When I was in junior high, I hated gym.
I was great at math. One of my friends even drew a mustache over my yearbook picture and labeled me “The Quadratic Kid.”
But I was short, chubby, and two years younger than everyone else in the class. I couldn’t do a push-up and couldn’t climb a rope. When we ran cross-country, I would be late to my next class: all the other kids were showered, dressed, and gone, but I’d still be out somewhere in the neighborhood, huffing and puffing my way up a hill. Eventually, I broke an ankle playing flag football, and the pediatrician said, No more.
And just like that, I was done with gym.
So you’ll understand if don’t personally identify as well as I might with the metaphors Paul drew from the world of athletic competition. But no matter: Paul’s imagery would have made perfect sense even to the armchair quarterbacks of his day, people who enjoyed watching Olympic competition or even the biennial Isthmian Games held in Corinth.
In previous posts, we’ve seen how Paul had to defend his behavior to his critics in Corinth. And now, wrapping up the argument, having explained why he would limit his own legitimate freedom to be “all things to all people,” he tries to give the Corinthians a vision of the Christian life that makes sense of his self-discipline:
Don’t you know that all the runners in the stadium run, but only one gets the prize? So run to win. Everyone who competes practices self-discipline in everything. The runners do this to get a crown of leaves that shrivel up and die, but we do it to receive a crown that never dies. So now this is how I run—not without a clear goal in sight. (1 Cor 9:24-26a, CEB)
Paul states what should be perfectly obvious to all. If you enter an Olympic footrace, you’re in it to win. You don’t even get to participate unless you subject yourself to a rigorous training regimen that will require sacrifices in every area of life. And when the race finally begins, you don’t run aimlessly: with the vision of winning, you point every fiber of your being at the finish line.
All of the spectators in the stadium understand this. But what’s it all for? There is the moment of glory when the laurel wreath is placed on the victor’s head. But the wreath withers, and the glory fades.
If people are willing to sacrifice so much for a wreath that withers, what should we be willing to do for an everlasting crown? This is how I run, Paul says. I run with a single-minded focus on that crown.
Paul is not necessarily saying that Christians live for an actual crown. The metaphor is meant to convey a permanent version of a withered laurel wreath. Moreover, the language he uses here points forward to chapter 15, where he will talk about the “perishable” putting on the glorious and “imperishable” resurrection body. That is our future hope; that is the goal toward which we live as Christians.
And that goal-directed way of living demands discipline and sacrifice. Paul makes the point even more strongly with his next metaphor, drawn from the boxing ring. We’ll spar with that one in the next post.