It has been called the most dramatic scene in all of sports - that moment when the lonely marathoner reenters the Olympic stadium for the final lap of the grueling 26-mile race. As the fatigued figure presses to the finish line, the crowd rises to its feet to cheer him on. Straining every muscle in his body the runner pushes through the tape, and before, the watching eyes of the world, is awarded the coveted gold medal. This is one of sports most celebrated events!
This famous race - the marathon - began almost 2500 years ago after the famous battle of Marathon. A Greek soldier, Pheidippedes, was dispatched to run to Athens with the message of victory and, running through the night, he delivered the news just before collapsing dead from overexertion. Instantly, Pheidippedes became a national hero, a symbol of patriotism and dedication. Thus, the “marathon” was born. The 26-mile race celebrating Pheidippedes’s run was adopted as an integral part of the ancient Olympic games, a storied tradition that has continued to this day.
Drawing upon this athletic imagery, the apostle Paul compared the Christian life to this grueling marathon race, an event well known to the first century Christians. Writing to the Corinthian believers, who lived only ten miles away from the famous Isthmian games, second in importance only to the Olympic games, he challenged them not merely to enter the race of faith and go through the mundane motions of running for Christ. Rather; he says to ‘go all out” and run in such a way that we may win. God wants us to be winners, not losers!
In our present sports-crazed society perhaps no biblical metaphor better illustrates the reality of living for Jesus Christ than this picture. What are the keys to victory? Paul outlined a game plan in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 that will guide us to the prize. Specifically four keys are worth noting.
RUN TO WIN!
First, determination. In a marathon race, no one can win with a half-hearted commitment. No one merely ‘shows up” and comes in first. Instead, a strong resolve - what athletes call the “will to win” - has to be present.
The same is true in the Christian life. Paul writes, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win” (1 Corinthians 9:24). It is not enough, Paul says, simply to be in the Christian race. Rather, once entered, we must take our spiritual life seriously, pushing ourselves to the limit, and be deeply committed to winning it! To be sure, this is not speaking of salvation or earning our entrance into the race but is calling us to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to win the victor’s crown at the end of the race.
The most coveted prize of the Roman Empire was the stephanos (the laurel-like wreath that was placed upon the head of the champion). Made of leafy greenery, the victor’s crown brought instant fame, tax exemptions, and free education. Carved statues of the winner lined the highways that led to the site of the games.
Calling for our total commitment, the Apostle Paul writes, “They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9:25b). If a marathon runner would be so dedicated to win a withering pine wreath and short-lived fame, how much more ought we be determined to gain what is eternal - the imperishable crown? The reality of this future prize should ignite our faith and inspire us every step of the race. No sacrifice we make for Christ will ever outweigh the sheer thrill of winning this celestial prize. With unfailing determination, we must run in order to receive a “crown of righteousness which the LORD, the righteous judge, will award…on that day” (2Timothy 4:8).
Are you intent upon winning this unfading crown? Or, are you growing lax in your spiritual pursuit of holiness? As you live your Christian life, do not settle for second place. Run to win!
Second, discipline. In the ancient games, victory depended upon the athlete’s rigorous training program. Every runner was required to enter into ten months of strict training under the watchful eye of an official. Winning required stringent discipline to this regimen, even for the best of athletes. Marathon runners were known to work out for years - lifting weights, carrying out drills, running laps, regulating their sleep, restricting their diet, abstaining from alcohol - all to win the prize.
Drawing upon this background, Paul writes, “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things” (1 Corinthians 9:25). Self-control means we must exercise mastery over our lives, foregoing some pleasures, pursuing other disciplines, all for the purpose of winning. An undisciplined lifestyle - one marked by loose living - is a sure way to lose the race. The athlete’s disciplined workouts are a rebuke to our half-hearted, out-of-shape lives when we do little to prepare for victory.
In order to achieve godliness, we must be committed to the basic spiritual disciplines of the Christian life - Bible study, prayer, meditation, and the like. Paul exhorts us, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7-8). Only as we expend energy, working out in God’s Word and building up our spiritual muscles in prayer, will we receive energy - the supernatural power of God - needed to run the race.
Look at your own life. Are you working out regularly in God’s Word and prayer? Are you willing to forego some secondary things in order to pursue the primary things of the Christian life? Victory belongs to the self-disciplined.
STAY ON TRACK
Third, direction. The marathon course was clearly marked, winding through the surrounding landscape of the area. It was critical that every runner know exactly where the track was, and not depart from it. Furthermore, he must never lose sight of the finish line, but keep his eyes fixed on the goal.
With this in mind, Paul writes, “Therefore I run in such a way as not without aim” (1 Corinthians 9:26). This divinely-designed track, known as God’s will, is clearly marked by His Word. It is a narrow path that includes every aspect of our lives - our personal life, our home life, our work life, our church life, our business life. Winning the prize requires seeking direction from God’s Word and following the course it requires.
An aimless runner, one who lacks clear direction, will never win. If he is to capture the crown, he must compete with certain knowledge of the track that is set before him. With singular purpose, Paul ran God’s race for his life. His stated goal was to advance the gospel and win as many people as possible to Jesus Christ. We, too, must have this goal to win others to Christ if we are to run with aim.
Let me ask you: Are you running with this divine direction and eternal purpose? Do you have this fixed goal clearly in mind? Whatever you do, stay on track with your life.
BUFFET YOUR BODY
Fourth, denial. Every athlete had to give up certain comforts in order to win the prize. No pain, no gain. Throughout his training, the athlete punished his body, forgoing a life of ease and bodily impulses, in order to get in shape. And during the race, he pushed himself to the limit to gain the victory.
The same sell-denial is absolutely necessary in the Christian life. Paul writes, “I buffet my body and make it my slave” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Shifting metaphors from running to boxing, Paul goes on to say we must beat our bodies black and blue, wielding a series of knockout punches to our fleshly desires. We must resist all temptation, and mortify the sensual lusts that would defeat us, and remain pure and blameless. Calling upon every ounce of strength within us, we must deny ourselves all illicit satisfaction and pursue personal holiness with total abandonment.
Lest we think winning the crown is automatic, even the apostle Paul himself feared that “after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Breaking the rules, he said, meant disqualification. Not loss of salvation, but loss of reward. Even when a runner finished first, if he violated the rules, he would be stripped of his crown and disqualified from the games. The Christian life is no different. With unmistakable clarity, Paul later stated, If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5).
No matter how impressive a believer’s life may appear, winning the prize requires genuine obedience to God’s Word. Keeping the rules is absolutely necessity for victory! So the questions are: Are you buffeting your body? Are you resisting all fleshly lusts? Where do you need to be fully obedient to God? Just do it!
THE JUDGE’S SEAT
After the race, the most anticipated moment occurred. It was then that every runner was brought to stand before the raised, wooden platform in the middle of the track that supported a throne-like seat. Upon this chair sat the presiding judge of the games. Each athlete would either be crowned, passed over, or disqualified.
So it will be for us as believers in Jesus Christ. With soul-stirring challenge, Paul wrote, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). At the end of our race, we will be summoned to stand before the Lord Jesus. At this tribunal, He will review how we ran our race, either bestowing or withholding His reward. Thus, every step of the Christian life race has eternal importance. Right now counts forever!
Let us run with growing anticipation of that future moment when we will stand before Christ. In that final day, may He place the imperishable crown upon our heads, as we give Him glory, saying, “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57)
This article was orginally published in Reformed Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 2/3 © 2001 Reformed Theological Seminary