Text: 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:13
On the day of their engagement, a young man gave his fiancee a rather expensive necklace. It came with a note which said, “My dearest Diane, I love you with all my heart. I love you more and more each day. I will love you for ever and ever. I am yours for all eternity.” Signed, “Tom”. P.S. “If we ever split up, I want this necklace back.”
I want to speak to those who have been baptised. Your baptism symbolises and seals the Christian’s commitment to the Lord. You have been baptised in obedience to the express command of the Saviour, when he said to his disciples: Mt 28:19, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Noticing that in 1 Cor 1 it was not only individuals, but also whole families who were baptised, many Christian parents think it right to bring their children for baptism, with the prayer that in due time they will make their own the promises and commitments that for the time being have been made on their behalf.
Baptism speaks of us as being dead and buried, as far as our old life is concerned; and alive and kicking, with regard to our new life in Christ. In baptism, in other words, we declare that we are Christ’s for ever and ever. No P.S. about the possibility of splitting up. No turning back.
But will all those who have expressed their commitment to Christ in baptism, be they adults or children, ‘continue his faithful soldiers and servants to the end of their lives’? Will that journey, begun so hopefully, end happily for everyone? That is the question that confronts us in 1 Cor 9:24-10:13.
Paul was writing to those who had themselves been baptised. His concern was that having got off to a good start, they might get blown of course, and not reach their journey’s end. A number of people in the Corinthian church had been converted from pagan idolatry. Now, it seems, they were drifting back into the pagan temples, dabbling with idolatrous practices again. They were trampling all over the sensitivities of other Christians in doing so, and all the time remaining confident that because they had been baptised, because they participated in the Lord’s Supper, everything was OK. They believed in Christian liberty, and they took this to mean that they could do as they liked. They imagined that they were strong; but actually, they were pathetically weak. They thought they were standing firm; but in fact, they were in danger of falling.
Paul’s message to these people can be summarised as follows:- “There is a race for you to run. You are in danger of being disqualified from the race. But help is at hand.”
1. There is a race to be run, vv24-27.
There was an athletics stadium just down the road from Corinth. It was here that the Isthmian games were held, second in importance only to the Olympic games. The remains of that stadium can still be visited, and to this day you can see the runners’ starting blocks which are embedded in stone. When Paul said that the Christian life is like a running race, his readers would have known exactly what he meant. Notice what Paul has to say about this:-
(a) You have to run so as to win the prize. V24 ‘Run in such a way as to get the prize.’ Now, of course, in a running race, only one person can win; in the Christian race, many can win. The point is: all Christians should all run their race with the same effort and commitment that is put in by the one athlete who wins the running race. 2 Tim 4:8 ‘Now there is in store 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 longed for his appearing.’ It’s not enough to have started the race; you’ve got to finish it. It’s not enough to be in it; you’ve got to win it. Are we running the Christian race with that kind of energy and determination?
(b) You have to go into strict training. V25 – ‘Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.’ Every athlete who competed in the Isthmian games had to swear that he had been in training for 10 months, and that he would not break the rules. He lived on a strict diet, abstained from wine and rich foods, and had to endure rigorous discipline. And all this just to win a pine wreath that would soon wither and fade. How much more we Christians, who are running for a prize that will never wither or fade, should train for the race that we are in. ‘Notice that the athlete denies himself many lawful pleasures. The Christian must avoid not only definite sin, but anything that hinders his complete effectiveness.’ (Morris) Heb 12:1 ‘Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.’ Are we prepared to put in that kind of training and self-discipline?
(c) You have to run in the right direction. V26 – ‘I do not run like a man running aimlessly.’ Imagine competitors lined up to run the 100 metres. Then, when the starting pistol goes, everyone rushes off in different directions. Remember how Linford Christie used to concentrate before and during his big races: he was totally focused on the finishing line. Phil 3:14 ‘I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’ Do we have that kind of clear aim and purpose in our Christian lives?
There is a race to be run.
