Run for the Prize

I preached this message as the Olympics were about to get underway.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (NIV)

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.  25  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  26  Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.  27  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.

===========================

     In September 1988, I was a brand new Resident Assistant on the fourth floor of Scranton Hall at Edinboro University. I had been hired three weeks into the semester, so most of the guys on my wing had had their first three weeks without any direct supervision… and liked it. And most of them were freshmen… And almost all of them were new recruits for Edinboro’s wrestling team. And they didn’t like having an R.A. move in and spoil their fun.

     What made matters worse was the Olympic games, held late that year in September instead of July. And NBC was covering the games LIVE, from Seoul, Korea, which meant that a lot of the events were between 1:00 and 4:00 a.m. 

     Well, this group of guys was pretty rambunctious, even before the Olympics started. But from the day the games opened, every night was a test of my abilities as an R.A. But the night that their Assistant Coach, Bruce Baumgartner, wrestled, was the absolute worst.  Those boys were so pumped up waiting for Bruce to wrestle that they simply HAD TO run up and down the halls knocking on people’s doors.  They simply HAD TO yell and scream and make whistling sounds and animal noises. They HAD TO. They couldn’t help it.

     Well, maybe they didn’t really have to, but they thought they did. I ended up spending a couple hours in the hallway outside my door sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, reading a book (as much as I could).  And they were able to control themselves after that. They just needed a visible reminder (me).

     Finally, when Bruce did wrestle I was with them watching the TV just as intently as any of them. We watched him compete and we watched him win gold.  It was a wonderful night.

     But I also remember that throughout that semester, I noticed that one of the wrestlers, named Louie, seemed to be a little bit more laid back, a little more mature than the others. He had his moments like the rest, but seemed to be the most serious and watched his prescribed routine more. He was more focused. More intent.

     And in 1996, it was Louie… American wrsetler Lou Rosselli, that I saw on the television set wrestling in the Atlanta Olympics. He, not any of those other guys, made it to compete. He didn’t win the gold, because in one of his victories his arm was broken in three places. (It took a LOT to stop him!) But Lou had determined long ago that he would be serious about his wrestling… and it made a difference even outside of the gym.

     In fact, I just read that that very same Lou Rosselli, now a coach with the Ohio State Buckeyes, is currently is taking a few weeks to serve as a volunteer Olympic Coach for men’s freestyle wrestling with the United States Olympic wrestling team in London right now.

     It reminds me a lot about the apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9 where he talks about the Corinthian games of his day.

     You see, the Olympic games that we now celebrate started in 1896, but their history goes back to ancient Greece, over 700 years before Christ. There were the Olympian games, the Pythian games, the Nemean games, and the Isthmian games. Each one rather similar, except that each was held in a different city, every four years. The Isthmian games, held on the isthmus of Greece, were based in Corinth, and were still being held when Paul visited Corinth and later wrote his two letters to the Corinthians.

     Paul likens the Christian walk, the Christians’ life, with these games, in three different ways. Paul starts off in verse 24 and 25 with:

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. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  

     He likens the Christian walk to the footraces they would have been so familiar with, and then draws a contrast.  He says that all who are in the race are runners.  Everyone wants the prize, but in the footraces, only one gets the reward at the end. But in the Christian life all who finish the course can have the reward, the prize, at the end of the race.

     The ancient Greeks competed for a crown…made of greenery. The Olympian athletes struggled in order to win a crown made of wild olive, the Pythian athletes–a crown of laurel, the Nemean competitors–a crown made of parsley, and the Isthmians, here in Corinth, ran for a crown made out of pine. And every one of those prizes started to wilt the moment they were cut from their respective plant, before they even made it to the winner’s head!

     Paul then highlights that we strive for a crown that will never fade: eternal life and spending eternity with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. How much more important that we do what is needed to win our race.

     The second comparison Paul makes between our daily walk as a Christian and the Greek athletic games is found in the beginning of verse 25:

“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.”

    The King James version says the athletes are “temperate” in all things. The New Revised Standard Version says they use “self-control.”

    Those ancient competitors disciplined themselves before they could compete. There were no coaches back then, only teachers. And those Greek teachers prescribed to their students, their disciples as it were, what kind of food they could eat and how much as well, the hours they would exercise and when they were to sleep, and forbade them from alcohol and women.

     So Paul makes self-discipline his second point. If we are to successfully win our race, our contest against sin, then we must, as disciples of our teacher, stick to his instructions of what we need to do. Christ said, “Deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.” Yet how many of us don’t deny ourselves and give into every whim or craving our physical body has, at the expense of our soul?

     The ancient Greeks were willing to suffer all of these hardships knowing that almost everyone that competed would come away without the prize. But it was worth it if they had a chance at being the winner.  And that was all for a bunch of leaves!

     In verses 26 and 27, Paul gets to his third point in his comparison:

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.

     Paul stresses again the need for the spiritual man within, the “inner man” if you will, to be the victor over our physical body. And he goes to boxing and wrestling for his comparisons this time.

     He says he beats his body and makes it his slave. The Greek words here tell the story:

     One Greek word, comparing to boxing, means “to hit in the eyes” and the other greek word signifies tripping the opponent so that he falls down and then keeping him down, obliging him to acknowledge himself conquered… and thus making him your slave.

     Paul has packed a whallop here. In our wrestling match against sin, against the urges and cravings of our physical body, we don’t wrestle just for fun. Rather, we wrestle for dominance, for mastery, to determine who will be the slave.

     In the ancient games, the herald announced who the competitors were, announced the conditions and rules of the games, displayed the prizes, exhorted the competitors, encouraged the spectators, pronounced the names of the victors, and put the crown on their head.

     But one of the most important jobs of the herald was to put his hand on the head of each would be athlete, before the competition, and walk around the inside of the stadium asking: “Who can accuse this man?” Because criminals were not allowed to compete, servants and debtors were not allowed to compete, and, most of all, slaves were not allowed to compete.

     Paul sees the Greek games as the perfect comparison with our Christian struggle, our Christian walk. First, we all must be runners. You can’t win the race if you are not entered in the race. Second, there are preparations for the contest that must be made. Christ spoke of it as denying ourselves and bearing the cross. And third, and most important of all, we must make sure that we are not a slave to anything.

      The questions today, from our coach, are these: Are we entered into the race?  If Jesus Christ does not live in your heart as Lord and Savior, then your stuck on the sidelines and will NEVER receive the prize of eternal life.  Are we following the coach’s advice in training? Do we deny ourselves and take up our cross? And, when we are in the midst of the battle, who is a slave to whom? Is our physical body a slave to our spiritual body… or is our spiritual body a slave to our physical body? Who calls the shots…physical or spiritual?

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