This sermon is number 23 in a series of 46
1 Corinthians - Part 23
by David Legge | Copyright © 2003 | All Rights Reserved | www.preachtheword.com
I Corinthians 9:24-27
Beginning to read at verse 24, taking up the subject 'Discovering Discipline'. Chapter 9 verse 24, trying to keep in mind everything that we have already read and studied thus far in this chapter: "Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway".
We often hear it said, particularly in a sporting capacity, that it's not the winning that matters but the taking part. That may be so in a sporting capacity, but it's not so here, where Paul is using sporting illustrations to speak to us of the battle, or the game if you like, or the race of the Christian life that we are in. It's not good enough for the Christian to say: 'It's not the winning that matters, it's only the taking part'. Paul says the opposite, that there are to be no spectators in Christ's games. There are to be no hangers-on, just coming along for the ride. There are to be no stragglers behind, lagging at the back of the race. God wants winners, and only winners will do in God's race - nothing less God will be satisfied with, God must have winners!
It seems, however, that we have succeeded in demoting our faith into a kind of Christian amateur athletics. We've made Christianity exist in our lives as a sort of pastime that we are devoted to in some shape or form, to a large extent it doesn't take up all our energies, rather our primary employment is in another sphere - whatever that may be. Paul is wanting us to know categorically and absolutely this evening that Christianity is not a hobby, to the Christian Christianity ought to be the primary reason for his existence, it must be his whole life and destiny. In the context of where Paul says this there is greater light brought to this truth when we consider that these Corinthians had been, up to this verse, asserting their rights to eat meat that had been offered to idols. They were saying: 'It's theologically correct, we know that the idol doesn't mean anything, it's not a real god, there is only one living God, and meat that's offered to it doesn't matter because meat doesn't commend us to God, neither drink'. They were asserting their own right to do this thing, but Paul, as we have found, was teaching them that their love for their brethren, and of course their love for the Lord ultimately, must regulate their liberty. It's not enough to say: 'I'm a Christian because I've been forgiven I'm cleansed by the grace of God and the blood of Christ, that I can do whatever I like'. You are free in Christ, but we've got a collective responsibility to one another, and love in all things must regulate our Christian liberty now in Christ.
But now Paul is coming to them and he's showing, by using these athletic illustrations, that there's another reason why they should forgo their rights, and it's this: to win the prize. We should forgo our rights first because of the weaker brother, and the love for our brother for whom Christ died and shed His blood; but now Paul is saying in a personal reason - that's more foregoing our rights for the benefit of others - but now he's turning to foregoing our rights for our own personal benefits, and primarily it is this: to win the prize. Let me illustrate it to you this way, in the context of what these Corinthians were bickering about with regards to this meat offered to idols: the Olympic runner is perfectly entitled to have a diet of Big Macs and fries every day of the week. He's perfectly entitled to it, nobody's going to lock him up and put him in prison, or charge him with an offence if he does it - but he need be under no illusion that he can win the gold medal at the Olympics if that is the diet that he's feeding on. Imagine David Beckham deciding to have an Ulster Fry every morning in life! He's perfectly free to do it, but eventually it's going to show on him - the weight - and Fergie will see that he's not up to form, and he'll be dropped from the team. He needn't think that he can rise to that standard of competition without being disqualified off the squad.
So what Paul is saying here is that there are many things that are your right and are lawful for you to do in Christ, you're perfectly within reason and legitimacy to do them, but don't think for one moment that when you get to the Judgment Seat that you will get a prize if these things have been your goal right throughout your whole life. He's telling us tonight, very soberly in this meeting: don't think that every life, every type of life and lifestyle, will receive a prize - for it'll not. Every Christian life will not receive as great eternal rewards, certainly, as the apostle Paul - but what he wants us to realise this evening is that there is only one life that will receive the prize, and that is the life that is lived to win the race, and to gain the prize, that is the life that lives for Christ, that lives for eternity, that lives for that prize - everything else is second to it.
