“The Victor’s Crown” I Cor 9:24-27 Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts.
Introduction: During the Athens Olympics, the Today Show had a “Greek Word of the Day”. Today’s word is stefanos, meaning wreath or crown.
This word has several meanings in the Bible: a shape, such as the crown of one’s head; a symbol of kingship, the granting of an honor; or in the case of the crown of thorns, to show contempt. In Revelation Mary, the mother of Jesus wears a crown with twelve stars, signifying the 12 tribes of Israel. In Paul’s usage, the athlete’s crown, or stephanos, is clearly a symbol of victory. In ancient Greece, victors in the Olympic games were praised as “wearers of the wreath.”
The wreaths presented to Olympic athletes at the 2004 Athens games were made by two competing towns, each claiming to be the place where the original wreaths were fashioned. Artisans from these towns set up shop together in a warehouse in southern Athens. The wreaths looked so perfect I at first thought they were artificial, but Athens went all out to preserve the historic integrity of this event. The wreaths were made by hand from olive leaves tied onto a flexible ring by wires. Agricultural restrictions in some countries made it difficult for athletes to bring them home as keepsakes of their victory. New Zealand has the tightest restrictions, and considers any outside plants a bio-security risk. Neighboring Australia has told its athletes that their olive wreaths will have to first be disinfected.
The Athens wreaths were supposed to be “one size fits all”, but when little Nicoleta, a diminutive Romanian gymnast, was presented her Olympic wreath, it was far too big for her head; it slipped down and ended up as a necklace! Some athletes weren’t sure whether they were supposed to wear their wreaths during the playing of their national anthem; some did, while others placed their wreaths over their hearts.
In our passage, we discover how our Olympian Christian lives are to be played:
>We have a purpose—to finish the race
>We have a plan—strict training
>We have a prize—a crown of glory
The tense of the word “run” indicates continuous action; in other words, keep on running! In a previous Olympics, an athlete had trouble in the Marathon event and came in last, taking 6 hours to compete the run, long after the rest of the pack had finished. After crossing the finish line he was asked why he kept going, knowing he would not win gold, silver, or bronze. He answered: “My country didn’t send me to the Olympic games to begin a race, but to finish a race.” It’s not enough just to start the race. Perseverance is the greatest proof of the genuineness of the Christian life. And we persevere with the strength God supplies. But the life of faith isn’t something that happens to us; it requires an intentional plan. We’re not shadow-boxing, “beating the air,” we have a purpose, a mission in life. We run to finish the race--for our good, and God’s glory.
Winning the right way requires self-discipline and self-denial. Paul says he trains vigorously for the Christian race, with the goal in mind. We don’t run aimlessly; we train intentionally, we endure strict discipline for a greater reward. We’ve heard impressive stories of the sacrifice of Olympic athletes to compete for the gold. Their dedication to their sport is incredible.
Paul says he “beats his body” to subdue it. The only alternative to perseverance is failure. The word “beat” or “pommel” in verse 27 means literally to give yourself a black eye. The danger is not that his body might get out of hand but that he may get out of God’s hand, and go his own way. This doesn’t mean asceticism or self-flagellation, though some have taken Paul’s words quite literally. Paul simply means he has to say no to some things that might hinder his effectiveness. He works hard at holiness. He lives a disciplined life. Paul then changes metaphors and says that he enslaves himself, leads his body to slavery. In Bible days, a military general would lead the vanquished captives as slaves, and present them to the king. Paul is presenting himself as the slave of Christ.
There are no victories at bargain prices. How we run is part of our plan. A child was bragging and said to a friend, “My brother can run the 100-yard dash in 6 seconds.” The friend said, “That’s impossible—the world record is 9!” “Yes, but my brother knows a short-cut.”
In the Greek games, there was a herald who announced the rules. Paul doesn’t want to do anything that would disqualify him from the prize. He tells Timothy, “If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules” (II Tim 2:5). In the 2004 games, doping incidents have disqualified many athletes, to include 2 of Greece’s superstars, which caused a national scandal. The use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs have ruined the sports careers of many Olympic contenders. In the same way, high-profile Christians who fall into sin disgrace themselves and make us all look bad. Scandal can cause some people to leave church for good. Paul’s concern is that he might lose his effectiveness if he doesn’t continue to practice self-control; he might lose his influence in serving and helping others.
We need a motive-check. Some people participate in church to appear respectable, for what they can get out of it, to appease their conscience…and they have their reward, but not in Heaven (Mt 6:2). Some aren’t even signed up for the race, or don’t start right. They’re on the sidelines or in the stand, when God wants them on the track! Some run, but cannot win because they’re carrying too much weight, and I’m not talking about pounds. They have baggage that keeps them from living an effective, victorious life. The author of Hebrews counsels, “let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress, and let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us” (12:1).
A crown will one day be given to Jesus, according to the Book of Revelation (6:2), to showcase Him as the returning, conquering King. Crowns will also be given to faithful believers, as the letters to the churches in chapters 2-3 indicate. We will be given the “crown of life”, meaning victory over death. Paul refers to fellow believers as his “joy and crown” (Phil 4:1). To Timothy Paul writes that he anticipates receiving a “crown of righteousness”, another way of expressing the victory God gives to those who run with Him. This crown is for all who long for Christ’s appearance. Loyalty to Christ may result in a crown of thorns, but it will ultimately bring a crown of glory.
Olympic athletes who’ve been able to hold onto their laurel wreaths will find that they won’t stay fresh. They’ve been given, as Paul points out, “a crown that will not last.” Our reward is permanent, but we won’t hold onto those our crowns. We will instead lay them before the throne of Christ (Rev 4:10), acknowledging that He is the One who grants us victory and an imperishable reward. All glory to Him!
Conclusion: We may not be like Michael Phelps or Carly Patterson. Still, we need to be involved, to get in the game! Paul’s emphasis, however, is not competition, but staying on track, not giving up, persevering to the finish line. A church can be like an Olympic stadium, with a few busy people in need of rest surrounded by a lot of people in need of exercise! We can’t win if we’re not on the field. We need to go for the gold!