Keep Going   1 comment

Why is endurance so important if you’re a Christian? Isn’t our perserverance guaranteed? Once a believer, always a believer, right?

While our salvation is certain and totally secure, success in our Christian lives and ministries is not. Living for God’s approval is a lifetime achievement. In Corinthians 9:24-27 the apostle Paul coaches us to run for the prize.

Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium competebut only one receives the prize? So run to win. 1 Corinthians 9:24


Image result for image of the equinox marathonHere in Fairbanks, Alaska, we have an annual marathon. It’s run on the Saturday closest to the autumnal equinox – September 21. Weather here in Alaska can be … uh, challenging … in September, so sometimes the marathon starts in hypothermic conditions and ends in sweat-inducing +70s. Other times there’s been snow. Occasionally it’s been hot. When our son tried to run it a couple of years ago, it was pouring down rain and warmish, so that he ended up overheated in his rain jacket and had to stop. (He intends to try it again, if it doesn’t interfere with a climbing competition). You just don’t know what you’re going to get weather wise.

You start out on fairly level ground at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks campus, climb to the top of Ester Dome (in excess of 1000-feet of elevation gain) and then pound down the back side of the Dome to finish back at the University. It is considered by many marathoners to be either the first- or second-most-difficult marathon in the United States, second only to Pikes Peak, which is almost never run in hypothermic conditions.

I ran-walked it once. I was 20. I finished. I’m not a runner … more like a fast hiker, although I actually passed people as I ran on the Slide down the back of the Dome … but I kept going until I got to the end. I wasn’t last and I didn’t join the one-third of the field that didn’t finish at all. That’s an accomplishment for a non-runner in a tough race. I have since biked it a few times, but have chosen not to subject my knees to the punishment of the actual race. It’s a tough bike ride too.

Image result for image of the equinox marathonTo finish a race like the Equinox requires endurance and a determination to reach the end no matter rain, snow (yes, sometimes), pain, puking, or how many people pass you along the way.

Paul told us to run the Christian race with the intent to win the prize at the end of the race. Paul began with a typical Rabbinic question: “Do you not know?” Whenever Paul used this question he was confident that his readers already know the answer. This passage isn’t an exception.

We know that in any race there can only be one winner. Fortunately, Paul used plural verbs and the exhortation is not “you” singular but “you” plural. Paul was saying, “You all run in such a way that you all may win.” The prize is offered to each and every believer. Unlike a foot race, we’re not competing against each other. We aren’t like the front-runners in the Equinox. We’re in the back pack, where just getting to the finish line is the accomplishment. Every Christian can win the prize. That’s good news because there will always be someone faster, stronger, or smarter than us. That’s okay, because you and I are running against opportunities God gives us individually, not what He gives other Christians. We are competing against ourselves.

The running metaphor works like this: When a person believes in Jesus Christ he or she becomes a runner in the Christian race. Like it or not, you are a runner. In verse 24, Paul issued a command, “Run! Don’t walk. Don’t stop. Don’t sit down. Run because you can win the prize!” That’s how the Greek is worded. This is not a suggestion or a gentle guidance. The point of entering the race is to win the prize. Salvation is NOT the prize. Salvation is a free gift, so it can’t be the prize. The prize is an earned reward. Paul had been writing about his ministry as an apostle (9:1-23). He wasn’t discussing salvation. That’s the starting line. The Christian’s prize is the honor and glory of eternal rewards. It is the joy of hearing Jesus say, “Well done!” (Matthew 25:21, 23) This is the amazing grace of God. We receive salvation as a free gift and then the Lord blesses us on top of that with temporal and/or eternal rewards for faithfully serving Him.

So what does faithful running look like? Who are those who run in such a way that they may win?

  • Christians who finish their lives still growing, still serving in the Lord
  • Senior saints that persist in daily prayer until the Lord calls them home
  • Husbands and wives who stay faithful to each other “until death do us part”
  • Young people who preserve their virginity until marriage, in spite of crushing peer pressure to “test-drive” their sexuality
  • Pastors who stay passionate about ministry until their last breath
  • Church members who weather the rougher patches and remain joyful, loving, and faithful

Some of us have tripped over our own feet and are lying in the gravel. Others are standing in the middle of the course with our hands on our knees thinking “I’m not running well. I’m barely in the race at all.” There are some who are sitting down in the ditch, having decided they can’t go any further. It happens. As in the Equinox, so also in the Christian life. So what do we do about it?

Recommit to win God’s race. As long as you are in the race, run to win. Don’t just run to finish, but to win. Only by believing it can happen, and with a renewed resolve to win, is a comeback accomplished. If you find yourself far behind in the race, don’t give up. Keep on running. You can still win. Don’t quit. Living for God’s approval requires finishing well.

Each competitor must exercise self-control in everythingThey do it to receive a perishable crownbut we an imperishable one. 1 Corinthians 9:25

Not just the front runners in the Equinox, but a lot of people train to finish the marathon. Twenty-six miles is a long way.  Paul commended the commitment of athletes who will sacrifice everything to win a temporal prize. The phrase translated “competes in the games” comes from the Greek word agonizomai, used for competition here, gives us our word “agony”. Paul was talking about some heavy-duty sacrificial striving that requires “self-control in everything.” Paul’s analogy is training for the Isthmian games. All of the events in these games were one-person individual sports. The athletes could not coast in their training. They had to go all out! It required many months and even years of sacrificial discipline and rigorous self-control. These athletes kept a strict diet, made sure they got the proper amount of sleep each night, trained daily for their particular events, and performed strength and cardiovascular exercises. They often abstained from drinking and immorality. They ate, drank, and slept succeeding in their particular event.

These athletes went to such great lengths to obtain a “perishable wreath”—a paltry vegetable crown of celery. Of course, this crown eventually withers away. Most people don’t remember who won last year’s championship. It’s old news. Next season is coming.

If athletes are willing to undergo this type of discipline and self-control, how much more should we as servants of Jesus Christ be willing to endure? Unlike the athletic crown, our victor’s crown will affect us forever and ever. Paul stated that our reward is “imperishable”—eternal! Therefore, it does matter whether we gain or lose the prize. Only what you and I do for Jesus Christ will last and it will last for all eternity. Forever is a long time and we we only have 70 or 80 years to invest in eternity.

“Lord, stamp eternity on my eyeballs!” Jonathan Edwards.

Most modern Americans don’t excel at self-control, yet Paul warned it is necessary if we want to win the prize. What are your areas that need strengthening for the race?

  • Do you need to exercise self-control in your media intake? Do you watch too much TV? Do you play too many video games? Do you surf the web for too many hours?
  • Do you need to exercise self-control in your leisure? Do you spend too much time working out? Does your hobby come in the way of your relationship with God and your family?
  • Do you need to exercise self-control in your friendships? Are your friends more important to you than your God? Are your friends keeping you from being all that God wants you to be?
  • Do you need to exercise self-control over an addiction? Is food a drug to you? Are you a Christian glutton? Do you drink or smoke too much? Are you addicted to sleep? Do you need to repent for laziness? Are you a flabby Christian! The Christian life demands discipline!

Let me clarify that the Christian life is NOT a race to achieve entrance into heaven. We are saved by grace, not by effort, discipline, obedience, good works or anything else we do. We are saved by believing, not by achieving. We are saved for good works, not by good works. Still, the Christian life is a race to accomplish what God put us here for and present ourselves approved unto God. It is a race to finish in a way so as to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Living for God’s approval requires finishing well.

So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. Instead I subdue my body and make it my slaveso that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:26-27

Having just said that “the prize” lasts for eternity, Paul used his “therefore” statement and swapped metaphors. Because the prize lasts forever, Paul did not run aimlessly or shadow box. He’s training in earnest.

Some of us aren’t. Some of us are great shadow-boxers. We make loud noises about our faith when we’re in church, but when we get out into the real world, we never land a blow for Christ. Many of us are so ill-prepared that we are a sitting duck for the sucker punches landed by those who deny the faith! Yet, Paul informed us that only those who stay in the ring, duke it out, and make every blow count qualify for the crown. Like Paul, we must be motivated by the gripping thought of standing before Jesus Christ and giving an account of our earthly lives. We must have a purpose and a goal to please the Lord.

In Alice in Wonderland there is a scene where Alice asks Cheshire Cat, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” The cat replies, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Alice says, “I don’t much care where…” and the cat replies, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.” Alice says that she just wants to get somewhere, and Cheshire Cat tells her, “Oh, you’re sure to do that if you only walk long enough.” We are certain to end up somewhere. The important question is, “Where am I going?”

Paul concluded this paragraph by expressing a sincere fear that he himself could fail to win the prize. Instead of running aimlessly or shadow-boxing (9:26), Paul made this contrasting statement, “but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” With the judgment seat of Christ in mind, Paul wrote, “but I discipline my body and make it my slave.” The word translated “discipline” literally means “to strike under the eye” or “to beat black and blue.” Paul beat his body into submission doing all that he could to ensure his success.

Paul’s fear was not that he might lose his salvation, but that he might not persevere in his Christian life and ministry. The context of this passage and the rest of Paul’s writings bear this out. To Paul there was a difference between acceptance and approval. Acceptance is the result of a one-time act of faith. Approval is the result of ongoing faithfulness. God promises us His unconditional acceptance, but He does not promise us His unconditional approval. As a father, I will always accept my children but I may not always approve of their behavior. This is also true in our relationship with God.

As we contemplate the issue of God’s approval, we must recognize that Paul had four specific disqualifying sins in mind as he was writing these four verses. Where did I get that from? I read ahead just a little bit. Notice the first word in 10:1—the word “For.” That little word “for” (gar) is a bridge that continues Paul’s warning. The sins that Paul identified are:

  • idolatry (10:7)
  • immorality (10:8)
  • testing God (10:9)
  • grumbling against God (10:10)

Each of these sins was enough to keep Israel from finishing their race and winning the prize. They can act as stumbling blocks to us today if we do not continue to seek Christ’s approval.

Paul’s ultimate goal was the approval of Christ. As Paul’s death was quickly approaching, he had these words for young Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

The phrase translated “I have fought” (agonismai) is one word in the Greek. Interestingly, it is a form of the same word that was used in 9:25 that was translated “competes according to the games” (agonidzomenos). Both of these passages deal with the doctrine of eternal rewards. Interestingly, 1 Corinthians was one of the earlier books that Paul wrote (before his imprisonment by Rome) while 2 Timothy was the last, written while he was awaiting execution. What is the point? Paul finished his course because he kept his eyes fixed on the prize.

What I learned from my middling finish in the Equinox Marathon is what Paul was trying to teach in this passage. In the Equinox, except for a handful of front-runners, the race really isn’t against the other competitors. It’s really against yourself. Can you keep going until the end? My challenge for all of us today is to live for God’s approval by finishing well.

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