“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. 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.” ~ 1 Corinthians 9:24–25
Analogies help us understand things. That’s why Paul uses a sports analogy to help frame his encouragement to the church in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 9, he tells them: Christians are like athletes.
Paul asks: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize?” (1 Corinthians 9:24). Athletes aren’t just out there to have fun. They want to win. The fact that only one will receive the prize motivates them. To obtain the prize, they will have to train hard and give everything they have. This is why competitors live and approach everything differently than most people do. As Paul says, they “exercise self-control in all things.” They give up whatever they need to give up. No sacrifice is too great if it will help them perform their best (1 Corinthians 9:25).
We know from ancient history and archeology that the Apostle Paul chose this analogy for good reasons. Corinth was home to a major stadium, competitive races, and a number of different kinds of competitions including boxing and wrestling matches. The Isthmian Games were held nearby every two years, and winners were awarded a highly coveted garland wreath made from pine leaves. Sports had quite a following in Corinth.
This isn’t so foreign to us, is it? The Super Bowl is a good example. Just think of the millions upon millions of dollars spent on winning that trophy. Think of the hours of training and discipline, the years of planning, and the hundreds of people who must all be working together in order to win. The owners, the coaches, the trainers, the scouts, the players—all of them shape their entire lives around winning that trophy. That’s a remarkable picture of commitment, of resilience and dedication to a cause.
And yet, Super Bowl trophies aren’t lasting. They’re perishable. Someday, every Super Bowl trophy will be sitting rusted and forgotten at the bottom of a landfill. Paul reminds us of this reality. Those who compete in the games “do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9:25).
Every analogy breaks down at some point, and Paul identifies the major difference between professional athletes and Christians. Athletes are willing to give up everything, to endure hardship, to fight through pain—all for a trophy or wreath that is going to gather dust and be destroyed. We as Christians are working toward something far greater. We have an imperishable crown waiting for us, which will be given to us by Christ. This reward never ends! We also know that the people we help win to Christ will share with us in these eternal rewards. One life won to the kingdom is worth infinitely more than any trophy this world can offer. Our prize is imperishable, the other is not.
Why is it, then, that there are so many resilient athletes in the world and so few resilient Christians? Why aren’t we completely sold out for the mission that Christ called us to pursue? Why aren’t we running the Christian race in order to win?
Ask yourself honestly. If people looked at your life—at how you spend your time, your money, your effort, your thoughts, and your energy—what kind of crown would they say you’re trying to win? A perishable one? Or an imperishable one? It’s easy to say your life is all about winning people to Jesus Christ. Every team begins every season saying, “We’re going to win it all this year!” But when you look at how they live, you know whether or not they really mean it. The same is true for us. You can say you’re doing everything you can to focus your life on Christ and His mission. But the proof is in your deeds.
This sounds like a tall task, living a life that is completely sold out to serving Jesus Christ and focused solely on the rewards that only He can give. I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy. It’s not. But there’s a secret that Paul discovered, which we can discover as well. When you are seeking the imperishable, when everything in your life is completely focused on the imperishable, you get so much joy right now. When eternity is your goal, the problems and challenges of today seem smaller. As Jesus tells his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, when you seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness—all these other perishable things will be added to you (Matthew 6:33).
So I want to encourage you today. Run to win. Finish your race well. This is the greatest joy and the greatest adventure you could ever have!
Questions for Thought
- If people looked at your life—at how you spend your time, your money, your effort, your thoughts, and your energy—what kind of crown would they say you’re trying to win? A perishable one? Or an imperishable one?
- How can you “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” today? How do you need to rearrange your priorities so that you are running well in your Christian life?
Dr. Robert Jeffress
Dr. Robert Jeffress is Senior Pastor of the 16,000-member First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, and a Fox News Contributor. He is also an adjunct professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. Dr. Jeffress hosts the daily radio and television program, Pathway To Victory, heard in over 195 countries.
Dr. Jeffress is the author of 30 books, including Courageous: 10 Strategies for Thriving in a Hostile World; Invincible: Conquering the Mountains That Separate You From the Blessed Life; and 18 Minutes With Jesus: Straight Talk From the Savior About the Things That Matter Most.
Dr. Jeffress and his wife, Amy, have two daughters and three grandchildren.