Running the Race
1 Corinthians 9:24‑27 (NKJV) "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."
The 2012 Olympic Games stadium in Stratford, East London will once again be in use for the 2017 World Athletics Championships. There will be competitors from all over the world aiming to win medals, preferably gold medals, for themselves and their countries. The apostle Paul used the metaphorical language of the Grecian Games often in his various epistles. In ancient Greece there were a number of games every three, four or five years. The most well‑known now were the Olympic Games at Olympia in South‑West Greece about 100 kilometres from Kalamata. Now in the modern era they recommenced in 1896 at Athens. There were other games such as the Pythian, Delphic, Nemean as well as the Isthmian which was near Corinth. At such games there were track and field competitors and also wrestlers and boxers, crowds of spectators and prizes.
Purpose. Such games were not without a practical purpose, the type of skills these sportsmen had, made them good soldiers for the armies and these games meant such men were fit and ready to fight. Speed and strength are attributes of soldiers which is why King Saul and Jonathan were described as being swifter than eagles and stronger than lions. (2 Sam.1:23)
Encumbrance. The writer to the Hebrews talks about "laying aside every encumbrance" and "close‑girding sin" (Heb.12:1 Diaglott). Athletes should be fit not carrying any useless fat, swelling or tumour nor needless clothing or jewellery that would slow them down or impede their stride. It is believed athletes in those times competed naked to gain an advantage. Today competitors wear lightweight clothing and materials such as Lycra that stretch easily. The message for the Christian is to consider any possible baggage or pointless task that may impede their Christian walk more difficult and seek a simpler Christian walk.
In New Testament times there were hindrances too. One specific example Paul relates in Galatians 5:7 in relation to running as there were Judaizing teachers who were teaching Christians to follow the law with the traditions of circumcision, food, and Sabbath day observances. Paul also used the Hebrews in the wilderness as an example of the perils in the sins of idolatry, excessive partying and sexual immorality that had beset a much earlier generation as a warning to the saints at Corinth, and hence to all down the Christian Era. (1 Cor.10.1‑14)
Target. Paul says in a race that only one receives the prize telling us to "run in such a way that you may obtain it". Paul’s own words showed the way he was living his life when he said "I press along the Line, towards the prize of the High Calling of God by Christ Jesus." (Phil.3:14 Diaglott) The line was towards the winning or finishing line for the prize that would be awarded by the umpire. In another way Paul uses the picture of obtaining a crown like a prize in a games that the righteous Judge our heavenly Father would award (2 Tim 4:8). In this case it is a crown "unto all" implying that there are more than one. Then he mentions Demas as a contrast who had ‘loved this present world’ and abandoned him at that time.
Temperate. Every elite athlete knows that they must be disciplined whether it be to do with diet, training and rest. Some have to limit the calories such as jockeys yet others have to have a high calorie diet with plenty of protein if they are going to get the necessary nutrition to train and build muscle. Many need to train every day even Christmas Day as part of their discipline. Rest is also important to allow the muscles to recuperate and be ready for the next training session and thereby avoid any unnecessary injuries. How often do we read of injured athletes having to miss a major global championship because of injury and have to wait for 2 or 4 years for the next opportunity. Paul says ‘every combatant is temperate in all things’ (1 Cor.9:25 Diaglott). The Greek word ‘egkrateuetai’ translated temperate means ‘possessing self‑control’ and Paul advises the Corinthians to apply that same discipline to their Christian walk.
Lawfully. 2 Tim.2:5 talks about ‘contending lawfully’. There has been a big problem for athletics. Even now they are planning to remove any world record since 2005 where the sample for testing has not been kept for 10 years. Records such as Florence Griffith Joyner over 100 metres and Marita Koch over 400 meters have been in the record books for many years and now thought impossible to beat because of the suspicion that they took performance enhancing drugs and their samples have not been stored so they can be tested to the degree they can be now. But what does this mean for the Christian in this day and age? It indicates following the rules and guidelines provided in the Bible especially those in the New Testament. The example of our Lord Jesus shows us the proper way. Hence we constantly look to him (Heb.12:2).
Self Denial. Every elite athlete has to deny self if they are to achieve the goals they set for themselves. They must use their time wisely and avoid activities which would inhibit them from achieving their goals. Peter advises that the Christian should not live dissolute lives full of excess and idol worship. (1 Pet.4:3‑4).
Disqualified. Paul uses this phrase ‘run in vain’ twice in Gal.2:2 and Phil.2:16. Have you ever seen the disappointment on the athlete expecting to win but coming second or even fourth ‘the worst position to finish’. This implies the followers of Jesus have to examine how they are running their race now and in the future.
Who would have thought Paul’s games and running pictures would have real meaning at the end of the Christian Era with its lessons to those who now follow? These scriptures come to life and are ones that can be easily related to in those corners of the world where the elite athletes, their successes and failures, are highlighted in the modern media.