Ultimately if we were to sum it up in a few words, Paul is saying that the life that will win the prize is a disciplined life. So, he's wanting these Corinthians, who were so indisciplined, to discover discipline - and maybe we need to discover it this evening in the 21st century church, for I think discipline has become a sort of dirty word for Christians today. Both negative discipline and positive discipline, I mean by that foregoing certain things, and doing certain things in a disciplinary nature: abstaining from things and practising things in a disciplined format. I think, to a large extent, the church has adopted a casual format in many spheres - in its worship, in its service, in its preaching, and so much else, we could go on. Now I do not want to be misunderstood tonight, I am not a traditionalist and I am not a ritualist, and I don't think that the golden age of the church was in the 1940s and 50s. I don't think either that a man or a woman has to come into the church to worship God as if they're going to Royal Ascot, I don't believe that. But one thing that disturbs me is the casual approach that many have today to the things of God, and it worries me at times the way people come to worship God with His people. Again I'm not saying you have to...of course, it would be foolish, it would be legalism to say that you have to wear this and you have to wear that - but it does concern me when somebody can't wash their face and get out of their pyjamas before they come and worship God, that worries me.
Don't think that I'm on some hobbyhorse, I'm pointing this out because I believe that these things are only symptomatic of a general relaxation in Christian disciplines in many areas. I have a theory that if you were to go and look in the private lives of some casual Christians, you will find that there is also a casual communion with the Lord Jesus Christ and a casual approach to the disciplines of godliness. Now do not go backwards in that reasoning, do not take the antithesis of it as true: ie, if you come and are dressed well, and you do everything right and say everything right, and seem to be to the naked eye dotting all the 'i's' and crossing all the 't's', that means you are spiritual - that is incorrect! That's not the deduction I want you to make, but what I am saying is that this general trend of casualness displays to me that there is a lack of discipline within the church at large, and that discipline is most needed in the personal arena.
V. Raymond Edmund said in his book 'The Disciplines of Life': 'Ours is an undisciplined age. The old disciplines are breaking down, above all the divine grace is derided as legalism, or is entirely unknown to a generation that is largely illiterate in the Scriptures. We need the rugged strength of Christian character that can only come from discipline'. Listen to what 1 Timothy 4 verse 7 says, Paul writing to Timothy, another translation: 'Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness'.
Now, what am I talking about when I say 'disciplining yourself for the purpose of godliness'? Well, there are many disciplines, and we haven't got time to go into them all this evening - but the discipline of reading the word of God in a disciplined fashion, systematically reading from cover to cover of the Bible, reading the word of God every day, feeding yourself on the Living Bread. Praying to God every day throughout the day, that's a discipline. Fasting is a discipline; worshipping God in private and public, not coming to church, but when you're in the meeting with God's people that your heart is actually worshipping God. How many of us really do that in the hymns that we sing, when we hear the word of God that there arises from our heart a worship, an adoration, a praise to the Lord? Witnessing is a discipline. Few people, and I have experience of this, I find that many young people today less and less - and I'm not just hitting the young people tonight - but many of them have not learned, and probably the reason they haven't learned to witness is because they haven't seen it in others above them. The discipline of being able to witness, being able to turn to the verses, to be able to point a person to Christ to answer the difficult questions - they seem to be going away, disappearing in this undisciplined age.
Giving, stewardship, I wonder is that disappearing too? We could ask the question: why has discipline suffered in this modern age? I would reckon the answer probably is, because we live in such a materialistic society it encourages us to pamper ourselves rather than to deny ourselves, to be at ease rather than to stand at attention - discipline has become the green-eyed monster, or the Cinderella of the church. To many Christians, when you talk about discipline, it's like eating sawdust. What Paul seeks to do in this chapter is to redress the imbalance, he wants them to discover discipline once again. Tom Landry, who was the coach of the Dallas Cowboys American football team for 30 years, he wrote these words: 'The job of a football coach is to make men do what they don't want to do in order to achieve what they have always wanted to be'. Will I give you that again? The job of a football coach is to make men do what they don't want to do in order to achieve what they have always wanted to be. Paul wants these Corinthians to know that champions in the faith are not born, they are made, and they are made to a large extent, from our capacity, through discipline.
So let's discover this discipline together this evening. The first thing he tells us, I believe, is the essential requirements of discipline. The first essential requirement is found in verse 24: 'Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain'. This is the first thing: discipline needs incentive. Now Paul is using, and he's using these illustrations right throughout these verses, but the first illustration he uses is: in a race everyone runs, but only one man wins the prize - that's obvious, isn't it? So he turns to the Christians in Corinth and makes the application: so you run your race in such a way that you will win the prize. Now there's one difference, one way that his illustration collapses, and that's this: that in a human race all the runners cannot win the prize, only one can win the prize, but in the divine Christian race we all can win the prize if we run it in a disciplined fashion keeping the rules along the way. That's what's glorious tonight, we're not looking for spiritual superstars or heroes, we're not looking to set men on pedestals, it is available to all of us - and we've got to banish the thought from our minds that there is some kind of tier of Christian standard, somehow that you can't get to the top tier and be a spiritual giant, that's a lie from the pit, and if the devil can keep you thinking that, he can keep you the spiritual pygmy that you maybe are. It's possible for us all, but nevertheless we all need an incentive.
