Called to Win the Race
1 Corinthians 9:24–10:13
1 Corinthians 9:24–10:13
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Restate the positive and negative examples that Paul gives regarding following through to the end.
2. Draw one parallel between the ancient Israelites’ experiences in the wilderness and the challenges of modern Christian life.
3. Plan to overcome a specific temptation.
How to Say It
Baal Peor. Bay-al PE-or.
Moses. MO-zes or MO-zez.
Pharaoh. FAIR-o or FAY-roe.
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, July 10—Run the Race with Perseverance (Hebrews 12:1–12)
Tuesday, July 11—Keep Alert and Always Persevere (Ephesians 6:10–20)
Wednesday, July 12—Be Doers, Not Just Hearers (James 1:19–27)
Thursday, July 13—Press On Toward the Goal (Philippians 3:12–16)
Friday, July 14—Run for the Gospel’s Sake (1 Corinthians 9:22b–27)
Saturday, July 15—Do Not Follow Our Ancestors (1 Corinthians 10:1–7)
Sunday, July 16—God Will Help You Endure Testing (1 Corinthians 10:8–13)
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
—1 Corinthians 9:24
Why Teach This Lesson?
Have you ever trained for anything? Some training, such as military basic training, is long and rigorous and includes expert trainers. Training for a marathon requires intense self-discipline and daily commitment. On-line training for the use of a software application may be self-directed and proceed at one’s own pace. But all training involves preparation necessary for meeting future goals.
Perhaps you have not thought much about it, but we also must train to be able to avoid temptations. When we prepare to deal with temptations before they confront us, we are more likely to pass the test! In this week’s lesson Paul exhorts the Corinthians to be ready to win the battle against sin. Being a Christian does not automatically give us victory over temptation. This lesson will teach us about the spiritual resources and principles that God has provided to keep us pure in an increasingly evil world.
A. Be Ready to Run
In auto racing races are often won by inches, with one car crossing the finish line only tenths of a second ahead of the closest competitor. Crossing the finish line of a race is not the time to read a How to Race manual! Similarly, the middle of Round 3 is not the time for a boxer to realize that he should have been hitting the punching bag instead of eating pizza and watching television. Common sense tells us that athletes must train and practice before the event so that they will be ready to compete well when the time comes.
In a similar way, we cannot be successful in our Christian lives if we do not prepare. The middle of a moral dilemma is not the time to realize that we aren’t really sure about the right thing to do. Paul therefore insists that we train and discipline ourselves so that we will always be ready for anything that comes our way.
B. Lesson Background
Today’s passage falls in the middle of a lengthy discussion about whether or not Christians may eat food that has been offered to idols. In last week’s lesson Paul warned mature believers to respect the sensitivities of weaker consciences. This discussion reminded Paul of the ancient Israelites, who were punished in the wilderness for their participation in idolatrous practices. He therefore takes a bit of a sidetrack to urge his readers to discipline themselves. Our weakness is not an excuse for sin but rather an opportunity for spiritual discipline and training so that we may receive God’s full reward.
Paul likes to use illustrations from sports, and he opens the discussion here by comparing the Christian life with running a race. Corinth was the site of a major international athletic festival, the Isthmian Games, which drew participants and tourists from a wide area. The Corinthians would be familiar with many of the best athletes of that time and could relate easily to Paul’s analogy.
I. Our Efforts (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
A. How to Run (v. 24)
24. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
Paul begins with the most basic rule of racing: everyone runs but only one person wins. This is not to suggest that the Christian life is a competition in which we get to Heaven by being better than everyone else (although we may often act that way). The emphasis lies in the second part of the verse: run … to get the prize. The participants in a race cannot control how fast their competitors will run. Each only can run as fast as possible. Christians should be prepared to run the race of faith as hard as they can so that nothing will hinder them (compare Philippians 3:14; 2 Timothy 4:7; Hebrews 12:1).
B. How to Train (vv. 25-27)
25. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.
