The Rules Of The Race

Selected highlights from this sermon.

In the book of Corinthians, the Apostle Paul takes up the theme of athletics and relates it to the Christian life. Athletes compete for a temporal crown, but Christians run for an imperishable prize. We need to seize our race with discipline, direction, determination, and discretion. And our reward? Everlasting delight! 

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There is a story that comes to us from the sports world about a basketball coach by the name of Cotton Fitzsimmons, who apparently was the coach of the Atlanta Hawks. I hope I have those facts correct. His team was in a slump and he decided to give them a pep talk before they went out on the basketball court, and the pep talk centered on the word pretend. He said, “You guys go out there today, and instead of us being in last place, pretend we’re in first place.” He said, “Instead of us losing, pretend that we are in a winning streak, and instead of this being an ordinary game, pretend that it’s a play-off game. Well, after the speech they went out on the basketball court, and the Boston Celtics soundly beat them. The coach was angry and upset. One of the players came and slapped him on the back and said, “Cheer up, Coach. Pretend we won.” (laughter)

The question that is often asked is how much power does the human mind have anyway? Can it really reorder reality? Is it possible for us to talk ourselves into being winners, when in point of fact we are losers? The Apostle Paul in the New Testament frequently used the imagery of games, particularly the Olympic games, as an example actually of how to live the Christian Life, and he did it because he said they had a corruptible crown, but we have an incorruptible crown. And so he used it as an example of winning and of losing, and of reward or lack of reward.

As you know, this is the fifth in a series of messages entitled Your Eternal Reward, experiencing gain and loss at the Judgment Seat of Jesus Christ. We’ve learned that because Protestant theology, particularly since the time of the Reformation, excluded all human merit in salvation, and correctly so, many theologians have therefore assumed that good works play no role in any kind of reward in heaven either. And therefore theologians have said that either we are all going to receive the same reward, or else rewards will be sovereignly granted quite independent of the way in which we lived here on this earth.

Now if you’ve been a part of this series, you know that I strongly disagree with that. It is true that all works prior to our conversion have no merit. That’s correct. But after our conversion our good works are made acceptable to God through Jesus Christ, and while we are not paid for what we do in the normal sense of understanding pay, there’s nothing that we could do to merit the wonderful things that God is going to give us. But while we cannot be paid for them, these are tests of faithfulness, and if we are faithful in that which is least, God says He will extend to us the true riches.

Now I want you to take your Bibles and turn to 1 Corinthians 9 where the Apostle Paul uses the analogy of the games - the Olympics and the Isthmian Games in Corinth.

A few words by way of introduction! We pick it up, by the way, in verse 24, of 1 Corinthians 9, but you should know first of all that nobody could be in these games (in these races) unless they were Greek citizens. Now obviously not all Greek citizens were in the race, but you had to be a citizen if you wanted to compete.

In the very same way, the race that we are talking about is one in which you need to be a citizen of heaven. It begins the moment you receive Christ as Savior. This is a race that is for those who are believers in Christ. If you are not a citizen of heaven, you may be in a race, but it’s not this one.

Also, we should keep in mind that if you are running in the Olympics, there can be only one winner. There can be a first, a second and a third, but there can be only one person who really comes in first. But in the race that we’re talking about, everyone can win because we are not competing among ourselves. The issue is not me comparing myself to you, or you to me. We are running because God has given to us an assignment, and we can fulfill that assignment completely as well as we are able whether there other people with the same assignments or different assignments, or with long lengths of life or short lengths of life. We are judged individually in that sense by God, so I want to talk to you today about a race that you can win. You can win it because we are not in competition with each other.

When the Apostle Paul uses the illustration of the games or the race, keep in mind he has a central point. And the central point is that whatever makes an athlete a winner, or whatever it takes to win as an athlete, is what it takes to win as a Christian. And that’s the point that connects the sports world and the world of the Christian life.

Now when it comes to athletics, some of you have a much better background. Many of you are interested in it, and some of you may be involved, seriously involved, in some sport. I have never been that good at sports. People always ask me whether or not I golf. Actually I think I’ve been golfing twice, but let me tell you about the first time. Here I am. I think I get something like 135. Everybody else comes in under a hundred, and yet I lose. I mean who has ever heard of that? I have more points than you so when they told me I had lost I was really teed off. (laughter) I was. I’ve never been back again. That was 20 years ago, and two games 20 years ago is plenty. I do say that I play some tennis. I kind of like that racket, but the point is that some of you are seriously into the games and into athletics, and so you can appreciate what the Apostle Paul has to say.

