THE RACE AND THE CROWN

 

ByROBERT GOVETT, M. A.

 

No human effort (it is said) was both so short and so violent as the Greek footrace.  Around the stadium, or course, rose an amphitheatre of white marble, like the terraces of a palace, seated with 'a cloud of witnesses.'  Tier above tier;* he who 'acted as herald,' to use Paul's phrase (1 Cor. 9: 27), marshalled the lists, explained the rules, and dismissed the runners by trumpet-blast; all starting 'scratch,' the athletes bent forward - "stretching forward to the things that are before" (Phil. 3: 13) - to catch the fullest possible momentum: then followed the rush, and (in the long race) weary lap after weary lap; until at last the 'mark,' or 'goal,' was in sight, where the judges sat: then, as the victor burst past the mark, the race was over, all other runners being 'disapproved' ; and the winner, crowned with a wreath of pine and banqueted, received the homage of an entire nation.  "Know ye not that they which run in a race all run, but ONE receiveth the prize?" (1 Cor. 9: 24).

 

[* "Wembley accommodates 126,000 spectators; but a stadium in Rome, earlier than the Colosseum, is said to have held 400,000" (Panton).  Recommended reading :- "In the Arena of Faith" by E. SAUER.]

 

Now the Holy Ghost, not once but many times, emphasises this as a picture of the short, sharp struggle of the Christian race.  "So run," says Paul (1 Cor. 9: 24) to the whole Church of God; for runners do not march, they race: "so run," run in such a way that, run as the few run, run as only the winner runs: "in order that YE may attain" - have the prize deliberately in view: "it is not enough merely to run - all run; but as there is only one who is victorious, so you must run, not with the slowness of the many, but with the energy of the one" (Dean Stanley). We have no option but to seek the highest.

 

Now the Holy Spirit reveals conditions for success in the race; and the first is a careful self-preparation.  "Every man that striveth in the games" - that enters the lists - "is temperate in all things" (1 Cor. 9: 25).  It is obvious that an untrained runner has little or no chance against a disciplined athlete, hardened, schooled, fit.  Here are the actual directions from an old Greek book for the ten month's training: -  "There must be orderly living, on spare food; abstain from confections; make a point of exercising at the appointed time, in heat and in cold; nor drink cold water, nor wine at random; give thyself to the training master as to a physician, and then enter the contests."  The athlete thus trains to prolong his wind, to harden his biceps, and to produce that which the Greek so loved - a perfect human: we, to produce a perfect saint - as developed in spirit and character, as he in muscle and frame.  "The abstinence of the athletes did not relate only to criminal enjoyments, but also to gratificationís in themselves lawful; so the Christian's self-denial should bear, not only on guilty pleasures, but on every habit, on every enjoyment, which, without being vicious, may involve a loss of time or a diminution of moral force" (Godet).  Even the gossamer band of silk in the trousering above the knee (a runner in cross-country championships has told me) he had to discard: a 'weight' (Heb. 12: 1) can be fatal.

 

Observance of the rules is a second vital condition of success.  "If a man contend in the games, he is not crowned, except he have contended LAWFULLY" (2 Tim. 2: 5) - that is, according to the rules of the running: he may run magnificently; but if lawlessly, he is instantly disqualified.  "You may be making great strides, but you are running outside the track." (Augustine).  The New Testament is our racing manual: it tells us exactly what to do, and what to avoid: we are not at liberty to invent our own rules, or construct our own holiness; every rule is in the Book, and every rule is essential for the prize. "Ye were running well: who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?" (Gal. 5: 7); that is, swift running is obeying the Holy Scriptures.  We seek the glory; but first, what secures the glory. "I press on toward the goal unto the prize" (Phil. 3: 14): ďthe mark, or goal, is perfect holiness; the prize is glory, the crown of holiness" (Godet).*

 

[* "If it could be proved, after the contest, that the victorious combatants had contended unlawfully, or unfairly, they were deprived of the prize and driven with disgrace from the games" (Dean Alford).]

