I Corinthians 9:24-10:5
Do interviews with athletes.
1. What sport are you involved in and where?
2. What preparation and discipline is required to play the sport?
3. What is the reward for playing?
The greatest sporting event in the world today is probably the Olympics. The first modern Olympic games were held in 1896, but the history goes way back to the ancient Olympic Games which were held in Olympia, Greece, from the 8th century BC to the 5th century AD. The primary events at those games were running and boxing.
The Olympic Games were, however, not the only games held in ancient Greece. Second to the Olympic games were the Isthmian games which were held every three years in years when the Olympics were not held. The Isthmian games were held in the Isthmus of Corinth and it may have been the year for these games when Paul was writing his first letter to the Corinthians. That may be the reason for his use of the images which he uses in I Corinthians 9:24-10:13 to teach the Corinthian Christians some important lessons about what it means to follow Jesus. Let’s read the text and listen to what God’s Word has to say to us.
I. The Challenge to Discipline
A. The Goal We Strive For
When we are involved in any sport there is always a goal we are striving for. I have spoken with people who run and even if they have no hope of winning the race, they usually have a goal of a personal best. For hockey players, the goal is the Stanley Cup. For football players the goal is the Grey Cup. For high school basketball players it is winning the provincial banner. For anyone who competed in the Isthmian games the prize was a pine wreath.
It is obvious that a pine wreath would not last very long. But I have to confess that I had to look up who won the Grey Cup last November. The reality is that although we may remember some victories for a while, most of these things are eventually forgotten or surpassed by other events. So when Paul says that the athletes who run in a race get a crown that will not last he is absolutely correct. He raises this to remind us that the prize we as Christians are looking towards is infinitely better than any prize which could come from any sporting event. Paul says, “…we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
We don’t always think in those terms and so it is important for us to be reminded of this eternal perspective. What does that eternal perspective look like?
You may have heard people say, “In a perfect world” and then describe their wishes.” Well what we are looking forward to is in fact a perfect world. Revelation 21:4 says, "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” In that perfect world, it will also be our privilege to be able to see God face to face.
Furthermore, the assurance is that it will last for all eternity. This is one of the most amazing things about heaven which we can hardly fathom now because our whole world is one in which everything ends. The football season ends, summer ends, childhood ends and life ends, but the reward we are looking forward to will never end. That is the prize we are looking forward to and what a wonderful prize it is!
Therefore Paul indicates that his whole life is dedicated to the purposeful pursuit of this eternal prize. He uses the imagery of running declaring that he is not running aimlessly but has a goal towards which he is running in his Christian life. He also uses the imagery of boxing and suggests that he is not missing with his blows, but is aiming his blows to strike the target of this eternal prize.
With our eyes firmly fixed on the physical world our strongest motivation often comes from what we need to make life in this world pleasant. The reminder of the eternal prize which we as Christians are looking forward to motivates us to look beyond the present and configure our lives with this eternal perspective in mind.
B. Self Discipline
And so Paul calls us as Christians to discipline ourselves to live towards eternity.
The athletes I interviewed earlier all indicated that in order for them to be able to achieve the goal they are striving towards took preparation and self discipline so that they could play their game well and have the strength and stamina to make it to the final.
For the ancient Olympic games and also for the Isthmian games it was required that any athlete who intended to compete in these games would dedicate themselves to 10 months of strict training and preparation.
In a similar way, Paul speaks of exercising self discipline. In verse 24 he says, “…run in such a way as to get the prize.” In other words, we can’t take our Christian life casually. Training and diligence is required. In verse 25 he says, "Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training." If an athlete wants to win the prize they must prepare themselves with diligence. So also a Christian who is striving towards the eternal reward cannot take their Christian walk casually. They also need to train themselves towards obedience and faithfulness. In verse 27 we read, “I beat my body and make it my slave.” This is strong imagery of diligent preparation and is a very strong call to self discipline. Paul was willing to undergo hardships so that he would learn how to live in holiness and how to be faithful to God.
This is probably a little hard for us to swallow. Everything in our world is designed to make things easier. Why shovel when you can use a snow blower? Why kneed bread by hand when you can use a bread making machine? Why paddle a canoe when you can put a motor on it? Yet physical activity is the perfect arena in which to point out that since we started using motors and machines we have had to deliberately design ways in which our body can get exercise in order to be healthy. Why would we think that as Christians we can just coast? The prize is much greater. What is at stake is much more significant. Morris says, “The strenuous self-denial of the athlete in training for his fleeting reward is a rebuke to all half-hearted, flabby Christian service.”
I hope that the images have convinced us that we cannot grow in our Christian life and be healthy in it without self discipline but what does spiritual discipline look like?
