Bible holds two truths in tension: on the one hand, Jesus himself has secured our prize for us by His sacrifice on the cross, and it's ours by God's free grace. It is kept for us. And yet, on the other hand, we're to strive faithfully after it, and make the necessary sacrifices in our lives to obtain it. We're to sweat for it, and sacrifice for it. Peter says,
"Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance, but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'Be holy, for I am holy" (vv. 13-16)."
The writer of Hebrews says essentially the same thing. He, like Paul, speaks in the language of sports when he says,
" Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2)."
Let me ask you a question (and just know that I have to ask the same question of myself). What in your life have you given up lately so that you can walk more closely with Jesus? What sacrifices have you made in your life in order to receive a 'well done' from Him on the day you stand before Him? What has the Christian life cost you? Anything?
Or, to put it another way, what are you doing in your life right now to make your walk with Christ more effective? What sort of disciplines have you added to your life that get you closer to were He wants you to be? In what way are you exercising self-control, and training yourself for a better walk with Christ?
Dear brothers and sisters, let's not forget that we're in a race; and we're to be in it to win. That reality, by the very nature of the case, must cost us something. We must pay a price in order to achieve the goal. The good news is that God our Father wants us to win. Let's take the time to ask Him frequently to search our lives. Let's allow His Holy Spirit to put His finger on the things in our lives that must go; and to show us the things that we must begin doing; so that Jesus will be pleased. Nothing else in life matters as much as that; wouldn't you agree?
3. With an intentionality of action.
Paul felt personally the significance of all this. He knew that he was in the race to win; and that winning involved sacrifice. And so, he lived his Christian life with intentionality. He watched were he put his feet, and critically examined each step that he took. There was purpose in what he did. He begins to speak in the first person singular in this verse; and because he was a great lover of several different kinds of sports, he wasn't particular about which one he used as an analogy for the Christian life. He says, in verse 26, "Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air."
Imagine a group of runners waiting at the starting line. Each one is ready. They've all been in rigorous training for months. They've made the necessary sacrifices. They all fix their eyes on the prize. The starting gun fires, and off they run ... in all directions -- all running with 'uncertainty' and 'aimlessly'. What possible good would all their preparations do them if they don't run in the right direction?
Or, imagine a boxing match. Imagine that the two boxers have been training for this fight for months; and both are lean, mean fighting machines. They meet in the center of the ring, they shake hands, the bell rings ... and they both stand back-to-back and start throwing wild punches into the air. Perfect footwork; powerful hooks and jabs; but hitting nothing. It wouldn't matter how much time they spent in training; people are still going to want their money back if they're not going to hit each other.
It's ridiculous to think that such things would happen; and yet, such things happen all the time among professing Christians. We may prepare ourselves by making it our heartfelt passion to walk faithfully in the Christian life, and by faithfully practicing the disciplines of the Christian faith. But when it comes down to the street-level actions of life, if we aren't paying careful attention to what's going on right in front of us -- if we're not making our actions count -- if we aren't making wise, practical, biblically informed choices -- if we aren't breaking the matter down to doing what we're supposed to do when we're supposed to do it, saying what we're supposed to say when we're supposed to say it, and believing what we're supposed to believe when we're supposed to believe it -- then none of the other preparations will do us any good.
My wife has a good way of putting all this. Whenever I talked to her about someone that I was impressed with -- whether it was because of their outstanding Bible knowledge and scholarship, or because of their remarkable literary and intellectual accomplishments -- she always came back with, "Yeah; but do they pick up their socks?" Usually, I had to admit that I didn't know; but the question certainly had a way of bringing things down to the practical level.
How do we do this? How can we live with such intentionality in our actions? Elsewhere, the apostle Paul said,
" See then that you walk circumspectly [that is, carefully -- with your eyes wide open, and with attention to where you're going], not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is (Eph. 5:15-17)."
There's the answer. Being able to run with a sense of direction, and being able to box with punches that count, depends on understanding what the will of the Lord for us is in the different details of life. We must be looking to God's word consistently for His leading and direction in our actions, attitudes and words. As God told Joshua,
"This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success (Joshua 1:8)."
