(Fifteenth in a series on Christ’s church)

            As we continued our series of messages on Christ’s church last week we began to focus on the question, “In what manner does the church accomplish her mission?” We know the church’s mission is to glorify God on earth by manifesting his character and continuing his ministry of making disciples of all nations.  But the question remains, HOW is that accomplished?  There are many answers to that question and last week we saw the church accomplishes her mission as the army of God.  We saw from the Scriptures that followers of Christ are by nature, spiritually militant people.  The topic of the church militant or spiritual warfare has become something of a “hot-topic” in certain segments of the church today.  There are teachings and conferences and entire ministries devoted to this militant aspect of our faith.  Ironically, what is often lacking in these treatments, which we only touched on last week, is the question; what are the distinguishing characteristics of a soldier’s life?  There is much discussion of things like; what Paul means by “the shield of faith” and “strongholds” and how to do so-called “warfare prayer,” but not as much on a far bigger issue.  That is; how does being a soldier of Christ impact how we live our daily lives?  John Piper speaks of this irony.  He says, “…life is war.  But most people do not believe this in their heart.  Most people show by their priorities and their casual approach to spiritual things that they believe we are in peacetime, not wartime...  In wartime, we are on the alert.  We are armed.  We are vigilant.  In wartime, we spend money differently—there is austerity, not for its own sake, but because there are more strategic ways to spend money than on new tires at home.  The war effort touches everybody.  We all cut back.  The luxury liner becomes the troop carrier.”  There is a profound difference between peacetime and a wartime mentality and we have been given just a taste of that since 9/11.

            The question is, if we are in a war, how would someone looking at our lives be able to tell we are in a war?  How do our lives reflect a wartime mentality?  As we saw last week, the bible uses the idea of war to illustrate the hardships of the Christian life, but there are other biblical illustrations or designations for the church that point in the same direction and communicate many of the same truths.  The text we look at today expresses much of what this wartime mentality looks like but simply uses a different illustration. Turn with me to 1 Corinthians chapter nine beginning with verse 24.  Before we read the text, we need to place it in its context.

            There was a notion circulating in the church at Corinth that Paul was not a true apostle because he was not one of the twelve.  In this text, he testifies of the authentic, Christ-likeness of his ministry by reminding the Corinthians that during an earlier visit to them, he chose to live as a servant among them and one way he did that was by not taking advantage of some of the rights he had as an apostle.  He mentions things like the right to make a living from the gospel—to be financially supported for his ministry.  He claims that as a right for all apostles, yet he reminds them he did not assert that right when he was with them, but instead got financial support elsewhere so as not to burden them. After saying he has lived like this, he then ends this chapter by applying these truths to the Corinthians.  He explains this sacrificial attitude through the use of two illustrations. He says, beginning in verse 24, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?  Run in such a way as to get the prize.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.  They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.  No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

            Even though Paul illustrates these truths by using a runner and a boxer, he is talking about many of the same issues that comprise a wartime mentality.  Paul uses these designations of a soldier and an athlete very similarly.  In 2 Timothy 2:3 which we quoted last week, Paul says, “Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.  No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants to please his commanding officer.  Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules.”  Do you hear the way in which, though Paul is making a slightly different point, he uses the soldier and the athlete in similar ways?  Much of what enables a person to be a good soldier is interchangeable with what makes a person a competitive athlete.  There is much cross over there in terms of attitudes and behaviors.  So this morning, we want to look more deeply at the intense nature of the Christian life by seeing the church through the biblical designation, not of the conquering soldier, but the victorious athlete.

            The text in First Corinthians chapter nine lays out two characteristics that should mark the church as we live out the qualities of a victorious athlete.  He takes these metaphors from the athletes who trained for the Olympic games held in Greece during Paul’s time.  These two qualities the church should reflect are 1. High intentionality or purposefulness and 2. extreme self-control. First let’s see that the church and individuals within her carry out her mission by being highly intentional.  We see this in verses 24 and 26.  Paul says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?  Run in such a way as to get the prize.”  Paul’s point isn’t about beating out other Christians in some sort of spiritual competition.  He is saying in effect, “When you watch a marathon race and watch the intensity, the focus, the gritty determination demonstrated by the winning runner, apply THAT—those winning qualities to the way you live as a follower of Christ.”  People who win Olympic marathons don’t break the tape by wandering off the course to pick flowers or waving to the crowd or stopping to rest.  They win by focusing on one objective—running as fast as they can at a pace they can maintain for as long as they can.

