November 20, 2005

Victorious Christian Living

Preacher: Randy Smith Series: 1 Corinthians Scripture: 1 Corinthians 9:24–27


Victorious Christian Living

1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Sunday, November 20, 2005
Pastor Randy Smith

If you become familiar with Paul's letters in the Bible you will soon discover how much the man enjoyed using metaphors. Just as Jesus commonly employed parables to teach a spiritual truth with an earthly reality, Paul, seeing everything through spiritual lenses used aspects of life familiar to his readers to instruct them about Christian living.

He said the Christian is like a soldier. Do you see any comparisons in your mind between a soldier and a Christian? He said the Christian is like a farmer. Do you see any comparisons in your mind between a farmer and a Christian? And possibly his favorite, he said the Christian is like an athlete. Again, do you see any comparisons in your mind between an athlete and a Christian (2 Tim. 2:3-6)?

Athletics were very popular in the first century Greco-Roman world. The Olympic games, conducted every four years were in full swing. Every other year the Greeks also celebrated the Isthmian games. The festival was held on the Corinthian Isthmus and attendance at the Games was considered a high point and experience of a lifetime. The events were glorified. The participants were idolized. The common folk, immersed in the athletic culture, were knowledgeable about: disciplined conditioning, rewards for the victor and rules of engagement.

So popular and transferable, Epictetus (55-135), a secular contemporary of Paul, used the metaphor of the athletic contest to describe the training of philosophers. He said, "(The training of the philosopher is strenuous and those who say,) I wish to win an Olympic victory (must consider the demanding task before them). You need to submit to discipline, follow a strict diet, give up sweet cakes, train under compulsion, at a fixed hour, in heat or in cold; you must not drink cold water, nor wine just whenever you feel like it" (Diatr. 3.15.2-4).

This morning we'll consider the realm of athletics and see how the temporal field of sport can be used to illustrate the eternal reality of the Christian life. Even if you have difficulty walking and chewing gum at the same time, in the eyes of God you are considered a spiritual athlete. Today we'll examine your goal, your requirements and your warning.

1. THE ATHLETE'S GOAL (verse 24)

Let's begin with the athlete's goal in verse 24. "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."

We don't need the Bible to tell us that the goal of every contest is victory. Since there were no team sports in the first century, Paul chose to draw off a major attraction in his time - running. Many capable athletes would compete, but only one would be victorious, only one would "receive the prize." As Christians we are called to "run in such a way that (we) may win."

A few points of observation:

First, Paul makes it clear that winning matters. In the Christian life there is no such thing as a "moral victory." It's not how we "play the game" irrespective of whether we win or lose. Only those who win will find acceptance in God's race.

If there are winners, it naturally implies there will be losers as well. Now I am not talking about unbelievers; I am unfortunately talking about professing Christians in the church. Spiritual affiliation does not guarantee victory.

For instance, many in the church are running the wrong race. They may be exerting all their energy, but they have departed from the original track God placed them on (2 Pet. 2:15). Others register for the race but refuse to run. They trade their status as a competitor for that of a spectator (Phil. 1:27). Others are disqualified along the way. They refuse to follow the rules outlined by the judge (2 Tim. 2:5). Still others never make it across the finish line. They start strong, but quit before completing the course (1 Jn. 2:19). Time prevents from elaboration on each of these, but I believe you understand my point. We must run the Christian race to win.

Second, Paul knew that running the Christian race to win was important because of the prize that hung in the balance. In this case, the difference between winning and losing is all the difference between going to heaven and going to hell. Paul ran for the prize as if life depended on it - and it does!

In Philippians 3:14 he said, "I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." The prize is our incentive to persevere. We can all testify that running the Christian life is not easy. The course is lined with temptations and tribulations (Ac. 14:22). Some have compared it to a marathon that requires stamina, endurance and commitment.

That's why the writer to the Hebrews said, "Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith" (Heb. 12:1-2a).

Jesus finished the race, which entailed "endur(ing) the cross" (Heb. 12:2b). Jesus received the prize, which means He is seated "at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:2c). In the same way we should follow our Savior and look to Him for strength and example so that we may win the prize and our victory may be eternal life with all thanks and all praise going to Him.

Third, the illustration breaks down at one point. In any race there was only one winner ("only one receives the prize" - verse 24). Though we as Christians are all running in the same race, we dare not imply that only one of us will be victorious. We are not competing against one another. On the contrary we are each running our own personal race and ironically exhorted to help each other along the way.