This could be the reason why so many believers are so afraid of discipline. I think there's two reasons - well, there's probably more, but I'll give you just the two now. The first is because they feel that discipline restricts them, it restricts them, it robs them of freedom. The second reason is because they don't see the prize that discipline gives. Now let's deal with the first and foremost: because they feel it restricts them. That again is a lie from the devil that he wants believers to believe in order that this discipline should be robbed of them, and ultimately freedom should be robbed from them, because freedom comes from discipline the word of God says. You see the devil's a liar, and as I said last night in the Gospel meeting we as believers, as well as the unbelievers, need to know the truth that the truth sets us free from the devil's lies and restrictions. It's his lies that restrict us.
I love people who are able to sit down and just play anything on the piano, because I can't do it - just sit down and put a piece of music in front of them. But there are certain people in our world and they can sit down and play a piece of music without fault, absolutely accurately, that they have never seen before in their life, perhaps an unknown piece of music that has only been written, and the reason they can do that is because they have disciplined themselves and they have been training from a child right up through their adulthood for that moment of performance - now, that is freedom, isn't it? That's freedom, that's the reason why we should never believe that discipline restricts us.
I think perhaps the biggest problem is not being able to focus on the eternal prize that is before us. Let me illustrate it this way: Kevin is a six-year-old little boy, and he's in his living room strumming away on his guitar 'Home, Home on the Range', and he's fed up with it. He looks out the window on a sunny April afternoon and he sees his friends across the park playing football, and 'Home, Home on the Range' gets even worse and worse and worse, and it's drudgery. Now that is drudgery, and discipline is drudgery if you do not have an incentive. Let me tell you Kevin's story once again: an angel comes and appears before Kevin in the living room, and takes him in a vision to the Royal Albert Hall, and there he sees up on the stage a virtuoso with a classical guitar, and his fingers are going two to the dozen, and what he is producing from that guitar is absolutely tremendous - to such an extent that the angel says to Kevin: 'What do you think?'. And he says: 'Wow!' - he thinks to himself of the noises that his clumsy fingers and thumbs bring out of the guitar. He thinks to himself: 'It's tremendous that someone could bring such noise out of a guitar that's nearly the same as my guitar, with all the same strings and notes'. The angel takes him back to his living room, and standing before him again the angel says to Kevin: 'Kevin, that virtuoso was you'. He points to the guitar in the corner, '...but you need to practise'.
Do you see the difference? Incentive! He now has an incentive, and in Christ's race it is no different - and perhaps the reason why you have tried and tried and tried again in your own strength to discipline your life, and it's become a drudgery and you've let it go and give it up as a bad job, is because you haven't seen that the result of it will be freedom in your life, but also that there is an eternal incentive and reward, a prize up ahead! Let us not miss this, that the one essential requirement, perhaps the most essential, is that discipline needs incentive.
The second thing is verse 25: 'Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible'. Discipline needs restriction. Now the illustration, look at it, that Paul is giving us here, from athletics, is that all athletes that compete in games practise self-control - that's what that word 'temperate' means in the Authorised Version. They go into strict training, that's the way it could be translated, restricting themselves in all things, temperate in all things - why? For the sake of it? No! For a purpose, an incentive, in order to win the prize - a wreath. They do it for a wreath that will fade away, a laurel wreath that they will put on their head. Now let's come to its application to the believer: you, in the same way, must practise self-control to win a prize - not to win a laurel wreath of leaves, but to win a crown that is indestructible, that is eternal, reserved for you in the heavens, that fadeth not away.
