Here it is—my one and only sports trophy. [Show trophy]
I played football in high school and our team was okay—nothing like Southern Columbia or Berwick. We never won a championship. And I played lacrosse as well. Our school fared better in lacrosse, but we could never seem to get past the quarterfinals in the playoffs. And then I played hockey as well—ice hockey, not girls’ field hockey! And that’s where we excelled. In my senior year we won the County championship. We were the best high school hockey team in the city of Rochester. And we all got a trophy.
And, of course, there are trophies awarded on the professional level in sports as well. The winner of the National Hockey League playoff wins the Stanley Cup. In professional football we have the Superbowl. Each player on the winning team gets a ring. The same is true for Major League Baseball. Each player on the winning World Series team receives a ring.
Two years ago at our Shiloh men’s retreat Doug Davis was our guest speaker. At that time Doug was the bench coach for the Florida Marlins and they had just won the World Series. We were hoping Doug would have his World Series ring and bring it to the retreat so we could see it, but he hadn’t received it yet.
In the sports realm, athletes strive to win a prize. And likewise, in the spiritual realm, believers should strive to win a prize. That’s what Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians chapter 9. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, we are told that there is a prize for winning the race of the Christian life.
C. I. Scofield wrote a booklet many years ago entitled, Rightly Dividing The Word of Truth. Scofield reminds us that when we study the Bible we must be careful to distinguish between different topics that are being addressed. For example, we need to clearly distinguish between passages that deal with salvation and those that deal with rewards.
It is important not to confuse the two subjects. Salvation, on the one hand, is a gift received by faith. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The way we enter God’s family is through accepting God’s gift of forgiveness. But rewards, on the other hand, are prizes earned by works. In Revelation 22:12 Jesus says that He is coming and that His reward is with Him, and that He will give to everyone according to their works. After we enter God’s family we begin to run the race of the Christian life and we will be rewarded based on our works.
There is another distinction. Salvation, on the one hand, is a present possession. In John 3:36 we read, “Whoever believes in the Son has everlasting life.” Once you receive God’s gift, eternal life is yours—right now. It is a present possession. But rewards, on the other hand, are a future attainment. In Luke 14:14 Jesus says you will be rewarded “at the resurrection”—at a future time. You haven’t received your reward yet.
So in our study of the Word of God it is important to keep clearly in mind the distinction between salvation and rewards. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul is addressing the topic of rewards, not salvation. And Paul tells us that there is a prize that is awarded to believers who successfully run the race of the Christian life.
Paul gives us three descriptions of this prize. First, Paul says the prize is…
I see this in verse 24: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.”
We mentioned last week that Paul is using athletic metaphors in this passage. And he does so because the Corinthians could relate to sports terminology. The city of Corinth played host to the Isthmian games that were held every two years. And these games were second only to the Olympic games as far as national importance. People from all over the empire would come to Corinth to watch athletes compete in various events. And one of the favorite sports was the foot race. Athletes would compete in the 200-yard dash, 400-yard dash, and the 3-mile run.
Now, there are several similarities between the Isthmian races and the race of the Christian life. One similarity is the contestants. In the Isthmian games, only Greek athletes could compete. The race wasn’t open to just anyone of any descent. In the same way the race of the Christian life is open only to believers. In order to enter the race you have to have trusted in Jesus Christ as your Savior. If you’re not a Christian, you’re ineligible.
But there are also differences between the Isthmian race and the Christian race. And one of those differences concerns who wins the race. In the ancient Greek games there would be only one winner in each contest. And he and he alone would get the prize. There were no silver or bronze metals for the 2nd and 3rd place finishers. But in the race of the Christian life there is more than one winner. As a matter of fact, we can all be winners.
The prize for winning the race of the Christian life is within your grasp. It is attainable. It is not something that is only available to pastors or missionaries or other full-time vocational Christian workers. It isn’t a prize that can only be won by noted individuals such as Billy Graham or Charles Stanley or David Jeremiah or Chuck Swindoll. No, the prize for the race of the Christian life is available to every believer. That’s why Paul tells you to go for it! You have the potential to win that prize! You can attain it!
Not only is it Attainable, but Paul also describes it as …
At the very end of verse 25 Paul says that the prize “will last forever”—it is ageless. Now, this raises a few questions:
· What is this ageless prize?
In verse 25 Paul calls it a crown. Now, in the New Testament there are 2 Greek words translated by our one English word “crown.” The first word is diadem. And this is the crown of royalty—a crown that a ruler would wear. We read in Revelation 19:12 that when Jesus returns to earth to set up His kingdom that He will be wearing a diadem—a ruler’s crown—on His head. The second Greek word for crown is stephanos. That’s the victor’s crown. And that’s the word Paul uses here in verse 25.
The winners of the Isthmian games would be awarded a stephanos—a victor’s crown. And in the Isthmian games the stephanos was a wreath made of pine branches. That’s because pine was the most common tree in the Isthmus region.
But a pine wreath crown doesn’t last forever. Branches dry up, wither, and die. But the stephanos that a Christian receives for successfully running the race of the Christian life will last forever—it is ageless. As Paul says in verse 25: “They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
This leads us to a second question:
· Are there other ageless prizes?
Are there additional crowns that believers can win other than the one mentioned here in 1 Corinthians 9? And the answer is yes! The New Testament mentions five victor’s crowns that we as believers can attain.
