Marathon, Part 1: The Basics
Topic: Topical Passage: 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Philippians 3:12-14, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, Hebrews 12:1-3
Marathon, Part 1: The Basics
Good morning, please take your seats. Like I said last week, we are going to take the next three Sundays for a topical study on the race of the Christian life. I’m calling it “Marathon,” so I’d like to start out by asking some trivia questions about marathons.
- When did the first organized marathon take place? It was in 1896 in Athens at the Games of the 1st Olympiad, the first Olympics in modern history.
- Where did the race get its name? It was based on the legend of a Greek messenger who raced from the city of Marathon to Athens to deliver news of an important victory over Persia. Legend has it he collapsed and died after delivering the news.
- Why is the marathon 26.2 miles long? Apparently, at the 1908 Games in London, Queen Alexandra requested that the race begin on the lawn of Windsor Castle (so the little royals could watch from the window of their nursery) and end in front of the royal box at the Olympic stadium. In order to comply, the race was lengthened from 25 miles (the approximate distance between Marathon and Athens) to 26.2 miles, and the distance stuck.
So there you have it. We’ll plan to do some more marathon trivia next time. But next, I’d like to read each of the major New Testament passages that compare the Christian life to a race. You should have received these in a handout entitled, “The Four Race Passages.” I made these in cardstock with the intent that you would keep them for reference during all three lessons in this series. In each lesson, we’ll be bouncing around between the passages, so you’ll want to keep it handy. This will take a bit of time, but let’s read all four passages. We’ll start with 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. 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. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.
I’ll give just a brief summary of each passage before we move on. In this paragraph, Paul focuses on the manner in which we should run. Just like the world’s most serious athletes, we must embrace a mindset of self-discipline.
Next, we’ll read Philippians 3:12-14.
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
This passage focuses on the prize we are after, which is glorification and all that that entails, and even more specifically, Christ Himself. Paul says this is a prize that is worth dropping everything for.
That brings us to 2 Timothy 4:6-8.
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.
In this most personal passage, Paul contemplates the end of his race. He has successfully completed the course that the Lord laid out for him and has defended the gospel from attack. With this in mind, he anticipates his homegoing.
Finally, Hebrews 12:1-3.
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.
This is the only one of our passages not written by Paul, unless you think Paul wrote the book of Hebrews. It talks about how we should look to this great cloud of witnesses, and especially to Jesus, as an example and for motivation in running our race.
So those are the four marathon passages. What we’re going to do now and for the next couple weeks is to approach this topic, topically. We’re going to synthesize all four passages and come up with a sort of “systematic theology” of race-running.
So let’s start with the basics. First, what is this race? I mean, I want to know what I’m getting into. How long is it? What is the goal? Are we talking about just one aspect of Christian living, or is this the whole Christian life?
Let’s talk first about the nature of the race. The context of the four passages makes clear that that race is the whole Christian life. Paul’s race was finished when he died, and the same was true for Jesus. For us, there are two ways our race could end. What would those be? Either we die or Jesus comes back (the rapture). Those are the options. But until then, we keep running. Every day, every hour, whether uphill or downhill, regardless of the difficulties, we just keep on running. Which means (as the title of this series makes clear) that our race is more of a marathon than a sprint and that our primary need is for endurance.
So that’s the nature of the race, but what is the goal? If you’re going to run a physical race, what’s the goal? To win! To cross the finish line first! But what exactly does it mean to “win” at the Christian life? Is it about crossing the finish line first? No…. Is it about somehow outdoing other Christians? Again, no, because in 2 Timothy 4:8, it says the crown goes to all who love His appearing! So in some ways, you might say that the Christian life is more of a participation race. However, that is not at all to downplay its difficulty!
I don’t know about you, but when I think of a participation award, I usually think of little kids’ soccer. You know, where everyone gets a trophy. But instead, we should be thinking of something like the Barkley Marathons. The Barkley Marathons is 100-mile ultramarathon that takes place every year in hills of Tennessee. I guess they made a Netflix series about it. And to say that the course is difficult would be an understatement. There is over 54,000 ft. of elevation gain and a 60-hour time limit! Only 15 runners have ever completed the race in its 32-year history!
You don’t compete in the Barkley Marathons with the goal of winning first place. You compete in the Barkley Marathons with the goal of finishing the race! And if you do that, you’ve really done something! The Christian life is similar.
