1 Corinthians 9:24-27

January 2, 2011 | Brian Bill

This past week our family had the opportunity to spend time with our nephew who has been in Army Basic Training for the past nine weeks.  To say the least, he is a changed man.  Before I go much further, if you have served in any branch of the service, would you please stand?  We want to tell you how much we appreciate you.  Among other things, you understand the importance of discipline, don’t you?

While we were all in my in-law’s family room, Beth’s dad asked him some questions to draw out the parallels between military training and spiritual training.  Incidentally, it was so cool to see this 73-year-old grandfather taking advantage of this teachable moment to make sure that his 12 grandchildren get what is most important.  I’m sure I missed some of what was shared because I was trying to take notes on my phone (people thought I was texting but I really wasn’t.  No really I wasn’t).

  • Surrender.  Just as in the Christian life, Ashton said there is no “halfway” in the army.  You are either all-in or you might as well get out.  Guys who were used to playing video games all night and sleeping until noon and are now up at 5:00 a.m. with their beds made.
  • Alignment.  Soldiers can’t pick and choose what rules to obey.  This was pretty amazing coming from Ashton because before he went in to the service, I think he enjoyed breaking rules…but not any longer.  An example of this is when someone asked him to put his beret on.  He quietly refused.  When he was pushed, he smiled and said, “The rules state that I can only wear it outside.”
  • Brokenness.  He shared about how the goal of basic training is to get recruits ready for combat.  He told us that he only has seven minutes to eat and that he is not allowed to talk or look at anything else.  Right after they eat they have to do some physical activity.  He told us that egos don’t fly in the Army.  He also said that his happiness is not the goal.  The goal is to be trained.

Spiritual Training Metaphors

we need to cultivate some healthy habits if we ever expect to grow in holiness

Have you ever looked at a mature believer and wished you could be like him or her?  Wouldn’t it be great to know the Bible to become a prayer warrior and be able to lead people to Christ and to have faith flourishing in our homes?  Most of us want instant growth, forgetting that what is behind a godly life is a person who has gone through struggles and trials.  Spiritual development only comes through practicing spiritual disciplines.  Another way to say this is that we need to cultivate some healthy habits if we ever expect to grow in holiness.  

There are two truths that we need to keep in balance.

  • God is committed to our growth.  1 Corinthians 3:6: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.”  God makes people grow.
  • We must take responsibility for our growth.  Check out 2 Peter 3:18: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ…”  We’re commanded to grow.

It’s not all up to God and it’s not all up to us.  God has designed it so that we work in partnership with Him.  Philippians 2:12-13 captures our part and God’s part very clearly: “…Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling [that’s our part] for it is God who works in you [that’s God’s part] to will and to act according to his good purpose.”

The Bible is filled with metaphors or images that help us understand the importance of spiritual growth.  The soldier, the athlete and the farmer are used as examples in 2 Timothy 2:3-6: “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.  The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops.”  We’re to develop the dedication of a soldier, the discipline of an athlete, and the diligence of a farmer.

By far the most frequent allusion is to the athletic arena.  It would be fair to say that Paul was a sports junkie.  And since Paul tells us to follow his example I was just being a good Christian by going toa basketball game this past week and watching Bowl games yesterday.  And that’s why I’m committed this afternoon to watching Wisconsin beat the Illini in basketball and then as part of my spiritual duty I’ll watch the Packers dismantle the Bears.  

Paul loved to draw teaching from the training that is required for the athlete.  Here are some passages that come to mind.

  • Acts 20:24: “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” 
  • Galatians 5:7: “You were running a good race.  Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?”
  • 1 Timothy 4:7-8: “…Rather, train yourself to be godly.  For physical training is of some value, [good to remember when we’re hitting the gym this week] but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” 
  • Hebrews 12:1 (While we don’t know if the Apostle Paul wrote Hebrews, check out this metaphor): “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” 
  • 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” 

One of the clearest passages on the importance of discipline is found in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.  Drawing from the sports of running and wrestling (or boxing), Paul urges us as disciples to develop discipline: “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.” 

