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. 1 Corinthians 9.24.
Yesterday morning’s reading was a long one that concluded with these words of Paul to the Philippians: “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3.13-14). As I continued to think about those words during yesterday, another verse from Paul’s letters came to mind, and that is the verse that now appears as this morning’s reading. It carries the same thought of a race and a prize to be won as did yesterday’s reading; but today, I want to move my thoughts on from the nature of the prize to the underlying concept of the Christian life being a race.
On the face of it, this idea of Christians having to strive and compete to get something from God at the end of their earthly life does not sit easily with Paul’s other teaching that “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2.8-9). But is there really any contradiction?
When Paul talks of running the race he is not talking of how I attain salvation; he is talking of how I reach maturity and becoming everything that Jesus would have me be. And Paul is saying that getting from where I am to where God wants me to be will take focus and diligence and discipline and effort on my part. He is saying that there is no place for apathy in the Christian life. He is telling me that God does not want me simply to grow into the “fat little baby” that Amy Grant sings about …
I know a man, maybe you know him, too.
You never can tell, he might even be you.
He knelt at the altar and that was the end.
He’s saved and that’s all that matters to him.
His spiritual tummy, it can’t take too much.
One day a week, he gets his spiritual lunch.
On Sunday he puts on His spiritual best
And gives his language a spiritual rest.
He’s just a fat little baby …
On the contrary, God wants me to so move further each day towards conformity with the image of his Son (Romans 8.29), and even though it is the Spirit within me that brings that about, it takes determination and commitment on my part. Especially it takes attitude … and that is what Paul is calling for in this morning’s verse.
It is easy to get the wrong idea from what Paul says: “in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize”. Oh dear, so even among Christians there are going to be a lot of losers are there, on the Last Day? No, I don’t believe that that is Paul’s thought at all. All he is saying is that I have to live my Christian life as if there is only one prize. That needs to be my attitude if I am to make real progress and keep going even when I’m tired or fed-up or discouraged. Athletes probably wouldn’t bother running very hard, if at all, if they knew that the same gold medal would be given to each of them once the race was over.
I am to live as if there will be only one “Well done!” from the lips of the Lord (Luke 19.17) … only one “unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5.4).