Paul won the lost though self-denial, but also through self-control.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27: 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. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
The Greeks had two great athletic festivals: The Olympic Games held in Athens and the Isthmian Games held in Corinth. So they were very familiar with the elements of Paul’s illustration.
The athletes in the games went through rigorous training for 10 months. Then the last month before the games was spent at Corinth with supervised daily workouts.
If you were going to compete, you had to train. Our Olympic athletes train for years in advance of a race that may last under a minute.
As believers, we have to be in constant training before we have an opportunity to serve or witness. We have to be disciplined in prayer. Make time to be in the Word. Exercise our gifts and talents. Guarding our thoughts. Monitoring the attitude of our heart.
A great difference between those races and the Christian “race” is that every Christian who will pay the price of careful training can win. We do not compete against each other but against the obstacles – practical, physical, and spiritual – that would hinder us. Paul counsels all believers to run in such a way that you may win, by setting aside anything that might hinder the reception of the gospel.
If athletes can exercise such great discipline and self-control, why can’t Christians, Paul asks. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.
In the Isthmian Games the prize was a pine wreath that represented fame, acclaim, and the status of a hero. Winners were immortalized, much as they are today. But the wreath and the fame were eventually faded away and were forgotten. Christians do not run for a short-lived pine wreath or short-lived fame. 2 Timothy 4:8 tells us that Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge will award to me on that Day. 1 Peter 1:4 says it is An inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.
No Christian will be successful in witnessing, or in anything else worthwhile, without discipline. Every good thing we accomplish – whether in learning, business, artistic skill, marriage, spiritual living, witnessing, or whatever – is accomplished through discipline and self-control.
If an athlete expects to excel, he voluntarily, and often severely, restricts his liberty. His sleep, his diet, and his exercise, are not determined by his rights or by his feelings but by the requirement of his training.
The athlete’s disciplined self-control is a rebuke of half-hearted, out-of-shape Christians who do almost nothing to prepare themselves to witness to the lost – and consequently seldom do.
Paul had a purpose in running. He was not without aim. He states his goal four times in verses 19-22 – to win as many people to Christ as possible.
Most people are slaves to our bodies instead. Our bodies tell us what to do. Our bodies decide when to eat, what to eat, how much to eat, when to sleep and get up, and so on. An athlete cannot allow that! He follows training rules.
Paul trained rigorously lest possible, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. This is not referring to salvation! This was another metaphor from the Isthmian Games. A contestant who failed to meet the training requirements was disqualified. He could not even run. Paul did not want to spend his life preaching the requirements to others and then be disqualified for not meeting the requirements himself.
Many believers start the Christian life with enthusiasm and devotion. They train carefully for awhile but soon tire of the effort and begin to “break training.” Before long they are disqualified from being effective witnesses and servants. They do not have what it takes, because they are unwilling to pay the price. The flesh, the world, everyday affairs, personal interests, and often simple laziness hinder spiritual growth and preparation for service.