As John Piper said, "It's a community project." If someone falls down, we assist. If someone is exhausted, we encourage. If someone is confused, we instruct. We do nothing to place a stumbling block in another's path nor rejoice if they do anything that may forfeit their reward. As a matter of fact, the Christian life is the only race where our victory is more sure when we are concerned for those running for the same prize. Our goal is not to get only ourselves, but every professing Christian in the race across the finish line as a winner.

Fourth, in order to be victorious, we must put forth effort. That takes us to our second point: The Athlete's Requirements.



The first requirement for a successful athlete is discipline. Allow me to read the first half of verse 25. "Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things."

Various authors have defined self-control as:

• "The ability to avoid excesses, to stay within reasonable bounds" (D. G. Kehl).

• "The healthful regulation of our desires and appetites, preventing their excess" (George Bethune).

• "The vigorous control of appetite and passion" (John Garland).

• "The exercise of inner strength under the direction of sound judgment that enables us to do, think, and say the things that are pleasing to God (Jerry Bridges).

Self-control, a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:23), is the ability to have the control of God manifested in our bodies. Along these lines, you can imagine how invaluable this character trait is for the athlete concerned about peak performance. Playing grandma in checkers is light years away from competing with the best athletes in the world for a gold medal. Success in any race of this caliper requires the utmost self-control to endure the intense training necessary to compete at this elite level.

The Greeks understood the integrity of their Games was contingent upon the conditioning of the athletes. It is recorded that these athletes participating in the Olympic games swore an oath "that in nothing will they sin against the Olympic games. The athletes take this further oath also, that for ten successive months they have strictly followed the regulations for training" (Pausanius, Descr. 9.24.9). Any failure to abide by the stringent expectations resulted in immediate disqualification. Disciplined self-control was required for all the participants.

It was also naturally expected for every participant as well. Commenting about 100 years after Paul, Tertullian, the popular Christian writer said, "Athletes are set apart for more rigid training to apply themselves to the building up of their physical strength. They are kept from lavish living, from more tempting dishes, from more pleasurable drinks. They are urged on, they are subjected to tortuous toils, they are worn out. The more strenuously they have exerted themselves, the greater is their hope of victory" (To the Martyrs, 3.3).

Here is where the imagery of athletics really hits home. All of us know the discipline that is necessary to compete. Athletes must put off that which could hinder their performance such as junk food, tobacco, and alcohol. And athletes must put on that which will maximize their performance such as exercise, nutrition and proper sleep.

Success in the Christian life is no different. We too are called to employ a variety of spiritual "put-offs" and "put-ons" in order to compete for the prize. This takes effort. In 1 Timothy 4:7 Paul calls us to "discipline (ourselves) for the purpose of godliness." It takes discipline and self-control to be the competitors that God expects who run the race seeking victory.

Yet we too often are selective in what we obey. We pamper ourselves. We are lazy. One author said, "The lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master" (Kahlil Gibran, Christianity Today, v. 34, n. 17). Spiritually speaking, the church in the 21st century is "out of shape!"

On the contrary we are called to be disciplined and self-controlled in our zeal for God (Rom. 12:11) demonstrated by: earnest prayer, aggressive evangelism, dedicated Scripture reading, eager service, active church life and passionate worship. Is it any wonder that we call these traits the "spiritual disciplines?" Going along with the metaphor, how can we be indifferent to these disciplines and still expect to run successful enough through the Christian life to be worthy of the prize?

For past last two weeks we learned about Paul's discipline to the point that he was willing to forgo his personal freedoms and liberties and feelings if it meant serving others in the church and witnessing to those in the world.

In verse 19 he said, "For though I am free I have made myself a slave to all." Ironically, Paul found that the greatest exercise of his freedom was bondage to the needs of others. My friends, that takes tremendous discipline! That's the heart of verse 27 where Paul says, "But I discipline my body and make it my slave."

The Greek word used here for "discipline" (hupopiazo) literally means "to strike under the eye" and "to cause a black eye." Paul says, "I am beating my body back and blue for the sake of God's glory." Now allow me to be clear, we are not talking about exceeding the physical needs of the body or causing unnecessary pain as if the discomfort in and of itself is in any way honoring to God (asceticism). Nor are we saying that the body is inherently evil (see 1 Cor. 6:15-20). Furthermore this text is not speaking about the ongoing battle we experience with the flesh in our fight against sin. What I believe Paul is talking about here is the disciplined commitment expected of all believers to the demands of Christian living.