Now this word 'temperate', or 'self-controlled', is the crucial word in this passage - it means literally 'a strength within', it's the idea of mastering oneself instead of giving up yourself to impulses, to overindulgences, to emotions, to your appetites, to the senses that are within you. Now we learnt in the very first study of this book that there was in Corinth what was called the Ithsmian Games, it was a bit like the Olympics that we have today, and it happened every two years and was held just ten miles outside Corinth. Many of the athletes came into Corinth to train for the games a few months before them. This was a fierce competition, each athlete was striving for this coveted Ithsmian crown that they would wear on their heads, and it was a literal laurel wreath. The winners not only received a crown, but history tells us they also received lifetime exemptions from paying taxes, from serving in the military, tuition fees for education were paid for them, there were statues of themselves that would be erected along the road that led to the site of the games - and they would be seen as heroes, in fact it is said they would be immortalised! But the real prize was the wreath that they could put on their head that they were awarded at the end of the games.
Now this is Paul's point: in order that they would win that prize, these Ithsmian athletes submitted themselves to a gruelling training programme that called for a long hours, a strict diet, abstinence from alcohol and almost a masochistic exercise session day after day after day after day - because there was only one thing on their mind: the prize! Paul says: 'And they did that for a perishable crown that fades away?'. C.S. Lewis said these words with regard to our armchair attitude to the prize that is before us in our imperishable crown: 'If we consider the unblushing promises of reward, and the staggering nature of reward promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea'. Wouldn't it be terrible if we, as believers, were easily pleased with an earthly crown that will perish when we die or before it, when there is a heavenly crown reserved for us if we would only strive for it! I'll tell you what a greater tragedy is: some of us wouldn't even have the discipline to win the earthly crown, how can we ever hope to win a heavenly one? The poet said:
'The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night'.
I'll tell you what we need today, and I've been cut to shreds with this word in the study before God in prayer today, what we need is less sloth-Christians and more disciplined men and women of God who can shake this world because they're not worried about pampering themselves, but they're prepared to make sacrifices for Christ and for the crown! Discipline needs restrictions - can I ask you today: have you got a problem restricting your Christian life? If you've got a problem with that, you'll never get that crown. I hope you can see how this applies to these Corinthians with regards to the matter of eating meat offered to idols.
The third thing he says that is an essential requirement of discipline, a prerequisite, is that discipline needs direction. Verse 26: 'I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air'. Discipline needs direction - now, he's saying: 'I do not run as a man running aimlessly, not like a man whose running without a definite aim, who's not knowing why he's running, or not knowing where he's running to - I run straight to the goal that God has put before me, and as I am running I am running purposefully, and there is purpose in every step that I run'. Now it would seem ridiculous when we consider Paul's illustration, of thinking of a man who's running a race and his mind isn't on winning - an athlete whose mind isn't on the prize, who isn't in the game to win. But you know, isn't it ironic that in the greatest race of all, the Christian race, that it is possible to be in it and just be running aimlessly, purposelessly, step-by-step not knowing where you're going, not knowing why you're running?
John Hausen (sp?) said these words: 'We go and take our place in the course as though the prize could be won without any running at all', aren't some like that? 'Or as if there was no prize worth running for. Perhaps we dream and loiter and fold our arms, we turn aside to look at every object of passing interest. Or if we begin with some vigour, all the zest and warmth of the struggle grows feebler and fainter when it ought to become more animated. We care little what hindrances occur to stop our course and to risk a dishonourable fall'. Paul says: 'That's not the way I run. For a start, I run' - and some of us, perhaps, haven't even started to run at all - 'but secondly, I run for a purpose. I'm not running not knowing why I'm running, not knowing where I'm running to, I run to obtain this prize and I am determined not to stop for breath, not to loiter, not to fold my arms, not to turn around to any distractions, not to stumble over something that the devil or someone else has left before me to make me fall dishonourably'.
Then he gives another illustration, this time boxing, which was part of the Ithsmian Games as well. He says: 'I don't fight like a boxer that misses his punches, I don't beat the air' - it could be translated 'I don't shadow box'. I think the inference that Paul is giving here is that it's like a man in the ring fighting and there's no enemy to fight, it's as if he's fighting and there's no adversary! We learnt last week of Paul's personal soul-winning exploits, and what he was like in his wisdom for winning souls - and what a portrait of Paul we got last evening, but what a greater portrait we get tonight when we look at how he strove toward the goal - because when Paul was in the boxing ring with sin and with the devil, he rarely threw a wild punch. He never missed! When he cocked his wrist back and swung his fist, he always landed squarely and firmly on the chain of the evil one. I wonder do we do that? Come on now, we're in a race, we're in a battle, we're in a fight - we've been singing: 'Fight the good fight with all thy night' - do we do it? For sin and Satan constantly are trying to distract us, to get us off our guard in the ring and to put us on our back on the canvas! How do we fight sin? How do we fight the world? How do we fight Satan? Paul says the only way is to dodge his swings and land a firm punch on his jaw - no other way!
