In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth he used a variety of examples from life to illustrate his teachings. Some of these related to agricultural pursuits, such as planting a vineyard or tending a flock. In another example, he used a soldier to illustrate the Christian life. In 1 Cor. 9:24-27 he used two examples from sporting events to illustrate the kind of attitude Christians should have as they serve the Lord.
In this passage Paul said, “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. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
Paul’s point was that we should run the race that is the Christian life in such a way that we will win the prize at the end of time. This is an interesting teaching since we would assume that everyone who enters a race intends to do his best to win. If this were the case, however, there would be no need of coaches to exhort and encourage the competitors. Every athlete would give his best in every competition, with the full expectation of winning, and with the burning desire to do so.
The fact is that some do not have the burning desire to win, and consequently they do not compete in a way that will enable them to win. The Lord anticipated this aspect of human nature, and warned that one who put his hand to the plow and looked back was not fit for the kingdom of God (Lk. 9:62). One who looks back on his previous life, instead of looking ahead to the goal, will not serve in such a way as to reach the goal. In short, such a person is not running to win.
We see this attitude played out too many times in the body of Christ. One obeys the gospel and begins his walk as a Christian. He may be zealous for a while, but begins to slack off over time. Eventually, he loses enough interest that he is no longer a runner, but a spectator in the Christian race. This kind of attitude will not bring him to victory at the end of time. This is the implication of the testimony of Paul, and of the admonition of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In 2 Tim. 4:7, 8 Paul told Timothy that he fully expected to receive the crown of righteousness because he had fought the good fight, finished the course, and kept the faith. He promised that this prize was also reserved for every other Christian who did the same. In Rev. 2:10 the Lord encouraged the church in Smyrna to remain faithful “until death” in order to receive the crown of life. Running to win is an attitude that will not allow the runner to give up until he crosses the finish line.
This is where the Christian race is so superior to any earthly race. As Paul said in 1 Cor. 9:24, in a human race everyone runs, but only one is the winner. In the Christian race, however, everyone who finishes the course wins the prize of eternal life. Our only competition in this race is a lack of desire to win it. Only those who quit running lose this race.
Eternal life is for finishers, not quitters. We do not have to be the fastest or best runners to receive the crown of life. We just have to be runners who run until we finish the race. Therefore, run to win!