In some ways, all of our races are unique. You’ll face trials that I will never face. And I’ll face trials that you will never face! Neither of us is expected to run Paul’s race. That was his race, set uniquely for him. And yet, there is a pattern that all of us follow, and that’s the pattern of Jesus (Heb 12:2). Like Jesus, all of us are required to obey through suffering to glory. Every day, we partake in His death and resurrection, so that, as one commentator said, our lives take on a cruciform character–we become cross-shaped. Every day, we die to self and we sacrifice; but at the same time, every day, the reality of Easter is at work in us! You’ve been born again! You have new life in Christ! The Spirit is alive in me. And one day, I will receive a glorified body, just like Jesus. So although the race is difficult, you’re not blazing a trail. You’re simply tracing a pattern. With reference to Christ, the goal of the race is to follow Him.
But it’s not just about following Him; it’s also about knowing Him. To see this, you’ll need to actually turn in your Bibles to Philippians 3 in order to see the context of the Philippians passage (Philip 3:7-11).
If anything is clear in this passage, it’s that the Christian life is all about Jesus. Paul dropped everything for Christ, and he said it was all worth it. Also, v. 10 shows that following Christ in terms of that death/resurrection pattern we just talked about has a very personal objective: our goal is that by following in His footsteps we will come to know Him better. That starts now and ends in eternity, when we see Him face-to-face.
So the goal of the Christian life with reference to Christ is to know and to follow Him, but I also want to consider the goal with reference to the gospel. Let’s start by looking at 2 Timothy 4:7. In this verse, Paul equates finishing his race with keeping the faith (2 Tim 4:7). So if we want to know what it means to finish the race, we need to figure out what it means to keep the faith. So what does it mean?
First, keeping the race implies persevering faith the gospel. You have to keep believing. And that’s not something to be taken for granted! Sadly, lots of people profess to be saved, only to fall away. It happened during Christ’s public ministry, it was a problem the writer of Hebrews addressed, and it happens still today. So we must not underemphasize the importance of simply holding fast to Christ.
However, there’s more to “keeping the faith” than just that. Throughout the rest of 2 Timothy, Paul says a lot about false teaching and the need to defend “the faith” (that is, an established body of beliefs) from attack. This is especially the burden of pastors and teachers, but it is also the responsibility of every Christian. There is so much false teaching out there today! But you know what? It’s always been that way! I mean here is Paul, writing in the first century A.D., and already, Satan has found multiple ways to pervert the gospel! In fact, many of the heresies we see today are just those old perversions reheated. Brothers and sisters, we must be people of the book so that we can recognize false teaching. And then, when we see it, we must oppose it, and help others not to be sucked in.
So the goals of the Christian race with reference to the gospel are 1) to keep believing it, 2) to defend it, and 3) to proclaim it. That proclaiming it is one of the goals becomes clear when we consider the context of the 1 Corinthians passage, so please turn now to 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (1 Cor 9:19-23). And Paul goes right from v. 23 into the race passage. So you see, for Paul, the goal of the Christian life was not just to keep believing the gospel himself or to defend it from attack, but to work for the spread of the gospel around the world and in the hearts of individual people. In Philippians 3, Paul talks about “winning Christ.” In 1 Corinthians 9, he talks about “winning souls.”
Can we step back and talk about you for a minute? Do these three goals represent your life? Believe, defend, and obey the gospel? You say, “Pastor Kris, I understand; you’re a pastor. And it’s very noble of you to think of your life in those terms, but you can’t expect that of everyone in the church! I mean, people have jobs; they have lives to live! It can’t just be about the gospel all the time!” Yes it can, and it must be. Men, if your identity has more to do with your job than with your Savior, that’s a problem. Ladies, if your life is more about your kids than it is about Christ, you’re in trouble! Those of you who no longer have children at home, if your life is about daily routines, social gatherings, your grandchildren, and travelling, more than it is about Jesus, that’s not good!
I’m not saying that those things are bad. You have to go to work, and you ought to work hard and seek promotions. Your kids are important. And daily activities… grandchildren… travelling… those things are all fine! But to be a Christian is to say that Christ takes priority over all of those things, and that He is the one who determines how all of those other things function.
The gospel is the theme of your life now, so live like it.
“So now I have a basic understanding of what this race is, but Pastor Kris, you compared it to the Barkley Marathons, which makes me think that it will be really hard. Is that true? And if so, what obstacles will I face?”
Well, yes, it is true. The race is going to be hard. There will be lots of obstacles. So in the interest of full disclosure, let’s get those out on the table. First, there’s the course itself. With Christ as our example, we shouldn’t expect it to be easy. God is going to require significant self-sacrifice, and He will place difficult trials in our way. You’re going to feel like you’re climbing 54,000 ft. in elevation or pushing your way through the underbrush–maybe at times even running in the dark!