They are focused on the finish line.  There will be plenty of time for rest when the race is over—now is not the time for leisure and diversion—now is the time for intense focus.  There is intentionality here.  This event is filled with excitement and challenge for them, but they are not there fundamentally to have fun—they run to win and they will do whatever it takes within the rules to win.  If the field is highly competitive, when they hit the tape they are spent—they have left everything they had on the racecourse.  They are not casual joggers, stopping to listen for birds singing and making idle conversation along the way.  He says, “Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.  The contrast Paul draws here is almost comical.  He says, “runners don’t run willy-nilly, first to one side of the road and then to the other—reeling like a drunk.  And boxers don’t go into the ring and start to punch arbitrarily in the air with no reference to their opponent.”  The picture is of athletes who are somehow engaged in their sport, but are competing with no goal in mind.  They run willy-nilly—there may be much activity but no direction.  The boxer is throwing a lot of punches but not with any real intention of landing any. There is no ultimate goal in mind—no intentionality—no purposefulness.

This word is so badly needed today.  The Christian life is not about doing a lot of religious activity.  Its possible to have a life and a church filled with ministry and religious activity, but there is no direction, no purpose in mind other than to keep busy.  The value is on activity, not doing something to win the prize.  Being busy is often substituted for being obedient and it’s the obedience that comes from faith that wins the prize as we follow Christ.  Being busy in ministry is no way to please God unless you are busy doing what he told you to do.  Some people in church have no sense of intentionality or focus in their lives or ministries.  Their lives resemble more a leisurely jog through the park than a winning effort in the Olympic marathon.  They don’t work up a sweat as they follow Christ.  The Christian life is for them something that just happens to them.  There’s no great sense in which they are on a mission.  They have the idea that we just kind of busily meander along in life and one day we just die and go to heaven.  That picture is not at all consistent with the highly intentional, purposeful, goal-oriented, finish-line-focused life of a victorious athlete.

The second quality of a victorious athlete that should characterize those within the church of Christ is extreme self-control.  We see this in verses 25 and 27.  In 25 Paul says,  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.”  The NASB is much more literal there and it says, “And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things.”  The life of the victorious athlete is marked by self-control in all things.  There is a comprehensive self-control—not just in certain areas, but in ALL things.  To be self-controlled means to “exercise mastery over oneself.”  To be self-controlled means that all your passions, all your appetites, all your desires are firmly contained and controlled.  You are not a slave to your desires; your desires are enslaved to you.  Paul graphically illustrates this in verse 27 through the image of a boxer.  He says, “No, I beat my body and make it my slave...” That word use for “beat the body” literally means to blacken someone’s eye.  The point is this; Paul was willing to do whatever it took to keep his self-oriented, self-indulgent flesh from influencing him as he fought the good fight.  He didn’t want any of his self-indulgent desires to interfere with his higher, God-placed desire of being faithful to Christ.

We’ve all seen this in world-class athletes in strict training.  Their desire to win—to cross the finish line first determines what they eat, how much they eat, how often they eat, how much they sleep, what they drink, how much time they spend with friends, how much they train and when.  Their desire to win the upcoming race impacts virtually every area of their lives.  Winning the race becomes the center of their lives around which everything else orbits and that means they are forced to say “no” to dozens of their other desires.  They may want to eat a “quarter-pounder with cheese” or a hot fudge sundae, but they refuse to let that appetite rule them—they crush it. They may want to sleep in an extra half hour, but they haul themselves out of bed.  They may want to spend leisure time with friends and family, but they say, no. They may want to run three miles today instead of five, but they run five.  Self-control becomes a way of life because they subordinate their competing appetites and desires and passions to their ultimate desire of winning the race.

Do you hear how self-control is part of being intentional and purposeful?  Placing your focus on winning the race invariably means that everything that does not contribute toward that goal is greatly reduced or eliminated.  The intentionality mandates self-control. Saying “yes,” to one thing means saying, “no” to others. You can’t be intentional and focused without self-control.  Pursuing one goal with intensity inherently means that other competing goals and desires are dropped.  Wanting to win the race makes a profound, earth-shattering impact on their lives.  Paul says, that kind of intensity—that kind of self-control should be the mark of the Christian, of the church of Christ.  Some may respond, “God, doesn’t expect that kind of self-control from the believer, does he?  The answer is, “no, he doesn’t…if anything, he expects more.” 

We see this in verses 25 and 27.  Paul says in the second half of verse 25, speaking of the athlete, “They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”  Paul draws a huge contrast between the prize of a victorious athlete and the prize awaiting the faithful follower of Christ.  The Olympian in Paul’s time went through all this strict training so he could wear a laurel wreath around his head.  They spend months saying “no” to their passions, desires and appetites for a measly laurel wreath and some popular recognition.  Now, it must be conceded that today’s first place finisher in the Olympic marathon wins not only a gold medal, but hundreds of thousands of dollars in endorsements from corporate sponsors and an interview on the Today Show.  But Paul’s point hasn’t changed because whether you are talking about a laurel wreath or a million dollars, its ALL rotting pond scum compared to the reward of the believer—an eternity in the glorious presence of Christ.  That is the “crown that will last forever” Paul cites in verse 25.  So, by implication, Paul is asking, “if winning athletes practice this extreme self-denial in their own strength and for a perishable wreath, how much more should we exert extreme self-control in the power of the Holy Spirit and for an infinitely more valuable, imperishable wreath of glory for all eternity?”

Paul applies this to himself in verse 27.  He says, “No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to other, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”  This is a curious text because when you read what it says, Paul is clearly leaving open the possibility that he might not be in heaven if he doesn’t continue to exercise extreme self-control.  What is this about?  Is Paul saying that we have to work to keep our salvation?  Not at all  God saves us and God keeps us.  Any departure from that is legalism.  Paul is merely reflecting the truth of Colossians 1:22-23.  He says to the Colossians, “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—IF you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held our in the gospel.”  The true believer is one who continues in their faith.  They will have times of doubt and confusion and even defeat, but they will continue in the faith.  In Mark 13:13 Jesus says, “he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”  The mark of the presence of saving faith is that you continue—you persevere—you stand firm to the end.  What this text IS saying implicitly is that part of what enables us to continue in the faith—part of what enables us to stand firm to the end is the presence of extreme self-control.  Self-control is present in the believer’s life by the Holy Spirit (Self-control is part of the fruit of the Spirit).  And self-control is one of the conduits through which God’s grace flows into our lives to enable us to continue in the faith.

To say that self-control is essential to be a Christian should be no news to us.  Jesus says in Luke 14, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple and anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple…any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” There is no difference between what Paul is saying in First Corinthians nine and what Jesus says in Luke 14.  Jesus uses the metaphor of the cross.  Paul uses the metaphor of the winning athlete and the boxer in competition, but the message is the same.  That is; every other passion, desire and appetite must be subordinated to our passion for Christ.  That is the mark of a true disciple.   As we look at our own lives and seek to repent of our sin in this area its absolutely crucial that we see this intentionality and self-control through the lens of competing desires.  The reason Paul beat his body was to make sure that no other desire would be stronger than his desire for Christ.  This is not masochism—it is simply acknowledging that our hearts are idol factories that readily crank out competing passions if we do not keep them in check.

Paul says in First Corinthians 6:12, “Everything is permissible for me”—but not everything is beneficial.  “Everything is permissible for me”—but I will not be mastered by anything.”  Here, Paul lays out two criteria, two questions we should ask of our potential purchases, possessions, relationships, activities and pass-times before we allow them into lives.  If they don’t pass these two criteria, then we should exercise self-control and eliminate them or greatly minimize them.  The first question is—is it beneficial or (more literally) “profitable” for me in my walk with Christ?  The question so many believers ask today to determine if something belongs in their lives is very different.  It is, “Is it bad for me?” That is, is it immediately spiritually toxic to me?  If the movie doesn’t have too much bad language in it or the television program doesn’t have too much raunchiness in it, its ok.  That’s an utterly unbiblical standard of judgment.  The biblical test is, “is it beneficial to me?  What does it do to edify or strengthen or renew me in some way? 

The other question we must ask of the various elements of our life through is, “will it master/control me” or, “Is this now mastering me?”  That is, is this person, or thing or activity causing my love for Christ to wane in some way?  Susannah Wesley defined sin as “If anything weakens your reasoning, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God or takes away your relish for spiritual things—in short, if anything increases the authority and the power of the flesh over the Spirit, that to you becomes sin however good it is in itself.”  That definition is consistent with Paul and Jesus.  If there is something or someone or some activity in our life that we are more impassioned about than Christ, then we must do what Paul did and beat our body---blacken our eye—do whatever is necessary for that passion to become subordinate to our passion for Christ.  And these things are very often not sinful in and of themselves.  There is nothing wrong with food, but when you just have to go to a restaurant because of their cherry cheesecake or you get cranky when the wife burns the steak, you are not master over that and you need to beat your body in that area.

If you are thinking more about the outcome of the Super Bowl than you are worshipping God, you need to beat your body and refuse to watch the game because you’ve allowed football to own a piece of your heart God bought and paid for with the blood of his Son.  The same is true for hockey and basketball and any other sport.  The same is true for whatever your passion is—if it is not spiritually beneficial to you or if it is in some way obscuring your passion of Christ—beat your body, go to the cross and lose it.

Paul’s point in this text is not just in those crisis-of-decision times, however.  He says he is like an athlete in strict training all the time so that no warring passion can subtly invade his life and take pre-eminence.  He constantly beats his body.  Biblical self-control is a way of life.  If we practice self-control, Paul indicates that greatly reduces the likelihood that any other passion will ever dominate us.  The question is; how do we practice a lifestyle of self-control so that we can more and more eliminate the possibility of having a warring passion take over our hearts?

There are endless possibilities, but start with the areas you think may be mastering you now.  If you JUST HAVE to go to a certain restaurant or a certain barber or a certain grocery store or buy a certain brand of ketchup in order to be content—drop those things because they own you.  You have given them the power to make you happy and if they are absent, you get mad or sad.  They’re idols--drop them.  If there are other non-essential activities, or foods or people you JUST have to interact with—lose them—they are potential millstones around your neck.  This will hurt just like it hurts that athlete to get out of bed at 5:00am, but that self control enable us to grow in Christ and not be taken captive by sin.  Beyond that, we need to simply practice self-control in all areas.  When you go to the grocery store, make a list and when you make your list, discipline yourself to refuse to buy one thing that’s not on that list unless you just forgot to put it on the list—don’t even buy a candy bar at the check-out lane.  Now, am I saying we must do this to get God to love us or make us acceptable to Him?  Absolutely not.  We are not talking about that at all!  What we are talking about is living a self-imposed, self-controlled life in order to break down potential idols before they have a chance to take root in our hearts.  If we truly love Jesus and He is the prize we treasure most, we will live with a great aversion to creating and maintaining idols.

A huge area of self-control is with our tongues.  James 3:2 says, “We all stumble in many ways.  If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.”  That means by implication, if you have self-control over your tongue, then everything else by comparison will be downhill.  We must focus with ruthless intensity on not slandering, gossiping, lying, using coarse language or innuendo.  That is an enormous area and we must show self control there.  We beat our bodies by not saying what our sinful flesh wants to say even if those sayings have earned us a reputation of being clever or funny or popular.  Reputations and caring too much about what other people think about us are towering idols in our lives and we must lay them at the feet of Jesus.

We must never do these things to earn our salvation, but we must never neglect them because Paul says neglecting them can cause us to be disqualified for the eternal prize and show that we are not part of God’s elect.  We must ask ourselves, “If there is a war going on, what is there about my life that shows to others that I’m in active duty in Christ’s army?” May God give us the grace to show intentionality and self-control as we live as victorious spiritual athletes for Christ.


Page last modified on 2/4/2002

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