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1 Corinthians 9:24–25

“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. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”

Now that Paul has demonstrated that he has the rights of an Apostle and is, in love, willing to surrender them to see others won to Christ (1 Cor. 9:1–23), he can come back and apply all this to the troubles at hand—the Corinthians’ dining at pagan temples (ch. 8). He begins this return by referring to an athletic metaphor for the purpose of exhorting the Corinthians to change their ways.

Fundamentally, the Corinthians were not controlling themselves in their view and exercise of Christian freedom, and this was hurting “weaker” Christians by leading them back into idolatry (8:10–12). They needed to exercise better self-control, and there are few better images of the need and benefits of self-control than athletic images. The athletic metaphor is especially apt given Paul’s audience. In the ancient world, the Isthmian games were held every two years in the environs of Corinth, and these athletic events were second only to the Olympics in their importance. Even the emperor would participate in them. Thus, athletic imagery would readily connect with the Corinthians.

Paul first refers to a foot race wherein runners run to receive a prize. With this prize, a garland of greenery, came great acclaim, so runners set out to win the race. Paul likens the Christian life to a race with a prize and calls his readers to live so that they will receive the prize, except the prize in the Christian life will not perish. As the Isthmian races required self-control in training to get in shape and win the victory, the Christian life requires self-control and discipline (vv. 24–25). The purpose in all this, of course, is to encourage the Corinthians to practice self-control and to discipline themselves so that they no longer lead their “weaker” brothers astray. As Charles Hodge comments, “If the heathen submitted to such severe discipline to gain a wreath of olive or garland of pine leaves, shall not Christians do as much for a crown of righteousness which fadeth not away?”

The issue that the Corinthians had to decide was this: Would they, in love, exercise self-discipline in their use of Christian freedom for the sake of the one for whom Christ died? Would they look out for others ahead of themselves so as not to sin against their brothers and sisters in the Lord and thus against Christ (8:11–12)? We must ask ourselves the same question today.

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

Our redemption is “at stake” in our willingness to look out for other believers. True Christians cannot lose their salvation, but true Christians know that the life of faith is a race and that those who truly know Him look to the good of other believers and not just themselves (Phil. 2:4). If we do not seek the good of other believers, we show that our profession of faith may be false and that we may not find the prize of eternal life.

For Further Study
  • Proverbs 25:28
  • 2 Timothy 4:7
  • Hebrews 12:1–2
  • 1 Peter 4:7

All Things to All People

Paul’s Self-Discipline

Keep Reading Luther on Trial: The Diet of Worms

From the April 2021 Issue
Apr 2021 Issue