The past two weeks I’ve been watching the US Olympic trials in swimming, track and field, and gymnastics. There are forty-six sports in all that have been holding their championships recently to see who will represent the United States next month in Tokyo for the 2021 Summer Olympic games. There are 330 million people living in the United States, but only 600 will have earned the right to represent our nation and compete for a medal in Tokyo.
Watching the athletes compete is so inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time. I watched the Men’s 100 meter final last weekend. Trayvon Bromell can fly! He ran 9.8, close to his fastest time ever which is 9.77, the seventh fastest 100 meter in history. Ronnie Baker finished second with a 9.85. Fred Kerley was .01 second behind Ronnie Baker to become the third and final member of the Men’s 100 meter squad for Tokyo. You could see the excitement on their faces. They made it! They’re all three going to Tokyo! And then the heartbreaker…Kenny Bednarek ran the fastest race of his life, but he finished in fourth place, just .03 of a second out of having an opportunity to represent the US in Tokyo. Heartbreaking!
I switched the TV over to watch the USA Swimming trials and saw Katie Ladecky, Caeleb Dressel, and the 15 year old phenom, Katie Grimes, who qualified for the Women’s 800 meter. I was so inspired I wanted to go for a swim!
On another night I watched the Women’s Gymnastics competition and could not believe my eyes as Simone Biles did things that no other woman has ever done in women’s gymnastics. She has won seven national all-around championships, nineteen world titles, five Olympic medals (four of them gold), and she’s got four gymnastic moves named after her because she’s the first woman to ever successfully land them!
We watch these unbelievable athletes perform at the highest level and it can move us to tears. We get to see them on the world stage, but the reality is the vast majority of their lives are lived in the shadows; in gyms, on tracks, in pools, and other places where they work long hours–day after day, week after week, and year after year with no crowd and no applause. The world records and mind boggling performances don’t just happen.
I did a little research this past week and learned that Simone first started gymnastics when she was six years old. By the time she was thirteen she was being homeschooled and spending up to 30 hours a week training in a gym. Now that she is an Olympic and World Champion she hasn’t let up. On Mondays and Wednesdays she’s in the gym from 12:30-5:30. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from nine until Noon and then back in the gym from 3-6 pm. On Saturday she’s in the gym from 9 am until 1 pm.
Caeleb Dressler has already broken two of Michael Phelps world records in swimming so why wouldn’t he just take it easy and coast into the Olympics? Instead, Caeleb begins each day at 7 am with a 2 hour weight training session, followed by a two hour session in the pool. At 5:30 pm Caeleb is back in the pool for another two hours.
Along with all of the physical training Caeleb and Simone talk about how their mental training plays into their success. Both have dealt with battling negativity in their training and in competition and that is why they are so devoted to developing their mental game.
In 2013, Simone was more talented than anyone else on the floor, but her grandfather, who has raised her, noticed that she had no confidence. He called sports psychologist Robert Andrews. Simone’s grandfather told Dr. Andrews, “I’ve got a young gymnast who is too nervous and anxious, and she is struggling. Can you help?” You would never think Simone had those battles and today her mental struggle is not as intense as it was in 2013, but that is because she works on her mental game with the same tenacity and devotion as she does her floor, beam, bar, and vault routines.
We are not doing a study of our American Olympians this morning, but they do provide for us great illustrations of the Scripture we will be studying. If you would turn with me to 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 and let’s read together.
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27 NIV)
How did Paul come up with such a powerful illustration of the Christian life? Was he an athlete? Did he run the 100 or the marathon? Was Paul a boxer? He seems to know something about boxing if you were listening to the Scripture we just read.
Paul wasn’t the only one who used athletics as illustrations. I learned this past week that Greek philosophers were well known for using athletic illustrations in their teaching. Both Paul and the philosophers were heavily influenced by the fact that the Isthmian games took place in Corinth every two years. The Isthmian games were second only to the Olympics and many of the athletes who competed in the Olympics, at Olympia, also competed in Corinth at the Isthmian games. Anthony Thiselton writes,
These Games, held every two years under the patronage of Corinth and second only to the Olympics, were extravagant festivals of religion, athletics, and the arts, attracting thousands of competitors and visitors from all over the empire. Its sponsors and greater athletes were honored in Isthmia itself by monuments, statues, and inscriptions. Paul would have been in Corinth during the Games of A.D. 51. Since there were no permanent facilities for visitors until the second century A.D., they had to stay in tents…Paul would have had ample opportunity to ply his trade and share the gospel with the crowds visiting the Games that year. (Thiselton, Anthony. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. pg. 478)
And don’t you know that is exactly what Paul was doing while the athletes trained for ten months in Corinth getting ready for their competition. Paul used his tent making business as a vehicle to share the gospel with those who had come to Corinth. There’s no doubt that watching the athletes gave Paul the insight into the spiritual truth he shared with the church in Corinth, found in our Scripture for today. In verse 24, Paul writes,
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24 NIV)
What is it that drives athletes to train day-after-day to the point of exhaustion, to go to practice even when they don’t feel like it, and to always try and better themselves? They aren’t exercise junkies. They don’t train because they want to be with like-minded people. No, they are pushing themselves, listening intently to everything their coach tells them to do, and willing to deny themselves things that you and I enjoy because they want to win. They train with purpose and intent each and every day because they want to win, not to get a participation trophy. Everybody wants to win, but very few are willing to pay the price necessary to win.
