Summary: Divine rewards demand that we conduct our lives according to God's rules provided in His Word.
I consider the initial verses of this chapter to be among the most significant verses of the book. They are, as well, perhaps the most neglected verses of the missive which Paul wrote. I confess that I am ploughing quite a narrow furrow in these expositions. Note that the Apostle appeals to multiple metaphors in order to emphasise a truth. He has spoken of a teacher who is teaching a teacher when he writes, “What you have herd from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” [2 TIMOTHY 2:2]. Immediately after presenting the image of a teacher preparing a teacher for the future, Paul wrote of a soldier. He urged the younger minister, “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” [2 TIMOTHY 2:3, 4]. Now, he presents the image of an athlete engaged in a great contest. “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” [2 TIMOTHY 2:5]. One further metaphor will emphasise the contest in we are engaged—that of a hard working farmer. We will consider that word picture in a message planned for the near future.
A significant truth that must be stressed in each of the scenarios the Apostle presents confronts modern Christendom—indeed, confronts all of modern life! We are programmed to anticipate instant gratification. To a tragic degree, our modern approach to life is quite infantile. We come into this life demanding attention. We are at first moved with compassion at the helplessness of a wee baby. They are totally dependent upon adults for nourishment, shelter, warmth, clothing; we do not anticipate that babies will provide anything for themselves.
However, we expect that infants will mature, assuming responsibility for themselves. The aforementioned needs will be provided through their own efforts. At least, that is our expectation. Modern life has delivered a new twist on this perception, however. Modern western idealism has conditioned us to refuse to accept responsibility for anything bad that may come into our lives. Moreover, the needs—which never cease—are expected to be provided immediately, perhaps even magically, without any input on our part.
I am not attempting to present a treatise on the social construct of modern life; I am, however, directing our focus to modern church life. Church goers come into the church looking for answers to life’s problems. Churches meeting this expectation through sermons addressing life conflicts appear to prosper in the popular image. In broadest terms, modern religion demands little of participants and promises exaggerated returns. One can live precisely as does the remainder of the world without experiencing deprivation or hardship.
Each example the Apostle uses speaks of delayed gratification. The teacher may rejoice as the student excels his input, but the reward of seeing the advance of knowledge to another generation lies in the distant future. The soldier will one day see a cessation of the conflict, but the constant threat of battle demands that he stay alert and that he make constant sacrifice. The athlete will never see the podium unless she exerts herself, depriving herself of sleep, eating a Spartan diet and constantly pushing her body to best her prior times. The farmer receives no crop until he plants the seed; and seed planted cannot be eaten.
COMPETITORS — The Apostle uses the illustration of an athlete. He uses the Greek verb athléô, which speaks of competing in an athletic contest. His use of that word recalls the Greek games. Though the Romans were rulers of what we know today as North Africa, the Near East or the Mediterranean and European nations, regional customs from the various nations often continued unabated despite Roman rule. The Greek Games were one such custom that continued long after the Romans had assumed the role of empire builders and rulers. These games were still very popular at the time the Apostle was writing.
It is clear from reading what the Apostle has written, that he considers Christians as competitors. Throughout the message I will be stressing that we who believe are not competing against other believers; rather, we are competing against our own desires. Let me explain what I mean. Throughout his writings, Paul warns against succumbing to “the flesh.” By this, he is speaking of surrendering to the desires of the natural man.
In ROMANS 7, Paul writes of his struggle not to surrender to his natural desires. We haven’t time to read the entire account at this time, but note how the Apostle sets the scene. “My brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” [ROMANS 7:4-6].