In 1 Corinthians 9:25, Paul compares the Christian life to the Isthmian Games which were second only to the Olympic Games during Paul's time. He states that, "Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable." The wreath Paul refers to was a victor's crown similar to the medals now earned at the Olympic Games. In this verse, Paul highlights two things; first, the goal-oriented thinking of an athlete, and second, how that goal motivates the athlete to work hard for it.
How does the Christian life compare to the Olympics?
Paul states that we work toward an imperishable crown. In Philippians 3:13–14 he talks about forgetting what is behind and pressing ahead "toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." In 2 Timothy 4:8 Paul talks about a "crown of righteousness." Paul's focus on his eternal reward aligns with Jesus's promise of reward (Matthew 5:12) and His command to "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven" (Matthew 6:20). How do we reach the goal and attain the crown? In 2 Timothy 4:7–8, Paul says, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up 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 loved his appearing." Paul says this crown is laid up for him because he "fought the good fight," "finished the race," and "kept the faith." He also says the crown is not only for him, but for all who have loved the Lord's appearing—this is something available to all Christians.
Part of being an athlete is having the ability to endure and not give in. We are saved by grace, through faith, and are eternally secure in Jesus' hand (Ephesians 2:8–10; John 6:39–40). Yet we are also called to " … work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure salvation" (Philippians 2:12–13). Salvation is a work of God, but it is a transformational work that ushers us into a new life in which we are called upon to stand firm and endure (2 Corinthians 5:17; 1 Corinthians 16:13). We remain faithful in the midst of trial (2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Peter 4:12–13; John 16:33). We stand against the schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:10–18; 1 John 3:16–18; 4:7–8). We battle against our own sinfulness (Galatians 5:1). We press on in doing good works out of love (Galatians 6:7–10). In 1 Timothy 6:18–19 Paul instructs the rich not to be haughty or strive for riches but, "to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life." As athletes spend themselves toward the goal of Olympics medals, Christians spend themselves with the understanding that our prize is heavenly. It is love for our Lord Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit in us that give us both the desire and ability to keep the eternal goal in mind and lay up our treasures in heaven.
Paul's observation in 1 Corinthians 9:25 is that the athletes' goal-oriented focus drives them to be self-controlled. We see this self-control in athletes' training and competition. Athletes study the rules of their sport. In 2 Timothy 2:5, Paul explains that "An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules." We are to study Scripture and be "prepared to make a defense" of our faith (1 Peter 3:15). Not only do they know the rules of their sport, but athletes nourish their bodies appropriately and train them diligently; they make personal sacrifices of time, money, comfort, and many other things in order to train, exercise, compete, practice, and stay fit. Likewise in Hebrews 12:1–2 we are exhorted to "lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." We too must lay aside all the things that hinder our spiritual growth and pull us away from the faith. This verse also talks about endurance, that the Christian walk will be hard and full of obstacles like Jesus warned (John 16:33). Like Olympic athletes, we need to be ready to use self-control to avoid the hindrances and overcome the obstacles to our eternal goal.
This might seem daunting, but those who believe in Jesus have the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit as well as the fellowship of other believers to encourage us in our race (Hebrews 10:24–25). The Holy Spirit helps us to understand the things of God and to increase in love for Him (John 14:16–17). Self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:23). Fellow believers, much like fellow athletes, can encourage us in our Christian faith. We are judged for our own works, much like Olympians in solo sports. Yet we live our lives with a "team," much like Olympians have the support of coaches, other athletes, fans, and more to support them. Our "team" is the body of Christ, a family into which we are adopted when we become children of God through faith in Jesus (John 1:12).
Let the Olympic Games serve as a reminder to refocus our minds on the eternal goal of storing our rewards in heaven and let that goal drive us to be more self-controlled. And let this goal-oriented thinking and self-control all stem from our love for Jesus. Let us, like Paul, be able to say, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7).
In what way is self-control a fruit of the Holy Spirit?
How does a person love Jesus? What does it mean to love Jesus?
What is the Christian life?
What is meant by 'dying to self'? How are Christians supposed to die to self?
What does it mean for Christians to be in the world but not of the world?
Truth about the Christian Life