There’s no doubt that Paul wants the folks in Corinth to take on the same mindset about living their lives for Jesus. There should be no group of people on the planet who are more intent, more purposeful in the way they live their lives, than those of us who are followers of Jesus. And here’s the beautiful thing, we are not in competition with one another like athletes, we are called to encourage one another as we run this race of life for our King. The writer of Hebrews said as much in Hebrews 3:13-14. Read it with me.
12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. (Hebrews 3:12-14 NIV)
Sports can be so competitive. Athletes, who would otherwise be friends, if it weren’t for the fact that they are competing against one another for the prize, can become mortal enemies. This is where Paul’s illustration comes up short. For the followers of Jesus, there’s not a “prize” that only one of us will receive, the prize is for all who know and trust Jesus as Lord and Savior of their lives and we are called to encourage one another in this long, tough, grueling race of life.
There is no doubt in my mind that the “prize” for all of us is the salvation that is found in a relationship with Jesus. Those of us who have been saved by His grace and mercy have already received the prize and yet the fullness of the experience of the prize will not be fully enjoyed until we cross the finish line of life and hear Jesus say, “Well done my good and faithful servant. Now enter into your rest.”
I wonder if Paul didn’t also have a secondary prize in mind. I’m not sure of this, but based on what Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, I wonder if those he led to faith in Jesus were not also Paul’s “prize.” Turn with me to 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20 and let’s read the Scripture together. Paul wrote,
19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy. (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20 NIV)
Paul told the people of Corinth to “run in such a way as to get the prize.” Paul was so intentional in the way he shared the gospel, remember how he said “to the Jews he became like a Jew in order to win the Jews” and “to those not having the law he became as one not having the law…so as to win those not having the law.” He was intentional, purposeful, and single-minded in his desire to see others come to know Jesus. And to those who responded by surrendering their lives to Jesus, Paul said they were his joy and his crown.
I can certainly understand Paul’s emotion towards those who came to know Jesus through his ministry. If the Lord has ever used you to lead someone to faith in Jesus then you know the special bond you feel with them. You know the sheer joy you experienced in knowing that the Lord used you to bring them to Jesus. You will never forget those people as long as you live. I don’t know that Paul had this in mind when he wrote 1 Corinthians 9:24, but he sure had it in mind when he wrote to the Thessalonians. Let’s move on. Take a look at 1 Corinthians 9:25 with me.
25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. (1 Corinthians 9:25 NIV)
At different times the officials of the Isthmian games awarded the winners a wreath made of pine or withered celery, the celery wasn’t withered when the wreaths were woven together, but they certainly were by the time they were placed on the heads of those who stood on the winners platform. The athletes could care less about the crown of celery or pine because they knew that if they won their event they would reap the benefit of fame, prestige, and for many of the most recognizable athletes, loads of money.
Paul said the athletes, in order to gain the fame and fortune of winning the race, were willing to go into “strict training.” There are two words in verse 25 that are worth taking the time to understand. The first word is “agonizomai” is translated “compete” and it means “to enter a contest, to struggle, to endeavour with strenuous zeal.” The work that an athlete puts into getting in shape and preparing for the contest is a struggle. When the athletes enter a contest the struggle only intensifies. Some of the athletes who won the US Olympic trials weren’t pushed too hard against some of their competitors here in the United States, but one month from now they will compete at another level and they will have to struggle and fight like never before if they want to win.
Our walk with the Lord in the struggles of day-to-day life can be intense can’t they? The struggles of everyday life can be so much more demanding and difficult than the struggle of training for a sport. I will never forget my freshman and sophomore years of college when we had three-a-days for the first two weeks of practice before classes started. I had never been through anything like that in my life. It was grueling. The heat coming off of the turf in August was smothering. I thought, “I’ll never go through anything tougher than this in my life! If I can do this then I can do anything!” Boy was I wrong. Those three-a-days were a piece of cake compared to some of the struggles and trials that Connie and I have been through in life. I’ve not only been through tougher trials, but I have friends who have gone through, and are going through, such tough, tough situations in life.
Early in the morning on Thursday of this past week I went to Mercy Heart Hospital where our friend Lynn Leedy was in an intense battle. Lynn’s heart was functioning at about 20% and the doctors were very concerned. Lynn’s doctors were concerned about her survival. They wanted to run a risky test that could cause even worse problems for Lynn. Lynn asked if I would come and pray for her before she went in for her test. When I got there she told me about her concerns, what was running through her mind, and the fear she was experiencing. I shared some Scripture with Lynn, we talked about the Sovereignty and promises of God, and we prayed. The battles of life are real my friend. The battles can be so tough that we are tempted to give up, but the writer of Hebrews gives us such great counsel when he writes,
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3 NIV)
Keep your eyes on Jesus. Consider, think about our Lord and Savior, who endured so much. Think about Him so that you do not grow weary and lose heart. Now, that’s some great counsel!
