Running the Race
In the first-century Mediterranean world, athletic competition enjoyed widespread popularity. Then, as now, the champion athlete was a local or even national hero, and success in sports was often the key to success in other areas of life.
Shortly before the time of the New Testament, the Olympic Games were revived after a period of decline and were occurring every four years, as they do today. In fact, the Olympics were part of a larger network of games. Among these were the Isthmian Games held every other year at Corinth when the apostle Paul came there with the gospel.
Whether Paul himself was an avid sports fan, as some want to maintain, is hard to say. Certainly there would have been some tension here for him as a Christian, because at that time athletic competition and pagan religion were thoroughly intertwined. Yet, in writing to the Corinthian church among others, Paul doesn't hesitate to refer to familiar sorts of athletic competition in order to picture the Christian life more vividly. He even uses words which were either exclusively or largely part of the sports jargon of his day. The Christian life, he says, is a fight to be fought and a race to be finished; its goal is a prize, a victor's crown (1 Corinthians 9:24, 25: Philippians 3:12-14; 2 Timothy 4:7, 8). Similarly, the writer to the Hebrews compares the Christian life to a long-distance race (12:1).
From one angle the similarity between athletic competition and our Christian experience is obvious. For a successful outcome both require total commitment, concentration and disciplined effort. These are gained only by extensive training and, above all, self-denial to the point of being willing to give up anything – no matter how good or proper in itself – if it stands in the way of obtaining victory (notice especially Paul's mentality in 1 Corinthians 9:19-27). Neither an Olympic gold medal nor “the crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8) comes automatically or with a half-hearted effort.
In at least two respects, however, the Christian life is unlike any athletic contest. Individual sports, especially, are intensely self-centered. The primary objective is to prevail so that I alone am the winner and the other contestants are losers. But the race to which the Christian is so intensely committed is one that he runs, not for himself, but for the sake of the gospel and its spread (again check 1 Corinthians 9:19ff.). The believer struggles energetically in order that all may be winners, “to present everyone perfect in Christ” (Colossians 1:28, 29).
Also, unlike any other contest, the race or fight in which Christians are involved is one which they have already won. Every believer says with Paul, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12). We Christians “run with perseverance the race marked out for us,” because on our behalf Jesus has already run before us by way of the cross into the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 6:20; 12:1, 2). Already, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). Imagine, an athletic event in which the outcome is not in doubt! But just for that reason all the more exciting and rewarding!