Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. (1 Corinthians 9:25 ESV)
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Paul draws his imagery here from athletic competition and the Isthmian games. He compares himself to an athlete who is running a race, and to an athlete who is training to compete. In athletics, it impossible to both at the same time. The Christian life, however, is a little like the EDS Airplane commercial from several years ago.
Our lives are under construction, even while we live them. We are like athletes training for competition, even while we are in the midst of the race.
Most of us can probably identify with the thought of running through life. Life is a “rat race,” and we’ re always “on the run.” Life is exhausting, and you just have to keep going. For Paul, however, racing is different from merely running. Life has a goal, and it is toward that goal that Paul runs. At the end of the race – or the fight – is the prize.
Just what is it that we hope our running accomplishes? What is the prize at the end of the race? Power? Prestige? Possessions? Comfort or security?
Athletes competed for a wreath of pine or olive branches. Paul is running for an imperishable wreath. I know that my some of my “eternal security” friends will insist that the imperishable wreath of which Paul speaks is a reward in heaven, and not the kingdom itself. They are wrong. Paul is not describing some sort of reward based on merit that believers receive in addition to salvation. The imperishable wreath is the goal of the Christian enterprise: life forever in the kingdom of God.
Paul’s metaphor switches from running to boxing in verse 26. Paul doesn’t just beat the air; he beats his own body. Is Paul talking about training or competing? In training, beating the air doesn’t prepare one for the brutality of the match. Like Rocky training to face Apollo creed, Paul prepares for life to punch him in the gut.
Or maybe Paul is talking about the actual boxing match. The opponent he must overcome – the one whose body he must beat into submission – is himself.
That’s not to say that Paul is teaching salvation by works. God’s favor is not bestowed on the basis of our having trained and disciplined ourselves to a sufficient level. However, God’s grace does demand our all. The more one is grasped by his grace, the more focused and disciplined one’s life will become.
Paul’s only purpose here to indicate the seriousness with which one ought to live the Christian life in response to God’s grace. This passage is not about achieving salvation through self-discipline, much less winning salvation through competition with others. Note that Paul has no concern with losing the race, only with disqualification. The only qualification required is the grace of God-given in Jesus Christ, and the only means to disqualify oneself is to stop living by faith in that grace. Living by faith, however, looks more like athletic discipline than it does like sloth, self-indulgence, thoughtlessness or indifference.