The Apostle Paul often used figures of speech from arena competition. In Corinth, the people were most familiar with the Isthmian Games. Since Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 9 in that context, it’s worth learning a bit more about the games before looking at the passage.
Athletes had to have the right credentials. They could not compete if they did not pass a background check that had to do with social class (they could not be slaves or criminals) and personal character (they could not be liars and cheats). They trained with intensity for ten months before even being allowed in the games. They ate a particular diet; they exercised a lot; they sacrificed many comforts for the sake of the games.
During the games, a herald (which we translate “preacher”) had quite a few roles:
- display the prizes
- encourage the contestants
- convince the audience they should emulate the contestants
- explains the rules of each contest
- announce the victors and crown them
In fact, when the athletes entered the venue, the herald would loudly announce: “Who can accuse this man?” If no one did, he would say that since the contestant was not a slave, thief, or person of corrupt morals, he could enter the games. After the competition, the judges declared one winner, who received a crown of some type of vegetation.
It’s in this context that Paul writes to the Corinthian church:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
Paul is the herald for the church – the “preacher.’ As 1 Corinthians 9 unfolds he displays the prize, exhorts the contestants, encourages people to copy them, declares the terms (rules and boundaries), and declares his own eligibility.
There’s at least one key difference - Paul doesn’t address their origin or training. There was no herald in the church announcing who was qualified to enter the games based on their history. If that were the case, no one would be eligible. They couldn’t earn their way into the spiritual arena through birth or hard work. They were in if they followed Christ.
Paul then tells them to train and compete as athletes who really want to win. Jesus once said, “Count the cost if you want to follow me.” Paul picks up this theme – following Christ will demand time, attention, and effort. It will change your life if you run is such a way as to win.
In order to do this, Paul had to discipline his body, literally “making it a slave.” This is a wrestling analogy. Paul is going to put his sinful urges into a headlock and put them down for the count. If you’ve heard the phrase “like a boss,” that’s what’s going on here.
Then Paul says, “I do not run like one running aimlessly (ignorantly), so that I myself will not be disqualified.” No athlete would start a contest without knowing the rules. Paul was basically saying, “I do not follow Christ like one ignorant about life in the Kingdom of God. What I do is purposeful.”
What was the prize? The New Testament refers to a number of different prizes, goals, or rewards:
- "the calling that is above" (Galatians 4:26; Colossians 3:1)
- "the heavenly calling" (Hebrews 3:1)
- "the crown of righteousness" (1Corinthians 9:24; 2Timothy 4:8)
- "crown of life." (Revelation 2:10)
- "a crown of glory that does not fade away." (1Peter 5:4)
- “prize of the upward call of Christ” (Philippians 3:4)
These are all part of the broader “citizenship of heaven” Paul talks about in Philippians 3. We are citizens of Heaven, but right now we live here. There is a race and a prize even while we wait for the Ultimate Crown of Life. The most direct language Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 9 is connected with his calling as a minister of the Gospel. The prize is the blessing and reward of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ:
“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord…? Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? ...If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?” But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ…What is my reward? That in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge…. “ (1 Corinthians 9:1-12 – excerpted)
Who goes to war, plants a field, or raises a herd at their own expense? Nobody – at least not willingly. In the same way, Paul had the right to be honored and supported for the spiritual service he has given them. But Paul said that really didn’t matter. What mattered was the work of the gospel, not whether or not he was underappreciated and treated unfairly. He went on to clarify:
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
Remember, he’d just written about how they were to honor each other in midst of the “MeatGate Scandal.” The ruling principle in that situation applies here as well: Paul would give up all kinds of rights and privileges and non-compromising issues to spread the gospel. Rather than make all people become like him, he was going to become like them.
So he went to the Jews and observed their ceremonies - and the Gentiles said, “What? Is he reverting to legalism? We’re the freedom people! You’re ruining the gospel!” He went to the Gentiles and hung out with them - and the Jews said, “What? They are law breakers! You’re ruining the Gospel!” But Paul was just seeing how he could connect with a group that needed to hear about Jesus in a way that did not compromise his integrity or the Gospel message.
That’s the race Paul was running and heralding here: sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with integrity will bring about a prize that will not fade for all of eternity.