In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul has been explaining how all he does is driven by the gospel. He has been culturally flexible where needed, identifying with both Jews and Gentiles as appropriate. He has waived what would have been a perfectly appropriate right to be paid for his Christian ministry. Paul is willing to give up his rights for one reason: he wants the message of the gospel to go forward:
We have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. (1 Cor. 9:12)
Paul’s willingness is admirable. But he is also at pains to point out that it was not automatic. Paul’s gospel determination did not come about without significant commitment on his part:
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. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:24–27)
Paul appeals to something he expects his readers to know. For most people today, the biggest sporting event on the calendar is the Olympic Games. There is no other event that involves more athletes from more countries. For Paul’s readers, one of the sporting highlights would have been the Isthmian games, held there in Corinth every two years, attracting huge numbers of visitors and attention.
Paul draws attention to two particular elements: running and boxing. In the case of running, Paul points out that there is only one victor: everyone competes, but only one wins. And so the only way to win is by being determined. This involves more than just running every once in a while. Athletes, Paul says, have to be self-controlled “in all things.” The rest of life has to be organized around the priority of competing. In his day, there was physical training, dietary constraints, and lifestyle choices, all of which shaped the capacity of the runners to compete effectively. There was intentionality and determination—all so that they could win a “perishable wreath,” a crown made by weaving withered celery.1 They didn’t even get a gold medal. But the prize was a sufficient honor and of sufficient worth that they were willing to make whatever sacrifices were needed in order to obtain it.
That same kind of intentionality and determination is to mark Christians too. There is a key difference: our prize is eternal and not perishable. The wreath worn by the victorious Corinthian would deteriorate at some point. It would not last. But the prize for the Christian is everlasting. Paul does not spell out exactly what that prize is, but there are some significant clues as to what he is talking about. He has just summarized his ministry in these words:
I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Cor. 9:22–23)
Elsewhere he talks about the prize this way:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. . . . I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:12, 14)
Discipline Is a Commitment
Paul’s striving is not about trying to gain Christ by his own efforts, but about having Christ and wanting the fullness of all that is in him. This speaks to the other key difference: when it comes to athletic competitions there is only one winner, but the prize Paul speaks of here is not only eternal, but within the grasp of all believers who are willing to focus their energies on obtaining it. Each of us, with sufficient self-control, can receive our reward from Christ.
This is where the body comes in. Winning this prize means not “running aimlessly.” We are not going to win accidentally––as though we could find ourselves at the end of a leisurely jog being awarded an Olympic gold medal. It will happen only with commitment. And the opposite of running aimlessly is spelled out:
But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:27)
The best way to use our bodies rightly is to use them for Christ.
Successful athletes discipline their bodies. They live by strict regimens. Everything is weighed according to whether it will help or hinder them in their pursuit of victory. The same is true for Paul. He will not obtain the prize without going into rigorous battle with his own body. Paul is not saying that the body is intrinsically bad and needs to be punished. But he is saying many of its impulses need to be resisted if we are to move forward toward triumph. It will not happen without this kind of discipline. Paul knew so much of this from his own experience. His commitment to sharing the gospel had significant physical costs:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea. (2 Cor. 11:24–25)
The temptation to hold back, as he considered a new ministry opportunity, must have been considerable. He knew there would be hostility. He knew there could be yet more intense physical pain. A huge part of him must have been thinking, “I’ve done enough. I can’t cope with more of this.” The body was certainly pulling against him. So Paul had to fight those physical impulses to back off from full commitment to the gospel.
The same is true for us, in a variety of ways. Most of us do not face that kind of physical pain. But we do have bodily wants and desires that need to be constantly resisted if we are to move forward with Christ. If we go with our physical instincts, without questioning and resisting them, we will drift away from the prize. Paul’s final words here are a sober warning:
I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:27)
Paul is keeping with the athletics analogy. In major games like the Olympics there are those who end up disqualified. They fail a drug test or collude in some form of match fixing. They have to go, and they leave the contest in disgrace. And just as the prize for the Christian is so much more valuable than for the athlete, so too the prospect of disqualification is all the more awful. Paul is about to warn his readers, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). We all need this warning. The Bible—and subsequent church history—is littered with cautionary tales of those who seemed spiritually vibrant but in the end showed themselves to be disqualified.
The key to it all is the body. It needs to be disciplined. It needs to be kept under control. If we only ever go with the wants, desires, and appetites of our bodies, we will not continue in Christ. Body control is part of the self-control all of us are called to. So how are we to do this? We have already seen that the body is “for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Cor. 6:13). The best way to use our bodies rightly is to use them for Christ. They are to be given wholly over to his service.
This article is adapted from What God Has to Say about Our Bodies: How the Gospel Is Good News for Our Physical Selves by Sam Allberry.
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