1 Corinthians 9:24-27
There is a lot of sport on T.V. at the moment. Maybe it’s the time of year. But maybe it’s because Australia, as a nation, is so fanatical about sport. Because in the last fortnight alone we have had reports about tennis, soccer, cricket, football, basketball. . . and that to name just a few. And one of the features of many of the reports, has been the degree of dedication required for the players to get to their level of play.
For example, the level of fitness required for someone to play Open Tennis—to play three, four, or even five sets of tennis, so they can keep coming out and playing time after time—is amazing. And while some may bemoan the state of Australian Cricket, the athleticism of players needed to throw themselves around after the ball is also something to be admired.
Because as you and I know, being an athlete at the peak of their profession isn’t just something that happens. For sure many players have a natural instinct for their sport, but for any athlete to remain at their peak, requires time, effort, dedication, and exercise. And on a regular, if not daily, basis. Because without it, that keen edge would be lost, their fitness would fade, and their familiarity with the rules of play would be dulled.
Keeping fit and alert to compete at the highest level, then, is essential to maintaining a high standard of excellence in the sporting arena. But then keeping fit and alert, and being active, is essential when it comes to our own “spiritual” health too.
B. THE ISTHMIAN GAMES
1. The Isthmian Games
Now of course, it’s not just Australia—or even the modern world—that has shown a keenness for sport. Indeed, one of the places that was famous for its athletic contests was Corinth in the first century AD. And the Isthmian Games (second only to the Olympic Games) were held in that city every two or three years.
But in Corinth they didn’t have all the gymnasiums, and Institutes of Sport that we have today. No! In those days it was normal for the athletes to go into training for ten months prior to the games. And in the city, immediately before the games, the streets were filled with athletes in training.
It must have been a spectacular and memorable sight.
2. The Corinthian Church – Spiritually “Flabby”
As a consequence, when the Apostle Paul, sensed that the Corinthian church had become “spiritually” flabby—preferring to indulge themselves in worldly ways rather than in the ways of God—he took the images of those keen athletes out in the streets, and used their example to encourage the church to turn from their sloppy ways and to stand firm in the faith.
Now, of course, you could ask, “Just how was the Corinthian Church spiritually flabby?” But if we take into account the rest of the letter that Paul wrote to the church, we get a pretty good idea.
After all, he started his letter by pointing out the divisions in the church and the criticisms of his own leadership. He then continued by raising the issue sexual immorality, for which the church was either accepting or turning a blind eye. He pointed out that members of the congregation were actually taking each other to court, rather than sorting out the matters between themselves, or even getting the church to resolve the issues. Some were allowing the practices of other religions to be stumbling blocks to members of their own congregation. There were problems at fellowship meals, where some gorged themselves while others got drunk. And there were even disputes over the exercise of spiritual gifts—over which ones were more important than others.
So to say that the Corinthian Church was not a happy place, would be a major understatement.
Indeed, they let the exercise of their Christian faith slip; they had become very flabby indeed.
3. Paul’s Response
As a consequence, Paul’s response—knowing intimately the background of the city, including their great sporting heritage—was to respond to the flabbiness of the church in terms of the Isthmian Games. Indeed, he contrasted two events in particular—the foot race and boxing—with what it meant to live the Christian life.
a). The Foot Race (24-26a)
And firstly, regarding the foot race, Paul stated that the whole point about the race, was that there could only be one winner. For which the prize, which was a pine wreath, was more about the glory and honour of coming first than the value of the prize itself.
And in contrast, Paul suggested, if they ran the Christian race, they could all be winners. Indeed, their life’s goal should be to know Christ; their life’s journey should be about pressing forward for the prize. And for a prize that wasn’t perishable, like that of the athletes in the games. But it was for a more worthy crown: the eternal crown that comes from God himself.
But to do that, Paul stated, the perseverance and the self-discipline of an athlete would be required. Christians needed to run with purpose. Not aimlessly, doing their own thing, but with their eyes fixed on the finishing line. And so he used the strenuous self-denial of the athlete in training for his fleeting reward, to be a rebuke to everyone who was half-hearted and flabby in God’s service.
b). Boxing (26b)
And secondly, regarding boxing, and the practice of the athletes in training striking at the air (shadow boxing) . . . To which he said, “What’s the point?” It had no purpose at all.
