Running to Win the Prize

Text: 1 Cor 9:24-27

Paul, if you will remember, has been going to great lengths to demonstrate that he not only has real rights, legitimate freedoms, because of his position, but also that he has sought to love others well by willingly giving up those rights.

He has a right to be compensated, and to bring along a believing spouse, who should be factored into that compensation. To go back to chapter 8, he has real freedom to eat meat that has been sacrificed to pagan idols.

However, he has also willing given up those rights. He had not sought compensation, not eaten meat, and done so for the good of others. He has, to use his words, enslaved himself to the consciences of the weaker brothers and sisters around him, in order that his behavior would in no way be a stumbling block to the gospel. In fact, he would rather die, he says, than have the gospel be impeded or obscured.

And then tonight, Paul turns to another kind of imagery, a different sermon illustration, if you will. Paul, like a good teacher, uses illustrations and analogies well. His favorite three, we might say, are the image of a farmer, the solder, and the athlete. And it is the athletic illustration we have in our text tonight.

Let’s read our text together, and then we can look more at this imagery of athletic competition as a metaphor for the Christian life. 1 Corinthians 9, starting in verse 24, and going through the end of the chapter.

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control,[b] lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

We’ll work through our text this evening by looking first at Paul’s imagery, then his imperative, and his intention. The imagery, his imperative, and his intention.

Let’s begin by looking at verse 24 and see the imagery Paul uses to describe the Christian life.

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize?

Paul here is connecting with his audience by using a bit of shared cultural knowledge as an illustration for the Christian life. Corinth, as we have previously learned, is a very wealthy and influential city.

Part of that influence came from the athletic games that took place within the city. There were four major types of regional athletic competitions that were regularly held. One was the Olympics, which we all have heard about. Another two were the Pythian games and the Nemean Games. But of relevance to us were the Isthmian games, so named because they were held in Corinth on the Greek isthmus. Although it is not the most historically precise name, these Isthmian games I’ll refer to as the Corinthian games, simply because it is easier to say.

The Corinthian games were held every few years, and were very significant in Corinthian culture. From young age, elementary school age, boys and girls destined for the games would be put into rigorous training cycles. They would attend special schools, be taught by special tutors, be put under strict diets, follow demanding exercise routines, in order to one day have a shot at competing in the Corinthian games.

The goal was to produce a child that possessed a noble soul inside an excellent body. They wanted a beautiful person on the inside, and a beautiful figure of excellence and perfection on the outside. Boys were raised in this way to compete at the highest of levels, and girls would also train, not necessarily to compete in the same ways, but in order that they’d be fit mothers for future athletes. So that they would be “good stock” we might say, for future competitors.

And all of Paul’s readers in Corinth would be familiar with the impact of the games. They all had seen the statues of former champions. They walked past the monuments on the way to the grocery store. They had read the inscriptions describing the glorious victories of past winners. They knew about the money, the fame, the glory, the training, the self-discipline required in order to compete at the highest of levels.

These athletes were just as committed to their craft as athletes today. Today it’s not uncommon for the premier talents to higher special nutritionists to coach them on proper diet. To have dedicated trainers to help them exercise in the most effective ways.

Back in Corinth you’d have the same. For example, the hopeful participant of the Corinthian games had to take a vow, an oath, that for “ten successive months they have strictly followed the regulations of training.”[1] A regular guy off the street couldn’t just jump into the competition. You were unqualified to compete if you didn’t work toward the goal with intentionality, and with exemplary dedication and discipline.

It doesn’t take too much cleverness to see why Paul chose such an athletic metaphor for his sermon illustration. Nobody stumbles into success in the games, and so too does nobody stumble into faithfulness in the Christian life, without effort, without discipline, without intentionality.

And that leads to our next point. Look at the end of verse 24 and see Paul’s imperative. Paul’s imperative for the Corinthians.

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.

So run that you may obtain it. Run so that you can win the prize. That’s the driving imperative of this passage. Run in a manner that will make you successful, that will gain you the medal, that will earn you the ribbon.

And to do that, you must exercise self-control. Verse 25

Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.

Bums don’t make it to the top. The lazy man will never earn the prize. That’s true in the Corinthian games, and that’s true in life in general, and that’s true in the Christian life. Exertion is required if you are to succeed.

And Paul is making his argument from the lesser to the greater. He points out that the athletes do this for a temporary prize, but Christians work for something better. The end of verse 25:

They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.

Their crown was a little bit of woven garland, made of laurel or pine. That’s what they were fighting for. Something that was dying and disintegrating from the moment it was placed on the victor’s head. And if they were willing to strain and strive, to train and toil for such a fleeting prize, how much more should we as Christian strive for victory because we’ve been promised an eternal prize.

We discussed this last week when we looked at verse 23, where Paul talks about being motivated by the goal of sharing in the blessings of the gospel. Those blessings, we saw, are the thing promised to every believer, the blessings of an inheritance kept for us in heaven, blessings that are imperishable, they won’t fall apart, they aren’t some dying twigs stitched together and placed on our head just to rot and fall off tomorrow.

We’re striving toward the goal of a permanent, glorious, benevolent reward that God is holding for us in heaven.

If they will exercise discipline, and work, and give blood, sweat, and tears for a fleeting prize, how much more should we be willing to do the same. That’s the argument.

A couple of quick notes before we move on to the specific instruction. First, notice the discontinuity with Paul’s illustration. Every sermon illustration breaks down at some point, but we need to note the glorious way that Paul’s breaks down.

The competitors of the Corinthian games would train and labor in order to win a prize. A prize. Not prizes. There was only one victor, and necessarily so. There can only be one gold medalist, and one Superbowl champion.

But unlike earthly athletic competition, the Christian race is not one with a single winner. In fact, the more we strain and strive and labor in our Christian race, the more we see that we are encouraging and aiding and supporting others who are also in the race. Our goal isn’t for us to win and others to lose. In fact, that’s kind of the exact opposite of what Paul is arguing in this chapter.

Paul strains and strives in his Christian race, so that more and more people would join him in the Christian race, and be successful in gaining their own prize. There is no competition betweenChristians in the race, no competitiveness or rivalry among us. In fact, our progress in the Christian race is usually evidenced by how well we are aiding others in their own race.

Or to say that another way, one way you can know how well you are doing in your own Christian race, is by seeing how well you are doing at helping other people in their own race. Or we might even say, that one way to see your progress as a disciple of Christ, is to look at the fruit of your discipling of others, the fruit of your helping others in the race.

So then the question for all of us is this: am I encouraging others in their race? How am I doing at pointing others back to Jesus, and spurring them on in their Christian journey? Are you a better discipler, a better Christian friend and mentor, than you were a year ago, ten years ago? Am I praying for those who are struggling to race well?

If not, then that may be an area where you need intentionality, where you need to exercise, where you need to shed a few spiritual pounds in order to run your race with greater effectiveness.

But another thing I’d also like to mention before we move on to verse 26 is this: some people take Paul’s instruction in this passage to be talking about his salvation. They conclude that Paul is talking about his final salvation, and that Paul here is telling everybody that he is striving and working in this life because he is afraid of losing his own salvation, afraid of losing his prize.

I don’t think that Paul is talking about final salvation here, as if to say, that Paul thinks that if he doesn’t run the race well enough he will lose his salvation at the end.

I don’t think that’s right for several reasons, but I’ll just mention one or two. First, for me to tell someone that Paul was worried about losing his own salvation, that would be akin pastoral malpractice. It would be throwing stumbling blocks in front of weaker souls, who might never recover.

Because the logic is this: if Paul, the mighty Apostle, anointed and commissioned by God himself on the road to Damascus, If Paul is unable to KNOW he was saved and that he would be kept until the end, if PAUL, couldn’t have assurance of salvation, then what hope do we have for gaining assurance? That’s a valid question.

Second, I don’t think that Paul in this passage is talking about losing his salvation because it doesn’t fit with the rest of Paul’s theology. We don’t even have to go outside of this letter to make that clear. If you want, flip back real quick to chapter 1. Chapter 1, starting in verse 4, Paul is very clear about what he thinks about perseverance in the Christian life:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Christ WILL sustain you to the end, and he WILL hold you guiltless in the day of the Lord. There is no doubt in Paul’s mind: believers will be sustained and upheld to the very end.

Coincidentally, this is a good lesson on how we interpret the bible. When we find ourselves puzzled by something that seems unclear, like is Paul talking about losing his salvation in chapter 9, then good biblical interpretation is to allow the clearer passages of scripture (like chapter 1) to help us interpret the less clear passages of scripture. That’s biblical interpretation, or biblical hermeneutics 101.

Back to chapter 9. So what then is this prize, if it is not Pail straining and running for salvation? The prize is an inheritance, gospel blessings, like mentioned in verse 23 of chapter 9. It’s the commendation of God saying to those who finish the race, “well done my good and faithful servant.”

Paul knew that while we aren’t held in God’s grace by our own works, we will be held accountable for what we do with that grace. We will be commended for seeking to maximize God’s grace for His glory in this life.

