In chapters 8 to 11, Paul deals with the issue of eating meat offered to idols. Although Paul agrees with the Corinthian libertines that there is no god aligned with temple worship, he reminds his readers of the danger of leading a young believer astray. In our passage for study, Paul illustrates his own self-discipline, exercised for the sake of the gospel, by using an example of the training undertaken by elite athletes.
v24. Returning to the central point outlined in chapter 8 ("Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak" - with respect to participating in cultic feasts and/or eating foods consecrated to pagan idols), Paul uses the example of the Greek Games, of the runner who strives to win the prize. Be like a runner who is intent on winning the prize, says Paul; run with that same intent. The point of the illustration is not so much the application of effort in the Christian life, or of competing to win the eternal crown, but rather a focused intent - a self-disciplined dedication to the cause of the gospel.
v25. The illustration is extended to make two further points:
i] A runner goes into strict training, that is, they exercise strict self-control, self-discipline, they exercise mastery over themselves. For the believer on the "way", this entails setting aside personal rights and freedoms, especially when they undermine a brother's faith.
ii] A runner, training for a race, aims to win a wreath that soon falls apart, while the believer trains for an incorruptible wreath. At first glance, it seems that Paul is speaking about the prize of eternity, but he is actually referring to the work of the gospel, of the business of gathering the lost into the kingdom of heaven. The "fruit of souls" is the immortal prize.
v26. Using his own life, Paul extends the illustration to underline the necessity of a self-disciplined purposefulness in the Christian life. "I don't press forward in the Christian life like an athlete without a training schedule." The runner trains hard with their goal in mind, they don't just jog around the oval. Similarly with the boxer, he pummels the punching bag rather than plays at "shadow-boxing."
v27. Although this verse reads as if Paul is encouraging self flagellation, he is simply saying that he strives to bring his life (not his "body") under control; "I discipline my life, for I don't want to tell others to exercise self-discipline, and then find my own life exposed as undisciplined (literally "failed the test", not "disqualified for the prize")." Paul is again using his own life as an example of someone whose life-style is purposeful, marked by self-constraint, self-control, and this for gospel imperatives. Paul has willingly put aside his rights for the sake of the gospel.
Throughout the Western world the between-the-wars generation is thinning. When comparing this generation with the generations that follow, the baby-boomers and now generation X and Y, etc., we can't help but feel that there has been something of a decline in social values. The between-the-wars generation is best described as a people who only took what they needed, leaving more than they took. Their memory of the great depression drove their sense of community, their willingness to live simple lives, while funding the infrastructure necessary for the next generation: dams, telecommunications, people's banks, schools, hospitals ....... Sadly, their desire to build for the future has been overtaken by a new generation that uses more than it needs and burdens the next generation with the debt of its excess. Our governments privatize and sell off everything to pay for this excess and still the debt grows larger.
When Paul writes to the church in Corinth, he addresses a group who feels that their rights and privileges as believers stand over and above the spiritual welfare of their brothers and sisters in Christ. We can best describe this group as libertines; they have found liberty in Christ and now, with their new found freedom, they feel that they can take a few liberties. There they are, happily attending the local pagan festivals, eating foods offered in sacrifice to pagan gods, resting on the knowledge that pagan deities are but figments of the imagination. Yet, what about the new believer who only a week ago believed in those other gods, or what about the Jewish believer, who not only finds it difficult to eat unclean foods, but who is fearful to the core when it comes to idolatry? Would it not be better for these libertine believers to limit their right to freedom for the sake of the spiritual welfare of a brother?
As far as Paul is concerned, one of the most powerful motivators in his life is the work of the gospel, the gathering of the lost through the communication of God's saving grace in Christ. If attending some pagan feast is going to get in the way of the gospel then he is willing to give the feast a miss. This type of stance requires discipline, self-control. It can be compared to an athlete who intentionally abandons the flabbiness of self-indulgence and undertakes the rigors of a goal-focused training program.
It is very easy for us to absorb the spirit of our age, to allow the self-indulgence of our use-everything-and-leave-nothing generation to pollute our Christian lives. We sometimes even call our self-indulgence, our obsessions, "gospel ministry." When our actions undermine the faith of vulnerable brothers and sisters, then such self-indulgence is nothing but evil. Our journey of faith requires discipline, not indulgence.
1. Propose situations within a church fellowship where a brother or sister could be led away from their faith in Christ.
2. Consider the self-discipline required to avert a brother or sisters loss of faith.