I hate sports analogies. No, really! I do. Alas, no one seems too worried about my annoyance with these little pictures, and there’s a long tradition of using sports analogies to make a point. So far as I know, the first Christian guy to do this is the apostle Paul. Not only that; he bursts right out of the gate with one of my least favorite; track. Oh well. At least it isn’t football. But I have to admit — it is a good analogy. A little confusing, but good.
Now I do all this because of the gospel, so I may become a partner in its benefits. Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize.
Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. However, they do it to receive a crown that will fade away, but we a crown that will never fade away. Therefore I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1Co 9:23-27 HCSB)
The first thing to remember here is that a parable is a parable, and an analogy is of the parable genre, more or less. So there’s no need to worry about all those runners; what happens to them. This is Paul’s race, and he’s not competing against his fellow believers. That wouldn’t work at all. Perhaps we could see the other runners in this case as Paul’s competing desires, distractions, etc. They would be the equivalent to the weeds in Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed. Paul — the real Paul — wants to outrun all those temptations; those other competing desires; for the sake of the gospel.
But the thing that’s always puzzled me about this parable is the idea that Paul could lose out. How could Paul; the apostle Paul; possibly be worried about his salvation? That’s what this parable has always said to me, though. First, if you’re Calvinist (predestination), this doesn’t make sense because if Paul is among the elect, there’s no way he could be rejected no matter what he did. God would still get him in the end. Second, if you’re Arminian, you’re saved by grace through faith, and it isn’t a matter of anything you do or don’t do — except that you mustn’t reject the faith. And of course, if you’re Christian universalist, well nobody loses out in the long run (but it could be a very long run . . . .) Paul goes back to his handy-dandy race analogy in his letter to the Philippians:
. . . to know him, and the power of his rising again, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, if anyhow I may attain to the rising again of the dead. Not that I did already obtain, or have been already perfected; but I pursue, if also I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus; brethren, I do not reckon myself to have laid hold; and one thing — the things behind indeed forgetting, and to the things before stretching forth — to the mark I pursue for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. (Php 3:10-14 RYLT-NT)
But wait a minute! What’s to lay hold of, after all? As soon as Paul sees Jesus, he’ll be like Him, and so will we; at least according to his fellow apostle, John.
Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him because we will see Him as He is. (1Jn 3:2 HCSB)
So if John’s right, there’s really nothing for us to do that God isn’t going to do to us in the end. We’ll automatically be perfected as soon as we kick the bucket (or if you’re a soul-sleep person, as soon as we’re raised from among the dead). We’ll see Jesus and we’ll be like Him. Happy ending — story just beginning and all that. Sure, we want to try to be like Jesus here and now, but there’s no real loss if we aren’t.
Maybe we won’t get as big a reward (whatever that consists of), but everyone will be satisfied; everyone happy; everyone instantaneously matured. Besides, do you really want to rule a city (Luke 19, starting at verse 16) — let alone several of them!? Sounds like a lot of work to me. I’d rather paint pictures, to tell you the truth. You can rule the cities. I’m just going to do enough to slide by. But why did Paul “run” so hard? Was it ambition, or maybe something else?
To be continued . . .