Click here for the reading: 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5.
With greater foresight than his forefathers Paul considered that he could fall along the way. Paul does not often employ sports metaphors probably because a pious Jew would have little knowledge of the nude contests of pagan antiquity carried out under the benediction of strange gods. The metaphor he uses in 1 Cor. 9 would be well-known to everyone because the Greek cycle of four years, the Olympiad, was named after the winner of the medium-distance footrace at the Olympic Games. The dedication to their sport and the singleminded pursuit of glory those athletes famously displayed are commanded by the apostle here.
If someone displays dedication, singlemindedness, and laudable devotion to his task in something that perishes with use, something that comes and goes again, why would a Christian be less demonstrably dedicated, singleminded, or laudably devoted in the attainment of eternal life? The crown that awaits him fadeth not away, so where is his intensity, his drive, his refusal to be distracted in the pursuit of the glories of the resurrection to life? Self-control in earthly things is laudable, but how much more in refraining from anything that would put an obstacle in the way of salvation?
Paul’s body is not neutral. He must keep it “under control.” Like an athlete his body can be his own worst enemy. Lust, sloth, and devotion to ease all prove eager jailers for the Christian, waiting to lock him down and lock him in to their demands. Paul is master over these things and considers them real dangers because should he not practice this self-control and discipline of his body, he the great preacher of Christ could be “disqualified” like a runner who had coached others but could not himself compete well.
Paul’s forefathers, who are our forefathers (10:1) in following Christ (10:4), exemplify failure and disqualification. God “was not pleased” with them and their ways, their testing and their quarreling and their grumbling and their weak-minded suspicions. They were baptized into Moses, but we who are baptized into Christ could also be overthrown. They ate the same Spiritual food and drank the same Spiritual drink, but we who eat the Spiritual food and drink of the Lord’s Supper could also be overthrown. The graces of manna and water from the rock did not overturn the reign of blasphemy and evil suspicion in their hearts and minds, and they fell as evildoers. Woe to us if we likewise fall! Woe to us if we likewise blaspheme and presume upon God’s grace!
Paul opens up the Scriptures and the hearts of the fathers to show that beneath their idolatry and blasphemy was the desire of evil (10:6). Blasphemy and idolatry come forth from the deeper well of evil desire, and the discipline of Paul’s body is the purification of desire – the pruning back of the otherwise wild growth of desire so that it does not choke out the seed of the Word.