An athlete needs to learn how to control his body. When the body calls for a Big Mac, he reaches for a salad. When the body wants to hit the snooze button, he begins training early. You see, too often our bodies dictate our minds. The goal is to know what is right in the mind and then get our bodies in subjection to our minds. Paul would not allow himself to be controlled by his body. He would not let the appetites, impulses and cravings of his body dictate his spiritual responsibilities.

The mind says read the Bible and the body says read the newspaper. Who wins? The mind says serve the wife and the body says watch college football. Who wins? The mind says work hard and the body says the boss isn't watching. Who wins? The mind says involvement in church and the body says involvement in a hobby? Who wins? I think you see the point! How are we running the race? Have we disciplined our bodies? Do we expect to win the prize? Champions of the faith are not born. They are crafted in the fires of discipline.

The great Puritan, Richard Baxter once said, "It is a most lamentable thing to see how most people spend their time and their energy for trifles, while God is cast aside. He who is all seems to them as nothing, and that which is nothing seems to them as good as all. It is lamentable indeed, knowing that God has set mankind in such a race where heaven or hell is their certain end, that they should sit down and loiter, or run after the childish toys of the world, forgetting the prize they should run for. Were it but possible for one of us to see this business as the all-seeing God does, and see what most men and women in the world are interested in and what they are doing every day, it would be the saddest sight imaginable. Oh, how we should marvel at their madness and lament their self-delusion! If God had never told them what they were sent into the world to do, or what was before them in another world, then there would have been some excuse. But it is His sealed word, and they profess to believe it" (source unknown).

We know God's expectations, but we have been deceived into thinking that we will be happier by following our own comforts and our own desires rather than those of disciplined Christian living. Paul went so far as to make himself a slave to others. Do we think this principle applies only to the spiritually elite? Do we think he made a mistake? Paul was one of the most joyful men that ever walked on the planet! Imagine how wonderful and powerful the church would be if everyone followed his lead. Imagine how happy we would be if we could forsake the myth that believes discipline robs freedom. We must learn that freedom comes from the discipline of making myself a slave to God and a slave to others. Such a pathway through life is the key to joyous and victorious Christian living.

Theologian Elton Trueblood once said, "We have not advanced very far in our spiritual lives if we have not encountered the basic paradox of freedom…that we are most free when we are bound. But not just any way of being bound will suffice; what matters is the character of our binding. The one who would be an athlete, but who is unwilling to discipline his body by regular exercise and by abstinence, is not free to excel on the field or the track. His failure to train rigorously denies him the freedom to run with the desired speed and endurance. With one concerted voice, the giants of the devotional life apply the same principle to the whole of life: Discipline is the price of freedom" (Leadership, v. 10, n. 3).

We know this is true for non-spiritual issues, right? When we are able to control our bodies we are able to experience the greatest degree of freedom. Just think of all the disciplined acts unbelievers will pursue. How much less should we pursue the spiritual life with discipline? If the Olympic athlete can exhibit the epitome of discipline for a "perishable wreath" as verse 25 says - a circle of perishable leaves - how much more should we be motivated if our reward is "imperishable," everlasting life in the presence of the living God (1 Pet. 1:4).

John Bunyan said, "Shall the world venture the damnation of their souls for a poor corruptible crown; and shall not we venture the loss of a few trifles for an eternal crown" (The Heavenly Footman)?

Our reward is not temporal, but eternal! What greater motivation do we need to live a disciplined life?


In addition to discipline, purpose is also necessary for a successful athlete. In verse 26 Paul said, "Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim."

The race starts. All the runners break from the starting blocks in a pack. They are all focused on the finish line. Shortly after the dust clears you notice one runner going in the opposite direction. He stops to admire hurdle. He complains about the volume of the starting gun. He talks to some fans in the stands and then grumbles about the heat over the loudspeaker. Does the man have purpose? Should he expect to win the race?

In verse 26 Paul said, "I box in such a way, as not beating the air."

The bell rings. The determined boxer approaches his opponent. In his eyes you can read his intensity and desire for a quick knockout. The opponent takes a swing and misses. He jabs, an uppercut, but none of his punches are landing. Within seconds he finds himself flat on his back. When asked what happened he tells his coach that he intentionally missed in fear of hurting his foe. He says he became a boxer only to make new friends and lose some unwanted weight. Does the man have purpose? Should he expect to win the fight?

Failure is all we can expect if we go through the Christian life without purpose. We see the folly of the runner without purpose, but are you "run(ning) in such a way that you may win" (1 Cor. 9:24)? We see the folly of the boxer without purpose, but are you "fight(ing) the good fight" (1 Tim. 1:18; 6:12)? Oh that we might see the folly of trying to live the Christian life without purpose?

Do you have purpose?

• "What does God expect from parents?

• "What does God expect from husbands and wives?

• "What is your reason for being connected to this church?

• "Why are you here this morning?

• "How does God want you to act at work?

• "Why has God placed unbelievers in your life?

• "What is God's general purpose for you?

Are you wasting energy on less important things? Are you busy without being effective? Are your priorities misplaced? Do you have a clear understanding of your destination? Are you taking steps to reach your goal? We too often become like the pilot flying across the Pacific who radioed back to his base, "I don't know where I am going but I'm making great time."

We must understand God's purpose for our lives and then strive by the strength of His power to achieve it. There is no other way to have any hope of winning the prize. As one author said, "(We) cannot amble nonchalantly around the track and expect some kind of trophy simply for participation" (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 440). Another went further, "Perhaps too many contemporary Christians have lost sight of their…goal and are running aimlessly, if they are in the 'contest' at all" (Fee, 1 Corinthians, 441).

3. THE ATHLETE'S WARNING (verse 27b)

That leads us to our final point this morning: The Athlete's Warning. In verse 27 Paul says, "But I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified" (emphasis added).

This section closes with a very humbling warning. Paul takes all that he said to the Corinthian church and applies it to himself. He knew that his miraculous calling and apostolic status and theological education and many converts meant nothing if he failed to heed his own instruction. He also knew that he needed to run with self-control and discipline and purpose if he expected to win the prize as well (cf. 1 Tim. 4:16). Paul did not take the race flippantly. He understood his potential for being disqualified, adokimos in the Greek, a strong word meaning "proven false" or "to be shown as counterfeit."

Now we all know that it is impossible for one to lose his or her salvation once it is received. But we must remember that evidence of our salvation is the ability to faithfully persevere through the Christian life. We all know we are saved by faith, but proof of our faith is the ability to run on the track of submission to Christ's lordship. Faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:17, 26). Therefore faith that runs the race aiming for the prize of the upward call is the works God commands us in this passage. Our running is the proof we have been taken hold of by Christ (Phil. 3:12-13).

John Piper said, "Make no mistake here! Life is not a place for proving to God or anybody your strength. Life is a place for proving whose strength you trust - man's or God's. Life is not a place for proving the power of your intelligence to know truth. It's a place for proving the power of God's grace to show truth (Matt. 16:17). Life is not a field for demonstrating the force of our will to make good choices. It's a field for showing how the beauty of Christ takes us captive and constrains us to choose and run for His glory" (Olympic Spirituality - Part Two, 1 Corinthians 9:23-27).

Paul knew that our profession is important, but the way we live our lives is also of eternal importance. And if Paul knew that he could be proven a counterfeit, what makes us think we should take this warning lightly. The concern here is not to diminish the security of a believer. The concern here is the squash the false assurance of an individual who, despite his profession, is not really saved. There is a need for ongoing self-examination. "Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves" (2 Cor. 13:5) lest we hear those dreadful words of Jesus Christ, "I never knew you; depart from me" (Mt. 7:23).

In the Summer Olympics athletes always participate in the marathon. The marathon is the long distance run from which the Olympic event got its name. In 490 B.C. Pheidippides ran 26 miles to warn of the impending attack of the Persians upon his country. The route began in Marathon and ended in Sparta. Soon after he reached Sparta, Pheidippides died.

Analyzing lunar records, astronomers at Texas State University believe the cause of his death was due to heat stroke. Their research indicates the runner may have raced in temperatures reaching 102 degrees. The New Scientist quotes researcher Russell Doescher as saying, "It seems plausible that someone running for all he's got, trying to save his fellow citizens, could keel over and die."

The Apostle Paul gave a Pheidippides-like effort. Looking back on his life he was able to say, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day" (2 Timothy 4:7-8a - NIV).

May God enlighten our understanding and inflame our will for heaven so we can run with discipline and purpose to receive the prize for those who persevere in the Christian race. Oh that we might find joy in the journey and greater joy when we enter our heavenly rest!

other sermons in this series

Apr 22


Edification or Self-Exaltation

Preacher: Randy Smith Scripture: 1 Corinthians 14:1–40 Series: 1 Corinthians

Apr 15


Everything Minus Love Equals Nothing

Preacher: Randy Smith Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13:1–13 Series: 1 Corinthians

Mar 18


You Need Us

Preacher: Randy Smith Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:21–27 Series: 1 Corinthians