First Corinthians 9:25-27 calls us to a life of self-discipline: “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave.” The word competes is not a light word. It means to engage in a contest or to strive; it is the word from which we get “agonize.”
Paul saw the Christian life as a race, not a waltz. It is an intense, uphill battle against sin from the moment of salvation to the moment we see the Lord in glory. We cannot for a moment cease to exert effort toward putting the flesh to death. What happens in your Christian life if you sluff off for days, weeks, or months? When you give the devil an inch he takes a mile. We cannot afford to let down our guard. Paul had such a grip on this reality that he could say near the end of his life, I have fought [same word] the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith (2 Tim. 4:7). Why could Paul say that? Because he understood Christian agony, the exertion of self-discipline and self-denial toward the one goal of reaching Christ. The love of Christ motivated him (2 Cor. 5:14) and he could not give Him anything less than total commitment.
Self-control means to exercise self-government. In the present tense and middle voice it means to continually govern oneself. It is the ability to make your body a slave of your mind. In preparation for the games, athletes would demonstrate self-control by abstaining from certain foods, wine, and sexual indulgence. Paul provides three specific examples of what it means to run with self-control.
Run with eternal priorities.
They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Notice the contrast. The Corinthians were running the race for a celery wreath. Think about it! Go home today and take the celery out of your refrigerator, make a wreath from it, and then ask yourself, “To what extent would I be willing to put forth effort for this wreath?” Paul’s point is if the athletes competing in a mere earthly race put forth discipline to earn a wreath that will soon wilt and die, how much more should we who await an imperishable reward put forth great self-control in the race of the Christian life? Every time I watch the Olympic Games I am deeply convicted. If these people are willing to go through such intense effort to gain a medal that they will leave to others when they die, what kind of effort am I putting forth to gain a prize that is eternal?
Paul’s point is clear. If we long to win in the race of the Christian life we must run with eternal priorities. We must invest in eternity, that which is infinitely greater than any earthly treasure we could ever accumulate.
Run with specific purpose.
Therefore [because of this contrast between the temporal and the eternal] I run in such a way, as not without aim. “Without aim” means to have no fixed or certain goal. Winning the race is more than survival. Too many Christians are content to just get through the Christian life without falling into some deep sin. That is not a high enough goal! Survival is not the goal, success is. As Christians, we must be more than a ball in a pinball machine, bumped here and there until we reach the end.
I box in such a way, as not beating the air, no shadow boxing here. Boxing, like running, requires training and exercise, the ability to remain under control, and intense focus so as to hit the target. Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus [specific purpose], the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12:1-2). The word fixing means to turn your eyes away from one thing in order to fix them on something else.
An illustration of this is Paul’s singular focus: Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14). What happens to the runner who is always looking over his shoulder at the other runners? He loses the race. Comparison is a hindrance. We are in the Christian race together, but not against each other. What happens to the runner who is always looking over his shoulder at his past? The backward glance, dwelling on things we have done in our past or things that have been done to us, drags us down. We must consciously lay them aside and press forward to the goal.
Run with self-denial.
But I buffet my body and make it my slave. This is a picture of self-denial. Buffet means to beat black and blue, or to discipline through hardship. Followers of Christ are called to a life of self-denial. Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24). God’s grace instructs us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age (Titus 2:12). Paul made himself a slave of his body knowing that his body would most likely be the instrument that would lead to his defeat. In regard to this topic, I like what John MacArthur wrote:
Most people, including many Christians, are instead slaves to their bodies. Their bodies tell their minds what to do. Their 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 the training rules, not his body. He runs when he would rather be resting, he eats a balanced meal when he would rather have a chocolate sundae, he goes to bed when he would rather stay up, and he gets up early to train when he would rather stay in bed. An athlete leads his body; he does not follow it. It is his slave, not the other way around.
The Christian life is a race that requires self-discipline in the things that matter most. May the Lord give us strength and enduring grace as we pursue Him! Let us run to win.