The Athlete

Bible Book: 1 Corinthians  9 : 24-27
Subject: Christian Living; Discipline; Commitment; Discipleship
Series: Portraits of the Saints

The Athlete

Dr. J. Mike Minnix

1 Corinthians 9

We continue our series of messages on Portraits of the Saints. Today we focus on The Athlete. The follower of Jesus is described as an athlete on more than one occasion in the Bible. Turn to 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 and look at one such reference ...

“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 New Testament is filled with illustrations and words which point to the Christian life being like that of an athlete in competition. I know many of you probably think our world is much too absorbed with sports. Actually, sports were very important in the ancient world as well. Paul, no doubt, knew much about athletics and sporting events because of the prominence of such activities in his day. Athletic stadiums existed all over the ancient world. In fact, Herod erected a stadium in the area of Jerusalem for Roman and Greek games. Caesarea Philippi and Jericho also had facilities built for athletic competitions. Almost any city of significance in the world of Roman occupation had a stadium in which athletes would compete. So the people of Biblical times understood clearly the implication of tne athletic language Paul applied to Christian living.

The greatest games played in Paul’s day were called the Isthmian games. These games were the equivalent of our Olympic games today. These games were held every two years just outside Corinth. It is highly possible that Paul had either attended these games, heard much about them, or knew personally some people who had competed in them. His illustrations and word usage reflect a knowledge and appreciation of the dedication needed to be an Isthmian competitor. In these games athletes would compete in foot races, broad jumping, discus throwing, wrestling, boxing, gymnastics, and equestrian contests. The athletes competed fiercely, each one striving for the coveted Isthmian crown, a wreath made of vegetation which would wilt in a matter of days.

Paul was most likely referring to these games when he penned the text we just read. After all, he was writing to the Corinthians who would have known exactly what he was alluding to in his comments. The fact is, Paul often used words which compared Christian living to being like an athlete. In verse 25 of today’s text we see the word "competes". That word comes from a Greek root word which is "agon". The word speaks of the people who gathered to watch the games. In a longer form the word is "agonizomai" which speaks of striving, anguish, and pain. In the longer form it referred to those who competed in the games. We get an English word directly from the Greek word – the word is "Agony". This athletic word is used by Paul often to speak of the commitment necessary to be the right kind of Christian. This word was used by Paul several times in the New Testament to refer to the attitude and actions of the child of God.

Now, what is the purpose in these illustrations? God desires for us understand that the Christian life is not a picnic. The Christian life is not a rose-strewn path. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, but once we are saved we enter into a kind of agonizomai, a life of dedication and commitment to excellence for Christ. An athlete does not expect his practice and play to be easy. He knows that the way will be hard and the competition difficult. But the athletes have a saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” We have to be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might in order to live a faithful Christian life.

Too many people who claim to know Christ act like they are on a cruise where their every wish should be met and their every whim satisfied. Someone who had this in mind took some phrases and words from modern day football and applied them to the Christian life. Think on a few of these with me. This person said that:

  • The Quarterback Sneak is when church members quietly leaving during the invitation.
  • The Draw Play is what many children do with the bulletin during worship.
  • The Half-time is the period between Sunday School and worship when some choose to leave and skip the worship service.
  • A Benchwarmer is one who will not sing, pray, work, or apparently do anything but sit.
  • Staying in the Pocket is what happens to a lot of money that should be given to the Lord's work.
  • The Two-minute Warning is that time in the service when people realize the sermon is almost over and begin to gather children and belongings.
  • The Instant Replay is when the preacher forgets his sermon and falls back on last week's illustrations.
  • Sudden Death is what happens to the attention span of the congregation if the preacher goes "overtime".
  • The Trap is when you're called on to pray and are asleep.
  • The End Run is the act of getting out of church quick, without speaking to any guests or fellow members.
  • The Flex Defense is the ability to allow absolutely nothing said during the sermon to affect your life.
  • Finally, the Blitz is when the rush for the restaurants following the closing prayer.

