1 Corinthians 9:24-27
These verses are part of a larger unit (8:1 – 11:1) that is focused on the question of eating meat sacrificed to idols. See the exegesis of 8:1-13 for more detail about the relationship between chapters 8, 9, and 10.
Paul offers himself and his personal conduct as an illustration of the principle that he established in chapter 8—that the Christian needs to consider the sensibilities of other people. He/she needs to take care that his/her conduct doesn’t transgress those sensibilities unnecessarily, causing the other person to stumble in his/her faith journey.
Paul establishes his credentials as an apostle—and notes his special relationship to the Corinthian church, for which he was the founding pastor (9:1-2). He then establishes that he has the same rights as others—the right to food and drink—the right to marry—the right to require payment for his services as a pastor (9:3-12a).
But then he goes on to say, “Nevertheless we did not use this right (the right to require payment for pastoral services), but we bear all things, that we may cause no hindrance to the Good News of Christ” (9:12b). That is the point! In chapter 8, Paul called Corinthian Christians to subordinate their personal rights (to eat meat sacrificed to idols) for the sake of the gospel. Now he is saying that he himself has sacrificed certain of his rights to better proclaim the gospel. He is a living illustration of the principle that personal rights are less important than the proclamation of the gospel and the spiritual well-being of people who might hear that proclamation.
Paul talks about being under obligation to preach the Gospel (9:16). His reward for faithfulness to this obligation is the satisfaction of making the Gospel free of charge (9:18).
He says that, while he is a free man, he has made himself “under bondage to all,” so that he “might gain the more” (9:19). “Now I do this for the sake of the Good News, that I may be a joint partaker of it” (9:23).
He will conclude the next chapter by saying, “Whether therefore you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no occasions for stumbling, either to Jews, or to Greeks, or to the assembly of God; even as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of the many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ” (10:31 – 11:1).
1 CORINTHIANS 9:24-27. RUN THAT YOU MAY WIN!
24Don’t you know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run like that, that you may win. 25Every man who strives in the games exercises self-control in all things. Now they do it to receive a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible. 26 I therefore run like that, as not uncertainly. I fight like that, as not beating the air, 27but I beat (Greek: hypopiazo) my body and bring it into submission (doulagoyo), lest by any means, after I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected.
“Don’t you know that those who run in a race all run“ (v. 24a). Paul introduces an athletic metaphor to illustrate his point. Just as runners in a footrace must practice certain disciplines to make it possible for them to win a race, so also Christians must practice certain disciplines to make it possible for them to win the spiritual prize.
Scholars have noted that Corinth probably hosted the Isthmian games, which were named after the Isthmus of Corinth (an isthmus is a narrow strip of land that connects two larger land masses—Corinth was located on an isthmus that connected northern and southern Greece). These games included various contests, such as racing, boxing, and wrestling. The Corinthians would have been very familiar with these athletic contests and the disciplines required to win them. It is possible, therefore, that Paul is tailoring his metaphors to fit what the Corinthian know. However, Paul’s athletic metaphors are common enough that people anywhere can understand them.
“but one receives the prize?“ (v. 24b). In an athletic contest, only one person can win first prize, but athletics often provide lesser prizes as well. Nevertheless, the second-place winner usually feels more like a loser than a winner, because first place was the goal.
We must be careful not to make too much of this phrase, because the spiritual prize that Paul is illustrating is not limited to one winner. Many people will win a place in the kingdom of God. Nevertheless, this phrase contains a warning. Just as there are winners and losers in athletic contests, so also there will be winners and losers when it comes to spiritual prizes.
“Run like that, that you may win“ (v. 24c). Paul emphasizes running the spiritual race in such a way as to win the spiritual prize. That raises the question of works versus grace. Can we win salvation by our own efforts—by applying spiritual disciplines?
Elsewhere, Paul emphasizes that we are “justified freely by his (God’s) grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God set forth to be an atoning sacrifice, through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:24-25; see also Romans 5:1-5, 15-21; 6:14; 11:5-6). However his counsel about running in such a way as to win the spiritual prize shows that the way we live is a significant component of winning the spiritual prize.
“Every man who strives in the games exercises self-control in all things“ (v. 25a). Most of the effort required for winning a footrace (or any contest) takes place before the day of the race. Winning today requires practicing yesterday—and the day before—and the day before that. It also requires disciplines of other sorts, having to do with sleep, diet, studying the competition, developing strategy, etc. The game in which the competitor competes is only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the effort lies below the surface, out of sight.
What disciplines do we need to observe to win the spiritual prize? Traditional Christian disciplines include Bible reading, prayer, and fasting. However, other disciplines come to mind as well. Jesus emphasized feeding the hungry, giving the thirsty something to drink, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, taking care of the sick, and visiting the prisoner (Matthew 25:31-46).
Few Christians do all of these things, and none do them perfectly. We all depend on the grace of God. However, spiritual disciplines bring us closer to God—closer to becoming the people God created us to be—better fitted for the kingdom of God.
“Now they do it to receive a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible“ (v. 25b). Today, trophies or Super Bowl rings or Oscars acknowledge big winners. Each of those things has intrinsic monetary value, but that value pales beside their statement that the possessor of the prize is the best of the best.
In Paul’s day, winners of athletic contests received wreaths of laurel branches, olive branches, or celery. Those prizes had no intrinsic monetary value, but competitors prized them for the same reason that football players prize a Super Bowl ring. People knew that the one possessing the wreath was the best of the best.
Paul contrasts those wreaths, which would soon wither, with the spiritual prize that he is calling Corinthian Christians to pursue. Laurel wreaths were highly perishable, but the prize that Christians pursue is imperishable, “eternal, in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1).
“I therefore run like that, as not uncertainly“ (v. 26a). Many people do run aimlessly? They blindly climb a ladder, not having determined whether it is perched against the right wall. They don’t know whether they are coming or going, but seem determined to set a speed record getting there. Or they simply go through the daily cycle of working, eating, and sleeping that they seem doomed to repeat endlessly—with no apparent purpose except survival.
But Paul doesn’t run aimlessly. God has called him to proclaim the Gospel, and he does so tirelessly. He does so, in part, to be faithful to the one who has called him, but he also does so to win the spiritual prize that he is pursuing—the same spiritual prize that he is calling these Corinthian Christians to pursue.
“I fight like that, as not beating the air“ (v. 26b). This is a parallel metaphor to “run aimlessly.” Paul isn’t shadow-boxing his way through life. He isn’t swinging wildly, with no purpose or strategy.
“but I beat (hypopiazo) my body and bring it into submission” (doulagoyo) (v. 27a). The verb hypopiazo is a compound word that can be literally translated “hit under the eye,” but in this context it has more to do with subduing one’s passions.
The verb doulagoyo that can be literally translated “enslave,” but in this context it means imposing a discipline to bring his body into subjection. We might ask, “Into subjection to what?” Paul would answer that he is determined to bring his body into subjection to his goal of the spiritual prize that he is pursuing—and that he is encouraging these Corinthian Christians to pursue.
“lest by any means, after I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected“ (v. 27b). The great irony would if Paul were to proclaim the Gospel to other people (presumably in such a manner as to help them to win their salvation) while living a life that would disqualify him for that spiritual prize. He is determined not to allow that to happen. He practices spiritual disciplines himself so that he might be fitted for the kingdom of God.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2012, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan