Read passage here.
Today, we return to the book of 1 Corinthians after a couple of weeks elsewhere. By way of very simple reminder, the larger context in which we find ourselves is informed by Paul’s addressing the issue of food sacrificed to idols. Again, it seems like some in the Corinthian congregation are participating in these cultic meals and justifying it, at least in part, by saying that since the gods are not real, participation in the meals doesn’t matter.
Paul is pretty clear in saying that Christians should not participate in these meals. But so far, he’s been mostly concerned about the Corinthians’ reasoning behind such activities. In particular, he addresses the Corinthians’ claim that since they have right knowledge about such activities (i.e. their knowledge informs them that, because the gods have no reality, participating in these cultic meals has no significance), they can do what they like in this respect. And Paul essentially says that their actions have consequences beyond their own rights and freedoms. Love for one another, says Paul, is more important than knowledge.
By way of example, Paul’s own ministry demonstrates the importance and virtue of giving up one’s own rights and freedoms for the sake of others. And contrary to what some of the Corinthians seem to think, rather than casting doubt, this confirms Paul’s apostolic authority.
And that essentially brings us to our passage today. We’re going to look at 1 Corinthians 9:24 (recognizing that this is part of the passage we looked at last time, but it serves to transition us to the next part of Paul’s thought) to 10:13.
So, let’s take a look at our passage. Beginning at 9:24, it reads…
The first thing I want to consider is how 9:24-27 transitions us from Paul’s prior line of argument to what he’s saying in chapter 10. We might remember that in chapter 9, Paul is giving a defense of his apostleship, especially with respect to his refusal to accept financial support. And Paul’s basic argument is that he does so in order to help his communication of the gospel. We didn’t get into the specifics of how this helps the gospel, but Paul’s basic train of thought is that he is willing to give up his own rights for the benefit of others.
And it’s here that we get, from our passage today, this imagery of an athlete preparing for competition. Now the basic metaphor is not difficult to interpret or understand. Paul likens the Christian to an athlete. If one wants to win the prize, one must prepare accordingly – that is, one’s life must be oriented towards the presumed goal. And this may help us understand the transition from the previous passage to the current one. Paul’s priorities (i.e. in putting others ahead of himself) has to do with him reaching for an eschatological prize (as opposed to an earthly one, for example – that is, he’s not concerned with being admired or appreciated by those around him. He’s concerned with working towards God’s eschatological kingdom).
So Paul’s example transitions naturally into exhortation. Paul wants to urge his audience to live in such a way that they also are working (? Walking?) towards the kingdom. Paul’s words in v. 27, “27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize,” tell us what he envisions as being at stake. That is, being disqualified for the prize.
And it is with respect to this that Paul gives us the example of early Israel. In 10:1-10, he demonstrates that even though they were chosen, not all of Israel lived up to the salvation that they had received.
In vv. 1-5, Paul tells us that they had all crossed the sea, they all ate the same spiritual food, and water. And nevertheless, some of them did not take hold of the promise. Now it’s worth noting that Paul pretty clearly seems to be referring to Israel after they had been rescued from Egypt – after they had crossed the Red Sea. In other words, they had already “been saved.” Now this is something that we’ve explored before and it may be fairly obvious, but I want us to not lose sight of the fact that what Paul is concerned about is how the people of God are conducting themselves, how they are pursuing the life of faith after they had been saved.
So Paul warns the Corinthians that even early Israel, who had been delivered out of Egypt by the mighty, unmistakeable hand of God, did not all hold firm to the faith to which they had been called. In vv. 6-10, Paul tells us that some of the succumbed to idolatry (which is the most obvious, direct link with his concerns in this part of the letter), some of them to sexual immorality, some of them doubted (or “tested”) God, and some of them grumbled (that is, they did not recognize or appreciate the work of God in their midst). Now it should be impossible to miss that these are very much the same things that the Corinthians are struggling with.
And so, Paul says to the Corinthians in vv. 11-13, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” Paul’s warning is pretty clear. This happened to Israel (and again – lest the point be lost – it happened to Israel immediately after the events in Egypt, where God’s presence and power could not be doubted). And if it happened to Israel, so must you (we) be likewise mindful. We cannot take things for granted. We cannot be lackadaisical in matters of the kingdom. Rather, we must run in such a way as to get the prize.
Now by way of quick excursus, I should make note that there is some question as to what Paul means by, “be disqualified for the prize” (v. 27). That is, some have pointed to this verse to support the position that one can lose one’s salvation. Others, as is usually the case, disagree. I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole so I’ll only say a couple of words on this. Firstly, it’s worth noting that only the NIV adds the phrase, “for the prize” (of the usual English translations that we consider – NIV, ESV, NRSV, NASB, NKJV, etc. – I didn’t look at them all). Now while Fee (our primary commentator) notes that this is in his opinion a correct addition, other notable commentators note that the Greek word translated “disqualified” might be closer to “unqualified” or “not qualified.” That is, it has the sense of not living up to a standard, or “not standing the test” (Thiselton qtd: Thayer).
Now this may suggest that Paul is not, in fact, talking about “losing one’s salvation.” That is, one can fail to live up to the standard that we are being called to, and yet not “lose one’s salvation.” And I’m personally inclined towards this interpretation. But of course, it’s hard to say definitively, especially in the light of the greater corpus of Paul’s writing, and of course of scripture as a whole. Indeed, this may be one of those passages where we are inclined to interpret into it what we already believe.