4. With a mastery over the flesh.
Paul didn't run in circles or shadow-box in an aimless way. Quite the opposite. He said, in verse 27, "but I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified." Literally, Paul used a word that means "to strike under the eye" or "to blacken the eye". He's saying that he beat his own body black and blue in order to make it serve his wishes. The RSV translates it, "I pommel my body and subdue it"; and the NIV translates it, "I beat my body and make it my slave".
When you think about it, all of us would be great, world-class athletes if it weren't for our bodies. But our physical bodies aren't the only problem in our spiritual race. We have to contend with the principle of sin that still abides in us even after we've been saved. Paul put it this way:
"I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members [that is, the members of his body], warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members (Romans 7:22-23)."
Do you remember, when Jesus was in the garden on the night of His betrayal, how He urged the disciples to stay awake and pray? And do you remember how, when He came back to them, He found them asleep? He told them, "What? Could you not watch with Me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26:41). So many of our good intentions are hampered by the fact that our flesh is weak when it comes to the things of God, and wars against us at every step.
Paul said that the solution to this had already been brought about in us by Christ. There's now no condemnation for us who are in Him (Romans 8:1). Jesus has already lived on our behalf the life of righteousness that pleases God (vv. 2-4a); and now, we run the race according to the enabling power of the Holy Spirit -- not under the power of our flesh (vv. 4b-11). When the principle of sin within us cries out for gratification, we're no longer bound to satisfy its cravings. Instead of gratifying those passions, we're to 'mortify' them -- put them to death. Paul said, "for if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live" (Romans 8:13). He urged us,
"... Do not present your members [that is, your body parts] as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God" (Romans 6:13)."
Paul saw himself as an athlete. A good athlete holds dominion over his own body. When a sprinter runs in a race and his body cries out, "Stop running! I don't like this! I feel like my lungs are going to pop! My legs are turning into Jello!", the good athlete tells his body, "Look! I'm in charge here. You do what I say! Keep going all the way to the finish line!"
When a weight-lifter works out, and his body is crying, "Ok; that's enough! Put the bar down! This hurts; and I feel like all my muscles are burning with pain!", the good athlete tells his body, "I'm in charge here! You keep on burning; and pretty soon, you'll be stronger!"
When a boxer fights and his body is saying, "Look; I'm tired of getting hit! What's the point of all this? Let's just fall to the ground and lay down for a while! A count of 10; and we can go home!", the good athlete tells his body, "I'm in charge here! You stay in that ring and keep on taking the blows! Pretty soon, a punch'll connect that'll turn this fight around!"
Likewise, when Paul ran in the Christian race, and the principle of sin in him cried out, saying, "I want to sin! I want it now! Gimme, gimme! I don't want to be denied!", Paul -- as a good athlete -- said, "I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified." Paul would let nothing -- not even the whines and cries of his own fleshly passions -- detract him from his goal of running the race faithfully.
And this he did so as not to be disqualified. When an athlete competed in an event, he had to meet certain qualifications, and had to adhere to certain standards; otherwise, he'd be taken out of the competition. As Paul once told his young friend Timothy, "... If anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules" (2 Tim. 2:5).
Paul would deny his sinful passions and cravings, and would allow no demand of the principle of sin to be gratified -- even to the point of beating his own body -- so that nothing would get in the way of hearing Jesus say to him, "Well done!" And, at the end of his life, he was able to say to Timothy,
"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Tim. 4:8)."
The Christian race also involves such a demanding discipline over the principle of sin in the body. It involves a careful attention to what we're doing in the practical areas of life. It involves a willingness to discipline ourselves to make certain sacrifices and adopt certain life-style changes. It involves a commitment to run the race to win.
Remember Billy Graham's explanation for why he was different? He really did try harder; and as a result, God used him greatly. May God help us to do so also.
(copyright 2000 by Pastor Greg Allen and Bethany Bible Church. Reproduction without permission, in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.)