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Is the Prize Worth Pain and Shame?

Have you ever been to the Olympics? Or to some other world class athletic event? Paul had.

After Paul’s radical conversion he disappeared to Arabia for three years. Scripture doesn’t give us many clues about those 3 years, but I’ve always imagined that Paul was busy unpacking or deconstructing his Pharisaical past and reconstructing his understanding of the Old Testament based on the truth of Jesus and the good news He brought.

After that, Paul returned and engaged the world with the good news of the gospel of Jesus. He took off on at least three separate “Missionary Journeys” to spread the good news of salvation in Jesus. His third missionary journey landed him in Corinth during the spring exactly when the Isthmian games were being held (Spring of AD 49).

Both the Greek culture and the Roman culture loved the competition of the Olympic and Isthmian games. In boxing the contestants would fight until one of three things happened; one was incapable of fighting any more, or one of them gave up and acknowledged defeat by holding up his hand (with great shame), or one of them died (which was quite common). Boxing matches could last up to 4 hours! And there were no breaks, or “rounds.” Paul’s first-hand experience in witnessing these games lies behind many of his images and spiritual analogies in his writings.

In these games, there was no second or third place awards. As Vince Lombardi said “Winning Isn’t Everything; It’s the Only Thing.” That was a culture that really did embrace the saying “second place is the first loser.” In this honor obsessed culture there was great shame in not winning. Epictetus wrote that “in the Olympic Games you cannot just be beaten and then depart, but first of all, you will be disgraced not only before the people of Athens or Sparta or Nikopolis but before the whole world.” He goes on to explain that losers would also be whipped.

This is why Paul says;

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 (1 Cor. 9:24). (Theological note: This is an analogy - While some may experience a loss of rewards, I don’t think there will be shame for believers who receive rewards at the bema seat before God).

The thing that strikes me is the incredible focus, dedication, time and energy these athletes would devote to the chance of winning. What would they win? They would win status as a god and be revered for life! They would win food and money. And.....A celery crown. Yup. That’s what they won for first place – a crown of celery leaves! I’m not sure what the shelve life of a crown of celery leaves is, but I bet it’s short.

This is why Paul says;

Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable (1 Cor. 9:25).

Additionally, these athletes had to take an oath of honesty before Zeus in their training and competition. Failure to compete by the rules resulted in a shameful disqualification.

This is why Paul says;

So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:26-27). (Theological note: Paul was talking about losing the reward or prize, not loosing his salvation. Even if he lost the competition, he was still a citizen).

Obviously, there was only one winner – so why would so many train so hard and risk the pain and shame? Because the prize was worth the presence of pain and the possibility of shame.

Is the prize of knowing Jesus and growing in his grace worth the presence of pain and the possibility of shame to you?


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