It may be more helpful and more accurate to say that Paul – again especially as we take the whole of Paul’s writings into account – holds things in tension. That is, he doesn’t seem to distinguish between accepting God’s grace or trusting God’s initiative and taking hold of personal responsibility. Paul seems to both say that our salvation is completely a work of Jesus Christ and that we must live up to Christ’s work for us. Paul seems to both say that every human being is a sinner, and unavoidably so, and that we must seek to be holy.
Now obviously, this is a larger conversation than we can get into here – and one in which we would be unlikely to arrive at a consensus. What is much less unclear here, however, is Paul’s basic point. That is, we cannot take our faith walk for granted – we cannot assume that everything is fine and we don’t have to worry. We must constantly seek to live up to the gospel, to the work Christ has done for us.
Now in the very first words after our passage – the immediate verses we’re looking at – today, Paul makes explicit what his concern is, what his main (or immediate) concern is. In 10:14, Paul says, “…my dear friends, flee from idolatry.” We’ll talk more about this next week, but in the context of our passage today (and the larger passage), Paul’s point is pretty clear. In light of those members of the Corinthian congregation who are participating in cultic meals – food sacrificed to idols – thinking it’s no big deal, and that they can or should be able to do whatever they want to, Paul says, “don’t.”
Don’t be like the Israelites who thought they were already delivered form Egypt and therefore, they were free to do whatever they want. Don’t be like the Israelites who thought they were already designated as, confirmed as, the people of God, and therefore what they did in the world didn’t matter. Don’t get so caught up in what’s going on around you that you lose sight of who you are called to be.
Now it may sound like I’m framing this entire discussion in too negative a light. That is, that I’m speaking too much in “don’ts.” Or that I’m framing things too much in terms of “things I have to do.” Now of course there’s an element of that inasmuch as Paul seems to be responding to a very particular situation in the context of a particular people in a particular time and place (that is, around the issue of food sacrificed to idols).
And I am convinced (relatively sure, anyways) that Paul’s ultimate concern is not that we avoid certain things or that we stay on the right side of the line. But rather, Paul is concerned that these believers fully take hold of the life that is made available through Jesus Christ. Especially in light of the fact that they seem so willing to settle for so much less.
It is this, I believe, that Paul has in mind when he uses such language as “Run in such a way as to get the prize,” and “we do it to get a crown that lasts forever.” Paul’s concerns are ultimately eschatological. And he recognizes that the eschatological realities are worked out in the very real circumstances of the here and the now – in space and in time. In other words, the choices that the Corinthians make have very real eternal implications.
Now this is nothing novel or surprising. And the simple principle I want to commend to you is also nothing novel or surprising. And that is, simply, keep walking. And in the words of Paul to the Ephesians, walk worthily. In other words, we’re never done walking. On this side of eternity, we’re never done striving. And again, I’m not suggesting that we have to keep walking or striving because our salvation is in doubt – as if our effort matters against Christ’s sacrifice. But again, as Paul says, “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.”
Let me try to frame it for you in this way (recognizing that analogies are always limited) and we’ll see if that’s helpful.
How many of you have ever made a new year’s resolution to get in shape or get healthier? And how many people, do you suppose, have made such a resolution and given up after a few weeks or a few months?
The thing about getting healthy, or working out (or however you frame it) is that you’re never done. It’s not as if you reach a certain level of fitness and then you can stop. Of course, you can do that – but what you’ll find is that when you stop, you’ll regress pretty quickly. If you want to be fit, if you want to be healthy (or healthier), you have to consistently and constantly pursue it. In fact, if you want to be fit, if you want to be healthy, you have to adopt (what is often) an entirely different way of life.
And the reason why so many people give up (I think) is because they think they want the result, but they don’t want to make the changes they actually need to get there. To put it another way, if it was possible to become healthier without having to change a single thing about your lifestyle, everyone’s New Year’s resolution would be a huge success. But it just doesn’t work that way. If you want a new life, you have to change the way you live it.
Now the other thing about this is that nobody is pursuing fitness for the sake of fitness. Well maybe that’s not true and some people pursue fitness as an end in itself. But perhaps what I mean is that one shouldn’t be pursuing it as an end in itself. What I mean is this. The goal of pursuing health and fitness is not health and fitness alone, health and fitness as a concept. The reason to exercise more is not so we can exercise more. The reason to eat healthier is not to eat healthier. The reason to do all these things is so we can have a better life. The goal is life.
The reason to pursue holiness is life. The reason Paul exhorts the Corinthians to avoid idolatry is so they may pursue life. The reason God delivered Israel out of slavery in Egypt was so that they may have life – and not merely exist in perpetual not-life. And the reason that Paul is taking pains to write to the church in Corinth, the reason he wants to correct them, to disciple them, is so they may let go of that which is not-life and take hold fully of the life that is made available through Jesus Christ alone.
We are never done. On this side of eternity, that is, we are never done working, we are never done walking, we are never done seeking, and we are never done longing for more. And maybe that’s precisely the thing – we are never done because there is always more. In Christ, there is always more. Let us be a people who always long for the more. Let us be a people who always live for the more.