I'm a sinner too, and I know that many a time when we think we're fighting with sin, we box sin as if there wasn't an adversary there. We pretend we're fighting it, we even maybe convince ourselves that we're fighting it, but we're not ruthless with it - isn't that right? We court our sin, we tempt with sin, we play with sin, we flirt with sin rather than hit sin and down sin and floor our sin! Dodds, the puritan, said: 'We fight sin as we would fight our own son. We first try to disarm him'. But Paul is saying here: 'When I came to fight sin, when I came to fight the devil that would rob me of my prize, I didn't fight him as my son, but I fought him like David with Goliath - I cut his head off!'. Is that not what the Lord Jesus said? 'If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out' - is that not what we've been finding in this chapter? That the principal right throughout this thing is: if there is a grey area, if there's a questionable practice, whatever it may be, if in doubt cast it out. That is, of course, if you want to win the prize.
Discipline needs direction, you've got to know where you're running to and what you're running for, and that will give you the incentive to reach the goal. Fourthly, verse 27, discipline needs possession: 'But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway'. Discipline needs possession, now what do I mean by that? Well, Paul is saying - let's look at what he's saying first - 'I discipline', he literally says, 'I keep under my body', a better translation is, 'I buffet my body'. He's still here in the boxing illustration: 'I beat my body, I bruise my body it and make it my slave, I bring it into subjection', literally, 'make it my slave, like an athlete makes his body his slave, like a boxer. I allow my body to be buffeted and to be battered, I handle it roughly, I discipline it by hardship, I subdue it'.
That phrase 'I keep it under', which could be translated 'buffet', literally means 'to hit under the eye'. It means 'I give my own body a black eye, I beat my face black and blue'. Now it's not literal beating here, don't be coming back next Monday night with two black eyes! It doesn't warrant asceticism, and what the Catholics do and the monks, beating themselves and depriving themselves - that is not what we're talking about here, he's talking spiritually. He's saying: 'Just as the athlete trains his body and starts to possess his body, I so beat my body into subjection so that it will serve my purposes and my ultimate goals, rather than me serve its senses, appetites, desires and lusts'.
Now it's very interesting to me that he didn't say: 'I destroy my body'. You remember there were those in Corinth who thought that the body was totally and utterly evil, and therefore you could do what you like in the body because the body is not going to be resurrected, it's just going to perish in the ground, and so they delved into the most depraved sins - and we've seen it all. Then there were others, the opposite side, and they were the ascetics, and they thought that they needed to cut off sex and any type of appetites - they stopped eating and all the rest - because they felt that these things, material things were evil. Now Paul doesn't say either of those things, all Paul is saying is that there is a nature within you, and it's still in you after you get saved - it's the old man, the old nature. If you feed the old nature, that old nature will overcome you, that old nature will possess you, but you must desire to possess your body - don't let the old nature do it, you possess your body for the purposes of godliness.
That can only be done through discipline. He's saying: 'Don't destroy the body'. You know what it's like, some of you men, you've been there, you give a fellow a black eye just to let him know - I'm not advocating this! - just to let him know who's boss, isn't that right? 'You do what you're told!' - that's what he's doing with his body, 'I'm letting you know who's boss. You'll do what I say, I'll not do what you say. I'm not at your beck and call, to your senses, to your lusts, to your desires. You will serve me in godliness, not in sin!'. Believer, do you possess your body or does your body possess you? Do you control your appetites, or do your appetites control you? I think, for most, the body tells our minds what to do, isn't that right? When you feel tired, what do you do? You go and have a sleep. When you feel hungry, you go and eat something - our body tells our minds what to do.
