30th October 2012
Message from the Pastor
“They do it to obtain a perishable crown,
but we for an imperishable crown.” 1 Cor 9.25
As I sit to write this my last article as pastor, our nation is in the grip of Olympic fever. The “Greatest Show on Earth”, as the opening ceremony has been billed, is a week behind us. At present the daily headlines in Britain, and doubtless in much of the rest of the world, are dominated by the events which are happening in the various sporting arenas and by the medal tables.
The 1st century world of the apostle Paul also had its games. The Isthmian Games, second importance only to the ancient Olympics themselves, took place triennially in the city of Corinth. The crowds who came to stay in Corinth for the duration of the Games provided significant revenue for local traders. Financial sponsorship (including the renovation of public buildings) was a feature. Participation in the Games was restricted to Greek citizens. Though wrestling, boxing, throwing and other sports were contested, the highlight of the whole Games was the RACE, in which the agones (runners) competed for a single prize, the winning of which was so coveted that even Emperors were known to take part, and which conferred lifelong fame and acclaim on its recipient.
Knowing that the Corinthians are thoroughly familiar with these things, Paul includes in his letter to the Church in Corinth an illustration drawn from the race in the Isthmian Games. He makes a great comparison between the prize which is at stake for the runners, and the infinitely greater prize which may be won by the individual soul – eternal life.
He reminds them first that amongst the crowds of people in the stadium at Corinth are a small, select band of those who had actually entered the race (“those who run in a race”). The great throng of cheering spectators, those from Athens granted the privilege of front seats, are not running the race. Nor are the officials, judges, or former competitors. Only a very few will be at the starting line, ready to run in the race. How important it is for every one of us to ask whether we have entered the race for the heavenly prize. We may be “in the stadium”, found regularly at a place of worship; we may be spectators, who see others, real Christians, who are running the race. We may be watching from a distance – like the modern armchair spectators of the Olympic Games. We may even be officials – teachers, leaders. But have we ever truly entered the race ourselves? Have we ever come in repentance and faith to the Cross of Calvary, and seen the Lord Jesus Christ as our sin-bearer and put our entire trust in Him?
And what has been required of those runners by way of preparation? Competitors in the Isthmian Games were required to undergo an intensive 10-month period of training, the last month of which was spent in the city itself – with supervised daily workouts both in the gym and on the field. Those athletes must exercise complete self-control in matters of food, sleep and training. They must avoid all that will harm their prospects, denying themselves wine and luxury food. They will give themselves totally to what will help them to win the race. “Everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things.” And what of the Christian runner? Here too there must be a total commitment; self must be denied; a cross taken up and carried; sin abandoned; distractions avoided and all unnecessary “baggage” left behind. The prize of salvation will be all of God’s grace, but it will be awarded to each and every soul who seeks this as the most important thing of all.
Once the race has begun, every competitor must run according to the rules. The Corinthian athletes were required to swear an oath that they had trained for 10 months and would keep the rules. Any who infringed those rules would not obtain the prize. We are familiar from our modern Olympic Games with athletes who, despite the great prize for which they have trained, disqualify themselves through drug taking, or by some other breach of the rules. Paul urges us to “run in such a way that you may obtain it.” Even today there are some people who entertain the fond hope that if there is a God they will doubtless enter His heaven, if only because there are people who are worse than them. It is a vain hope. God, our holy Judge, sees and knows all about us. The greatest cause of disqualification is surely self-righteousness. Only those who have truly repented, and trusted in Jesus Christ and who live the rest of their life in loving obedience to His Word, will obtain that heavenly prize.
And what is that prize? Here Paul drives home his comparison. ”They do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.” Those athletes, throughout the rigours of their training, and as they line up at the start of the race, and through every agonizing stride in the race, have their eye on something. It is the “crown” which the judge will place upon the head of the winner. The crown is made of wild olive and ivy, sometimes of laurel and pine. It is a crown of “glory”. Yet its very materials tell the athlete that it is perishable. It cannot and will not last for ever. How overwhelming is the comparison with the crown of life, which the Lord will give to every true Christian who runs the race of faith. It is “incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away” (1 Pet 14). It is made up of wonderful components: unbroken fellowship with the Triune God; entry to a world of righteousness, marked by the complete absence of sin and all sin’s consequences – suffering, sorrow and death; the atmosphere of that world is one of perfect love, unequalled joy and everlasting peace. In that world we will have endless opportunities to enjoy God, to worship Him without hindrance of any kind; to engage in useful, fruitful and thoroughly enjoyable service of our King and to explore the wonders of the new heavens and earth. And for company we will have the vast population of unfallen angels and the innumerable multitude of those who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus and the blessed God Himself. And what of our future prospects? Only a deepening of the perfection of everlasting life and joy.
They undergo such rigours, they endure such discipline, they make such sacrifices for a fading, perishable crown – which must be left behind. Will we do less for that unfading, imperishable crown of life which the Lord, the righteous Judge will give to all who love and look forward to the appearing of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ?