Since the last two sections of this letter are quite short, we’ll take a look at both of them today.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
I really do love this passage – for us, when we chose a denomination or a theological position, it tends to isolate us from others. Paul understood that to be a common strain in his day. Insiders just respond to insiders in a way that outsiders never could – so he becomes an insider to the Jews, to those under the law, to those without the law, to the weak – I really wish Christians could imitate Paul in this way but we have our moral absolutes that justify our ability to ignore outsiders as we lavish our attention on our insiders.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
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. 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. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Well you learn something new every day. Running and boxing were two of the events for the Isthmia Games located just outside of the city of Corinth on the isthmus that connects the Peloponnese Peninsula with the rest of the mainland of Greece. Paul’s metaphor just isn’t a random thought about athletics, but a concrete idea based on something the Corinthians would be familiar with. The Isthmia Games were always held the year before and the year after the Olympics – so locals had only two years to train for it, less if they were also Olympians. Just as our Olympians do, athletes make sacrifices and train themselves, then they must fight within the rules so that they are not disqualified from the prize they worked so hard to win. Odds were they were always seeing young men and women training themselves for these events day and day out – the very same ones they would gladly be rooting for in the upcoming games. I could totally imagine Paul using the same strategy with soccer or football to emphasize that training and effort are vital elements in a Christians life and that it does not pay off to get ourselves disqualified so that we miss out on the big trophy / scholarship / life-time supply of chocolate.