We can go back to chapter three and see another analogy. Paul says:

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

There is a way to run the race that earns a commendation from God. And there is also a way to wash up on the shores of Heaven like a shipwrecked sailor, with singed trousers, so to speak. And we don’t want to be that. We want to run toward our prize with zeal, with intentionality, with effort and discipline.

Now, back to chapter 9. We’ve seen Paul’s use of the athletic imagery, and we’ve seen Paul’s imperative: run that you may win the prize. Now let’s move on to see Paul’s intention. Paul’s intention. Verse 26:

So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.

Paul now moves to using himself as an example. He switches to the first person. Given the stakes of the game, and the possibility of not ending the race well, Paul intends to make the best of his time and energy. He says he doesn’t run aimlessly. He doesn’t just wander around. He isn’t haphazard in his faith. He has direction, and has the destination in view, the prize in mind.

As I prepared this sermon I tried to come up with another image that might accurately capture this, and the Lord brought to my mind my recent tour of duty in the worship care hallway. Rebekah and I were given oversight of the 3year old class, which was at capacity that Sunday morning, and we took them downstairs, walked into the classroom, and they erupted into playful chaos.

Truckloads of energy in one small confined space. So we made the decision to take them outside on the playground. And as they walked out the nursery hallway doors into the open playground area, they erupted in squeals of joy, and began to raise their arms up like this and scatter all around the playground. They had no idea where they were going, nor why they were going there, but they were running around with no sense of direction, just steaming ahead with eagerness.

That’s kind of like what can happen in the Christian life, we can steam ahead with varying levels of zeal, but with no clear direction or goal. I counsel people often who are wandering aimlessly in the Christian life. They just kind of float along, like driftwood, content in their drifting, having no goals, and applying no real effort. As long as they’re not disturbed to much by trials or by discomfort, they’d be happy to coast for the rest of their Christian life.

And when they are forced to grow through some trial, they are shocked at the experience. They have become spiritually flabby, their soul is out of shape, and they find it difficult to continue in the race. They are like a middle-aged man who decides to go straight from the couch to run a marathon; a little ways into the endeavor and he’s ready to pass out. That’s what many Christians are like. They get a little ways into some trial, and their faith is about to pass out, they are spiritually winded, and they find the race feels like it is going to kill them.

That can be the result of aimless running. That can be the result of being unintentional with our faith, with our Christian spirituality. Undisciplined to grow in prayer, and in bible intake, and in fasting, and in perseverance. No direction, no goals, no growth. It’s like the old adage, if you don’t set any goals, you can be sure you’ll never meet them.

But Paul doesn’t just use the imagery of running. He also switches to boxing. He says

I do not box as one beating the air.

It does no good for you to just swing at the opponent, without landing any blows. You don’t get to be a champion boxer like Mohammed Ali or George Foreman without actually knocking blows into the opponent. That’s clear enough, Paul. So what do you do instead? Who is it that you’re seeking to box and knock out? Here’s where it gets interesting:

Verse 27: 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

Unlike the gladiators and the competitors in the Corinthian games, who knew their opponent, and could clearly see the enemy, Paul says that his own body is his enemy. Paul wasn’t concerned that something outside of him, that something external was going to undermine his ministry. He knew that the greatest threat to him reaching his goal of gospel advance and gospel blessings was within him. His own passions and appetites, not used in a way that honored the Lord.

Here we see the truth of remaining sin. The fact that even though Christians have been forgiven and born again, they still wrestle with the remaining sin within themselves. It wasn’t that Paul was someone who hated his own body, as if his physical flesh was evil.

He knew it was his remaining sinfulness that could tempt him to use his body in unholy and unhelpful ways. We still have the old man fighting against our holiness. So we must still battle.

And Paul battled.

Everybody knew that the Corinthian games participants were expected to exercise discipline with their bodies if they were to win. Victory required sacrifice, and in order to help ensure victory, they would willingly abstain. They were famous for their discipline in the areas of food and sex, the two areas that dominate the majority of Paul’s arguments in this part of the letter. Chapters 5-7 largely deal with sexuality, and chapters 8-10 largely deal with food and idols, idolatry.

Indeed, in the very next chapter, Paul is going to warn the Corinthians to not be like the Israelites, who were given over to their evil cravings, and were judged, largely because of their sexual immorality and their idolatry.

“The Corinthians [did] not need to adopt every aspect of Paul’s lifestyle, but they do need to take much more seriously the potential for [failing to reach the prize because they were] following uncritically their appetites for food and for sex.”[2]

And it is likewise these two appetites of the body, food and sex, that many of us need to reign in. Ask yourself this: am I showing the same kind of discipline modeled by Joseph while in Potiphar’s house? Or am I toying with sexual temptation, watching things I shouldn’t be watching, and looking at things I shouldn’t be looking at? Letting my mind linger on those thoughts which don’t promote contentment in my marriage, and holiness in my soul.

Am I showing the same bodily discipline that Daniel showed with regard to the table of Nebuchadnezzar? Daniel willingly showed restraint over his physical appetite for food, because doing so demonstrated the sufficiency of God in all things.

Whether [we] eat or drink, or in whatever we do (especially in the area of diet and sexuality), we are to glorify God and flee from sexual immorality and idolatry.[3] We need to train our bodies, reign in our passions, understand how our appetites can lead us astray, and we need to approach our Christian life with the mindset of a competitive athlete, who would sacrifice greatly, if it aided him in reaching the prize.

Because what is the alternative? Verse 27:

 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

Paul is concerned to do these things because he doesn’t want to be a hypocrite. He doesn’t want to disqualify himself because he was unwilling to practice what he preached.

Paul was a man who didn’t want to be known for how he STARTED the Christian life. He wanted to be a man faithful TO THE END. It doesn’t matter how well you get off the starting blocks, or how well you can make it into turn three. What matters is the end. What matters is how you finish.

Is that you? Are you concerned to strain forward, to lean in, and to finish well? Have you been intentional and growing in your faith? Or have you gotten slack, started jogging, or walking, rather than running?

Or maybe you haven’t even begun the race. If you’ve not come to Christ by faith, then know that you’re not even at the starting blocks. In fact, scripture says you’re in the grave. You’re dead in your trespasses and sins.

You may think you’re alive and that you’re doing OK, but God would have you know that every moment you spend not worshipping him, not honoring him, not submitting to him and his word, is another moment that will count toward your eternal judgment in hell. God has created each and every one of us so that we would be in fellowship with him, and when we refuse to do that, when we refuse to worship God through Jesus Christ, we’re rejecting the offer of God, and earning for us a prize.

Not a prize of garland that will rot, but a prize of eternal misery and torture in hell. That’s what awaits the unconverted. But it need not be so. God has offered to all mankind the eternal prize of the gospel, and has done so at the cost of his own Son’s life. That’s the good news of the gospel, and it is that good news that I have to offer to you tonight.

God’s word makes clear that anyone who would believe in this Jesus, trust in him as the only way to forgiveness for sin, all that would do that, will be granted entrance into paradise, adoption into God’s household, and eternal dwelling with God in the new heaven and the new earth.

That’s the offer that stands before you. Won’t you believe? You can’t run this race on your own, in fact, you can’t even start this race on your own. Only through faith in Jesus can it be done, and that is your only hope. Trust in him, and enter this race of joy with us.

And for the believers in this room, I have stressed the law a lot tonight, because Paul has done so in the text. We’ve all been pressed, I hope, to consider our own progress in the Christian race, to see if we’re being intentional, if we’re exerting ourselves, if we’re growing more spiritually flabby or more spiritually sturdy.

Some of us need to hear that message because we’ve grown lax. But others of you might be straining and striving so much that you’ve exhausted yourself. You’ve been running the race in your own strength, and not in the power of the spirit, and so you’re burnt out. You’ve grown weary of doing good.

Whatever your spiritual state, I want to close by encouraging you with the gospel. And what is that good news for believers? It is this: that although Adam failed to finish his race well, and although we all fail to finish our races in our own strength, Christ finished his race well. Christ strained and strove perfectly for his prize. And because he finished well, he’s been given the prize that he sought.

And what was Christ’s prize? It wasn’t earthly glory or fame. It wasn’t the accolades of men. Christ sought the prize of his beloved bride. His prize was you. He loved his people with such a love that he was willing to discipline his body, even unto death, in order to attain the prize. Christ ran his race unto death, because he loved you, because he wanted to win you back from sin and death.

And praise be to God that Christ has earned his prize. He is the victor. Christ is the champion. He was successful in his mission, and because that’s the case, we can have confidence in our mission. Christ won his prize, and that frees us to joyfully pursue ours.

So when you’re worn out and tired in this life, remember that God doesn’t love you because you’re such a great runner. God hasn’t saved you because you’re the best Christian. He saved you because he loves you. And in Christ, you are enough. No more performance is needed.

And if you find yourself coasting, growing a little spiritually flabby, then remember the Christ who saved you. And remember from what you have been saved. Remember the great cost that he went through in order to buy you back from sin, and if that is the case, then how can you continue in sin?

Run the race well, discipline your body, so as to win the prize. Remember the words of Paul in Romans 6:

12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.


[1] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 441.

[2] Roy E Ciampa and Brian S Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010), 443.

[3] Ciampa and Rosner, 443.


You might also like...