Its Course, Hindrances, and Rewards
In various places in ancient Greece, races and other tests of skill and endurance had been practiced for centuries when the Christian era opened. The most celebrated and ancient were those held quadrennially on the plain of Elis in honor of Olympian Jove, and called Olympiads. Second to these were the Isthmian games, held the first and third years of the Olympiads, near the city of Corinth, established, according to legend, in honor of Theseus after his famous victories over the enemies of Attica.
These games brought together Greeks from the different provinces, usually antagonistic and often at war in the years between. Heralds proclaimed throughout the country the truce of the gods, which put a stop to all warfare and insured a safe-conduct throughout the sacred month. The judges were carefully instructed in their duties, and the contestants trained for ten months. The latter must prove themselves free from impiety, blood-guiltiness, and grave violation of the laws, before they were allowed to enter the lists. When all preliminaries had been finished, the heralds proclaimed in the stadium, “Let the runners put their feet to the line,” and the race was on.
Paul, the great missionary apostle, who had visited both Athens and Corinth, must often have seen the olive-crowned victors and heard the plaudits of admiring throngs. A passage in his first letter to the church in this same city of Corinth shows his familiarity with the Isthmian games. Instead of fighting the evil through political channels, he used it as an illustration, and thus drew the thoughts of his readers away from any allurement it might possess for them, to higher things.
He draws an analogy between the games and the Christian’s course, but shows also the inevitable contrasts (1 Corinthians 9:24–27). In the epistle to the Philippian church he writes of the mark toward which he presses for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13, 14). The writer of Hebrews also uses the same figure (Hebrews 12:1).
Essentials to Victory
Self-control in all things, perseverance to the end, keeping the goal in sight, and single-hearted endeavor! These are the points which both writers emphasize. We cannot lose sight of one and succeed any more than ancient or modern racers. The two points in which there is contrast rather than analogy between Christians and the gamesters are found in the Corinthian letter: they ran or fought or wrestled in emulation, one only to receive the reward, a perishable crown; we run the race in no spirit of rivalry, but rather of encouragement to others, for we can say with the great apostle, “There is laid up for me”— and not for me only —“a crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8). The race is open to all; and the crown bestowed at the end is not of perishable leaves, but one that is eternal and undefiled. Not only is the race open to all, but it can be entered upon at any time, and the reward is the same to him who begins it late as to his fellow who entered while the dew of his youth was still upon him. Did not our Lord teach the same lesson under a different figure in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16)? The question is not, how long have you been running, but, did you enter at the right gate, and are you proceeding toward the right goal?
There are obstacles and stumbling-blocks in the way, many and difficult; but the promises still hold good. When one who is running in the course falls by the way, he is a cause of stumbling to those who are weak, unless we and they keep our eyes fixed on the Captain of our salvation, Who went safely past all obstructions, and has promised to be our Guide even to the end.
Causes of Stumbling
Sometimes our stumbles are caused by our failure to get rid of the weights which we were commanded to drop at the beginning of the course; sometimes by looking at our fellow racers instead of at Jesus, Who led us into the course, and is waiting at the goal for us; and the great enemy of souls is ready to provide as many causes of stumbling as possible. Oftentimes it may be said, as of the tare-sown field, “An enemy hath done this” (Matthew 13:28).
He tempts us to pause and turn aside to look at the kingdoms of this world, and the glory of them; to desire place and power; to look at our companions, and flatter ourselves that we are running better than they; to hope that others are admiring us; to look back with self-gratulation to the time when we entered the race, or with discouragement and fear at the way yet before us. There is as much danger in one temptation as the other. There is no time for either. There is no time for self-admiration or the plaudits of others, and really no occasion. If we keep our eyes fixed on the Master, and remember the race He ran, there will be little enough cause for anything but shame at the progress we are making. Our feet are neither swift nor sure.
Let us look in detail at the necessary qualifications for a successful race, as outlined above: self-control in all things, perseverance to the end, keeping the goal in sight, and single-hearted endeavor.
Temperance, or self-control – for that is the meaning of the word – is placed last in the catalog of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22, 23). That is no mistake of the writer. It is not an anti-climax, but a true climax, the greatest of all placed last. It means the tempering of the whole character into something strong and true, like finely wrought steel, able to bear any strain, without bending or breaking.
Perseverance to the end, keeping the goal in sight! The reward is bestowed at the end of the race. Can we expect anything short of that? The goal may be reached, but it will be by devious ways unless the eyes are kept on the point we wish to reach – not on our own stumbling, or those of others; not on those who may be observing us; not on the allurements presented by the enemy; but first, last, and all the time on the goal.
And what is the goal? – The perfect stature of full manhood found in Christ Jesus, to be built up in us as we run the race, feeding upon that bread from heaven which is our perfect food.
In the Appointed Way
This last point, single-hearted endeavor, scarce needs comment, so intimately is it bound up in the one just discussed. It is Paul’s “One thing I do” (Philippians 3:13), all else subservient to that. If we are on the road which is our Lord’s appointed way, let us run as though we were really interested in it, and expected to reach the end some day.
The Mosaic law made merciful provision that one under the ban of blood-guiltiness could flee to a city of refuge; but he must flee for his life, for the avenger was close upon his track. He was not likely to waste time by taking the wrong road, by waiting for admiration or sympathy, no, not even by stumbling. He kept his gaze straight ahead, where the hospitable gate stood open to receive him.
The accuser of the brethren is close upon the track of every son of man; and it behooves us all not to pause in our running, or he will overtake us.
As the reward at the end is one, so is the gate of entrance at the beginning. He Who is called the Author and Finisher of our faith called Himself both the Door into the right road, and the Way itself. The wrong entrance does not lead to the right way; and he who enters in any other way than through that open Door, is unprepared for the difficulties he will encounter. Paul shows in the Roman letter that he who has entered the way of holiness through Christ, has all the help he needs for every difficulty and every trial he meets in that way. If we enter that Door, if we follow that Way, we need have no fear of the end, for “Even to your old age I am He; and even to hoar hairs will I carry you” (Isaiah 46:4).
The Isthmian races of old were established in honor of Theseus’ victories over the Minotaur, that evil beast who demanded and received an annual tribute of seven youths and maidens from Athens. The way is open to all into this heavenly race, because our Champion won a great and final victory over our “adversary” who seeks to devour us.
The ancient contestants swore that they were free from impiety, blood-guiltiness, and grave violation of the laws. Can we? Nay, rather, we must plead guilty to every charge. Impiety? “Covetousness is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). Blood-guiltiness? “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer” (I John 3:15). Violation of the laws? There is not one that we have kept perfectly, and to offend in one point is to be guilty of all (James 2:10). What then? Is the race hopelessly closed against us? Instead of swearing that we are free from sin, we acknowledge our guilt; and then we can gain through our Sacrifice that righteousness which we cannot obtain for ourselves, for our God is just, and yet the Justifier of those who believe in Jesus. The race is open to all who come with hearts sprinkled with the blood of Christ from an evil conscience, and their bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:22).
Let us provoke one another “unto love and to good works … exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24, 25).
The Signs of the Times, January 24, 1911.