 

But self-mastery abides the supreme condition for success.  "I therefore so run, as not uncertainly"; that is, if I fulfil the conditions, I shall not be supplanted (as I might be in a human footrace) by some fleeter runner; every believer is sure of the prize if only he fulfils the conditions: "so fight I, as not beating the air "; my fisticuffs are no feints, but I land every blow; "but I buffet my body" - bruise it black and blue, make it livid, every blow striking home (Ellicott) - "and bring it into bondage" - lead it as a slave (1 Cor. 9: 27). Here is disclosed our most dangerous enemy, "the flesh with its affections and lusts"; my blows, says Paul, are so aimed as to cover my adversary - and that adversary, my own body - with bruises, and so lead it captive.  He discovers, by self-examination, his besetting sins, and he lands his blows there: we must learn to know our weak points as well as Satan knows them. "I fatigue my body, by the incessant and exhausting labours to which I condemn it" (Dean Stanley).  Paul was no ascetic, no monk; but, while a nourished body is the most effective instrument for God we shall ever have, a pampered body is a lost race.  For the race is no splendid spurt, it is a dogged drudgery; it is lost by either self-confidence or self-despair: the real failures in life are those who surrender before the sun goes down.  "The only way to keep pace with God is to run at full speed" (General W. Booth).

 

Paul now points out that, as the difficulties are incalculably greater and more subtle in the spiritual race, so the prizes are incomparably richer, and the losses more terrible. "Now they do it to receive a corruptible crown" - a garland of olive or bay or parsley or pine, that hardly faded sooner than the athlete's glory itself; "but we an incorruptible"; a never-fading wreath, as Peter calls it (1 Pet. 5: 4). So the extraordinarily potent lesson here revealed is that self-denial is only pleasure postponed.  "This," said King Edward to Cannon Duckworth in the disrobing room after the Coronation, "is one of the happiest days, if not the happiest, I ever spent."  Earthly crowns are not always even transient joys.  "The only crown I have ever worn," said the Austrian Emperor Charles II., who died since the Great War, "was a crown of thorns."  No crown is ever applied to a believer in Scripture except for achievement, never for inheritance - stephanos never diadema ; (diadema is applied only to Christ, (Rev. 19: 12, and Antichrist, Rev. 13:1); and it is curious that, exactly as five victor-wreaths were given in Greece for five totally distinct achievements - leaping, throwing, racing, boxing and wrestling - so five crowns, and five only, are held forth for spiritual athleticismís - the crown of joy for soul-winning (1 Thess. 2: 19), the crown of glory for church oversight (1 Pet. 5: 4), the crown of incorruption for sanctity (1 Cor. 9: 25), the crown of righteousness for vigilance (2 Tim. 4: 8), and the crown of life for martyrdom (Rev. 2: 10).  These will blaze when the sun has gone out forever.

 

Paul closes with one of the supreme warnings of Scripture.  "'Lest by any means after that I have acted the herald to others, I MYSELF' - not my works only, but mySELF - 'should be REJECTED' [as unworthy of the crown and the prize (Ellicott)]."   As bishop Ellicott says :- "Not reprobate: the doctrinal deduction thus becomes, to some extent, modified; still the serious fact remains that the Apostle had before him the possibility of loosing that which he was daily preaching to others: as yet he counted not himself to have attained (Phil. 3: 12); that blessed assurance was for the closing period of a faithful life (2 Tim. 4: 7)." The runner will never be disowned as a son, but he can be deeply disapproved as a servant : a backslider may be in the race, but he is not in the running.* Full of years, and laden with victories, Paul - the Paul who never doubted his [eternal] salvation after the Damascene vision, and who has crouched the believer's eternal safety in the most Calvinistic language in the Bible - has not ceased to dread the flesh, and still trembles for his crown.  No man who misses the approbation of Christ obtains no other, not even his own; and meanwhile, as we grow older, we find the flesh no less carnal, the world no less subtle, and the Devil no less Satanic than they always were.  "Hold fast that which thou hast, that no one take thy crown" (Rev. 3: 11): yours already, hypothetically; yours certainly, if you run to a finish as you are running now; but forfeitable, if you slacken to a present inferior in the race.

 

[* "We cannot consider 'receiving the prize' to imply salvation generally, for this is even possible where wood, straw, and stubble have been built up; but that it intends the highest degree of bliss, conditional upon faith and the advance in sanctification" (Olhausen).  Hence the importance of Scriptural doctrine, - (the superstructure the believer builds upon the only foundation, Jesus Christ) - and the need of grace and back-bone to stand against false doctrine, so rampant within the Church of God today.  We cannot allow ourselves to be swept away by false doctrine, (even if that false doctrine is believed by the vast multitudes of regenerate believers), and then expect to win the prize!  Runners in the race, can, and do fall, but repentance and the grace will - (but not always,) [Heb. 4: 11; 12: 15] - put us back in the race for the prize.]  

 

So we summarise some final points.  (1) No criminal, no slave, only the freeborn Greek could enter the lists: so God's race is only for the re-born: the race starts at the foot of the Cross, and conversion puts us in the lists.  (2) The racer who fouls - or 'bores' - a fellow-runner is at once disqualified.  Carpenter, an American at the Olympic Games, cut out the Englishman Hartell, and instantly lost the race.  (3) Unbelief is a strychnine which paralyzes: if we imagine there is no race, it is certain we shall win no prize.  (4) We should never doubt our salvation: we should never assume our prize. When in 1923 Sullivan swam the Channel on his seventh attempt, he said:- "Every beating I got made me the more determined to do it, and I have trained hard year after year for it."  (5) A trainer of prize-winners may himself lose the prize. (6) The nearer we approach the goal, the lonelier the race.  (7) Let us remember the Cloud of Witnesses.  The eyes of God are upon us; the eyes of Christ know our works, and rejoice in our running: the eyes of the holy angels are watching struggling Jobs and budding Pauls; the eyes of the malignant Powers are always studying us; the eyes of the world are never off us; and, at the goal, the whole Church will know exactly how we ran.  What an amphitheatre!

 

So we cheer each other on as, to panting breast and trembling limbs, the goal rises on the horizon.  Bishop Wordsworth beautifully suggests that from the Greek word here for 'prize,' we get, through the Latin and Italian, our word 'Bravo': so we love to cheer each drawn, white, dusty face, and together seek the Bravo of the returning Lord.  The last lap used to be called 'the sob': no cross-country winner ever breasts the tape without bleeding feet.

Carry me over the long, last mile,

Man of Nazareth, Christ for me!

 

"I have finished," (the stadium), Paul cries at last, when the two hundred yards had vanished under his victorious feet; "henceforth there is laid up for me THE CROWN" (2 Tim. 4: 8); or, in the dying words of Payson, - "The battle is fought! the battle is fought! and the victory is won for ever!"

 

-------

 

NOTES ON THE CHRISTIAN STADIUM

 

1 CORINTHIANS 9: 24.

 

This is my aim in all I do: but inasmuch as many run in a race, many reach the goal, but only one receives the prize, - I, as an Apostle, run my course, and you must run yours, as each to labour not to be rejected at last, but to gain the glorious and incorruptible prize. - Dean Alford.

 

The one combatant who received the prize did so as the result of great effort, strenuous and persevering.  For neither apathy nor weariness were compatible with success.  Indifference kills Christian life.  The half-hearted go not out far from the starting-point.  Many have earnestness enough only to 'enter' for the race and fight; as soon as they have 'entered,' they think all is done.  To be amongst the runners is not enough; we must exert our powers; we must call into activity all our energies.  "Strive [agonise] to enter in - [to the Millennial Kingdom] - at the strait gate." - Anon.

 

1 CORINTHIANS 9: 25.

 

The racer must keep to the rules of the course, and confine himself within the limits of the stadium.  Speed will stand him in no stead without this; and though he may reach the goal, he will not receive the prize.  And it is so with the Christian racer.  He is not at liberty to choose his ground, to invent a short road, or to seek an easy road there: he must keep in the way of God's commandments.  We are to be temperate in all things - in our enjoyments, our griefís, and most lawful and permitted affections.  There is no prize for him who stops half-way. - D. Moore, M.A.

 

Some cannot win because they carry too much weight. "How hardly shall a rich man enter into the kingdom of heaven!"  Another class start well, and they run very fast at first, but at last they leap over the rails and go quite out of the course altogether. - C. H. Spurgeon.

 

1 CORINTHIANS 9: 26.

 

There is not a member or a nerve in the body but it is capable of being a great sin or a high virtue.  Every part admits of sanctification.  All are given for a purpose, and that purpose is to glorify God.  What we have to do is not to destroy anything, but to guide it - not to despise, but to elevate - not to cast off as an enemy, but to employ as a servant. - J. Vaughan, M.A.

 

1 CORINTHIANS 9: 27.

 

This fear of the Apostle's was no chimerical (i.e., an 'unfounded, unreasoned and imaginary') one.  Actual fact [named immediately after] sustained his solicitude.  Who was the herald of the host of Israel?  Who was sent of God to call them out of Egypt?  Who marshalled them through the sea, and led them to meet with God at Sinai, their leader through the desert?  But this same Moses was not permitted to obtain the prize.  Though he besought with earnestness he was refused.  He was rejected, though a herald to others. - Robert Govett.

 

-------