1 Corinthians 9:26, 27
I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beats the air:…
It was quite in St. Paul's manner to support his exhortations to Christian service by adducing his own example and experience. Those who were not acquainted with him might misconstrue such references and set them down to a vain glorious spirit, but no one could do so who knew how fully and fervently this apostle ascribed all that he was and did as a Christian to the grace of Jesus Christ. "Not I, but the grace of God which was with me." "Not I, but Christ liveth in me."
I. ILLUSTRATIONS OF CHRISTIAN SERVICE.
1. St. Paul was as a runner in the Isthmian games, and so ran "not uncertainly." Suppose one to attempt that course without his mind made up as to the reason why or the goal to which he should run, moving without spirit or purpose, looking to this side and to that; he could take no prize. One must have a clear course and a definite aim in the race which is set before the servants of Christ.
2. St. Paul was as a boxer in the arena, and fought not as one "beating the air." The poet Virgil has the same expression in describing a boxer who missed his antagonist: "Vires in ventum effudit" ('Aeneid,' bk. 5:446). To do so is to waste force. He fights well who plants his blows skilfully and makes them tell. The apostle was a man of peace, but he needed boldness and firmness, as well as love and patience, for his hard service. He had journeys to make, trials to bear, testimonies to raise, controversies to conduct, difficulties to adjust, calumnies to refute, sorrows to assuage - a great and arduous career; and, by the grace of God, he put all his force into it, ran his race of duty with ardour, fought his fight of faith with resolution.
II. TRAINING AND DISCIPLINE FOR SUCH SERVICE. "I buffet my body, and bring it into subjection." He who would subdue evil in others must suppress it in himself. Now, the apostle found that the gospel was hindered, not so much by intellectual objection, as by moral depravity. The flesh lusted against the spirit. He had felt this in himself, and knew that the flesh prevailed by fastening on the organs of the body and inducing indulgence or excess. So he brought himself into good training for active Christian work by bruising the body and "mortifying its deeds." He would not surfeit or pamper it, lest he should stupefy the soul. This is something quite different from that "neglect of the body" which St. Paul elsewhere mentions among the superstitions of a delusive piety. To deprive the body of necessary food and sleep is to disable the powers of the mind in hope of purifying the soul. Such has been the practice of men and women in the ascetic life, and at one time it took the form of a frenzy, when the Flagellants traversed a considerable part of Europe in long processions, with covered faces, chanting penitential hymns, and continually applying the scourge to one another's naked backs. Those fanatics meant well, and, indeed, supposed that they were following the Apostle Paul. But to such foolish and cruel actions few of us are prone at the present day. Our danger lies on the opposite side. We do not hold the body sufficiently under control. We give it ease and luxury and ornament; we allow dangerous scope to those cravings and passions which have a physical basis, and so our spiritual life languishes, and we can put no glow of feeling or strength of purpose into the service of Christ. Corinth was a city notorious for profligacy. The Christians there must have known that, if a young athlete did not hold himself apart from the vices of the place, he could win no distinction in the public games. Every such competitor had to resist indulgence, and bring his frame to a firmness of muscle and a full strength of vitality which would enable it to bear the fatigue and strain of the Isthmian contests. In like manner St. Paul, for a higher purpose, restrained and governed himself, cultivated simplicity in the tastes and habits of his outward life, studied to keep himself in spiritual health and vigour, that he might run well and fight well for his heavenly Master.
III. AN EYE TO CONSEQUENCES. To sustain his purpose, St. Paul kept in view the prize of success and the disgrace of failure.
1. The prize would be an incorruptible crown. In desiring this, the good servant is not open to any charge of selfishness or vain glory. He thought of no prize, conceived of no praise or glory for himself which was not wrapped up in the praise and glory of Jesus. He had no desire to sit by himself on a high seat, with a chaplet or garland on his brow, drinking in his own praises. To see the people who had been converted to Christ through his labours safe in the kingdom would be to him a crown of rejoicing. And to see Christ praised and magnified would be to the good servant a great recompense of reward.
2. The disgrace of failure would be the Master's disapproval. How mortifying for one who had been a herald to others to be excluded at last as unworthy of a prize! Paul had preached to others, and called them to the Christian race, like the herald at the public games of Greece, who proclaimed the rules and conditions of the contest, and summoned runners or combatants to the lists. Alas for him if, through self indulgence or want of thoroughness in his ministry, he should be disapproved by the great Judge at the close of the day! It is quite a mistake to infer from this that St. Paul was still uncertain about his ultimate salvation, and afraid of being cast away in his sins. That would, indeed, be strange and perplexing in the face of his strong expressions to the contrary in such passages as Romans 8:38, 39; 2 Timothy 1:12. The question here is not of a sinner's salvation, but of a believer's service of doing well or ill in ministry; and fear of failure was and always is the obverse side of the desire of success. St. Paul was a very favoured servant of Christ, but it was none the less necessary for him to remember the need of diligence and self government in view of the day when the Master will call all his servants to account, and either reward or disapprove them at his coming. Indeed, the remembrance of this is needful for all of us as a caution against presumptuous and careless living. If the doctrine of salvation by grace be taught alone, men are apt to abuse it, and become spiritually conceited and morally heedless. The corrective is the call to service. "If a man serve me, him will my Father honour." Be not half hearted. So run as to attain: so fight as to overcome. Be not faint hearted. Pray as you run: pray as you fight. "They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength." - F.
Parallel VersesKJV: I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: