1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

24 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. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.


Here Paul gives another parallel wherein self-denial is an understandable virtue. His audience in Corinth understood that athletes must engage in self-denial in order to be the most successful. Paul states that his self-denial of rights is much the same. Picking up with The Pulpit Commentaries in verse 24:

1 Corinthians 9:24

Know ye not that they which run in a race run all? They as Corinthians would well know the full bearing of every illustration derived from the triennial Isthmian games, which were the chief glory of their city, and which at this period had even thrown the Olympic games into the shade. The words “in a race,” are rather, in the stadium. The traces of the great Corinthian stadium, where the games were held and the races run, are still visible on the isthmus. This metaphor of “the race,” which has pervaded the common language of Christianity, is also found in Hebrews 12:1; Php 3:14; 2 Timothy 4:7The prize. The bracium was the wreath given to the victor by the judges. The Christian prize is that of “the high calling of God in Jesus Christ,” towards which St. Paul himself was pressing forward.

Wikipedia has an interesting article on the Isthmian Games:

The Games were reputed to have originated as funeral games for Melicertes (also known as Palaemon), instituted by Sisyphus, legendary founder and king of Corinth, who discovered the dead body and buried it subsequently on the Isthmus. In Roman times, Melicertes was worshipped in the region. Another likely later myth held that Theseus, legendary king of Athens, expanded Melicertes’ funeral games from a closed nightly rite into fully-fledged athletic-games event which was dedicated to Poseidon, open to all Greeks, and was at a suitable level of advancement and popularity to rival those in Olympia, which were founded by Heracles. Theseus arranged with the Corinthians for any Athenian visitors to the Isthmian games to be granted the privilege of front seats (prohedriaAncient Greek προεδρία). Another version states that Kypselos, tyrant of Corinth in the 7th century BC, returned to the Games their old splendour.


The first Isthmian Games were held in 582 BC.

The festival included athletic and musical competitions to honor the god Poseidon, and was held in the spring of the second and fourth years of each Olympiad at Poseidon’s rural sanctuary on the Isthmus of Corinth, the small neck of land that connects the Peloponnesian peninsula with Central Greece. Since it was easy to reach both from land and sea, the Isthmia was a natural meeting place.

This festival was open to all Greeks and the Isthmian games were especially popular with Athenians, though the Eleans boycotted them. The Isthmian games were used by many as a forum for political propaganda.

These were stephanitic games (i.e., with a crown as prize) and at least until the 5th century BC (Pindar‘s time) the winners of the Isthmian games received a wreath of celery;  later, the wreath was altered such that it consisted of pine leaves and called Isthmian pine (Ἰσθμικὴ πίτυς). Victors could also be honored with a statue or an ode. Besides these prizes of honor, the city of Athens awarded victorious Athenians with 100 drachmas.

From 228 BC or 229 BC onwards the Romans were allowed to take part in the games. In 196 BC Titus Quinctius Flamininus used the occasion of the games to proclaim the freedom of the Greek states from Macedonian hegemony. According to Appian‘s account:

When he had arranged these things with them he went to the Isthmian games, and, the stadium being full of people, he commanded silence by trumpet and directed the herald to make this proclamation, “The Roman people and Senate, and Flamininus, their general, having vanquished the Macedonians and Philip, their king, order that Greece shall be free from foreign garrisons, not subject to tribute, and shall live under her own customs and laws.” Thereupon there was great shouting and rejoicing and a scene of rapturous tumult; and groups here and there called the herald back in order that he might repeat his words for them. They threw crowns and fillets upon the general and voted statues for him in their cities. They sent ambassadors with golden crowns to the Capitol at Rome to express their gratitude, and inscribed themselves as allies of the Roman people. Such was the end of the second war between the Romans and Philip.

Since the games’ inception, Corinth had always been in control of them. When Corinth was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, the Isthmian games continued, but were now administered by Sicyon. Corinth was rebuilt by Caesar in 44 BC, and recovered ownership of the Games shortly thereafter, but they were then held in Corinth. They did not return to the Isthmus until AD 42 or 43. Libanius mentions the continuation of cultic activities at the Isthmus into the middle of the 4th century, and the games probably continued at least until the end of that century. The circumstances of their demise are unknown. Imperial pressure against pagan rituals was heightened at the end of the 4th century, but some polytheistic cult practices certainly continued at Corinth into the 6th century.

Clearly, the people of Corinth understood this analogy. Their games were *big* deal. Returning to the text in Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(25) Every man that striveth for the mastery.—Better, Every one that enters into the contest. The Greek word (agonizomenos) is identical with the English “agonise.” Hence the use in devotional works of the phrase “to agonise in prayer,” etc.