First, here in 1 Corinthians 9:25 we are told of the Crown of Incorruption. It is awarded for spiritual discipline. The next crown is found in 1 Thessalonians 2:19. It is the Crown of Rejoicing and it is the soul-winners crown. It is awarded for evangelism to those who are involved in helping others come to Christ. In 2 Timothy 4:8 we read of the Crown of Righteousness. It is awarded to those who love Christ’s return. Then we are told of the Crown of Life in James 1:12 and Revelation 2:10. This crown is given to those who endure the testings and hardships of life. Finally, there is the Crown of Glory. It is found in 1 Peter 5:4 and it is awarded for faithfully shepherding God’s people.
A third question:
· How are these ageless prizes awarded?
Well, on the last day of the Isthmian games the victors were crowned in an elaborate ceremony. The judge would wear a purple robe and place the crown on each winner’s head. They would be awarded their stephanos—their victor’s crown—at the Bema Seat, which was a raised platform in the center of the city where proclamations were made.
One day Jesus will come to take all believers up to heaven to be with Him. We call this event the Rapture of the Church. And it is the next event on the prophetic calendar. When all Christians are finally in heaven, we will assemble together at the Bema Seat—or Judgment Seat—of Christ.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” And so, it is at His Bema Seat that Jesus will award these victor’s crowns—these ageless prizes—to faithful believers.
These prizes are Attainable. And they are Ageless.
But … these prizes are not …
Look at the last two verses—verses 26 and 27. “Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
You see, you don’t receive this prize automatically—you have to work for it. You have to win the race of the Christian life in order to receive it. What does that entail? Well, we discovered last week that it demands Determination To Win, Obedience To The Rules, Focusing On The Goal, and Discipline of The Body. If you don’t do this, then you won’t get the prize. You may be—as Paul says in verse 27—“disqualified.”
Now, being disqualified doesn’t mean that you lose your salvation and go to hell. Remember, Paul isn’t talking about salvation in this passage; he’s talking about rewards. In the Greek Isthmian games, you didn’t lose your citizenship if you didn’t win the contest. You just lost the athletic prize. So, disqualification simply means you lose that reward.
You know, an Olympic athlete can be disqualified. It happened in ancient times and it happens in modern times as well. Some athletes are disqualified for deliberately breaking the rules. In the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson won a gold metal. He broke a world’s record in the 100-meter race. His time was 9.79 seconds. American Carl Lewis came in second. But a few days later it was discovered that Johnson had used steroids, which was against the rules. So he was disqualified and his gold metal was taken away from him and given to Lewis.
But you don’t have to deliberately break the rules to be disqualified. It’s possible to unintentionally break the rules and still be disqualified. Also at the ’88 Summer Olympics there was an American boxer named Anthony Hembrick. He was disqualified from competition because he didn’t show up at the ring in time for his fight. The newspaper article states that “U.S. coach, Ken Adams, before returning to the athletes village with Hembrick, said he was under the impression the bout was scheduled to be the 11th fight of the day, just before 1 p.m. But Hembrick was actually scheduled to participate in the fifth bout of the day. He attempted to catch a bus from the village at 10 a.m., but the bus was packed, according to Canadian boxers and coaches who just got inside the doors. Hembrick didn’t catch a bus until 10:30, and was too late to be hurried by ABF officials waiting for him at the door of the boxing arena. His opponent was in the ring at 10:40, but Hembrick didn’t arrive until 10:52. … Angelo Dundee said, ‘It’s the responsibility of the head coach to check, double-check and triple-check the time. He’s an Army man, too, he should know that better than anybody. He’s been in the Army for 30 years. And he’s got assistant coaches.’ … Coach Adams said, ‘We had no idea it was that close to the time. I feel bad about it. I’ll take the blame. I feel for Hembrick. I wish there was something I could do.’” The article concludes by stating, “Hembrick, from Detroit, was considered one of the few U.S. fighters who had a legitimate chance to win a gold metal, in the 165-pound class.”
But Hembrick didn’t win a metal—he was disqualified. He didn’t deliberately try to break the rules. He did it unintentionally. He was sincere—but sincerely wrong. He was still disqualified.
Being disqualified from winning the race of the Christian life is a real possibility in our lives. Paul took the matter seriously and personally. You notice in verse 27 Paul says, “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
Paul didn’t think that the prize was automatically his just because he was an apostle or because he preached to others. He knew it was a real possibility that even he might be disqualified if he failed to faithfully follow Christ.
During the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, the last runner to finish in the marathon was an athlete from Tanzania. His name was John Steven Aquari. He’d had a difficult race, to say the least. At one point he stumbled and fell and ended up bruised, bloodied—and his leg badly injured.
But he didn’t quit. Even though everyone else had already finished the race and gone home, he kept at it. Finally, at 7:00 in the evening, he limped into the near-empty stadium. There were still about 7,000 people on hand to witness his finish, and everyone stood, giving this battered athlete a standing ovation as he finished his last lap.
This dedicated marathon runner crossed the finish line and collapsed. Then someone asked him, “Why didn’t you quit?” With quiet determination he responded, “My country didn’t send me half way around the world to start the race; they sent me to finish it.”
The same is true of you. God has not left you here just to start the race. He has left you here to finish the race. And He desires to award you with an Incorruptible Crown at His Judgment Seat.
Are you faithfully running your race in the Christian life?