The illustration of athletic contests was very familiar to Christians in Corinth.  The Greeks had two great athletic events – the Olympic Games and the Isthmian games which were held at the city of Corinth every two years.  Every participant in these games had to take an oath that they had been training for 10 months or they would be immediately disqualified.  

The Demands of Discipline

It takes discipline to be a disciple because spiritual growth is intentional, not automatic

As I’ve meditated on this passage this week, I see four demands of discipline for the disciple of Christ.  And here’s a frame we can put around these demands: It takes discipline to be a disciple because spiritual growth is intentional, not automatic.

1. Go after the goal. 

Look at 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.”  The length of this race was clearly marked – it was 606 feet long.  The command here is to run!  It’s not to walk or stop or sit down or coast or just be a spectator.  Only those who kept the goal in mind would have any chance of winning.

It was Max Anders who said, “Only the disciplined ever get really good at anything.”  Unfortunately discipline is what we need the most in our modern world and what we want the least.  I was greatly humbled this week when I read again the 70 Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards.  Here’s one that jarred me: “Resolved: To live with all my might while I do live.”  And here’s one more: “Resolved: That all men should live for the glory of God.  Resolved second: That whether others do or not, I will.”

In the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Tanzanian runner John Stephen Ahkwari was the last runner in the marathon.  He came in about an hour and a half after the winner, practically carrying his leg, as it was so bloodied and bandaged.  Film Director Bud Greenspan asked him, “Why did you keep going?” He said, “You don’t understand.  My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start a race; they sent me to finish it.”  Are you committed to finish your race of faith?

It takes discipline to be a disciple because spiritual growth is intentional, not automatic.

2. Pay the price. 

We see this in verse 25: “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.”  This word “compete” is very graphic.  In the Greek it’s “agonizomai,” from where we get agony.  It carries with it the idea of struggling or contending with an enemy.  The phrase “strict training” means to exercise restraint or abstinence, especially from certain foods and alcohol.  We not only need to say yes to certain things; we must also say no to that which will knock us out of the race.  In commenting on these athletic contests, Horace wrote: “The youth who would win in the race hath borne and done much, he hath been hot and been cold; he hath abstained from love and wine.”  I heard about a stalled Christian who said this to a mature believer: “I’d give my life to know the Bible like you do.”  To which the seasoned saint said, “That’s what it took.”

The winner of the race would receive a crown made out of shrubbery that would wither in a week.  Our spiritual crowns will never fade.  Are you willing to go after the goal and pay the price?

It takes discipline to be a disciple because spiritual growth is intentional, not automatic.

3. Eradicate empty efforts. 

Verse 26 tells us we should live our lives with purpose and direction: “Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.”  If a runner had any chance of winning, he had to stay on course.  He couldn’t be like Forrest Gump and just run.  He had to do so with purpose.  Paul then switches metaphors from the field of running to the wrestling or boxing ring.  This sport was more like Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) cage matches.  The boxers would wear gloves covered with knots and nails and filled with lead and iron.  It wouldn’t make much sense to be armed for battle and just be boxing the air, would it?  It’s the idea of totally missing when a punch is thrown.

Are you efforts empty?  Are you spending your time on things that just don’t matter?  Someone has said that too many of us show a “first-rate dedication to second-rate causes.”  In Alice in Wonderland there is a scene where Alice asks the Cheshire cat, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” The cat replies, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Alice says, “I don’t much care where…” and the cat replies, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

In Philippians 2:16, Paul’s passion was for his life to count: “…In order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing.”  Can you and I say the same thing?  Wouldn’t it be terrible to be at the end of your life and wonder if you made any difference?  How would you feel if your efforts were futile?

It takes discipline to be a disciple because spiritual growth is intentional, not automatic.  Go after the goal.  Pay the price.  Eradicate empty efforts.  That leads to the final demand of discipline.

4. Bully your body. 

This may sound a bit odd but I think it captures the meaning of verse 27: “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.” The word “beat” is also translated as “buffet” but that makes me think of going to the Chinese buffet and gorging on coconut shrimp and teriyaki chicken.  I’m sure that’s not what Paul had in mind.  The word “beat” literally means to “hit under the eye” or “to subdue” or “to beat black and blue.”

