“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
The celebrated boxing champion, Muhammad Ali once said: “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” His words reminded me of the need for believers in the Lord Jesus Christ to condition themselves for their Master’s future purposes. It is a well-known adage that in this age Christians are “training for reigning.” As 2 Timothy 2:12 says: “If we endure, We shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He also will deny us.” The life of the saints must be characterized by self-discipline in accordance with God’s chastening work in and through us (Heb. 12:5-16.) To paraphrase Ali, “Suffer now and live in the age to come as one who is more than a conqueror” (Rom. 8:37.)
Hitting The Sanctification Gym
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 Paul employs two athletic metaphors for the Christian pathway: 1. A runner 2. A boxer. These events were staples of the nearby Isthmian games. Both types of competitor needed strict preparation for their contests. Verse 25 uses the term “temperate,” which Mr. Vine defines as “…the rigid self-control practiced by athletes. Their training was over in ten months: ours is to last our lifetime, and, as with the athletes of old, the self-control is to affect all our circumstances.” This assures one that the life of a believer entails Spirit-led self-control (Gal. 5:23.) Loose morality, laxity in thought-life, unjudged sin in one’s personal life, and especially negligence of walking with the Lord through prayerful reading of His Word leads to spiritual weakness and sets one up for a fall. Paul guarded himself by keeping close to the Lord, letting Him empower His servant for the contest of life in a fallen world.
Bloodsport & Its Lessons
Gordon Franz gives historical perspective on boxing in these words:
“The boxer wrapped his knuckles with leather straps. In the Roman competition, which the Isthmian games probably followed, the wrapping ‘incorporated lead, irons and even spikes’! The athletes boxed, sometimes up to four hours, until one competitor was knocked out. Or one boxer ‘signaled defeat by a raised index finger’ (Milavic 1992: 14). Boxing was serious and brutal competition. At times, the Christian life could be also (2 Tim. 3:12).”
As verse 26 shows, Paul wanted to make every punch count. He was not merely “shadow boxing”; rather, he wanted to fight properly in keeping with the rules, while still waging a good combat (2 Tim. 4:7.) His words were calculated to lift up His champion and Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 2:1-5.)
Above all, Paul wanted to avoid disqualification (1 Cor. 9:27.) While some think this term exclusively relates to becoming reprobate and being lost eternally, it seems more likely that he is referring to loss of reward. First of all, the Scriptures nowhere teach the loss of salvation for a true believer. They do teach that pretenders – false professors that John Wesley called “almost Christians” – may apostatize from their spurious and nominal identification with Christ (e.g. Judas Iscariot, John 6:70-71; compare Heb. 6:4-8.) Such people never truly possessed salvation through faith in Christ; they merely acted the part deluding themselves and (sometimes) others. Yet the context of 1 Corinthians 9 is of service in the Gospel, not eternal destiny (e.g. vv. 12-23.) Rather than fearing damnation, Paul feared the loss of his life’s work: a personal testimony that undergirds the preaching of Christ. As Vine explains “disqualified” in this passage:
“…[H]ere it means disapproved, and so rejected from present testimony, with loss of future reward. Such a possibility should be so appalling and abhorrent to any servant of Christ, that he should follow the apostle’s example, which is here given, not simply as a record of his own life, but as a guide to us in all our circumstances. We need to remember also that the apostle is here speaking of the responsibility and joy of winning souls for Christ. To save others should be the pursuit of our lives. The conflict and its issues are so tremendous, that we should never forgo any means of spiritual strength.”
Bringing Home The Gold
Instead of being awarded medals as in the modern Olympics, ancient competitors vied for the laurel wreath crown known as the Stephanos (“the victor’s crown” – the Greek word is translated “crown” in 1 Cor. 9:25.) Paul was laboring to win “an imperishable” one. Rather than taking it easy in this life, he submitted to the disciplined training regimen of a pilgrim on his way to eternal glory. Likewise, all believers are called to train in the Lord’s school for future reward and kingdom service in His future Millennial and eternal kingdoms (see Rev. 20 & 21-22 respectively.) Keep training, dear saint! Run with the Lord Jesus, increase your spiritual stamina by submitting to His ways in your life, and develop your minds by immersing them in His Word (Rom. 12:1-2; 2 Tim. 2:15; Col. 3:1-2, 5-17.)
*Image: Dicksee, “Victory – A Knight Being Crowned with a laurel wreath”
 Muhammad Ali, quoted on ESPN’s twitter feed, May 21, 2014.
 W. E. Vine, Collected Writings of W.E. Vine: 1 Corinthians. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1996.)
 Gordon Franz, “Paul at Isthmia – Going for the Gold,” electronic ed. accessed on 5/21/14 here: http://www.lifeandland.org/2009/02/paul-at-isthmia-going-for-the-gold/
 “He is also like a boxer, but not a shadow one (orators who demonstrated their oratorical prowess before crowds, and not in actual debates were derided as shadow boxers).”Bruce Winter, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, 4th ed., D. A. Carson et al., eds. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 1176.
 John Wesley, “The Almost Christian,” Sermon #2; Preached at St. Mary’s, Oxford, before the University, on July 25, 1741; Accessed here on 6/11/14: http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-2-The-Almost-Christian
 H.A. Ironside believed firmly in the eternal security of the saints; nevertheless, he thought Paul was referring to false professors in this passage: “The word ‘disapprove’ is also used for complete disapproval. You may be a church-member taking more or less part in so-called Christian work, but see to it that there is a real work of grace in your own soul, or the day may come when you will be utterly disapproved and you will find yourself outside the number of those who enter into the Father’s house in that day, not because you were once saved and are so no longer, but because your life has proved that you were never truly born of God.”
H. A. Ironside, Addresses on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1938), 275–276.
 W. E. Vine, 1 Corinthians.
 William D. Mounce, “Crown,” in Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 148.