Spiritual disciplines include, from the positive side, doing whatever we can to make sure that we are well conditioned to face any challenge. A basketball player will spend hours shooting hoops from every place on the floor. Positive exercises for us as Christians that are essential elements of self discipline include daily reading the Word of God, regularly attending church, spending time nurturing our relationship with God, thinking theologically about our life, praying and seeking to let other people know about the love we have for Jesus.
On the other hand, spiritual disciplines also involve avoiding those things that will hinder top performance. Anything in our life that prevents us from following Jesus must be removed from our life. So, for example, if lust is preventing us from having a holy mind, then we need to remove whatever is provoking that lust.
Sometimes even good things need to be set aside in order to discipline ourselves. Sleep is a good thing and we know that a healthy person needs a certain amount of sleep in order to function well. While Carla was in training for the marathon, she was willing to give up a certain amount of sleep and get up sometimes as early as 4:30 in order to get in the training runs that would allow her to finish the marathon. Sometimes giving up good things will help us to grow and develop in our relationship with Jesus. For example, there is nothing wrong with having things in this world. A new ipod or a better TV, if we can afford them, are OK things. But perhaps it would be good for us to decide that for a period of time we will not purchase any new thing so that we diminish the pull of consumerism in us and so that we can donate more money to those who are poor. Perhaps some other kind of fast like giving up some sleep or some TV watching in order to spend time with God are what we need in order to train ourselves for godliness.
These are just a few suggestions about what it means to go into strict training. I suggest these few recognizing that there are many more things and that each of us needs to look at our own life and with a view to the great eternal reward and ask ourselves how we need to train ourselves for eternity.
II. The Danger of Carelessness
If you have followed the text you will have noticed a rather curious phrase in verse 24 which says that “only one gets the prize.” Of course we understand that this pertains only to the imagery being used of a runner. In any foot race there is only one person who crosses the finish line first. When it comes to the Christian life, we know that God’s grace assures us that all who believe in Jesus will receive the prize. Since that is the case, we may wonder, “then why do we need to strive for it?” If we emphasize striving for the prize, aren’t we in danger of working for our salvation or falling into legalism?
As we go into chapter 10, Paul uses an illustration from the Old Testament to remind us of the danger of carelessness. It is unique that he refers to this Old Testament example by speaking about the experience of “our forefathers” while writing to a Gentile audience. This means that the experience of Israel way back then has a lesson for us today as well. Gordon Fee writes, “…just as God did not tolerate Israel’s idolatry, so he will not tolerate the Corinthians’. We deceive ourselves if we think he will tolerate ours.”
A. Resting on Confidence
What Paul does not want us to be ignorant about is that Israel had what we have. He makes reference to a whole bunch of experiences which Israel had following their departure from Egypt.
When he says that they “were all under the cloud” it means that they all experienced the presence of God protecting them when they were in the desert. When it says that “they all passed through the sea” it reminds us that they were delivered by God from their bondage in Egypt and from the imminent danger of being destroyed by the Egyptian army. When it says that they were all “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” he is making a comparison to our experience of baptism. Just as we have symbolized our relationship to Jesus through baptism, they became the people of God when God delivered them from Egypt and they made a covenant with Him and the presence of God with them was a symbol of their belonging to God.
The communion imagery is spoken of in that they all ate and drank what God had provided. In their story it was water from a rock that they drank, and the bread they ate was the manna which God also provided.
In other words, all of these experiences represented a reality that they had a relationship with God in which He redeemed them, entered into a covenant with them, guided them and provided for them. In the same way, baptism and communion represent the reality of a relationship with God which assures us that He has redeemed us, has entered into a relationship with us, guides us and provides for us. The experience of Israel and our experience are parallel in terms of the relationship they had with God and the relationship we have with God.
In fact in the phrase, “they drank from the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” we have a glimpse into the true nature of Old Testament salvation and that is that they were also saved not by their animal sacrifices, but on the basis of the death of Christ which was yet future.
Yet Paul says in verse 5 that “God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.” Just because they had begun a relationship with God, does not mean that they entered the land that was promised to them. In fact all except two died in the wilderness. Barrett points to the parallel, “You have entered the Christian life through baptism: this does not guarantee your final perseverance.” Philippians 3:12 gives Paul’s personal perspective on this when he says, "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. "
The reason they did not make it was because they rested on their confidence and not on God.
B. Do Not Set Your Heart on Evil
The evidence of their carelessness manifested itself in sin. In I Corinthians 10:6 we read that their failure stands as an example for us so that we will not set our hearts on evil things.
In verses 7-10 we are reminded of four specific sins which they committed which caused the death of many of these people who rested on their confidence and became careless and stopped obeying God.
Verse 7 reminds us of their experience of idolatry. The reference is to the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32. While Moses was on the mountain receiving the law, they quickly gave up on the prohibition not to make images and formed the golden calf. NIV says, “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” They engaged in an idolatrous festival and in so doing left their obedience to God.
