Continuing from my last post on Lucillius’ epigrams satirizing the viciousness of ancient boxing, I turn to 1 Cor 9:24-27 where Paul makes an explicit comparison of the athlete (runner, boxer) with the challenges of Christian life and ministry. 

Ancient Wrestling (grave relief; 510BC)
Photo taken by Max Lee © 2014 Athens Museum 

  This athletic illustration is actually the 2nd used by Paul as part of his ongoing exhortation that the Corinthians give up their rights (to eat idol food) and express their freedom by loving their fellow brothers and sisters in the church. In 9:1-23, Paul uses himself as an example by explaining how he gave up his apostolic rights to receive material support so that he could present the gospel “free of charge” to the Corinthians. In 9:24-27, Paul appeals to the example of competitive Greco-Roman sports to talk about the self-control (ἐγκράτεια) and discipline needed to deny one’s desires. In 10:1-13, Paul turns to the wilderness generation of Israel’s exodus to warn the Corinthians against the consequences of letting wrong desire and idolatry spiral out of control (Thiselton, 1Cor, 708-9). Concerning the 2nd athletic metaphor, I cite my translation of the text again and highlight two exegetical points:

Do you not know that in the stadium (σταδίῳ) all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run in this way that you may receive it. 25 Every competitor/athlete (ὁ ἀγωνιζόμενος) exercises self-control over all things (πάντα ἐγκρατεύεται); they do this to receive a perishable wreath (στέφανον), but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box (πυκτεύω) as though beating the air; 27 but I beat my body (ὑπωπιάζω μου τὸ σῶμα) and enslave it (δουλαγωγῶ), so that after I proclaim (κηρύξας) [the gospel] to others, I myself shall not become disqualified.

  1. Paul remaps the violence done to one’s opponent to himself, literally to his own body (μου τὸ σῶμα). Pardon the pun, but the verbs he uses to illustrate self-control are “striking”: “beat” (ὑπωπιάζω), “enslave/subdue” (δουλαγωγῶ), “box” (πυκτεύω) and “struggle against” (ἀγωνίζομαι). 
  2. Paul remaps the temporary honor and glory received by the victor on behalf of his city (symbolized by the perishable wreath στέφανον), to the eternal honor and glory of the Christian (symbolized by an imperishable wreath) who receives his/her recognition from God, and it is this God and his gospel which are proclaimed (κηρύξας). 

   Concerning the 1st point: We are our own worst enemy.  Me, myself and I constantly get in the way of loving the other person. At the core, we don’t want to love, we don’t want to sacrifice, we don’t want to give up our rights but guard them violently. People can be such blackholes of ingratitude (i.e., they receive what we give, suck it up like a blackhole, and not reciprocate anything in return, let alone any thanks). So why deny ourselves and go the extra mile to love them? But paradoxically, Paul not only insists that we do, but he considers the practice of denying our appetite and especially our ego as the greatest expression of Christian freedom. To do this, God has to suspend the grip and gravity of sin and enable the Christian athlete to struggle against his/her own selfish impulses, beat them into submission, and pursue a different course other than self-preservation: that is, sacrificial love and service. Ministry can be more brutal than boxing, because we have to constantly fight against our own resistance to serve.
   Concerning the 2nd point: for whom do we run and for what do we box? Hopefully, at the end of the day, even if the other person never responds to our relinquishing of rights for their sake, the glory will go to the Lord Jesus Christ because of how we struggled, both against ourselves and for the service of others. If I run for myself, I’ll burn out. Run for Christ, and He acknowledges and sustains me.

Postscript: The above photo of a grave relief (probably of a famous athlete) was taken at the Athens museum during my Greece trip this past January 2014. In the center, two athletes are wrestling with one another. The left wrestler is ready to jump into the fray, and the right person is preparing the pit where the match takes place. Yes, they are naked, and athletes did complete this way during the classical period from which this relief comes (ca. 510 BC).