Check out this paraphrase from Arthur Sway: “Nay, I browbeat my own animal nature, but you Corinthians are inclined to be champions of your animal nature, feeding it – and you treat it.  But I treat it not as my master, but as my slave, lest by any chance after acting as the Herald of the ceremonies who bids others enter, I might find my own self disqualified from competing.”

Is your body your slave or are you a slave to your body?  Do you treat it or beat it?  Are you leading your passions or are your passions leading you?  Don’t let your body tell your mind what to do; let your mind tell your body what to do.  It was Augustine who said, “The result of a distorted will is passion.  Indulged passion forms habit and unrestrained habit becomes necessity.”  Someone else put it like this: “Thought leads to actions; actions lead to habits; habits become your character; character determines destiny.”  Friends, spiritual champions are made, not born.

I read that John Wesley traveled an average of 20 miles a day for 40 years.  He got up every morning at 4:00.  He preached 40,000 sermons.  He produced 400 books and knew 10 languages.  At the age of 83, he was annoyed because he couldn’t write more than 15 hours a day without hurting his eyes, and at the age of 86, he was ashamed that he couldn’t preach more than twice a day.  He complained in his diary that there was an increasing tendency to lie in bed until 5:30 in the morning.

It takes discipline to be a disciple because spiritual growth is intentional, not automatic.

  • Go after the goal
  • Pay the price
  • Eradicate empty efforts
  • Bully your body

Seizing Self-Control

Since I’ve already made you wince by preaching on the importance of discipline, I might as well go a step further and speak about another closely related topic that is equally disdained – self-control.  I don’t know if you saw the front page of the local newspaper on Thursday where this headline appeared: “Americans turn to tech to replace self-control.” Here’s part of the article: “…Americans are trying to control their impulses using technology that steps in to enforce good behavior…Have we entered an era in which electronics serve as mother, cop and coach because we can’t manage our own desires?  Yep, said Ann Mack, a trend-watcher…She named ‘outsourcing self-control’ and ‘de-teching’ as two top trends for the New Year.”

While we all could use some help in this area, self-control is a Fruit of the Spirit, not something that we can simply outsource.  Check out the last but certainly not the least Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  In some ways, we might consider this virtue the most important because without self-control the works of the flesh cannot be overcome and the other elements of the Fruit of the Spirit will not be evident.  

When the Greeks wanted to illustrate self-control, they built a statue of a man or a woman in perfect proportion.  To them, self-control was the proper ordering and balancing of the individual.  Aristotle once said, “I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is the victory over self.”   Plato believed that our animal urges must be governed or else they will produce “a feverish state in the soul, a city of pigs” which knows no limits.  When we’re not self-controlled, our life is like a pigsty.  That’s quite a word picture.

The word translated “self-control” in the NIV is rendered “temperance” in the King James Version.  It comes from the word “strength” and means, “one who holds himself in.”  To be self-controlled is to not live in bondage to the desires, passions and appetites of the flesh.  My body is a good servant but a miserable master.  Benjamin Franklin was right when he said, “He is a governor that governs his passions, and he is a servant that serves them.”  

Unfortunately, instead of governing our desires and appetites, most of us are “bingers” by nature.  Some of us gorge on food, some on sleep, others on work, and still others on Facebook, TV, substances, sports, spending or sex.  Solomon reminds us of the importance of keeping a watch on how we’re doing in Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”

You Belong to Another

My nephew  shared about an experience he’ll never forget.   His Drill Sergeant wears brass knuckles on the outside of his gloves and is all gas and no brake.  One day he was leading his soldiers on a multi-mile march while each carried 50-pound backpacks. They were marching next to a road when one of the soldiers slipped and fell onto the highway.  Immediately, the sergeant jumped into the line of traffic, putting himself between an oncoming car and the fallen soldier.  He told us that the sergeant had his fist back like he was going to punch the car if it didn’t stop.  There was no doubt that this man was willing to give his own life to save someone else’s.

