Run in such a way that you may obtain [the prize]. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. (1 Corinthians 9:24–26—NKJV)

The Apostle Paul was a great one for sports analogies. In this text he is illustrating the race of the Christian life with a footrace in a track and field event in the city of Corinth. First, a little historical and archeological background is in order.

Before the birth of Christ the Isthmian games were held at Corinth every two years. The footrace was a featured event from the earliest of times. The location for the games was a stadium with an oblong track. Around the track were three pillars each inscribed with significant words to challenge the athletes. The first pillar at the starting point was engraved with the word “Excel.” The second pillar was engraved with the word “Hasten.” The third pillar was engraved with the word “Turn.” As the runner approached the finish line back at the first pillar he was reminded again to “Excel.”

These runners, as Paul points out, were striving for a perishable crown. It was a garland of leaves to be placed upon the head of the winner at the reward stand at the end of the games. But the race was not all run in just a few moments of athletic contest. The actual start of the race was months in advance of the big race day.

In order to earn a chance to win honorably the athlete had to be announced in advance as a competitor. The town was to watch his training and if anyone knew of any area where he had become disqualified he was under obligation to speak up. For a ten month period prior to the race, the declared contestant was under the supervision of a judge while he trained. He had to abstain from certain habits and foods while adhering to a rigid diet, a unique set of rules, and a tightly managed workout schedule. Paul illustrates this rigorous period with the phrase “temperate in all things.” Then on race day, announcing the athletes in the competition was not just to let people know who was competing, it was also to give ample opportunity to bring evidence to disqualify the athlete from competing for the victor’s crown.

The athletic competition and the management of the athletes were designed to raise the level of the contest above dispute and encourage future athletes. When the winning athlete had crossed the finish line and was called to stand before the judge to receive his crown there was to be a clear and unquestionable unanimity in awarding the garland to the victor. The crowd was to attest that he was the winner.

This brings us to Paul’s phrase “Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty.” The Greek word translated “uncertainly” means “hidden” or “no one is sure, no one knows.” The original word means “without attending to the prescribed marks or lines; not manifestly, without being exposed to the view of the spectators or judge of the race.” The race, and all that went into the preparation for it was to be unconcealed and apparent to all. The declaration, the preparation and all the events on the day of the race were all a very public affair.

It is not possible that an authentic Christian’s faith is a “private matter.” Visible Christianity must pervade all of his life in every aspect. Declaring yourself a believer leaves no room for secrecy and is sullied by secret associations. A Christian ought to live in such a way that he is unafraid to invite anyone and everyone into his life to demonstrate the mettle of his faith. The true spiritual athlete’s accomplishment is worthy to be celebrated and emulated.

Are you living in such a way that you should be copied by all? Are you rounding the track of life and running for the pillar that calls out to you, “Excel?” (Hebrews 12:1–2) Trust and obey.