But Paul is saying the opposite, he's saying: 'Don't let your body tell your mind what to do, let your mind tell your body what to do'. Rather than your body deciding when you eat, when you sleep, there may come a time that you will need to stay awake, that you will need to forgo eating, that you will need to cease from some of the sexual relations in your marriage - and it may be necessary to do it, but when it comes the time to do it you can't possess your body! I think you see what I'm saying, don't you? The mantra that goes about in health establishments today is 'Listen to your body', isn't it? Listen to your body - when you're tired, sleep; when you're hungry, eat; when you have an urge, go and fulfil it - that's not Christian, Bible philosophy, that is the philosophy of the evil one. Now don't misunderstand me, don't say that I'm saying that we have all to stay up all night and not sleep any longer, and we've to stop eating - it's nothing like that. Remember Paul is walking this narrow road throughout the balanced, biblical processes that have been revealed through Old, and especially New Testaments - but what Paul is saying here, and this is what I think is the distinction he's making, when you run it's something exceptional, isn't it? Isn't it? Do you run everywhere? I'm sure you don't. An athlete doesn't run everywhere, the running is the exceptional, occasional thing; it is the temporary thing that he's called to do at the point that he's just about to win the prize - but his whole training up to that point has been leading him up to that exceptional thing. So he's training, and that is the daily thing, but the running is the exceptional thing.
Now here's Paul's point: if you are not training on a daily basis, if you are not disciplining yourself with incentive, with restrictions, with directions, possessing your body in a daily capacity, when it comes to the race your body won't obey your demands! Have you got it? An athlete can't operate by just eating everything and doing everything, he has to follow his training rules. When he feels like lying-in in the morning at six o'clock or whatever, he doesn't do it - he feels like it, but he doesn't do it. He gets up and he goes to run, no matter whether it's hail, rain, or snow. I come to the early morning prayer meeting here every Wednesday morning, and I said to brother Billy the other morning, it's amazing to me the amount of people I see out walking their dogs and out for a jog - I'm sure they feel like lying in, but they want the prize, and all their prize is is health! Maybe their prize is a few pound at the racing track, but that's their prize and it gets them out of their bed! Do our bodies respond to us? Paul says: 'I can make my body respond for the goal whenever I need it. My body listens to me, I don't listen to my body'.
What do I mean here? If you have no discipline in your life, right, and you just do everything - you've quite a legitimate right to do everything, it's your freedom in Christ - you don't have any restrictions, you don't have any disciplines, you don't have any fixed practices, you just indulge yourself in food and sleep and everything - and I'm speaking to my own heart here, don't think I'm condemning you, this is God's word to us all. One day there might be a massive need, and maybe you've to stay up the whole night and pray before God, maybe you've to fast before God, maybe you've to do something else for God, and you can't do it, because your body needs the sleep and your body can't operate without the food! Paul is saying: 'The norm is you always eat, you always sleep, but there is a race that you've got to run, and when you have to run that race your body ought to respond to your demands, rather than you responding to its'.
'Whatever', can we say, 'the Lord demands for a temporary space of time, I can respond', can you say that? Remember the Lord took the disciples, three of them, into the Garden. Remember He said: 'Would you pray?'. There He was in deep agony, praying Himself, exceeding sorrowful even unto death - and He turned round and they were asleep! Three times when He turned round they were asleep, and what did He say? 'The spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak' - now this is the power of the body, that even when your spirit's willing, if your body doesn't respond it's no use! Can you say: 'Whatever the Lord asks of me, I can respond in body, soul, and spirit'?
Well, let's move on because the time is going quickly and there's one very important thing to say. Not just does he give us the essential requirements of discipline, but the fatal results of indiscipline. He says: 'Lest', the second part of verse 27, 'that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway'. 'Lest I fear that after I preach to you and all the other churches, I myself should become unfit to stand the final test myself. I fear' - and this word here 'castaway' could be better translated 'disqualified for the prize'. 'I fear that I'm the one standing here telling you want to do, and if I'm not doing it I'll lose the prize too'. Some translate it: 'I'll be found to be a counterfeit'.
These Ithsmian Games that we've been talking about had to engage ten months preparatory training, and they had to be able at the end of those ten months to certify that they were faithful to every day and every moment and every training of that period. Then afterwards it had to be certified that they had kept morally clean throughout the whole of that period. The reason why that had to be so was, that before the contest, preceding it, the contestants were led about the arena by the Herald or the master of ceremonies, while he asked and shouted in a loud voice whether any of the spectators in the arena could accuse the athlete of any crime, any misdemeanour, any wickedness, if they were slaves, if they had been depraved in any way in life or in manners. If any of them had anything accused of them they were disqualified right away.
