Running to win
It would be impossible here for us to explore every reference in Scripture to the Christian’s race — Hebrews 12 contains a rich metaphor of the endurance required for runners as the endurance of the Christian life. But a good place to start is the first epistle to the Corinthian church. In the 1st century, Roman athletes would spend months conditioning for the Olympic Games and the Isthmian Games. Apostle Paul was probably the first of many teachers to capitalize on the popularity of sporting events among his listeners as analogies to the gospel of Christ. Comparing the race to the believer’s life of perseverance and faithfulness, the apostle said, “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. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (I Corinthians 9:24-25).
The apostle encourages believers to be as focused and disciplined as the athletes competing in those games. In our temporal existence, our motivation should not be for a trophy that will tarnish, but for a crown that will last forever: one that we will inherit and then cast at the feet of Christ.
Of course, Paul’s exhortation was put to the test when he faced obstacles on his path by the world, the flesh and the devil (Ephesians 2:2-3). At the twilight of his ministry, he wrote to his protégé, Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up 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 loved his appearing” (II Timothy 4:7-8). Paul wasn’t commending himself for having run the full distance — he was referring to the grace of God which empowered him to make it as far as he did. Elsewhere, Paul said, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). Paul knew what his purpose was and what was expected of him, and he fixated on the figure of Christ at the finish line.
By declaring “I have finished the race,” Paul was telling Timothy that even though his race wasn’t quite over, he had done everything he could with what he had to promulgate the gospel throughout the known world. If anyone was a spiritual “juggernaut,” it was Paul, but he was quick to acknowledge that any momentum he had was afforded by God (I Corinthians 15:10, II Corinthians 10:17-18, Colossians 1:28-29). He completed the course set before him, passed the baton to Timothy, reminded him whence he should look for strength (II Timothy 2:1), and was ready to collapse into the arms of his Savior.
Of course, as with most Scriptural analogies, a slight breakdown occurs in Apostle Paul’s. He states that there is only one winner of the race (I Corinthians 9:24), but every Christian is appointed to win his race (John 6:37-40). No matter what strengths and weaknesses are apportioned to each believer, we are not called to compare ourselves to those running alongside us, but to judge our pace by the standard of Christ, finish the race with what we’ve been given and receive an equal reward (cf. Matthew 20:1-16, John 21:21-22, II Corinthians 10:12).