What’s more, you’ll face distractions all along the way. Hebrews 12:1 mentions not only the sins that ensnare us, but the weights that slow us down. Like Paul, in Philippians 3, you must count those things loss for Jesus. And that’s an everyday decision. Because the moment you feel like quitting, there will be someone there to offer you a hot shower, a recliner, and some ice cream. Your route will take you past shopping malls and farmers markets, where you can buy all sorts of stylish clothing, trinkets, or food. Others will be there, happily enjoying these diversions, but you cannot stop. You must not slow down; you have to keep running.
Third, you will face opposition–the use of force to resist your progress. We call this “persecution.” Hebrews 12:3 says that Jesus endured hostility from sinners against Himself, and you will endure the same. In 2 Timothy 4:6, Paul says the race is also a fight. In 1 Corinthians 9:27, he compares it to a boxing match. You will actually have to run with full body armor on for protection. And by the way, the enemies you face are not mere mortals. Ephesians 6:11 says that we wrestle “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Your opposition will be cunning, ruthless, and organized, under the leadership of Satan himself. And they will use any means possible to put you down.
But surprisingly, these will not be the worst of your obstacles. The most difficult obstacle you will face in this race is yourself. In 1 Corinthians 9:27, when Paul says that he disciplines his body, he uses a word that literally means “to beat” or to give someone a black eye. Except in this case, you’re not giving someone else a black eye; you’re giving yourself one! Some of the acts of self-discipline God will require from you will hurt like punching yourself in the face. This is because of your sin nature. As Paul said in Romans 7, “The good that I want to do, I don’t do, but the evil that I don’t want to do, that I do.” Temptation is hard to resist, not only because the devil is a sly trickster, but because it’s what our flesh really wants to do anyways! You are your own worst enemy.
You say, “Pastor Kris, that sounds awful! Who would sign up for that?” Only those who are called, who are seized by Christ to be His, as Paul says in Philippians 3:12.
As we close this first lesson, I want to give you two good reasons to run this race. First, this is the only road that leads to heaven. All other paths lead to destruction, but this road leads to life! And so, like Paul, we must persevere or “press on” in order to lay hold of that for which Christ has laid hold of us! Jesus saved me in order to be with Him forever, and so I must press on toward that end.
You say, “Pastor Kris, what if I fail to press on? What if I give up? What if I quit?” Every Christian who’s been saved for any amount of time has wandered from the path. Some of us have taken some very significant detours, which we very much regret and for which there are sobering consequences. Praise God that He brings us back and forgives us, amen?
However, if you were to leave the path entirely–if you were to wander away and never came back–that would be a different story. That would be evidence that you were never truly saved to begin with. That’s a scary thought, isn’t it? And it’s a very good reason to stay on the path.
In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul says, “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” The Greek word for “disqualified” is adokimos. It describes an individual who has failed the test, and is translated “reprobate” in 1 Corinthians 13:5 and Romans 1:28. In Titus 1:16, it describes the individual who professes to know God, but denies Him with his works. And in Hebrews 6, it describes those who fall away.
There’s some debate over this, and good men certainly differ, but I think that when Paul talks about being “disqualified” in 1 Corinthians 9:27, he’s not just thinking about a loss of reward; he is thinking about a failure to reach heaven–his own failure to reach heaven, if he fails to persevere.
You say, “Was Paul doubting his salvation?” No, Paul knew he was saved. But assurance of salvation does not render the warnings meaningless. It’s not a “get out of jail free card,” so that you can live however you want, and still be sure you’re going to heaven! Paul was trusting in Christ, and because of that, he was confident. But he also understood what was at stake. He knew that he had to keep running.
You say, “Did Paul earn his salvation through perseverance?” No! Paul was very clear–we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. We persevere because we’re saved, not to be saved, and that difference is very, very important. And yet, we also know that faith without works is no faith at all. Martin Luther said it this way. He said, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” It changes us. And then we run our race.
Now if that explanation unsettles you or raises questions in your mind, please come talk to me. I want to be clear. But the point of it is this: stay on the path. And when you get off the path, come back, and keep going, because the alternative isn’t pretty.
So first, sign up for this race because it’s the only road to heaven. Second, sign up for this race because Christ is at the end. In Philippians 3:8, Paul says, “I count all things loss, that I may gain Christ.” Jesus, who already completed His race, is at the right hand of God, waiting for us. When I finish my race, I will be with Him.
When we talk about heaven, we sometimes focus on glorified bodies, sinless perfection, or even the beauty and wonder of it all. I’m not saying any of those things are bad. They are all things to look forward to. But the best thing about heaven is that Jesus is there. And according to 2 Timothy 4:8, those who make it to heaven are the ones who keep looking to Jesus and love His appearing.
So those are the basics of the Christian race. Next week, we’ll get into the strategy. For now, let’s go ahead and pray.