For as long as I can remember, I have always heard the word “race” being used in Christian circles. More often than not, it is used to describe life (and the Christian walk is conveniently included), its many challenges and how it is not a sprint but a marathon. To this end, we are all encouraged never to give up but to keep running the race with perseverance. All this sounds well and good, until I recently dived into this topic a little more deeply.
Join me for a jog around the hermeneutical track as we consider a couple of “race” passages.
In 1 Cor 9:24-27, Paul clearly states that not everyone who competes for the prize will get it. As such, “run in such a way that you may obtain it.” If not, there is every chance of disqualification from winning the prize (not salvation, thankfully). Based on this understanding, just by observation alone, do we see Christians disciplining themselves, training hard and running fast for this imperishable crown? Hold that thought for a moment as we move to another familiar “race” verse, 2 Tim 4:7.
After Psalm 23, this must be the most used verse in the Obituaries: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” After that famous line, Paul declares a certain confidence that he will receive the prize, the crown of righteousness. That is really wonderful but we must consider that which gave him the boldness to make such a statement. Quite obviously, drawing from 1 Cor 9:24-27, Paul ran the race in such a way that he might obtain the prize. The big question is, “What is this race?”
If the race refers to life itself, as is commonly purported, then for consistency of application, when life ends for a Christian, the race is finished and a crown awaits every believer – whether they ran, jogged, walked, strolled, sat or slept. Makes sense? Absolutely not! Sounds ridiculous? Totally! But this is what we have been taught.
I believe the context can be found in 2 Tim 4:5 where Paul urges Timothy to stay true in the face of challenges and distractions, to “fulfil your ministry.” Immediately, Paul provides the reason for that charge: Paul’s life was coming to an end and Timothy was to fulfil his ministry as Paul had fulfilled his. Paul had finished his leg of the race and Timothy is keep on running until he finished his own race. In Acts 20:24, the words “race” and “ministry” are also mentioned together. Addressing the Ephesian elders, Paul said that nothing would deter him from having the joy of completing the race or fulfilling his ministry, even if it cost him his life!
“But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” Acts 20:24, NKJV
From this we can see clearly that life or the Christian walk is NOT the race Paul was talking about – it was the work of the ministry, or the assignment that each believer has received in the Lord! That is the race! For greater clarity, consider this statement: When life ends, there is no longer an opportunity to run the race. But just because one is alive, it does not mean that this person is necessarily running in a race at all.
Let’s go back to the question posed earlier: Do you see all Christians disciplining themselves, training hard and running fast for the imperishable crown? The answer is an obvious ‘no’. If the race truly refers to our Christian life, then why bother with anything too difficult? After all, we will all die one day and we can feature 2 Tim 4:7 in our obituaries and eagerly await our crowns. That sounds really nice but we will be sorely disappointed.
Dear friends, make no mistake: life is not a race; it’s a conveyor belt! You can do absolutely nothing, bum through life and still reach the end. But a race? If you are asleep at the starter’s block, that is exactly where you remain. The crown of righteousness? In your dreams! It’s the same with our Christian walk. Salvation is a gift from God and there is nothing we can do to earn it. But to win the prize, we must run the race in the course assigned to us. This refers to the work of the ministry, the assignment that we have each received in the Lord when we believed in Jesus. Sadly, most Christians are unable to distinguish between salvation, which is a gift; and rewards, which will be given according to our works. As such, too many are not in the race, much less running to win! If you have not begun running your race, now’s the time to do something about it.
Please understand that I am not here to remove crowns from anyone. In the first place, they are not mine to give out. Instead, my prayer is that this will provoke you to ponder even more deeply about the way you are living your Christian life. If you are simply cruising through on a whim, you are missing out on the awesome privilege and honour to participate in the advancement of God’s kingdom. It is time to wake up and to begin seeking the Lord as to the assignment, the race, He has prepared for you. And then, be trained and be equipped to fulfil that assignment with joy, running the race with purpose, in such a way that you might win the prize!