Let me give you the rules for winners. What does it take to win, to get the prize of the high calling of God? What does it take? By God’s grace today we’re going to find out.

Number one, it takes discipline. Your Bibles are open to 1 Corinthians 9 and I want you to notice how the Apostle Paul emphasizes discipline. Verse 24 says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. (and all can win, actually) Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

Paul was about 55 years old when he wrote this, and he’s saying (after establishing churches, after receiving these revelations from God, after writing Scripture that multitudes are going to read), “I still could blow it at the end of the race.” Years later in Timothy, when he notices the executioner’s ax hanging over his head, he knows then that he probably will not blow it any more. The possibility at least is gone, and so he says, “I have fought a good fight. I have kept the faith. I finished my course.” He made it to the end of the race.

But I want you to notice the way in which he emphasizes discipline. He says in verse 25, “Everyone who competes.” The Greek word is agonidzo. What does that word sound like? It’s our word agonize - everyone who agonizes. And if you know anything about professional sports you know that it is agony. He says they do it and they exercise self-control in all things – rigid, unrelenting discipline. And then he says, “I buffet  (bŭf′ĭt) my body.” You’ve heard me say that we like to read it, “I buffet (bə-fā′) my body.” But he means, “I beat my body black and blue.” Why does Paul say that? It’s because he knows that either he will master his body or his body will master him. It will be one or the other, and he says, “I keep it under control and I buffet (bŭf′ĭt) my body and keep it in subjection.” That’s discipline.

You talk to athletes. They are disciplined in terms of what they eat. Their taste buds have to take second place to building muscle and all the things that are needed to eat correctly. Their schedule is regimented and rigorous and unrelenting. You know sometimes in August you can drive past some of the high school football fields, or in other places – colleges – and you can see these guys with these heavy uniforms and helmets. They are sweltering under the blistering sun, and they look as if they have been consigned to a concentration camp. And the thing that I can’t get over is this. This is the shocker. It’s not just as if they look as if they are pretty well ready to disengage, but rather they are doing this voluntarily. Nobody held a gun to their head and said, “You have to do this.” They are doing it because they want to. Why? It’s because of a corruptible crown. They are going to get some kind of a trophy that people aren’t going to remember, and that will not help them one bit in a hundred years, or a thousand. And yet they are disciplined.

Now you take professional athletes. They will work together in the morning doing all of their exercises and running through all of their plays. In the afternoon they may practice alone. After dinner there are those who would go into their basement and look at videos of the opposition, trying to see how that football team operates, to know how they might gain some slight advantage.

Now don’t miss Paul’s point. What he’s saying is, “Translate that kind of discipline to the Christian life.” Translate that kind of commitment where you are up early in the morning. You are reading God’s Word until your soul is satisfied. You are involved in ministry. You are reading about the opposition. You know what the world believes. You are taking Evangelism Explosion so that you can witness and share your faith. And you know how to gain an advantage in the lives of those whose ears are closed to the Gospel because this is your consuming passion. Think of it! Translate that discipline into something that’s going to last.

You know, I think that there are many good people, Christian people, Christian young people who have made all the right decisions. They know what is important in life and they’ve made a series of good choices, but they aren’t going to amount to much, and I’ll tell you why. It is because they are too easily satisfied and they don’t want to pay the price that it’s going to take to get from point A to point B. Paul says, “If you intend to win, you must be disciplined. It can’t happen without it.”

I’ve been preaching, but now I’m going to, as they used to say, meddle a little bit. You know, this is just kind of an irritation that I have so I’ll just let it be known. You know my wife and I have three children that we’ve sent to school. Those children, essentially apart from some very rare occasions, were never late. We always wanted them there on time. In fact if you had three “tardies,” you were penalized. When people go to work today they aren’t late. You always are there on time, and yet somehow that is so difficult, isn’t it, to translate it to Sunday morning - to translate it to being on time for church, being on time for Sunday school. Somehow we think that’s an entirely different category. It doesn’t matter because there are no penalties involved.

And by the way, those of you who are really athletes, let me talk to you for a moment. Can you imagine this? There are people who actually subscribe to magazines on golf, for example. There are people who get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and go and play. People who I am told are perfectly normal in other ways do these sorts of things. Now you just think of translating that kind of focused interest to the things of God, and think of the implications.

Number one, do you want to win? The first rule to win for winners is discipline. The second rule is direction. Notice what the text says. Verse 26 says, “So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.” What Paul is using here are two important well-known sports – running and boxing. He says, “I run in such a way, but not without aim. I’m keeping my eyes in the right place.”

