To the society in which Paul lived the pinnacle of athletic achievement was to gain a crown at the Greek games. Such was the respect paid to those who achieved this distinction that in AD 67 the Emperor Nero took part in the Olympic Games and "won" the crown in every event in which he participated, even when he failed to complete a race! Apart from the Olympic Games there were others that took place: the Pythian, the Isthmian, and the Nemaean. The victor's crown was composed of leaves. In the Olympic Games it was of olive leaves, the Isthmian of pine, the Nemaean of celery, and the Pythian of laurel.
It was to these that Paul referred as he wrote of the Christian life being a race. He had started on that race on the Damascus Road when he met the risen Christ, and called Him Lord. His sole objective, that for which he was straining every muscle, stretching every faculty, and into which he was pouring all his strength, was to gain the "prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus". He kept his eye on the "mark", the finishing post. That alone was his sole burning ambition, his one great interest. Nothing would cause him to be distracted; his eyes would not wander; his attention would not stray.
What was the prize that meant so much to him? Why was he prepared to give everything in pursuit of it? It was the eternal enjoyment of "God in Christ Jesus", the aim to which every thing else was subordinate. May we all understand that participation in this race, in which all believers are runners, demands single-minded concentration. There is much around that would cause our attention to wander to less worthy matters. May we all keep our eyes firmly fixed on the goal to which we are running.
To Corinth, near to where the Isthmian games were held, Paul writes again of the athlete: "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" (1 Cor 9.25). The expression used here to describe the "striving" includes the thought of taking pains to be the victor. The point here is that the body must be brought "into subjection" (9.27); it must be enslaved so that it obeys the runner and does not cause the athlete to be unfit to run and thus unable to obtain the prize. This race, therefore, demands self-control. The flesh must not be allowed to dictate the behaviour of a believer running for the prize.
Writing to Timothy, Paul returns again to this theme: "And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully" (2 Tim 2.5). The expression "strive for masteries" covers participating in any sport including running. In the 1908 Olympics held in London an Italian runner, Dorando Pietri, led the Marathon but had to be helped over the finishing line. He finished first, but had broken the rules. As a result the medal went to another. So it is in the Christian race - it is necessary to "run" according to the Scriptures. It is not given to believers to make up their own rules or determine which parts of the Bible they wish to obey and which parts they determine to ignore. Participation in the Christian race demands submission to the Word of God.
As Paul wrote to Timothy he knew that he was about to die. The end of the race was in sight; he had "finished (his) course" (2 Tim 4.7). Timothy and others would follow; their race would go on as ours does today. It requires the same single-mindedness, the same submission, and the same self-control. The course is not easy; at times the demands can be high and the circumstances painful, but the Lord is looking on and the prize lies before us.
It was the custom in Greece to place the prize on the top of a high pole so that it could be seen. What an incentive! The nearer the runner came to the "mark" the more clearly he saw the prize. Let us all look "unto Jesus" (Heb 12.2). Fixing our eyes on Him is the greatest incentive; keeping Him in view gives strength for the race.