Lesser Crowns

David AyresBaustelle BerlinLeave a Comment

On Sunday our epistle reading was from 1 Corinthians 9.

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 someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to 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 the middle of an epistle addressing what could easily be 21st century church problems (among them, politics and division, sexual immorality, infighting and lawsuits, confusion about spiritual gifts and denial of the resurrection), the apostle uses an illustration that might also easily be lifted out of the 21st century–a sports illustration of all things!

Obsession with sports is not only a modern-day phenomenon. In ancient times, wars were sometimes put on hold so that athletes could travel, train and compete in the world games. The Olympic games date back at least to 776 B.C. The Isthmus of Corinth was the site of the Isthmian Games, a step below the Olympic Games, but held every two years. St. Paul’s illustration would easily have resonated with his Corinthian readers. They would have been quite familiar with athletic training and competition, which were as grueling then as now.

Indeed, the word Paul uses, which is translated “competes” in verse 25, is the root of our English word “agony.” Ask the athletes who excel in their field, and they will tell you about the agony involved in achieving top form.

Around the end of the first century, stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote this: “So you wish to conquer in the Olympic Games, my friend? And I, too… But first mark the conditions and the consequences. You will have to put yourself under discipline; to eat by rule, to avoid cakes and sweetmeats; to take exercise at the appointed hour whether you like it or not, in cold and heat; to abstain from cold drinks and wine at your will. Then, in the conflict itself you are likely enough to dislocate your wrist or twist your ankle, to swallow a great deal of dust, to be severely thrashed, and after all of these things, to be defeated.”

Perhaps, not a motivational speech for setting one’s sights on the Olympic crown, but a reminder that the road to Olympic glory was not easy.

Paul says to his readers (to us), look at these athletes striving so hard and with such determination for a crown that will not last. (The coveted laurel crown would have wilted within a few hours.) How can it be, Christians, that we strive so little for the crown which is eternal? Where is our focus? Where is our zeal and enthusiasm, our discipline, our commitment, our energies and follow through—for something so important?

Paul is determined to beat his own flesh into submission–not a reference to injuring his physical body, but being victorious over the sinful nature within him that fights against God and hinders his run for the eternal prize. The apostle was concerned that even after preaching the gospel to others, he might personally be disqualified. He recognized the deadly result of indulging the weakness of his own flesh. It is a sobering thought, made more sobering, when read in the context of the verses that follow in 1 Corinthians 10. There Paul reminds us that despite having received the wonderful blessings of God, most of the Israelites, who were rescued from slavery in Egypt, died in the desert and never reached the promised land. Paul writes, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”

Yes, Paul would say, salvation is by grace through faith alone. We do nothing to earn God’s grace, but God’s grace must never be taken for granted. We must in His grace, persevere to the end. We receive no prize if we do not finish the race.

It seems Paul kept the sports illustration before him his entire life. He wrote to Timothy near the end, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8)

Are you and I “agonizing” for the crown of glory? Are we longing for the appearing of Christ, anticipating the joy of receiving the crown He will give to those who win?

I am afraid that we are too often distracted by lesser crowns, having set our sights on things below. Yes, we are trying to follow Jesus, but we also have many other things to do. But the Christian life of discipleship is not simply one race among many that we must run each day. We do not fit the Christian life into our busy schedules. Our busy schedules (work, education, relationships, family, hobbies, pleasures, etc., etc.) must be sacrificed and brought within the rigorous training and competition regimen of following Jesus.
Rather than continuing an already-too-long sermon here, I urge you to take time considering what lesser crowns may have captured your vision, and what needs to be done to set your eyes again on things above.

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