Have you ever been in a race? Have you ever watched a race? I’m going to assume that you answered, “Yes,” to at least one of these questions. Races are familiar, and it makes a powerful image for Christian living. Paul writes, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So, run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. “So I do not run aimlessly” (1 Corinthians 9:24–26 ESV).
Purposeful and disciplined. Races have a starting line and a finish line. They are goal oriented, which makes a great analogy for Christian living. We are to live a life of faith and be pleasing to God, so that in the age to come, we will spend an eternity with God. That’s why in this race analogy Paul notes the self-control of the runner. He notes about himself that he does not run aimlessly. The Christian life is to be purposeful and disciplined because we have a finish line that we are running towards. And unlike the race where there is one winner, Paul encourages that the victor’s wreath is available to all the faithful.
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up 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 loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7–8, ESV, emphasis mine)
When Paul speaks of “the crown of righteousness,” there is a parallel with the wreath of 1 Corinthians 9:25. Both crown and wreath are the Greek word stephanos (στέφανος, Strong’s #G4735). It refers to the victor’s wreath as opposed to the royal crown, which in Greek is diadem. So, Paul is comparing the prizes of an athletic contest to the reward of Christian living. The athlete’s wreath is perishable, but the Christian’s wreath is imperishable. There are many things people chase after. Most of them are perishable. If I want to capture the true meaning of life, I must be aiming for the imperishable and eternal with purpose and self-control.
Finish the Race. When I was in college, I would run laps around a track for exercise. I would reach a point where I couldn’t go on but hadn’t quite reached my goal. But by pressing on, I would gain “a second wind.” Perseverance made the difference. For most of us, the Christian race will not be a sprint but a marathon. We need to ponder Paul’s statements about his Christian life: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Christian living will involve opposition which we must resist. It involves finishing a course. Races are not meanderings that go anywhere you want to go. To change metaphors, our course is “the narrow way.” And finishing this course means, we have kept the faith. We have believed the Scriptures. We have trusted in the One revealed there. We have followed Jesus to the end.
— Russ Holden