I begin this post with a little self-disclosure: I don’t know how to run! What do I mean? Let’s just say, if you saw me running, you would understand perfectly well what I mean. To be specific, I was never taught (or perhaps I failed to learn) how to properly bend my knees when running. The result is a stride that slightly resembles a duck.
I’m smiling as I write this but there were moments growing up when this “deficiency” was anything but funny. I definitely had some “last to be picked for a team in gym class” moments! I’m only thankful that I can look back today and laugh. In the end, there is no real damage and childhood embarrassments have matured into amusing memories.
But whether athletic or not, all Christians are called to be spiritual runners. In 1 Corinthians 9:24, the Apostle Paul states “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.” We are runners in a race, which if neglected, brings consequences not as easily dismissed as my middle-school gym class days.
We learn from Acts 18 that the Apostle Paul spent 18 months in Corinth. His work there was a difficult one, the Jews strongly opposed the preaching of the gospel and Paul was at times in fear (Acts 18:9). But he persevered and his preaching was not without fruit. It is in Corinth that Paul meets Aquila and his wife Priscilla (Acts 18:2), key synagogue leaders come to faith (Acts 18:8; Acts 18:17), as do many others and a church is established.
But the city itself was a wicked one. Its situation made it ideal for commercial trade and with it came the exchange of both luxuries and vices. Additionally, Corinth was home to the temple of Aphrodite – the goddess of love – and devotees were only happy to worship through the use of cult prostitutes. This was the culture around the Corinthian church and perhaps within the church as well.
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is packed with one issue after another. The beginning chapters address divisions among the members (chapters 1-3), arrogance in spite of little knowledge (chapters 3-4), gross immorality (chapter 5), Christians suing believers in pagan courts (chapter 6), marriage/singleness (chapter 7) and food sacrificed to idols (chapter 8). One is left with the impression of an immature, unconcerned and spiritually lazy church.
When we come to chapter 9, we find Paul defending his apostleship and offering himself as an example of a Christian “running to win the race.” Unlike the Corinthian church, seemingly focused on fleshly passions, Paul is willing to give up all things – even the right of support from the church –for the sake of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:11-12). To Paul, nothing matters more than the gospel of Jesus Christ, so much so that he is willing to make himself “a slave to all, so that [he] may win more.” (1 Corinthians 9:19).
So what does this mean to you and me? 1 Corinthians 9:24 should bring either challenge, encouragement or perhaps both depending on our honest self-assessment. The Scripture compares the Christian life to a race. No one enters a race and then jogs. Picture for a moment the runners from the 2012 Olympic 100-meter dash. None were slack but each ran with vigor, determined to win the prize.
This is our call! We are commanded to press toward holiness. The moment you are declared righteous through faith in Christ, you are also empowered by the Holy Spirit to walk in righteousness. This isn't spiritual legalism but the deliberate process of yielding to one’s new nature while denying the old sin nature (Ephesians 4:22-24). It is an active and ongoing conformity with Christ.
Please know that while justification is the work of God alone, sanctification is the work of both God and the believer. We are to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). This means we earnestly strive to exhibit the fruit of our salvation in increased affection and obedience to our Lord for it is the Holy Spirit who graciously enables us to strive. No one gets to the Olympic Games without intense discipline and exercise. But these athletes endure knowing the potential prize that awaits.
Christian, Christ is our prize (1 Corinthians 9:25)! He is our treasure, our reward and our inheritance (Ephesians 1:11). So be good soldiers and fight in such a way as to please your Commander (2 Timothy 2:4). Press on in such a way as to take hold of Him, your prize. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling [for it is HE] who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13)! Pray for grace and make it your aim to hear His “well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Master”
Christ is your imperishable prize so run! On your mark, get ready, set ... GO!
* An updated version of this post can be found at the Reformed African American Network.