Similarly, if a person only pretended to be a Christian (for whatever reason), then what was the point of doing that? Instead, every member was to live with purpose, hitting home every punch.
c). Paul’s Conclusion (27)
And as a consequence, Paul concluded, that just as athletes—foot racers and boxers alike—needed to keep up their training to compete in the games, so too did Christians. Because without the moral discipline to which every Christian should subject themselves to, they could find themselves, in the end, totally unworthy of the prize.
Now, in this instance, the issue was not about the Corinthians losing their salvation. On the contrary, he was concerned that they might fail to satisfy their Lord.
Paul had preached the good news of Jesus to others. He had used every faculty at his disposal and had got quite a few bruises in the process. But he knew that just as competitors of the Isthmian Games could take no short cuts in regard to physical fitness, so there were no easy options regarding spiritual fitness for the Corinthians either.
Quite a challenge then! The church at Corinth was in a desperate state. And Paul used images of the athletes in training to challenge the members of the church to get their act together. Indeed, he used images of athletes in the context of a city where athletics took a very high profile. And as a nation where sport is considered of major importance, we would do well to do the same.
As a consequence, Paul’s advice regarding the need to keep our eyes focussed on the goal and running for the line, is still something we would do well to note.
So, firstly, exercise.
Now there would be hardly a sport that didn’t require some sort of exercise: exercise required to keep fit—in terms of the stamina required to stay in the race and the agility required to play the game. But exercise too in the need to hone the skills and to improve the way an athlete thinks, to make the athlete a better player.
And as Christians exercise is important too. We need the stamina, and the agility to stay in the race. We need be forever honing our skills.
This can be in terms of our prayer life; the meeting together and encouraging one another; and any one of a number of ways. But we need to train to stay in the race. After all, it’s all very well stating that we believe in a God who cares, but if we do nothing to build ourselves up for the tasks that God has given us, or to maintain our knowledge and faith, how long do we think we’re going to last? And what sort of believer would we expect ourselves to be in the end?
2. Learning the Rules
Secondly, learning the rules.
Every athlete needs to know the rules of the sport of which they are involved. There are rules about how the game is played. There are rules about how it is not played. And there are penalties for things that are not allowed.
Similarly, as Christians we have rules. Rules from God to what is right and what is wrong, things that are helpful and things that are not. In fact we have a whole book of people’s experiences with God, which should give us a very good idea of the rules of the game: The Bible.
However, this one comes with a warning. Because simply sticking with the letter of the law, and not the spirit of the law, can get ourselves into trouble too.
3. Running the Race
And, thirdly, running the race.
Now the whole point of all the preparation—with the exercising and the learning of the rules—is to prepare an athlete to compete in the games. However, if an athlete does the training but then does not compete, what’s the point?
Similarly, for the Christian, preparing for the tasks that God has given us, in terms of exercising and learning the rules is good. But it is pointless if we then fail to carry out the purpose of that training and learning, which includes carrying God’s mission out into the world.
The act of being God’s witness in the world—whether in regard to the things that we say or the things that we do—is the very thing that we train for. But what is the point of the preparation if when we then refuse to run the race? Because there are many reasons why people don’t: because it’s too scary: because it’s too threatening; because of concern of failing; because it’s too inconvenient; or because it’s more fun doing other things.
The experience of the church in Corinth was that they were caught up in worldly ways. They were attracted by things that were not wholesome and were consequently being led away from their spiritual journey with God to follow other pursuits. They forgot to keep up the training. They forgot to keep learning the rules. They forgot God’s mission and their part in it. They lost sight of the goal, the finish line. And all because they took their eyes off Jesus and were more concerned with what they wanted for themselves.
Now, I’m not going to say that that won’t happen to us from time to time. Sometimes worldly pleasures are hard to resist. But the lesson to remember is the example of the athletes. To remember the things that he or she has to go through to compete. And to realise that the prize for which our sportsmen and women compete—whether for the athletes of old or even our own modern-day sportsmen and women—is nothing in comparison with the prize we should be seeking.
So, yes, there is a lot of sport shown on TV these days. Sport where there is a requirement for the athletes to know the rules, to keep their fitness up, and to play at a very highest level. And people enjoy the high standards we have got used to seeing.
But what we need to remember is that whether we are athletes or not, we are all competitors in a race—God’s race. A race that needs time, effort, dedication, and exercise, so that we can compete to the high standards he expects of us too.
Because if we don’t keep “spiritually” fit . . . Well, we too will become flabby and be open to the same problems that affected the Corinthian church.
Posted: 18th January 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
1 Corinthians 9:24-27