24Do 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.
25Everyone 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. 26Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
On October 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali faced the young and fearsome George Foreman in the May 20 Stadium of Kinshasa, Zaire. The match became known as the “Rumble in the Jungle,” and has become one of the most famous boxing matches in recent history. The younger, faster, and stronger Foreman was befuddled by Ali’s strategy known as the rope-a-dope, in which Ali used the loose ring ropes to lean back and bounce off. Foreman wound up swinging wildly for several rounds without doing any real damage to Ali, who then recovered to knock Foreman out. The wild swinging had completely drained Foreman’s energy and left him defenseless against the cagey Ali.
Paul uses similar imagery to a people who were extremely familiar with athletics. Corinth was host to the important Isthmian games which were held there every other year. In those games, athletes would compete for a wreath made from celery. Because of these games they would have been rather familiar with runners as well as high-level fighters, but there was also a great deal of low-level fighting for entertainment. It was at these lower-level matches that they could see wild, untrained fighters wailing away aimlessly, wasting their energy.
Paul uses these two familiar forums to create metaphors for the Christian life, and more specifically the aspect of the Christian life which involves giving up one’s rights in the Christian economy of love. He says that the runners in most races compete for literally a ‘corruptible’ wreath, and only one winner gets it. On the other hand, Christians compete for a wreath that is ‘incorruptible’. (The word translated as ‘crown’ here in the NIV, really means wreath and should not be understood as some have incorrectly claimed, that Paul is teaching about literal crowns being passed out in heaven.)
Paul is making three primary points in this passage. The first is about Christian discipline. Athletes, he says, go into strict training so that they don’t run around aimlessly or start a race that they can’t finish, or swing wildly, wasting all of their energy like an amateur boxer. His point is clear: Christians need to have definite direction and focus in their lives. The true Christian life takes a great deal of forethought. Whether it be general Christian living, evangelism, raising godly children, etc., it takes planning and discipline. A life in Christ will demand the surrendering of certain rights and freedoms, which will sometimes feel like hard, athletic training. In fact, self-sacrifice is entry-level Christianity. This was not any more of a popular message in Paul’s day than it is in ours where any hint of discipline or self-denial will often be shouted down with accusations of legalism, and abusive or cultic behavior. No, the Christian life isn’t all about comfort and self-indulgence. Instead Paul compares the Christian life to that of an athlete who sacrifices aspects of normal life for a competitive edge. Time or energy shouldn’t be wasted like a poor boxer would or even a sophist that is wise by the world’s standards.
The second thing Paul is doing here is focusing Christians on the motivation for all of this discipline and self-denial. The incorruptible wreath that the Christian strives for, as compared to the corruptible one of the athlete, is no doubt a metaphor for resurrection. Paul is looking ahead to the time when all of creation is restored as a part of the ‘age to come’, God’s new reality. The hope of the Christian, the reason that we continue to press on and do what Christians do is the hope of resurrection. Paul will complete this thought in chapter 15, where he argues that because Christ was resurrected, we will be too. The hope of this resurrection says Paul is how we know that our labor is not in vain (15:58). What we do now here matters because God will somehow weave our good works in this age into the fabric of the age to come. The point of the Christian life is not to discard the body when we die, but to honor God with our bodies now (6:20) and to prepare them for what they were truly made, resurrection and union with God eternally in the ‘age to come’.
In verse 27, Paul reveals something almost shocking. The opponent that he has been referring to in his boxing analogy is himself. He is directly addressing the attitude of many in Corinth who were engaging in an easy self-indulgent Christianity that valued freedom over love, rights over self-denial, and comfort over discipline. I should point out that Paul clearly thinks that it is possible to lose the prized hope of Christianity if this sort of self-indulgence is engaged in without restraint. This must have all been a shocking but necessary warning to the Corinthians who were trying to operate in the ‘age to come’ reality of the Christian life on the atmosphere of self-rights, self-value, and self-esteem rather than love. It would be like trying to breathe on a planet that doesn’t have oxygen. Paul is clear throughout this letter that the point of the life in Christ is to model true humanity to a fallen world. This is not an easy process. It requires discipline, self-sacrifice, and most of all, as he will soon show, love.
What is your approach to your life in Christ? Is it a haphazard take-things-as-they-come approach? Or are you disciplined in your Christian life? Do you have a plan for how you are going to increase your biblical knowledge, improve your prayer life, help your kids become Christians, avoid temptations, etc. The life in Christ during this present age takes forethought and discipline, are you ready for that kind of serious training and self-denial?