Now let’s suppose the Greeks had a race and they would begin (They would not have a gun go off, but there would be some noise that would signal the beginning of the race), and everybody would start to go in his own direction. Somebody said, “I like the mountains over here.” Somebody else said, “I want to run to the sea which is to my left.” And somebody else said, “I’m a sun lover. I’m just going to run in the direction of the sun.” Now they might be expending the kind of energy with which they could win, but they will lose because they run without aim.

Let’s take, for example, the sport of boxing. The imagery here is of someone who is boxing and he can never land a blow to his opponent. Every time he wants to do so and he takes his fist and he uses it to hit, nothing is there. All of that is expended energy. Why? It’s directionless – no focus. Now there are many people whose lives are like that. I’m not talk about you not knowing what your vocation is. When you are growing up, sometimes you switch vocations a number of times, and that’s understandable. I’m saying there are so many people who have no real centrifugal force to their life. They have no hub for all the spokes. There is very little deeply felt conviction and direction, and so their lives are lived that way, and they may not win the prize. They won’t win the prize.

As many of you know, I was born and reared on a farm, and as farmers we used to plant various things out in the field. And sometimes you had to begin a new field. Here you have this large one mile area of land and if you wanted to have one grain on one side and another grain on another, and you wanted to begin a new field you would begin and then take that tractor and look off into the distance and keep your eyes fixed on that target. And you could scarcely look back because you wanted that furrow to be as straight as it could possibly be. That’s the way it’s done. You fix your eyes on the target.

Now there is a story, which I believe is true, about a farmer who did that, who chose an object about a half mile away and just kept his eyes on that object and never looked back. But when he got to the end of the field and looked back he noticed that there was some curvature in the furrow that he had made. What happened was the object that he had chosen to look at was a cow. And as she wandered off in the pasture, he was following her.

Listen! You write this down. You see whether or not this isn’t right. You look at a crooked life, and see whether or not it is because there was no credible fixed point to which the person was aiming.

Do you know what the Apostle Paul says? He says, “I want to be apprehended. I want to have my hands laid on that for which Jesus Christ laid His hands on me.” And he says, “I strive toward the mark for the prize for the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. That is my life. It is my breath. It is my inner being. I strive for the prize of the high calling of God.” Now that’s direction. It’s not 40 things I dabble in, but this one thing I do.

Jesus said to Martha, “Martha, you are careful and troubled about many things, but one thing (life is a lot simpler than we make it) is needful and Mary has chosen that good part - the one thing that integrates all the others. And as we look at the life of Jesus Christ, and we look at the life of Moses (let’s take him first), it says that he endured as seeing Him who is invisible. He looked beyond the problems. He looked beyond Pharaoh. He looked beyond the desert with all of its waste and its thirst. And he looked beyond all the grumbling people around him, and all the agony that they brought to his life. He looked beyond all of that and he saw God.

A young man said to me once, “You know, my goal is to be a millionaire by the age of 30.” Well, I don’t know whether or not he’s a millionaire but he’s divorced by the age of 26. Somebody else says, “My goal is to be married no matter what.” Look out! Don’t ever have a goal that is not wrapped up in the centrality of Christ. “I do not run in such a way without aim.” Scattered shot! I don’t box as somebody who is just wasting all that energy and not making any blows. No, I have direction.

There’s a third rule for winners and that is determination.  Now for this you have to turn to the book of Hebrews, but keep your finger in 1 Corinthians 9. You know that the author of the book of Hebrews really wrote a similar passage of Scripture. The imagery of running the race occurs many times in the Bible. This is what he said in Hebrews 12, verse 1, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance (There’s the word you see) the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus.”

Just an interpretive comment! Many people think that this means that in heaven, up in the balconies, they are watching us run the race, and we’d better do well because they are cheering us on in Glory. That’s how they interpret the cloud of witnesses. Actually in context you have to always remember that there were no chapter breaks in the original writings. These were made by men, and sometimes they come in very unfortunate places. The witnesses are the heroes of the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, and it’s not a matter of them looking at us, but we are looking back at them. We glance at them, and we gaze on Jesus, and we say to ourselves, “Joseph was an overcomer, and Joshua was an overcomer, and Abraham was an overcomer. If they can do it, we can do it too.”

