The apostle Paul uses many allusions to describe the life of a Christian. We go to war with the armor of God (Ephesians 6). The Corinthians were called an “epistle of Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:3). Writing of the relationship of Christ and the church Paul illustrates the headship of Christ to the bride – the church (Ephesians 5). Paul’s final benediction describes his life as a disciple as a “fight”, a “race” and keeping the faith (2 Timothy 4:7). It is to the race he speaks that we find lessons on our journey as people of God.
Corinth was one of the four areas of Greece where athletic games were held. There were in Greece four species of games, the Pythian, or Delphic; the Isthmian, or Corinthian; the Nemean, and the Olympic. When Paul wrote his first letter to Corinth he illustrated the need for them to sacrifice themselves for the salvation of others much as the athletes did to compete in the Isthmian.
“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). This is a vivid image of the life of a Christian.
We run for a crown. Jesus had a crown of thorns placed on His head so that we can receive a crown of life. Our crown is imperishable and is called the crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:8). James and Peter also describe the crown received by those who run with patience the race of righteousness (James 1:12; 1 Peter 5:4). Jesus assured the saints of Smyrna that if they endured He would give them a crown of life (Revelation 2:10). “Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown” He tells the church at Philadelphia (Revelation 3:11).
People often ask the meaning of life. For the child of God it is to obtain the crown promised by the Father. Running the race is not to get something that is perishable but life is about embracing eternal life that does not fade away – ever. Awards and trophies obtained here rust and become distant memories. What we receive from God does not. This should make our challenges in life seem but a vapor. If we know that all we seek in this life is but a brief span of time vanishing away then it will help us face the dread of disease, darkness of death and trouble of life.
The unique character of this race is the certainty of it. Alluding again to the athletes who compete in the boxing sports, Paul says we are not beating the air. We are fighting a real battle. We win. The promises are sure. He disciplines his body as an example to others. But run he does and he ran until death took him to see his Lord. What a powerful image of the Christian life.