Now is the time of year when Track & Field athletes begin to limber up and get prepared for the coming season. A similar thing happens on the national and world stage every year that culminates in the World Championships. In fact, I am currently watching the U.S. Indoor Track & Field Championships which are taking place in Albuquerque, NM this weekend. Sadly, most folks do not pay much attention to Track & Field in our time…except in an Olympic year...and, it just so happens that this also is the year for the 30th modern Olympic Games set for London this summer. The modern Olympics have their origin from the original version of the games in ancient Greece, beginning in the 8th century B.C. The apostle Paul would never have thought that some of the matters he would discuss with the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) would be given new expression some 1900 years later with the advent of the modern Olympics. It is exciting to watch athletes compete in order to try to win the valuable gold medal…the ultimate prize for any Olympian. (I say just being there is gold medal worthy in and of itself!)
To be certain, an athlete of Olympic caliber who runs is going to set his or her sights on the highest possible goal. A lot of ordinary people work out, and others work even harder at running, training…5Ks, half-marathons, and marathons. We who are believers in Christ have the same responsibility, but from a spiritual perspective. Paul wants us to understand the importance of running the race of life. I just had the opportunity to share a birthday with my dad, and it was a blessed time. I look at my dad’s life and I can see what Paul is talking about with regard to a life of spiritual growth and prosperity, as he has run well. Like the rest of us, Dad certainly has had some rough spots in his life, but he has been blessed and is a blessing in so many ways…he was even “preaching” to me this last week! :-)
Paul is completing a section on the Christian’s freedom when he sets all believers’ sights on the ultimate goal. He uses the athletic imagery as he does in other places. Some form of the original Olympic Games were still actually operating in Athens, Greece during Paul’s time. The Corinthians would have been familiar with the Olympics, as well, as they had their own Isthmian Games every three years. So, Paul is using a metaphor that is close to the Corinthians’ own experience. Any athlete must be disciplined if he or she is going to win a prize. Being disciplined means giving up the ordinary in order to achieve the best. Paul certainly knew what it was to be disciplined, having been a Pharisee of Pharisees…now he disciplined his life for Jesus Christ. In a race, only one person wins, but…Paul says that in the Christian race, all who run win! For the winners of the original Isthmian Games, there would be garlands made of leaves, and their worth was entirely symbolic. For the Christian, the prize is infinitely more precious and real – eternal life! Anyone who has put on Christ is qualified to run…but run, walk, or jog we must in order to receive the prize.
Running the race does not necessarily come easily. We must discipline our lives to live according to God’s will and Jesus’ example. To borrow an image from the track event, the steeplechase, there are many obstacles in this world that seek to throw us off course. Even though we are bombarded by it, we must not allow ourselves to become entangled in the world’s course, but stay on course with the Lord. The Hebrews writer says it well, “Fix your eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:1-2). In our efforts to discipline ourselves, we must seek to exercise self-control, one of the fruit of the Spirit. Paul says that he buffeted his body daily…he disciplined himself, in body, mind and spirit. We should seek to take care of body, mind and spirit…exercising our bodies, as well as making time for God. It can be challenging in the busy world in which we live, but it is a challenge that we need to accept. Paul says that he does not want believers to be disqualified…and it is possible for this to happen if we do not discipline our lives in the above matters.
The Marathon, while not always exciting to watch, is surely the most severe Olympic test of human endurance. A few Olympics ago, there was a unique situation that took place. The ultimate winner of the race came running back into the Olympic Stadium, welcomed by cheers from the appreciative fans. Soon other runners arrived as well, and eventually, the race was over. Over, that is, except for one runner. A single, lone runner was still out on the course. Other track events continued in the stadium, and an hour passed, then two. Finally, several hours later, the final runner…an athlete from Tanzania…entered the stadium. His pace was slow. His steps were wobbly. His knee was bloody and bandaged from a fall earlier in the race. He looked absolutely terrible, but as he entered the stadium, the fans realized who he was and what he was doing, and they began to cheer. As he made his way around the track and finally, painfully, across the finish line, the cheers swelled as the fans saluted the man’s determination. After the race, the runner was asked why, even though he had lost the race by several hours, he had continued running. His answer was simple: “My country did not send me 7000 miles away to start the race. They sent me 7000 miles to finish it.”
It is truly by the grace of God that any of us are in the human race, let alone the Christian race…we should run appreciative of this fact alone. But, we must run the race in such a way that we finish it...we must exercise perseverance. John shares what Jesus tells the believers in Revelation 2:10, “Be faithful until death and I will give you a crown of life.” God’s blessings to each and every one of you as you run...continue to seek to do good, and to do God’s will in your life.