In order to serve God faithfully, we must have the mindset of a world class athlete – one who will pay the price of commitment in order to be his very best. As you know, Hank Aaron hit more Home Runs as a professional baseball player than anyone in history. He eclipsed the record of Babe Ruth and holds a record many feel may never be broken. He had to face many obstacles to get there, not the least of which were his opponents in each game. James Boice tells a story in one of books about an incident in the life of the great hitter. Once in a game with the Yankees, it is said that Yogi Berra, the great New York Yankee catcher, tried to psych Aaron out by talking trash to him. Berra is said to have whispered, “Hey, Henry, you’re holding the bat wrong. You’re supposed to hold it so you can read the trademark.” Hank didn’t say anything, but when the next pitch came, he blasted the ball into the left-field bleachers for a mammoth home run. He ran around the bases, finally come to home plate where Yogi was standing nearby. It is rumored that Aaron spoke to Berra as he came across home plate and said, “Yogi, I didn’t come here to read.” (J. Boice, Nehemiah, Learning to Read)

Paul would have said that we must know why God put us here, why he saved us, and be dedicated to being what he save us to be. Every person saved by the grace of God needs to understand the athletic concept of being a child of God. Certainly this theme is rampant in the New Testament and it is there for a reason.

Using the passage we have just read, let us consider the Christian as The Athlete.

I. The Fight of Athletic Christianity

Paul stated that he did not fight as one beating the air. In fact, Paul used the idea of fighting often in describing the Christian life. Look at some examples:

2 Corinthians 10:4 reads, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.”

1 Timothy 1:18 states, “Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight.”

1 Corinthians 15:32 reads, “If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

Just so you understand what this verse is about, remember that Christians and Jews were at one time required to fight wild beasts for the entertainment of the Roman people. Often they were torn to bits. Paul was not saying that he had been in the actual arena fighting beasts, but that his fight against the devil and his followers had been like fighting wild beasts in the arena of life.

His last reference to fighting is found in 2 Timothy 4:7 which contains these words, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

If the Christian life is a fight, just whom are we fighting? There are three enemies running against us, or fighting against us. They are the world, the flesh and the devil. In our passage today, Paul is speaking specifically of the flesh. He says that he will beat the flesh and make it a slave less after he has been the herald for others he, himself, would not be disqualified for the prize. (We will talk about the prize in a few minutes.) What did Paul mean?

In the ancient games a herald would call the runners or combatants to the starting post. He would give their name and the name of their country. Then the herald would send them off into the race. Paul had preached the Gospel and seen many people come to Christ as Savior and Lord. In that way, he had launched many into the foray as Christians. Paul saw himself as a herald, not just calling people to believe on Christ, but calling Christ to toe the starting line and run victoriously for Christ in this world. But, he also saw himself as a runner. He was herald and runner. He did not want to call others to be victorious in running and not be victorious himself. He knew this was a personal fight against three great enemies – the greatest enemy being himself. So he used the analogy of bringing his body, his flesh, into subjection to the will of God.

As an athlete is in a contest, a kind of fight in whatever sport he is engaged, so the Christian must see the believer’s life as one of a struggle. We see this in Philippians 1:29-30, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.” In verse 27 we see the word contending, which is from the Greek word "athlos". From that word, we get our word athlete. Paul is referring here to an athletic spirit in struggling, fighting, contending to uphold the faith of our Lord.

Was Paul calling us to compete with other Christians? He was saying that we should all compete to do our best. He was not talking about one-upmanship, which is nothing but pride and arrogance. But he was telling us to do our best, be our best, and to give our best for the sake of our Lord.

II. The Focus of Athletic Christianity

What is the focus of the Christian? Certainly, it is not meant to be any set of earthly enemies. Paul calls the focus the prize. In Philippians 3:13-14 Paul writes, “Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

To grasp the full meaning of this passage we need to know something of the way the ancient games took place. The competition in running races was fierce in those days. Great runners were among the greatest heroes of ancient Rome and Greece. What a champion NFL quarterback, Cy Young baseball pitcher, or the greatest homerun hitter is in our day, the champion runner was that and more in Paul’s day. In fact, great runners were often treated like gods. They had gates to cities named for them. They paid no taxes, had free tuition for their children to be educated, were given free housing, etc. So this running was no mere backyard running contest.

When the race began the runners were running toward a square stone which the runner tried to keep in full view if at all possible. The stone was the finish line and the first person to touch it won the race. The prize was awarded to the person who could reach the stone column first. We will discuss the prize in a moment, but Paul’s emphasis at this point was the act of straining toward a divine goal.

It was the seventh game of the 1962 World Series. The San Francisco Giants had a man on second base, which put him near New York Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson. When the Yanks decided to change pitchers, Richardson, who was a Christian, saw a unique opportunity. While the new pitcher was warming up, he walked over to the man on second and asked him if he knew Jesus as his Savior.