Winning athletes in the ancient Isthmian Games are awarded a crown, a wreath made of pine garlands that is worn on the head. We saw a throwback to this in the 2004 Olympic games in Athens, where the modern gold-medal winners received similar wreaths.
The actual value of these crowns is minimal but they symbolize victory. An ancient athlete would go into strict training for a year to compete in the games at Corinth, in hope of wearing one of these perishable, corruptible wreaths. How much more valuable is the imperishable, incorruptible eternal reward that God gives to those who strive to please him! There is simply no comparison.
That fact leads to an obvious conclusion: if an athlete is willing to expend every ounce of energy for a fleeting honor, then surely we should be willing to discipline ourselves so that we may win the crown of eternal life (2 Timothy 4:8; James 1:12; 1 Peter 5:4).
Augusta, Georgia, becomes the focus of the golf world each April. The Masters golf tournament that is held there is one of golf’s most prestigious events. Phil Mickelson had this to say about his win there in 2004: “I think that winning this tournament, the reason it’s so special, is that now I get to be a part of this great event for the rest of my life. I’ll be back here every first week of April” (source: www.masters.org).
This is a tournament that demonstrates that you are among the great masters of this game, as Mickelson is. To reach this achievement demands countless hours of practice, strict training, and the denial of distracting interests. Poor eating, exercise, and sleeping habits do not produce a Masters’ champion. In the Christian life it takes personal discipline in all areas to receive the Master’s approval. We recall that we are saved by grace. Even so, poor Bible study habits, inconsistent church attendance, and wrong moral choices do not put a person in position to win the prize.
In addition to money the winner of the Masters golf tournament receives another prize: a green jacket. It is an award that these champions wear proudly—for this life. For those who prevail in the Christian life, there is a white robe to be gained—for eternity (Revelation 7:9–17).
—A. E. A.
26, 27. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Victory requires focused training, not random effort. Olympic runners do not rely on leisurely jogs along the beach! A boxer in training does not use worthless training methods. Instead, he labors in the gym every day under a strict regimen of exercise, diet, and practice sparring.
Both running and boxing require the athlete to train intensively. Similarly, believers are to train to be ready at all times for any spiritual challenge that may arise. We keep our bodies under control so that bad habits and lusts don’t weaken us. Such weakness would make us easy prey to the temptations that seem to come when we least expect them.
Here, as elsewhere, Paul uses himself as an example. He is not just a fat coach who walks the sidelines. He practices what he preaches! He can say from experience that a constant state of personal discipline is critical to one’s spiritual life.
II. Their Examples (1 Corinthians 10:1-6)
A. Parallel Blessings (vv. 1-4)
1. For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea.
Paul now applies the principle of a disciplined life to the problem immediately at hand. Some of the Corinthians are struggling with the temptation to participate in pagan religious practices and the immorality that surrounds them. Paul thus emphasizes the real danger by reminding the Corinthians of what happened to the Israelites.
The phrase our forefathers refers to the ancient Jews who came out of Egypt in the exodus under Moses over 14 centuries previously. This analogy sets the tone for the illustration to follow by indicating that Paul is speaking in spiritual terms. Many of the Corinthians are Gentiles by birth. Yet Moses and the Israelites are still their spiritual ancestors in common, godly faith. The ancient Jews’ experiences of temptation are similar to those faced by modern Christians. We may see in them an example of the dangers of a careless approach to godly commitment.
Visual for Lesson 7.
Ask your students to examine this image closely before answering the first of the two questions directly above.
Paul begins by describing the blessed state of divine protection and provision that the Israelites enjoyed. Under Moses’ leadership, they passed through the sea and onto dry land (Exodus 14). God was constantly present, leading in the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21, 22). Such obvious manifestations of God’s loving presence should have led them to a deep and abiding appreciation of his salvation and ongoing provision. That appreciation should have expressed itself in loyalty and obedience.
2. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.
Paul likens the Israelites’ experience to that of Christians. We are baptized “into Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:3, 4), while the ancient Israelites were, in a sense, baptized into Moses. While Moses obviously was not divine as Christ is, Moses did serve as something of a mediator between God and the ancient Jew. The verses that follow draw further parallels. (See also comparisons between Jesus and Moses in Hebrews 3:1–6.)
3, 4. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.
The exodus was not the end of God’s care for his people; it was only the beginning. After crossing the sea, they entered a wasteland in which they found themselves homeless and without food or water. God, however, sustained them by miraculous provisions of food (Exodus 16). God also miraculously provided water from a rock when they were thirsty, through Moses’ intervention (Exodus 17:1–7). In fact, God provided water in this way twice, in two different locations (see Numbers 20:1–11).
This double blessing led some of the ancient rabbis to suggest that God made the rock that yielded the miraculous water to travel with the Jews through the desert. Thus, as the story goes, they had refreshment whenever needed. Paul may be drawing upon this legend when he discusses the rock that followed them: and that rock was Christ. More important than the physical food and water that the Israelites enjoyed was God’s spiritual food and spiritual drink.
Paul’s point is that the believers at Corinth enjoy this blessing as well. Do we fail to appreciate how much such blessings are really worth?
B. Lost Blessings (vv. 5, 6)
5. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.
With all the blessings and advantages described in verses 1–4, it would seem that the Israelites couldn’t lose! They had received God’s Word directly through Moses, knew God’s power when they shook the sand from the floor of the Red Sea off their sandals, felt God’s love when they ate quail and drank fresh water in the desert. With all these obvious signs of his favor, how could they possibly fail to remain loyal to him?
But, as Paul points out, the facts of history show that even the most privileged life can end in tragedy when it is not guided by focused discipline. Of all the Jews who came out of Egypt, only two lived to see the promised land (Numbers 14:26–35). Even Moses faltered in a moment of weakness (Deuteronomy 32:48–52).
6. Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.
This verse shows that the fate of the Israelites is not just an interesting story from long ago. It reveals a very significant aspect of God’s nature and serves as a warning for all time. God is quick to bless, but he also judges those who disregard his gifts and betray his trust. Despite their many advantages, the Israelites continued to sin and offend God, with dire consequences. Similarly, those Christians who lose focus and do not run the race with discipline are in great danger.
Before leaving home this morning, I told my wife that I was going into the kitchen to get some pills that I needed to take at lunchtime. I remember walking up to the kitchen counter, but when lunchtime came I did not have the pills! In the span of just a few seconds, something else occupied my thoughts. So I had forgotten to get them.
We are a forgetful people, aren’t we? On more than one occasion I have heard a young person say that he or she will never make the mistake of driving under the influence of alcohol after having lost a friend who did just that. The pain of the recent loss is vivid, a reminder of the fragility of life. But in the matter of a few weeks, those lessons are forgotten. Careless driving, even driving after drinking, returns as a pattern.
As we read through the Old Testament, we are often appalled at the number of times God’s people turned their backs on him. They reform, promising to follow and honor him. Yet almost in the next breath they are again committing apostasy. We think we would never do such a thing. But it does not take too close of an examination of our lives to see that we are the same. God has left us the Old Testament as a warning and example of what happens when his way is forsaken. How well are we doing at heeding these warnings?
—A. E. A.
III. Our Task (1 Corinthians 10:7-13)
A. Learn from Examples (vv. 7-12)
7, 8. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.
The example of the Israelites shows what happens when focused discipline is lost. It is imperative for all believers to remain committed to God and ready to resist temptation.
To press home this point, Paul begins with one of the most flagrant acts of treason in history. The quotation in verse 7 comes from Exodus 32:6. The Israelites were worshiping a calf idol made from gold even while Moses was on the mountain receiving commandments from God. After eating and drinking, they indulged in unholy, pagan festivities.
Essentially, the Jews engaged in the idolatrous worship that they had known about in Egypt. They did this almost immediately after coming out of that country. Their lack of patience is remarkable, especially in view of their incredible experience at the Red Sea only a few weeks earlier. How quickly we forget God’s past provision in moments of stress and temptation!
