1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5
24 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. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Paul compares the Christian life to a sporting event. They didn’t have the best sport – baseball – in Paul’s day, but they had sporting competitions. The city of Corinth, in particular, hosted a series of games every other year called the Isthmian Games which were the second most famous athletic competition in the world after the Olympics. The events included racing, wrestling, jumping, boxing, javelin, discus, and even poetry. Thousands of athletes would show up to compete in the events, and throngs of people would come to watch. The winners of each competition would end up being famous throughout the Roman Empire and get statues and monuments.
But the immediate reward, the prize they got right after the competition, wasn’t a gold medal placed around their neck. No, they got a wreath made of dried, withered celery. Yes, celery – that vegetable that is tasteless when you eat it alone but ruins every dish you add it to.
I can just imagine the first guy to win. He ascends the podium while the crowds cheer and receives his celery wreath. He holds it and thinks, “Celery? I get celery? I thought I was competing for a salary.”
To compete in the games, athletes would be required to devote ten months to training. They had to focus their complete attention on their training, give up any bad habits, and even had to give up things that weren’t bad in general but were a hinderance to their training. The competitors had to have the will and self-control to let go of anything that would distract them from winning first place. And when it was time to compete, they had one goal – finishing first.
Paul takes the imagery of those athletes who wholly dedicated themselves to training, running, and winning a perishable wreath of withered celery and says, “You, Christian, should have even more dedication to receive the imperishable prize of forgiveness and eternal life.”
Now, this analogy Paul is using is good and beneficial, but all analogies have their limitations. So, we have to pause for a moment here to make sure everything stays clear.
One limitation comes when Paul says, “all the runners run, but only one receives the prize.” In the Christian race, all believers win the prize. It should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. It isn’t as though only one person will be saved. If that were the case, Jesus wins period and no one else. His perfect life and perfect obedience in thought, word, and deed have never and will never be matched. Not even close.
Another limitation to the analogy is that you aren’t saved because of your work, your training, your dedication, your self-control. This has to be clear – if you don’t get this, you will completely miss the point of this entire text, this sermon, and the whole Bible. Salvation isn’t earned or deserved. You don’t earn eternal life by being better than most people. Getting a “C” in “Morality” doesn’t cut it. You’ve probably heard the joke about two guys (we’ll just say Sven and Ole) who are camping in the forest. They see a bear eyeing them and licking its chops. Sven looks over at Ole who is bent over tying his shoelaces. Sven says, “Ole, do you really think you can outrun a bear?” Ole pulls the laces tight, stands up, sniffles and says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I only have to outrun you.” Salvation is not like that. You aren’t saved because you are better than most people. You are saved by grace alone through faith alone by Christ alone.
But here is the point Paul ismaking in these verses. You can fall away. Salvation can be lost. And if you don’t take salvation seriously, you are like an athlete who shows up for a race but has no plans of actually competing to win. Paul points to Israel’s ancestors (whom we heard about a little bit in the Old Testament text [Ex. 17:1-7]). Of the six-hundred-thousand men plus women and children who were brought out of Egypt by God’s mighty hand, only two of them – only Joshua and Caleb – got to enter the Promised Land. All of them had been given physical deliverance, physical food, physical drink. But they had also been given spiritual deliverance. They had been given a type of Baptism. They were given spiritual food and spiritual drink directly from Christ who gives water that wells up to eternal life (Jn. 4:13-14; 7:37-38). But with most of them, God was not pleased, and they were overthrown in the wilderness.
Because faith and salvation can be lost and because so many were overthrown in the wilderness, you need to run after the prize of eternal life. Discipline yourself. And that doesn’t mean that you give yourself a spanking or something like that if you sin. No, discipline yourself in a way that keeps you from running headfirst into sin.
If you know that you are prone to falling into sin when you go to that certain place, when you hang out with that crowd, when you drink too much, or when you surf the internet late at night, have the discipline to refrain, to stay away, from those things. In other words, don’t get lazy about your sin. Practice self-control. Do all of this so that you aren’t running aimlessly, so that you don’t box as one beating the air, or so that you don’t get disqualified. This text is exhorting, urging, prompting, and prodding us to good works and to live as Christians.
But with all that said, I need to confess something. The more I am told to do a certain thing, the less I want to do it. It is too easy to look back on how I’ve failed in the past. My failures and sins easily haunt me, and it is tempting to give up. Maybe you have the same problem. That is what Paul is addressing in this text. He wants to focus us on the imperishable prize so that we keep working, keep striving, and keep pressing toward it.
The Bible is constantly pushing us forward toward the prize, but we are too often looking back at our past sins and failures. And those sins and failures get us down and discouraged so that we are tempted to give up even trying. We can’t do that.
So, what’s the answer? What will motivate us to do good works and live as Christians? Don’t look back at your failures and sins. Forget them. Know that God has forgiven your sins through Jesus’ cross, death, burial, and resurrection. In Isaiah 43:25, God says, “I am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” Or Jeremiah 31:34 where God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Because God has forgotten your failures, you don’t need to dwell on them either. Paul uses similar language in Philippians 3:13–14. That passage is in your Scripture insert. Listen to this: “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Your past failures and sins are just that. They are in the past, and they are forgiven and died for by Christ. You have received the entire forgiveness of all your sins, and you are about to receive the very Body and Blood of Christ, given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins. Believer, every promise of Scripture lies before you. The eternal party, the never-ending feast of God lies before you. It is a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. There, God will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces (Is. 25:6-8).
Listen to what Christ Himself says is your goal, your prize from Revelation 2-3: To the one who conquers, God will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. The one who conquerors will not be hurt by the second death. The one who conquerors will be clothed in white garments, and Jesus will never blot his name out of the book of life but will confess his name before God the Father. The one who conquerors will be made a pillar in the temple of God. And the one who conquerors will sit with Jesus on His throne (Rev. 2:7, 11, 3:5, 12, 21).
Christian, this is your goal, your prize, your imperishable wreath. And it is worth running for. Ready? Set. Go! Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.