1 Corinthians 9:19-27 ESV
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. 24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, 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.
I have been studying the commands of Paul to the churches, particularly those that are of a certain structure that allows them to be translated as continuous active commands.
Today’s focus is found in verse 24, where Paul commands the Corinthian believers to KEEP ON RUNNING in order to someday obtain the prize.
In a general sense, Paul seems to be encouraging the Corinthians to live up to their commitment to Christ so that when Jesus returns they will have been found faithful to him, and will inherit eternal life, and a place in the kingdom he will set up on this earth. That is similar to what he told the Colossians when he encouraged them to KEEP ON WALKING (2:6).
I do not think that is all Paul is talking about here.
Notice that Paul has just spent five verses showing that what motivated him was not just getting saved, but bringing others into the kingdom.
His purpose was evangelism. I think that he was trying to motivate the Corinthians to have the same purpose. He wanted them to keep on running the race so that – along with being saved themselves — they could win others to Christ.
Running the race for Paul meant disciplining himself so that he could accomplish the task that he was called to by the LORD.
Now, here is where I think we often get off track as far as evangelism is concerned: We think our goal is to try to win the people within our sphere of influence to Christ. That is true. But we seldom try to expand our sphere of influence so that we can reach others.
From the moment of his conversion, Paul disciplined himself so that he could expand his sphere of influence to the whole Gentile world.
When he encouraged the Corinthians to KEEP ON RUNNING, it was in that context. He wanted them to adopt his attitude of self-discipline for the purpose of evangelism.
If we want to shake the world and gain a harvest for Christ’s coming kingdom we are going to have to be disciplined evangelists as Paul was.
Paul’s use of the command KEEP ON RUNNING suggests that being a disciplined evangelist is not going to be as easy as falling off a log.
For Paul, it means undergoing a transformation much like enduring miltary boot camp. By the time Paul was finished disciplining himself, he had become “servant to all” (19).
He prescribed the same boot camp experience to the Galatians when he told them not to use their freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but to serve one another (Gal. 5:13). That goes against self-interest. It is hard work.
But the hard work is worth it – not just because you get to win people to Christ, but also because there is a reward at his coming.
Paul called it different things. Here, in verse 24, he called it the prize. He told the Philippians that he presses on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call in Christ Jesus (3:14).
In verse 25 here Paul calls it the imperishable wreath. Wreaths were the world cups of Paul’s day.
Paul also had this in mind when he told Timothy that he expected a crown of righteousness from the Lord when he comes (2 Tim. 4:8).
And Paul is not the only one to encourage believers by declaring that the disciplined Christian life is worth it.
James speaks of the crown of life. He says that God has promised to give that crown of life (which is eternal life itself) to those who love him. But he speaks of this crown in the context of the painful trials we must endure. The prize will come to those who have stood the test.
Peter talks about the unfading crown of glory. He was speaking about being a good leader in the church. If leaders shepherd the flock well, they can expect an unfading crown from the chief Shepherd when he appears.
What James, Peter and Paul knew was that although you can only enter God’s kingdom by grace, you haven’t entered at all unless you are willing to discipline yourself to keep Jesus’ commands.
Jesus said that a person is not fit for the kingdom if he puts his hand to the plow and then looks back (Luke 9:62). He likened his kingdom to a hard day plowing in a field.
Elsewhere he likened it to a narrow gate and a hard road to travel (Matt. 7:14), and a pearl that cost everything you have to possess (Matt. 13:46).
Paul had set his mind on buying that pearl of great price. Physical and mental conditioning and reconditioning was the price he was going to pay.
He endured that discipline regimen so that he remained fit to reach people for Christ .
I want you to notice two words especially as we reread 1 Cor. 9:27. The two words are the two options, if you will. For Paul, it was either discipline himself so that he would be the kind of person who brought others to Christ, or else he would be disqualified.
Paul encouraged the Corinthian Christians to discipline themselves like he did, so that they could gain the results he expected.
Let me now suggest five critical questions to think about as you try to apply this text to your own life and ministry.
1. What kind of person do I need to become to reach my peers for Christ?
2. How can I enlarge the scope of my friendships so that I can influence more people?
3. What aspects of my life are preventing people from getting close enough to me to see Jesus in me?
4. What activities am I willing to surrender to allow time for me to evangelize.
5. What are my gifts and abilities that I can utilize to influence others for Christ.
Previously we had seen Paul encouraging the church to KEEP ON WALKING (Col. 2:6). That command implied that we believers are expected to live according to their profession of faith. In today’s text he changed the metaphor to KEEP ON RUNNING. That metaphor implies that the Christian life is like a race that requires conditioning , self-discipline and endurance.
LORD, help us to KEEP ON RUNNING the race that you have set before us. Help us to make ourselves servants to all so that we may win more people to you and your kingdom.