There is a second word in this verse that we need to take a look at this morning. Paul wrote that athletes go into “strict training.” The word that he used is “egkrateuomai” and it means, “to be self-controlled, to exhibit self-government.” Strong’s Concordance says, the word is “drawn from athletes, who in preparing themselves for the games abstained from unwholesome food, wine, and sexual indulgence.” Self-control is not only an attribute of the top athletes in any given sport, but it is more importantly one of the attributes of the Fruit of the Spirit. Paul wrote,
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-25 NIV)
For those who are in Christ, God makes self-control available to you and me, through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. I say “available” because we need to recognize that the Holy Spirit does not work in our lives like, say beta blockers. Let me explain. About 18 months ago I was swimming when my heart rate went sky high, I thought I would pass out. After a physical, a failed stress test, and my first visit ever to a cardiologist, the doctor put me on a beta blocker. It lowered my heart rate. I didn’t have to do anything. As long as I took the medicine my heart rate stayed low. It was amazing.
When we become a follower of Jesus we receive the Holy Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit is made available to you and me, but we need to recognize that the Holy Spirit doesn’t work like a beta blocker. The fruit of the Spirit, including self-control are made available to us, but there is work for us to do to allow the fruit of the Spirit to grow and develop in each of our lives. We need to live with the intent and focus of an athlete to see the fruit of the Spirit grow in our lives. The relationship between God’s work and our work is described beautifully by Paul a little later in his letter to the people of Corinth when he writes comparing himself to the other apostles. Paul writes,
10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them– yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10 NIV)
Whose work was it? Was it God’s work? You better believe it! Was it Paul’s work? You better believe it! It was God who gave Paul everything he needed to do the work, but Paul still had to hit the road, engage the people, and faithfully share the gospel wherever he went. I’ve got news for all of us. God has made everything available to you and me so that we might be able to carry out His work, but we’ve got to do the work. Far too many of us want a short cut. We don’t want to make the sacrifices. We don’t want to deny ourselves anything. We want to indulge ourselves with whatever our heart desires, whether it’s what God desires or not. We don’t want to put in the work. Let’s take a look at verses 26-27 before we have to leave here this morning. Read it with me.
26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:26-27 NIV)
There was so much on the line, eternity was at stake, the souls of countless men and women were hanging in the balance and Paul wanted to make the most of every opportunity. Paul said he wasn’t out for an afternoon jog and neither was he shadowboxing an unnamed opponent. Paul wouldn’t sit back and wait for someone to go, he would go and go and go and go. Paul was running with purpose each and every day. Was it difficult? You bet it was! Have you ever read what Paul wrote about what he had endured during his ministry? Turn with me to 2 Corinthians 11:24-29 and let’s read it together.
24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (2 Corinthians 11:24-29 NIV)
What kept Paul from throwing in the towel and just giving up, quitting the ministry? That’s a very important question because I know people who have given up on God for far less. Right after Paul said that he wasn’t running, living, aimlessly–he said, “No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave…” Paul brought his mind and his body under his control instead of allowing his emotions, feelings, and desires control him. This is so important for you and me to not only understand, but to begin to apply to our own lives.
I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve met with who have allowed their feelings to lead them and guide them in making very important decisions for their lives. The situations vary, but a common thread is that most often there is an element of hardship, suffering, and discomfort that is involved. Instead of trusting God in the midst of the desert, instead of pressing into God through the pain and hardship, they just wanted out. They’ll do anything to bring an end to the difficulty. Paul would have none of that. He made up his mind he would make his body and mind work for him instead of being enslaved by his emotions and appetites.
How often have I allowed my feelings to dictate my choices instead of the truths of God’s Word? If pain and sacrifice on my part is involved then it is so easy for me to conclude that God must not be in it because God wouldn’t want me to have to go through such a struggle. Paul wanted to serve Jesus. He wanted to share Jesus. He wanted to experience Jesus in the good times as well in the times of suffering. He wanted to know Jesus, whatever that would cost him, whatever he had to go through, whatever it took. So he wrote,
10 I want to know Christ– yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:10-14 NIV)
How about you? I know some of you played sports when you were younger and we’ve got some young athletes in our church today. You know the price you paid to excel at your sport. Are you willing to pay the same price to walk in obedience to God’s call on your life? When you were young you did what your coach told you to do because you knew he or she wanted to help you improve. Are you willing to follow God’s call upon your life with that same kind of commitment and resolve? I want to encourage you this morning to give serious thought to what we’ve been talking about this morning. I want to encourage you to allow the Lord to search your heart. If He shows you that you’ve been running aimlessly then please rededicate yourself to setting your sights on the prize and begin to run with purpose.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
July 4, 2021
1 Corinthians 9:24-27