Is temperate in all things.—He fulfils not only some, but all of the necessary preliminary conditions. He indulges self in no way.

They do it to obtain a corruptible crown.—There are two striking points of contrast between the earthly race and the spiritual course. There is but one obtains a reward in the earthly contest; none need fail of it in the heavenly race. That reward in the one case is perishable; in the other it is imperishable. If, then—such is St. Paul’s argument—men show such extraordinary devotion and self-sacrifice for a reward which is merely perishable, and which each has only a chance of gaining, what should not be the devotion and self-sacrifice of those for all of whom an imperishable reward is certain!

Paul compares the spiritual race of sharing the Gospel with the earthly literal races of Corinth. Both involve self-sacrifice from the participants. Both involve winning a crown. However, Paul’s race can be won by all and the crown he strives for is eternal.

This topic of course begs the question of “eternal rewards.” Is the Christian who runs his race well rewarded *more* than one who does not? Assuming that both receive salvation of their souls, what might more rewards look like? Paul does not go into this topic here, so I will not give much focus to it (I hope it comes up later in the book), but this interview clip presents the topic.

Here is another video, from Southern Seminary, on the topic:

You’ll note here that the first video states that the long-standing traditional belief of Christianity is that specific rewards, that vary, is the textual and historical stance of the Church. The second video states that “the reward” is salvation itself and that beyond that, Scripture is vague, though he goes on to say that it is “wrong thinking” to view rewards as varying according to one’s works.

Here are some verses on the topic:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Colossians 3:23-24

God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” Romans 2:6

Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. Revelation 22:12

Personally, at least for now, I lean more toward the traditional view wherein a variance of works will lead to differing eternal rewards – beyond solely salvation itself. My concern with the latter view is that the Scriptural basis for that view seems weak to me, though not entirely indefensible. I am also concerned that it seems to promote a lack of effort in one’s works.

Continuing on to verse 26, again in The Pulpit Commentaries:

1 Corinthians 9:26

Not as uncertainly. My eye is fixed on a definite goal (2 Timothy 1:12). So fight I (Romans 7:23Ephesians 6:122 Timothy 4:7); literally, so box 1. Not as one that beateth the air; rather, as not beating the air. Not what the Greeks called “a shadow battle.” I strike forthright blows, not feints, or blows at random.

1 Corinthians 9:27

I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection; literally, I bruise my body, and lead it about as a slave. The word tamely rendered “keep in subjection” means literally, I smite under the eyes. The pugilistic metaphor is kept up, and the picturesque force of the words would convey a vivid impression to Corinthians familiar with the contests of the Pancratum, in which boxing with the heavy lead-bound caestus played a prominent part. The only other place in the New Testament where the word occurs is Luke 18:5, where it seems (on the lips of the unjust judge) to have a sort of slang sense. How St. Paul “bruised his body” may be seen in 2Co 6:4, 2 Corinthians 6:5Colossians 3:5Romans 8:13. It was not by absurd and harmful self torture, but by noble labour and self denial for the good of others. When I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway. “Lest”—such is the meaning of the metaphor” after proclaiming to others the laws of the contest (as a herald), I should myself violate those conditions, and be not only defeated as a combatant, but ignominiously rejected from the lists and not allowed to contend at all.” The metaphor is not strictly adhered to, for the herald did not personally contend. No candidate could compete without a preliminary scrutiny, and to be “rejected” was regarded as a deadly insult The word “rejected,” “reprobate”—hero rendered “a castaway”—is a metaphor derived from the testing of metals, and the casting aside of those which are spurious. That Paul should see the necessity for such serious and unceasing effort shows how little he believed in the poss

Paul adds boxing to his athletics metaphor. Who knew that shadow boxing existing in ancient times? Paul explains that he must discipline his body, and be master of his body, so that he does not harm his work in sharing the Gospels.

This chapter is a fascinating and insightful view of the topic of Christian liberty. Paul vigorously defends the existence of liberty, then explains why a right must not always be acted upon, just because the right exists. All of his “rights” are less important than his work in sharing the Gospel.

Chapter 9 addresses the dispute from Chapter 8, regarding eating meat offered to idols. Paul takes the side of those who argue that the liberty exists to eat this meat, but then he takes the other side when explaining why it should not be eaten. You see in this approach that both sides to the argument had a point, and by crediting both of their points, he creates a path for the two sides to come back together in humble fellowship.

This meat and idols topic progresses to the next portion of the debate as we get into Chapter 10. Paul warns the Corinthians against idolatry (liberty does not extend into spiritual rebellion.)

One thought on “1 Corinthians 9:24-27