In July of 2008, golf fans were almost as shocked as eighteen year old Michelle Wie. She was one stroke off the lead in the State Farm Classic tournament and was playing her best golf of the year. If she had finished in second place, the $155,252.00 purse would be hers. It would also have secured her a place in the LPGA tour the following season. But Ms. Wie forgot a basic rule in professional golf: she failed to sign her score card before leaving the scoring area. (This signature rule is the heart of golf’s honor system.) The reporter further observed, “Wie’s short career has been colored by controversy, starting with her disqualification from her pro debut at the 2005 Samsung World Championship for taking an improper drop…” The disqualification made the young athlete forfeit sizable rewards.
The apostle Paul was also concerned about the risk of disqualification. Money or popularity were not his goals; his heart’s passion was to make the most of his apostolic ministry. The Lord promises His people rewards at the judgment seat of Christ commensurate with their obedience, devotion, and service to the Kingdom (1 Cor. 3:11-15). Although Paul had already been greatly used by God when he wrote 1 Corinthians (about A.D. 56), he still resolved to avoid immorality, heresy, or passivity–anything that would rob his potential for finishing the race in a worthy manner. Did his reference to being “disqualified” refer to the risk of losing his salvation? Some have interpreted 1 Corinthians 9:27 in this way. Let’s take a closer look.
Allusions to Greek athletic contests are used in the New Testament to illustrate principles of Christian living. Paul “fought with wild beasts” at Ephesus (1 Cor. 15:32), and “pressed toward the goal” of his upward call (Phil. 3:14). Several of these symbols occur in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.”
The Corinthians would recognize this imagery as referring to the Isthmian Games (almost as popular as the original Olympics). The “race” would envision a foot-race, as in 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”(See also Hebrews 12:1.) The race would be held in a stadium 606 feet in length (from the Greek stadia).
All true believers are in this race. The finish line is heaven and the prize is the promise of rewards bestowed upon God’s people according to their righteous, loving, Holy Spirit-inspired works (2 Cor. 5:10). The prize given to the champion at the Isthmian games was a pine wreath; its value was in what it represented, not in its substance. The Olympic Games presented a wild olive wreath, and the Pythian games used a laurel one. (I wonder how I would have reacted if I could have won the Namean games? They used a parsley wreath…) The apostle readily notes that these prizes are “perishable,” whereas the Lord’s rewards are imperishable (1 Cor. 9:25).
To be successful in the games required disciplined exercise and skillful preparation. We are told that “everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things” (1 Cor. 9:25). The Greek athlete abstained from unhealthy food, wine, and sexual indulgence. Likewise the Christian is to exhibit the Holy Spirit’s fruit of temperance (self control). Drugs and alcohol, sensual sin and aimless living sabotage the disciple who seeks to faithfully “run the race.”
Notice Paul’s focus on Kingdom priorities: “Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air” (1 Cor. 9:26). (This is an allusion to boxing.) If the boxer doesn’t concentrate, he will take blows and miss his opportunities to land some. This determination included Paul’s commitment to govern his body’s drives so that they would be his servant instead of his master: “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection…” (1 Cor. 9:27). He is not implying that the body is bad because it is physical (dualism), nor that bodily appetites are bad because of being non-spiritual. God’s word affirms the food, drink, sex, and other wholesome pleasures of life are gifts of God and should be used according to His design, wisdom, and boundaries (1 Tim. 4:3,4; 6:17; 1 Cor. 7:2-5).
The passage concludes in verse 27 with an indirect warning: “But I discipline my body … lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” What concerned the apostle should concern us as well. What did he mean by being disqualified? Was he inferring that a lack of personal discipline could rob him of his eternal salvation? Does his cautionary statement teach insecurity?
As we have sought to do in these exegetical studies, consider again the context. Was Paul teaching about salvation here? Note that his concern for disqualification related to the prize, not to finishing the race. This hero of the faith was concerned about maximizing his ministry; he was not driven by anxiety that the Lord would reject him if he slipped up. His focus here was on rewards, or “crowns.” As he noted later, “And if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Tim. 2:5). The desire for the “prize” begins this paragraph and is implied in the grammar three additional times before the last phrase. This passion to excel in his ministry was also the pulse of the preceding context: “to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).
The born again believer is fully accepted in the Beloved One (his position), yet should also be zealous to live and serve in a way that pleases the Lord (his practice – Eph. 1:6; 2 Cor. 5:9). Olympic athletes are free to focus on their goal to win if they aren’t worrying about being dropped from the team. Likewise, the secure believer is challenged to follow Paul’s disciplined example to fulfill his potential in Christ and lay the imperishable wreath at the feet of our Redeemer in glory.
One of the rewards is promised to believers who have lived in eager anticipation of Christ’s return. Paul penned these words to his son in the faith shortly before being martyred: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 3:7,8).
Let’s us run this Christian race with security, zeal, and hope.
 The Associated Press News Service July 19, 2008
 “Games,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.
 Several “crowns” are mentioned in the New Testament, including Phil 4:1; 1 Thess. 2:19; 2 Tim. 4:8; 1 Pet. 5:4; Rev. 3:11
 “The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne…” (Rev. 4:10).
Copyright John B. Woodward. 2008. Permission is granted to reprint this article for non-commercial use. Scripture quotations are from The New King James Version, copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson.