Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
In a sports-obsessed culture, the meaning of these verses might seem self-evident.
From weekends spent at football games and tailgate parties at high schools, colleges, and professional stadiums alike, we seem to get what sports are all about: teamwork, determination, sacrifice.
Runners at any age training for 10Ks and marathons alike get what athletic training is all about: discipline, perseverance, fitness. Whether we enjoy sports from the comfort of our couches, the sidelines of a basketball court, or a solitary jogging trail, we turn to these verses with a plethora of experiences and emotions ready to interpret Paul’s athletic metaphors for the faith.
Perhaps, however, this is precisely where Paul loses us. He is imagining something analogous to our current sports culture but not something exactly the same.
Let’s review the text in brief. Verse 24 begins with a rhetorical question about the victor of a race. In Paul’s world, there are no medals for those who merely finish the race but only for the first to cross the finish line. In the exercise of our faith, we should strive to be like that victor. Notice though that the aim isn’t victory so much as a particular way of running the race. The comparison to our faith here is not the parallel of victory so much as the kind of effort and dedication victory requires.
The beginning of verse 25 confirms these parallels. It is not the runner’s victory nor the prize that really matters. Instead, Paul highlights how “athletes exercise self-control in all things” (1 Corinthians 9:25). The victor’s wreath is actually a mere shadow, a pale imitation of the “imperishable” wreath towards which we strive. Self-control remains at the center of the image Paul is drawing as we move to verse 26. The Christian “athlete” trains with a purpose in mind not “aimlessly” or in vain as a boxer looking to strike empty air.
Instead, Paul exercises self-control: “…I punish my body and enslave it” (1 Corinthians 9:27). An ascetic ideal is not necessarily in view here but more likely a way of life that aligns all things toward one aim: the proclamation of the good news. We prepare ourselves for a life defined by sharing the gospel through self-control and discipline.
As I wrote about last week, these verses come at the end of a long reflection of Paul’s “rights” as a called proclaimer of the good news and how he chooses to divest himself of these rights for the sake others. He could preach a gospel with strings attached but chooses to “make the gospel free of charge” (verse 18) so that as many people as possible might hear the good news. This athletic imagery is meant to help the Corinthian believers understand why he leads life this way, why he becomes “all things to all people.”
In our culture today, we might be tempted to see the athletic metaphor here as an appeal to a rugged individualism in our faith, an exhortation to individual self-control and self-improvement. Paul here is not drawing our minds primarily to the lonely and long miles a marathon runner must complete in training or to the positive aspirations to become physically fit. Paul does not imagine primarily that moment of victory when speed and determination allow us to finish the race before anyone else and we stand alone and victorious on the medal stand.
Instead, the wider context of the letter is an exhortation towards unity (see 1 Corinthians 1:10). The athletic metaphor is not meant to highlight the athlete, her discipline, or her achievements so much as her aims and the motivating force behind her efforts. In this case, Paul does not run or box for the sake of his self-improvement or to enhance his body. The aim is proclaiming the good news to others (1 Corinthians 9:23). The motivating force is the unswerving call of God (1 Corinthians 9:17).
Moreover, none of these athletic endeavors are solitary. Even the long-distance runner relies on the aid of others to support her efforts; a whole team of people — from family willing to part with the runner for long hours on a Saturday to medical professionals who help maintain physical health — support her efforts. In the same way, the Christian life is not led as individuals alone but as individuals bound up in communities of faith brought together by God. In the end, the athlete in Paul’s metaphor does not strive for her own sake but for the sake of God’s call to God’s people.
So, leave your sweatbands and football helmets at home. They may not actually illustrate these verses particularly well. Instead, like Paul, exhort your congregation to proclaim the good news of Jesus, to share with others a taste of the kingdom of God right here and now. And, like Paul, remind your congregation that the radical path of faith is not easy but demands us to persevere, to endure, to push past our weariness as we approach the finish line. Like Paul, remind your congregations that the reward that awaits us is not a medal that is displayed one day and then sold on eBay the next. Our reward is eternal and intangible yet vividly present now.