The next verse says that they engaged in sexual immorality. The story which is referenced here is that found in Numbers 25 in which many of them began to engage in prostitution with Moabite women. In their case it was not only sexual immorality, but a kind that was associated with idol worship. There were a large number of them who died because of this sin.
The third example is the story found in Numbers 21 in which they tested God. There are two different ways of looking at testing. One is to test with the expectation of success and the other is to test with the expectation of failure. It was the later which was the problem in this story. They did not believe that God would come to their help and so they spoke against God and also against His servant Moses. As a result, God sent poisonous serpents among them and many of them died.
The final example comes from either Numbers 14 or 16. In both of these instances, the people complained against Moses because God was not providing what they felt they needed. Their grumbling was dissatisfaction in spite of God’s leading and provision for them. Even though they had daily manna, they felt that their desires were not met and they doubted that God cared about them and complained that their taste buds were not as happy as they had been in Egypt. Once again, God destroyed many of them.
Each of these stories is chosen to illustrate the warning which Paul has been giving. They were God’s people and had been provided for, but these stories show that they did not discipline themselves nor maintain an attitude of faith in God and so walked into sin. There could have been many other examples which Paul could have chosen, but he chose these because he was aiming specifically at problems he saw in Corinth. They were tempted to eat in idol temples and so associate with idolatry, they were in danger of sexual immorality which was so prevalent in their city and they were grumbling against Paul’s leadership. The danger was great and they needed to take warning from the example of what happened to Israel.
The warning is also given to us. What do we see in these specific sins which speaks to us? Are we in danger of making idols? Certainly not in the sense which they were, but I wonder if consumerism hasn’t become an idol for us? What other idols might cause us to stop depending only on God? Are we in danger of sexual immorality? When the assumed perspective of the world around us expects that people will sleep around and live together before marriage, there is a great danger that some may fall into this sin. When we doubt the goodness of God in times of trial and tragedy, are we not also in danger of testing God? And what about grumbling? So even though these sins were aimed specifically at the Corinthians, they certainly land solidly in our world and stand as a warning to us.
III. Warning and Promise
A. A Warning for Us
So Paul concludes this section by declaring that all of these things were written down as a warning to us. We stand not at the beginning of God’s work of calling a people to Himself, but at the end. We are living in the time of the fulfillment of God’s promises. Jesus has come and we now live in the end time. We no longer wait for the coming of God’s promise in Jesus, but simply for their final completion.
As people who are living so near the end, the warning becomes even more significant because the truth is that Jesus could return at any time. When He does, will he find us entangled in sins that will leave us lost or will He find us striving daily to live in the reality of the new life which He has given to us. Paul clearly and directly declares the warning: “if you think you are standing, be careful that you don’t fall!!”
The Old Testament people assumed they stood because of their experiences with God, but they forgot about the meaning of that relationship and were careless and allowed sin to enter into their life. We are in the same danger and if we are not disciplined in our seeking after God and diligent in avoiding every temptation, we may find ourselves also falling into sin and forgetting what it is that we have been redeemed for and forgetting the grand prize which will be ours if we remain faithful.
B. God Is Faithful
But Paul seems loathe to leave this powerful theme with a warning and instead concludes with a promise. His promise is that God is faithful. God has begun the good work in us and God will help us complete it.
There are two things which God does in His faithfulness. One is to make sure that we will never be tempted beyond what we will be able to bear. Temptation is a common human experience. No one is a special case; we are all subject to the same type and intensity of temptations. But God will never allow temptation to force itself upon us so that we have no strength to refuse. The reality is that we often give up far too easily.
The other promise is that on every path of temptation that comes into our life, not from God, but from the world around us, God provides exit doors. All we have to do is walk through those exit doors. If we persist in pushing through to the temptation, the exit door does not help us, but it is always there and we need to look for it and take it.
Last week’s message pointed to Jesus and as we come to the conclusion of this message, I want to point to Jesus again. It is in Him that we will have the strength and ability to overcome.
So I want to invite you to remember one thing and commit to three things.
Remember that the reward for which we are waiting is amazing. Our life now is but a short piece of our life for all eternity and most of it will be in eternity and will be wonderful. That is the prize for which we have been redeemed and towards which we strive.
Therefore, I invite you to commit yourselves to the self discipline which will bring you towards that prize.
I invite you to commit yourself to examining your life to make sure that you are standing and not in danger of falling. If God’s Spirit is reminding you of some sin which is leading you towards destruction, confess your sin and know that He is faithful and just and will forgive your sin.
I invite you to commit your life to Jesus once again and to recognize the power, victory and joy there is in living in Him.
I invite you to make these commitments by declaring them to someone this morning so that they can pray for you and encourage you as you run along the path towards the prize.