Brothers and sisters, this is not a time for us to be “at ease.”  Instead, we need to be at “full attention.”  It’s time to be all in or to get out.  It takes discipline to be a disciple because spiritual growth is intentional, not automatic.

When I asked my nephew how he keeps going in his training, he said it’s easy if he remembers this phrase, “They own me.”  Friend, if you’re a born again believer you are owned by Jesus Christ.  1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.” 

Communion is an optimal time to do some examination.  In fact, it’s a command in 1 Corinthians 11:28: “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.”  Way too many Christians are way too casual in their communion with Christ.  We’re also told in 2 Corinthians 13:5 to make sure we pass another test: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?”

I’m greatly challenged by this statement from D.A. Carson: “People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.”  

I’ve found these three questions to be really helpful…

  • Dream – Where do you want to be?
  • Decision – Will you make a resolution to get there?
  • Disciplines – Will you do what you need to do to get there?

A spiritual discipline is a “A habit or regular pattern in your life that repeatedly brings you back to God and opens you up to what God is saying to you.”

It’s easy to dream because it doesn’t demand anything.  The problem isn’t so much with our desire to grow spiritually because almost everyone wants to grow.  Our problem is, like the disciples, our spirit is willing but our flesh is weak (see Matthew 26:41).  We all could dream about going to the Olympics but it’s only those who decide to do so and then live by some strict disciplines that actually end up on the team.  Are you ready to decide?  Or will you just dream?

A heard about a pilot who got on the intercom and said to all the passengers, “Ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention please?  Our guidance system is broken and I don’t have a clue where we’re at right now, but I do have good news…wherever we’re going…we’re making very good time.”

Let’s remember this: It takes discipline to be a disciple because spiritual growth is intentional, not automatic.   J. Vernon McGee in his unique style writes: “The Christian life is a very serious business.  However, we have made it sort of an extra-curricular activity.”  Legendary football coach Tom Landry once said, “The job of a football coach is to make men do what they don’t want to do in order to achieve what they have always wanted to be.”

Developing Disciplines

I talked to someone a week or so ago who told me that she is not going to make any resolutions because she just breaks them anyway.  She’s not alone, is she?  In fact, I read this week that on average, New Year resolutions are broken within one week!  While I understand this (all too well), if we don’t develop some disciplines, we won’t change.  As Donald Whitney says, “No one coasts into Christlikeness.”  Some believers have even gone so far as to say that making a resolution is unbiblical.  I beg to differ.  Check out these four passages.

  • 1 Corinthians 2:2: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” 
  • Psalm 17:3: “Though you probe my heart and examine me at night, though you test me, you will find nothing; I have resolved that my mouth will not sin.”
  • Daniel 1:8: “But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way.” 
  • 2 Chronicles 20:3-4: “Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah.  The people of Judah came together to seek help from the Lord; indeed, they came from every town in Judah to seek him.”

I try to keep Isaiah 43:19 in mind when I contemplate a New Year: “See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”  Do you want the Lord to do a “new thing” in this New Year?  My guess is that you’re going to have to do some things differently in order for that to happen.  Before listing some resolutions we should consider making, I want to make a few preliminary points.

  • Start small and keep building.  Zechariah 4:10: “Who despises the day of small things?”
  • Wean yourself off entertainment.  It might be good for some of us to take a “Facebook Fast.”
  • Deal with loose ends.  A Roman soldier would tuck in his loose fitting tunic, using a sash to hold in all four corners in order to do battle!  
  • Start journaling.
  • Find an accountability partner.

Listen to this quote from a pastor: “When I was younger I thought that my depravity was relatively slight, was always in sight and was therefore easy to keep at bay.   Much older now, I am sobered upon being confronted with the arrears of sin that remain in me.  As sin-riddled as you have undoubtedly found me to be, can you imagine how I’d look if I were devoid of spiritual discipline?  Spiritual discipline will be needed for as long as you and I are Spirit-born children of God whose identity in Christ is contradicted by the hangover of our sinnership.  Then spiritual discipline will be needed until we are released from the conflict.  Please don’t tell me that all of this sounds too intense.  Paul insists that without the most intense training, the athlete will find himself disqualified.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?