2. There is a risk of being disqualified from the race, vv9:27-10:13.
Paul had spotted an uncanny and disturbing similarity between what was happening to the Corinthians and what had happened long ago to the children of Israel at the time of the Exodus. Had the Corinthians experienced God’s deliverance? Well, so had Israel, in their release from slavery in Egypt. Had the Corinthians been baptised? Well, the Israelites had undergone a sort of baptism. Were the Corinthians being spiritually nourished by the bread and the wine at the Lord’s Supper? Well, God’s people had been given spiritual food and drink to sustain them in the wilderness. Had the Corinthians witnessed miracles? So had the Israelites. Had the Corinthians known God’s presence and guidance? So had the Israelites. An entire nation had begun that journey out of Egypt. But how many people actually completed the journey and entered the promised land? Just two. All the rest perished in the desert. Why? because they had allowed themselves to be led into idolatry, sexual immorality, putting the Lord to the test, and rebellious complaining against God. And it was precisely the same evils that the Corinthians were in danger of lapsing into.
Lesson: beginning our spiritual journey with great privileges does not guarantee entry into final blessing. Or, as Paul puts it in 1 Cor 10:11f ‘These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!’
I know that some of us feel extremely uncomfortable about this kind of warning. After all, doesn’t Scripture assure us that those who are truly saved can never be lost? It does indeed. Didn’t our Saviour himself declare: John 10:28 “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” He did indeed. So why do we find even Paul himself expressing concern that he might be disqualified for the prize, 9:27? I can do no better than to pass on to you the comment of Charles Hodge on this verse: ‘What an argument and what a reproof is this! The reckless and listless Corinthians thought they could safely indulge themselves to the very verge of sin, while this devoted apostle considered himself as engaged in a life-struggle for his salvation. This same apostle, however, who evidently acted on the principle that the righteous scarcely are saved, and that the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, at other times breaks out in the most joyful assurance of salvation, and says that he was persuaded that nothing in heaven, earth or hell could ever separate him from the love of God. Romans 8:38, 39. The one state of mind is the necessary condition of the other. It is only those who are conscious of this constant and deadly struggle with sin, to whom this assurance is given. In the very same breath that Paul says, “O wretched man that I am;” he adds, “Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory,” Romans 7:24, 25. It is the indolent and self-indulgent Christian who is always in doubt.’
Christian, I would not have you doubt your salvation, but I would discourage presumption. ‘If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!’ There is a danger of being disqualified from the race.
3. But help is at hand, v13.
(a) No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. The struggles that the Corinthians had, and the struggles we may have, are not unique or even exceptional. ‘Elijah, that could shut heaven by prayer, could not shut his heart from temptation. 1 Kings 19:4. Job was tempted to curse God, Peter to deny Christ… Nay, Jesus Christ himself, though free from sin, yet was not free from temptation. We read of his baptism; then he was ‘led into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.’ Matt 4:1. No sooner was Christ out of the water of baptism, but he was in the fire of temptation; and if the devil would set upon Christ, no wonder if he set upon us.’ (Thomas Watson)
(b) God will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. This reminds me of Psa 103:14 ‘for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.’ ‘No pharmacist ever weighed out medicine with half as much care and exactness as God weighs out every trial he dispenses. Not a microgram too much does he ever permit to be put on us.’
(c) When you are tempted, God will also provide a way out. Paul uses a very vivid word here. The picture is of an army being pursued by the enemy, and then finding itself trapped in the mountains. Suddenly, when all seems lost, someone notices an escape route high up through a mountain pass. So the embattled soldiers make their way to safety. God is faithful. With one hand he permits the trial; with the other he provides a way out. He will either lighten the load, or make us stronger to carry it. 1 Cor 1:8-9 ‘He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.’
There is a race to be run. Therefore, let us run so as to win the prize. Let us be willing to undergo strict training. Let us make sure we are running in the right direction. There is a danger of being disqualified. Therefore, let us run with care, not presuming on the Lord’s grace and mercy. Help is at hand. Therefore, let us run on, through all obstacles and opposition, knowing that our severest trials are part of the common lot of the people of God, believing that God will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear, trusting that when we are tempted, God will also provide a way out.