But you know now that it takes determination. It takes endurance, because if you run in the Olympics, the most difficult part, of course, is the last five miles. I think that’s true in any race. How do you make it to the end? How do you run to win, to use a good phrase that could be used, I think, for a radio program? How do you do that? Well, notice the rules here. Keep your weight down. One of the first things you do is you enroll in spiritual Weight Watchers. That’s what it says. You know it says, “Lay aside every encumbrance.” I like the King James Version here where it says, “every weight.” The encumbrances aren’t necessarily a sin. They are just a weight - people with lives cluttered, filled with trivial things that may not in themselves be sinful, but they are not really helpful. And you get rid of them.

There was a time in my life, as my children know, when I always wanted to try whenever possible to watch the 5:30 news. Somehow that was so important to me, and it was a weight. It was an encumbrance. It was not a sin, and so I have an agreement now with the world. It can go on whether I know what’s happening or not. I just simply made my peace with the whole thing. What a sense of freedom to get rid of encumbrances that sap your time and your energy, and long-term they may not be what you are really about in your relationship with God.

And then it says, “and the sin which does so easily entangle us.” Did you ever notice that sin has that characteristic of entanglement? People want to become wealthy real fast, mortgage their homes, entwined in a financial mess. Talk about entanglement – addictions entanglement. People have looked at this and said, “Well, what is the sin? And so they’ve said it’s pride, it’s lust, it’s unbelief. I think that deliberately the author did not tell us because you put into it whatever your sin is that entangles you. That’s the sin for you and for me. You say, “Well, Pastor, I don’t know what my sin is.” Well, good advice, of course, is to get on your knees and guess at it. Just guess at it. What do you think it might be?

We’re to keep our weight down. And we are to keep our feet free so that we don’t get entangled, and we are to fix our eyes on Jesus. Let me tell you, if you fix your eyes on other people, when they stumble you’re going down too. I may be talking to people here today who are stumbling. In fact, they are on the racetrack. They are bleeding. They are wounded, and it’s because of someone else who is running close to them who perhaps stumbled, or they looked at instead of looking at Jesus. And God has a way of always reminding us that the temptation is there to look at others, but when we do, we will be disappointed because even those in whom we had hoped and believed will not come through in the way we think they should. And therefore you have all these people along the road (along the track) who have stumbled. And so what we need to do is to keep our eyes on Christ.

Now, along the way we have to be picking people up and helping them, and wiping the blood off of them. You know there is an interesting story of Derrick Redmond in 1992 in the Olympics. He was running in a 400-meter trial heat, and as he was running he snapped a tendon, a hamstring muscle, and was in excruciating pain, in agony. And his father ran through the stands across the field, getting past the security detail that tried to stop him. And he ran to his son and he helped him, and they did what the newspapers called a three-legged wobble to the finish line because the boy said, “There was no way that I was not going to finish the race.” Now he was disqualified for the Olympics, of course, but spiritually speaking you can do that and you can make it and receive the wreath.

And do you know what my responsibility is, and yours? It’s to come alongside of people who have tripped and fallen and to help them up and to do a three-legged wobble to the finish line. You run with endurance. You run with determination. Discipline, direction, determination! 

Now, as you might guess, my fourth rule also begins with the letter “d,” and for that we go back to 1 Corinthians 9 and 10, and that is you run with discretion. What do I mean by that? Did you know that chapter 10 is an illustration of some who have run the race unsuccessfully and will not be rewarded? Again, the chapter division is unfortunate because Paul says, “I preached to others but I myself could be disqualified.” He said, “I might miss the crown.”

And I might miss the crown, and members of the staff might miss the crown, and the leadership here could miss the crown. We all have the potential of incredible failure.

And then it says, “For I do not want you to be unaware brethren.” And now it begins to talk about the nation Israel, and may I summarize this by simply saying that there is a contrast in the first few verses between the marvelous blessings, which God poured out upon the nation, and the wonderful start that they got in the race, and the disaster at the finish line?

The blessings are many. “Our fathers were all under the cloud and passed through the sea. They were baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea. They saw the miracles of the spiritual food, the manna. They saw God bring out water from the rock.” Verse 5, “Nevertheless with most of them God was not well pleased for they were laid low in the wilderness, and this happened unto them for examples for us.” Wow! What a story! Idolatry, immorality, ingratitude!

You see, not all those who died in the desert (who never made it to Canaan) were lost. Some of these people may be lost forever in the Lake of Fire someday, but most of them were people who were going to be in heaven, but they just didn’t get into Canaan. They were saved by the blood of the Lamb in Egypt. They came through the Red Sea, and they began well. The gun went off. The race started, and lo and behold they were sidetracked and they were judged by God. They displeased Him, and as a result, lost the crown. And what the Apostle Paul is saying is that that can happen to us. Remember it says in 1 Timothy, “You compete; it’s according to the rules.”

