Striving for an imperishable crown
‘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’ (1 Corinthians 9:25).
Many of us are avidly awaiting the London Olympics in 2012. Nowadays the winners of such competitions receive medals, whereas in the ancient Olympics the victors acquired an olive wreath.
Greece held a four year cycle of athletic contests, with the Isthmian Games, the Olympic Games, another Isthmian Games, and then the Pythian Games. The Corinthian believers would relate especially to the Isthmian Games, since those were held in their own locality.
Qualification for competing in the games was rigorous. Greek birth had to be attested, as well as a clean legal status and proof of ten months training.
This training was intense, with athletes single-mindedly engaging in a strict physical regime and abstaining from those luxuries that would hinder progress. They had to compete by the rules.
Similarly, in the Christian life, spiritual health requires prayer, studying God’s Word, fellowship with other believers, sacrificial love and holiness unto God.
Paul implores the Corinthian Christians to run in such a way that they could obtain the prize. He stresses the totality of the lifestyle that strives for the imperishable crown — every Christian runs; everyone competes and is to be temperate in all things (1 Corinthians 9:24). The Christian is not running to secure salvation, but to secure heavenly rewards.
The industrious farmer will reap what he sows. Many today sow only to material things, like a mortgage, education or family, but spiritual sowing is an infinitely wiser and more prosperous investment.
Paul also used athletic and military metaphors in his teaching. In 2 Timothy 2:3-6 he describes the good soldier of Jesus Christ as needing to be wise enough to avoid becoming entangled in civilian affairs. Soldiering is a lifestyle. There is no room for divided loyalties and constant vigilance is a necessary requirement.
Young Timothy was reminded that ‘bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and is to come’ (1 Timothy 4:8).
Undoubtedly, the benefits of exercise are plentiful and include improved longevity, health and wellbeing. Exercise also reduces inner stress and aids mental concentration. Yet, is not godliness of far greater value, both for this life and the next?
The olive wreath will deteriorate rapidly, and silver and gold will not remain indefinitely, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever; the Word of God endures for ever (Hebrews 13:8; 1 Peter 1:25).
Paul wasn’t running with uncertainty, or just shadow boxing, for he was running the race of faith. The Greek word for compete or ‘strive’ in the games was agonizomai; then, as now, it carried the idea of agonising.
It was no half-hearted effort! Today, as well, every athlete who is in earnest denies himself lawful pleasures in order to be able to compete to his very best. In the same way, the Christian must not only avoid obvious sin, but abstain from anything that would hinder spiritual progress.
Jesus mentioned that in his Father’s house there are many mansions, and that we are to lay up treasures in heaven, not on the earth (John 14:2; Matthew 6:19-20).
The Pharisees who fasted with contrived and sad countenances had already received their meagre rewards, the praise of men (Matthew 6:16), but the Christian’s reward is still to come!
We must all give an account of our lives to God when we appear before the judgement seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10). The Greek word for ‘judgement seat’ is bema. This word could mean, firstly, the place from which civil rulers judged.
Paul, as described in the Acts, knew what it was to stand in such places on several occasions, and the Lord Jesus Christ stood before Pilate’s judgement seat. Yet 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 makes clear that Christians will not be judged in respect of salvation, but according to further rewards.
Bema could also mean, secondly, the raised platform from which judges in athletic contests determined the position of competitors at the finishing line.
The winner received a prize, whilst the losers were not punished but missed out on their reward. The same idea applies at the judgement seat of Christ for believers. These rewards are sometimes described as ‘crowns’ in Scripture. Five such crowns are mentioned.
The crown of glory is for faithful servants of Christ who have shepherded the flock (1 Peter 5:1-4), for the word ‘pastor’ means ‘shepherd’.
Pastors that have loved, taught and cared for their flock, according to the pattern of Christ the Good Shepherd, will receive a crown of glory.
The crown of rejoicing is for soul winners (1 Thessalonians 2:19). Remember, Paul stated, in 1 Corinthians 3:6, that in Christian ministry at Corinth he planted, Apollos watered and God gave the increase.
This shows that every believer has a part to play in soul winning. The believers in Thessalonica were themselves the hope of Paul’s reward at the judgement seat of Christ.
The crown of righteousness is for those who love Christ’s return (2 Timothy 4:6-8). How many people have mocked the idea of a second coming of Christ, since he hasn’t arrived in accordance with their definition of ‘quickly’!
But when Jesus said he is coming ‘quickly’ (Revelation 22:12), the Greek term he used was tachu, meaning ‘without delay’; or sometimes, ‘suddenly’ or ‘by surprise’. He will come again and, when he does, those who have loved his return will receive their reward.
The incorruptible crown relates to a life of single-minded purity (1 Corinthians 9:25). God’s purity and holiness distinguish him above all his creation. His servants who have lived holy lives will get their reward.
The crown of life is for Christian martyrs (Revelation 2:10). It is well known that over the last century more Christians were martyred than in all of previous recorded human history. The martyrs will receive the crown of life as their reward.
Will there be a grand podium in heaven for Christians, as crown winners?
Somehow it doesn’t seem likely, since Scripture testifies in Revelation 4:9-11 that the twenty-four elders fall down and cast their crowns before God and the Lamb upon his throne.
Christ will indeed be ‘crowned with many crowns’, as the well known hymn puts it. And what a joy and a privilege it will be to be part of that event, not just as onlookers, but as participators, giving all the glory to God!