Many more sins followed, and Paul reminds his readers of another occasion when lack of focus led the Israelites into lust and idolatry. Numbers 25:1 records a situation where Jewish men “began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women.” Further, many Israelites began to worship the Baal of Peor. He punished them by sending a plague that killed 23,000 people.
We should note that Numbers 25:9 in our modern Bibles sets the death toll at 24,000. The difference is most likely due to what is called a textual variant. Paul probably is citing a manuscript that is no longer available to us. The severity of God’s judgment remains clear nonetheless (compare Psalm 106:28, 29; Hosea 9:10).
9. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes.
Of course, “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone” (James 1:13). But people often do things that test the Lord in the sense of challenging his authority over their lives. Like a young child who defies his mother’s commands in order to see whether she is serious, believers sometimes flagrantly defy God’s will. Paul’s point is that God is prepared to punish those who act in this way.
One example may be taken from the famous story of the bronze serpent in Numbers 21:4–6. Just before this incident, God had given the Israelites a great military victory; they responded by complaining that they were tired of eating manna. This flagrant defiance resulted in God’s defending his own honor by sending a plague of snakes into the camp. That punishment was lifted only after the people confessed their sin.
10. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
Some students think that Paul is referring to Korah’s rebellion here (Numbers 16). But the verse before us is most likely a general summary statement, for the type of incidents described in verses 7–9 were by no means unique. The Jews’ dissatisfaction with God’s provision is a running theme in Exodus and Numbers (compare Hebrews 3:7–19).
11. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.
The experiences of the Israelites are examples, meaning that they function as warnings for future generations. Some may think that God no longer punishes sin because of the grace shown through Christ. But Paul dispels this notion. The fulfillment of the ages is the Christian era. The time of the fulfillment of God’s plan for the Christ is here.
Even now, under the grace available through Christ’s blood, we must remain focused and disciplined. Dare we risk losing the ultimate prize of eternal life? (Again, see 1 Corinthians 9:27.)
12. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
Paul now returns to the theme that opened his discussion of food offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8:1, 2). Many people think they are wise. But their arrogance leads them to miss the obvious and fall into sin. Many people think that they are strong. But this complacency leads them to become careless and undisciplined, leaving them unprepared to resist temptation.
B. Look to the Future (v. 13)
13. No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
The closing verse in this section provides both encouragement and warning. When we are tempted, we can rest assured that what we are facing is no worse than what other people have faced. And if other people have passed this test, so can we! God knows our strengths and weaknesses. He will not allow us to get into situations that cannot be overcome.
Every temptation has a built-in escape route. The most common is the fact that we can always simply say no. But at the same time, this assurance places all responsibility for sin on our own shoulders, not God’s. God’s faithfulness is a common Bible theme (Deuteronomy 7:9; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:24). Unfortunately, human unfaithfulness is all too real.
Several years ago, nascar driver Steve Park was involved in a serious accident when his steering wheel came off. The doors on race cars do not open, so drivers must crawl in and out of the vehicle through a window. To make this easier the cars are equipped with removable steering wheels.
Park’s accident occurred during a caution period in a race, when the cars move slowly around the track. While he cannot remember exactly what happened, it seems that Park turned his head momentarily as another vehicle approached on his left. In that split second, his steering wheel somehow detached. Park’s car veered suddenly and was broadsided by the passing car. Someone at some point had not securely fastened the steering wheel. That momentary loss of focus could have cost Park his life!
When Paul compares the Christian life with a race, he does not mean to encourage a competitive spirit. He means to stress our need to be prepared and vigilant at all times. Unfortunately, we usually do not know when trials and temptations will crop up; they often seem to come when we least expect them or are least prepared to deal with them.
The danger may be greatest when we feel the strongest, because at these moments a false sense of security may lead us to drop our guard. We therefore are on the alert constantly. We discipline ourselves spiritually so that we will be ready for any challenge that comes our way.
Underwood, J., Nickelson, R. L., & Underwood, J. 2005. New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2005-2006 . Standard Publishing: Cincinnati