When the runner reached the dugout later, he asked teammate Felipe Alou, who was also a Christian, what was going on. “Even in the seventh game of the World Series,” he said to Felipe, “you people are still talking about Jesus.” That runner couldn't understand what made Christians so eager to talk about Jesus Christ, even in highly unusual situations.

What makes a Christian serve God faithfully under all circumstances is his focus. The focus of the Christian is Christ. We look to Him, the Author and Finisher of our faith. We look for His return. We look for our home with Him, a home not made with hands. We look for goal of meeting Him. We look for the new body He will give us. We look for the reunion with the saints that go before us or follow us to heaven. We are looking forward, straining to that which is before us. The idea here is one of making sure that pleasure, fame, fortune, success in this world, etc., don’t get between us and our goal – which is pleasing Christ and meeting Him victoriously. When we lose our focus, we run aimlessly. One reason the runner did not want to lose focus on the stone column is because to do so might cause him to run slightly off center and thus run slower than he might. So the runners tried to run in a straight line as much as possible. This made the run more productive. You and I can only run straight as believers when we keep our focus on Christ.

The story is told of a farmer who hired a man to plow a field for him. The man admitted that he had never done any plowing but that he had a strong back and a need for the money so he would do his best. After a few rows had been plowed the farmer went to check on the new hired hand. The man had plowed a few rows but they were crooked and jagged. The farmer told the man to stop looking at the row he was plowing and to start looking at a tree or object at the end of the row. When this was done, suddenly the rows became straight as an arrow.

You and I are to keep our eyes on Jesus so we can plow a straight row, run a straight race, live a straight life.

III. The Faithfulness of Athletic Christianity

Paul states that the serious athlete goes into strict training. This is required in order to have any hope of being successful. This means that the athlete was strict in what he ate, in exercise, in sleep, in practice, etc. Just think what the kingdom of God would be like if believers would be serious about discipline. This would require that we remain faithful to a way of thinking, studying, and living. in order to please our Master and run life’s race faithfully for Him. We can’t do this if we are lazy, indifferent, unstudied, and worldly. The boxer who eats anything he wants, stays out all hours of the night, and fails to get in the gym, will doubtless lose on fight night. The Christian who has no discipline in areas of importance to the Christian life will fail in the hour of temptation and will harm the cause of Christ.

IV. The Finish of Athletic Christianity

Most importantly, Paul speaks of the finish of the Christian life. Look at 2 Timothy 4:6-8 which reads, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day-- and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

When combatants ended their contest, judges made a decision as to the lawful and authorized winner. A crown made of leaves was placed on the head of the winner. Paul calls it “a crown that will not last” in 1 Corinthians 9:25, but in that same passage he speaks of a crown the Lord will give which will last forever. We know for certain that Paul did not mean that only one Christian could get this crown. He told us all to run in order to get the prize. We don’t want the world, the flesh, or the devil to defeat in Christian living. We want to run as those who are serious about our Lord and our faith. We want to honor Him in our lives. We want to so run that we will be awarded crowns on that day, crowns which we will gladly lay at His feet!


Somewhere I read or heard the story of a woman who was a world class runner. She had been invited to run in a race in a nearby state. She got her directions over the telephone and left early the morning of the race to be there on time. When she got to the town, she could not find the race. She stopped at a service station to ask for better directions. The man told her that he knew a race was taking place at a nearby shopping center. She told him that this must be the race, got her directions and drove furiously to get there. She jumped out of her car, ran to the sign up table to let them know she was there, jumped into the pack of runners just as the starter said, “You’re off!”

She ran brilliantly. In fact, she could not believe how fast she really was. She was so fast even the men were behind her. She finished the race in first place, beating everyone including all the men in the race. Just then, however, she saw a sign hanging at the finish line that made her heart sink. The sign told the name of the race. She was at the wrong race running against a bunch of amateurs. She had run the race on the wrong course.

Many people are doing that today. They are running for money, for fame, for pleasure, for security, for self-centered dreams, for many other things, but they are in the wrong race. Even if they finish in what appears to be first place, they lose.

In the race of life you must be on the right track. To enter this race, you must receive Jesus Christ as your Savior. You can’t run your way into this race, Jesus pre-qualifies those who come to Him and receive Him by faith. It is called Salvation. You are not saved by your effort, but by His grace. But, once you receive Him, you are in the race. You are to live your Christian life like an athlete lives for his sport.