Now this is spiritual realism if ever we've seen it. In Philippians 3 on Sunday mornings we've seen Paul say: 'Not as though I have already attained', and here he is fearing that before he finishes and gets over the finishing line and grabs the prize, that in some way he should become a counterfeit, be disqualified and become unfit to run the race himself - because even Paul had an old nature that needed to be hammered into submission! And he hammered it! As Arthur Sway says in his translation: 'Nay, I browbeat my own animal nature, but you Corinthians are inclined to be champions of your animal nature, feeding it - and you treat it. But I treat it not as my master, but as my slave, lest by any chance after acting as the Herald of the ceremonies who bids others enter, I might find my own self disqualified from competing'.
There are two reasons I'm going to draw out of this: the first is that if he was found as a counterfeit his preaching would have been hypocritical. Now I'm not talking here just to preachers or pastors, or teachers or evangelists, or missionaries or whatever you want to call them, because we're all meant to be preaching, we're all meant to be gossiping the Gospel. But what Paul is saying, and remember what he's coming from in the last few verses that we studied last week, he said that he suffered the loss of all things that by any means he might save some. He's talking essentially in an evangelistic capacity, and we must be careful as those who share the gospel that we are not seen to be those who pamper the body rather than those who buffet the body, who feed the flesh rather than fight it. We need to beware in these days as preachers, and of preachers, who pamper.
The second fatal result of indiscipline is this disqualification from the prize. Now let me correct a misunderstanding of many of the cults and those who believe that you can be saved and lost. Paul, when he says 'disqualified', is not talking about salvation, he's talking about the prize, he's speaking about the race. For the Ithsmian Games you had to be a Greek citizen, you couldn't be a slave either to be in those games, you had to be born and bred in Greece. Paul is talking here about people who are born and bred of the Spirit of God, yet still you can be disqualified - you'll not lose your salvation, but he's talking about losing reward, service and the reward that it brings. At the end of the Ithsmian Games the winners were read out, but do you know something? Those who were disqualified were read out as well.
I wonder how many disqualified Christians we have today? For one reason or another they're useless to either God or man. Friends, this is serious stuff. There should be a terrible fear that is in us, the same way it was in the apostle Paul, of being put on the shelf by God! Not hear His voice any more, not feel His impulsion, His impress - you're not not saved, you're not going to hell, but you're just useless! Why? Because you love yourself too much! Let's not dilute the message of the Bible, I'll never dilute it, God help me I hope I'll never dilute it: 'Whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it'.
When the medallist wins the gold in the Olympics, all the celebration is ecstatic - yet there is very little attention paid to the years of hard training and blood and sweat that produces a winner. Paul is saying that champions are not born, they are made, and the tools that forge them are discipline, motivation and looking to the goal. Now there's none of us here tonight that have run a race like the apostle Paul, but don't you forget that in this portion he hasn't finished the race yet - but he's afraid of being disqualified, he's afraid of it! My friend, I don't know how long you're on the road, I don't know what you've done for Christ, what glory you've seen for Him, I don't know anything about it and I don't want to know - but I want to ask you: how will you finish? Some of you are near finishing, aren't you? All men who were greatly used of God were not only people in God's control, but people of self-control. May all of us tonight, and every night, discover discipline, that we might win the prize.
Whatever it is that's preventing you, weighing you down, the sin that's besetting you - come on, are you going to let go? For if you don't let go you'll forfeit the prize. You know, you've to give all of yourself over to the Lord, this isn't a half-salvation. Maybe there's somebody in here tonight, and this will be your night of surrender, full and complete - all to Jesus I surrender, all to Him I freely give, I will ever love and trust Him, in His presence daily live. I surrender all, all to Jesus I surrender, I surrender all - can you say that? I tell you, if you can say that and mean it, that will be the greatest discovery next to salvation that you have made.
Lord, help us, this old man is so strong at times - and we love ourselves, we want to save ourselves so much, but yet in eternity we will be glad if we lose ourselves for Thee now. For except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone. Lord, we don't want to go to Thee empty-handed, but we want to receive a crown, we want to hear: 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant', we want that prize that fadeth not away, we want it to be reserved in heaven for us. Lord, give us the strength, give us the grace to throw away whatever's hindering us; and give us the incentive, the direction, the restriction, the possession of our bodies that will mean that we're not disqualified, but that we'll get there in the end - and may we all finish well, for Jesus' sake, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the twenty-third tape in his 1 Corinthians series, titled "Discovering Discipline" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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