“Ben, tell us it ain’t so.” That’s the way the newscaster began an evening newscast in Canada back in 1988 when Ben Johnson was disqualified. Most of Canada stayed up almost all night to see him win the race and to see him win the “gold.” And Canada was ecstatic. But he was found to have illegal drugs in him and the gold medal was taken away. What a tragedy and what a humiliation for Canada, for him, and really for the whole sport.

You know there are people today that we applaud and say, “They have crossed the finish line; they have won.” That’s why Paul says, “Judge nothing before the time because we’re not sure that they have won yet, because it’s not up to us to give the crown.” You never know what hidden flaw, what hidden problem there may be that might at the end cause disqualification. I do not want to say that with a great deal of emphasis lest it be misunderstood. All of us have our faults. All of us struggle with our sins, but I mean that there are those who may not be competing according to God’s rules even though to us it may appear as if they do.

Discretion! You know where the potholes are. You know where other people have stumbled. You see the path littered with the wreckage of other lives that have fallen into the ditch, even though they have been a part of the race. Watch it! Live with discretion!

We have discipline, direction, determination, discretion, and of course if your want another rule for the winner, it’s finally going to end with “delight.” Notice the Apostle Paul said, “They do it to receive a corruptible crown.” They received the laurel wreath of flowers. How long do you think those flowers were fresh and looked beautiful in a culture that had no refrigeration? A couple of hours? A few of days and they would wither and maybe they would just keep the withered flowers with them. Yeah, but that’s all. They received the applause of men, but it’s a perishable crown. And think of how hard they worked for it, and it is gone. It is gone when they are gone. Oh, in the minds of some people they may remember the past, but it is no great moment. “But,” says Paul, “we do it for an imperishable crown,” a crown that will last forever, a crown that will endure, and not only that, it isn’t presented to us by the Olympic Committee, bless them. It’s presented to us by Christ. And at the end of the day, it’s His approval that really makes the difference.

Today I speak to a number of different people. I may be speaking to those who are not in this race. You’re in the human race. The only requirement to be in the human race is to be born. But to be in the race that we have talked about today, you must be reborn by the Holy Spirit so that you can be enlisted. And you will be enlisted in this race the moment you come to the end of your own attempts at salvation, and trust Christ as Savior. And I urge you to do that. Remember, you can’t enter this race unless you are a citizen of heaven.

But I speak to others. Some of you have been bruised and bloodied because when one runner goes down he usually takes another runner down. If I fall, some people fall with me. You have been looking maybe at other people and that has caused you to stumble, or you have been ensnared by sins and your whole life is one of fumbling and stumbling. Will you let us help pick you up? It’s one of the reasons we exist as a church, you know. There are a lot of wounded people walking around, disappointed in others, disappointed in experiences, frustrated. We desire to help pick you up. We want to do that three-legged wobble to the finish line. We want you to do well, and we need you to help us do well through your prayers and through your support and through picking us up when needed. And so together we want to win.

I have an assignment for you. You have 168 hours this week. I want you to take out one. Maybe it’s even your prayer wall hour. Here’s what you do. Get alone for an hour, and ask yourself this question: What would you do if you were told, and you absolutely knew, that you had three years to live? Now the reason that’s a good assignment is because it has been pointed out that nothing focuses the mind like the knowledge that one is to be hanged. There’s something about the knowledge that you’re going to die that helps you cut away all of the riffraff and the clutter, and get down to what’s essential. What would you and I do if we knew that we have three years? What changes would we make? What do we need to do to run in order to win?

A businessman has this on his desk. “In 20 years what will you wish you had done today?” And then underneath in bold letters it says, “Do it now.”

Will you remember that whatever it takes to be a good athlete, that’s a tremendous price. It is that that is necessary to be a winning Christian. Focused energy, discipline, direction, determination and the commitment to say, “With God’s grace I want to do well.”

I told the Lord last night as I was praying about this message that I really do want to do well, but I need to take the warning also lest possibly after I’ve preached to others I could be disqualified. You could be disqualified. At this moment let us ask God to build into our lives whatever it takes to capture the imperishable wreath.

And will you pray?

Thank You, Father, for Your love and mercy and for the grace of Christ, and we pray for everyone of us at this moment. We really, really, Father, want to do well, but oftentimes we do stumble, and sometimes we cause others to stumble. Enable us, Lord, to commit that we might hear Your “Well done.”

And now before I close this prayer, what is it that you need to say to the Lord right now? If He’s talked to you, you talk back to Him.

Hear the prayer of Your people, Father, for we are needy. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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