In Greek society before and during the days of Paul there took place four great athletic events: the Olympic, the Isthmian, the Pythian, and the Nemaean Games. The prizes consisted of crowns - of olive leaves at the Olympic games, pine at the Isthmian, laurel at the Pythian, and celery at the Nemaean. To win a prize was a great honour and gave the athlete a place of dignity in society. The prizes, however, would wither through time, a reminder to all that glory associated with achievement in earthly things is of a passing nature. It will fade!
It was these games that the apostle had in mind as he contemplated the life into which he had entered when he met the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus. The Christian "race" had commenced on that day and would not end until he departed to be with Christ, when the finishing post was passed. He was not alone on the course. Every other believer had set off from the starting line and Paul noted three characteristics that marked his attitude as he ran.
First, he had to forget "those things which are behind". This did not mean that the lessons he had learned in the past, nor the knowledge of the Lord Jesus that he had gained, were to be forgotten. Those lessons and that knowledge would help him in the race. What was required of the runner was to concentrate on the course that lay ahead. Only by this means would he be able to negotiate it successfully. No athlete constantly looked behind him, as that would slow his pace and divert his attention from the track. Rather, he showed complete concentration on what lay ahead. He was single-minded, contemplating the course before him and not resting on laurels or achievements won in the past.
Second, his attitude was one of "reaching forth unto those things which are before". The picture here is of the body of the athlete leaning forward, reaching out to what lies before him. "The eye reaches before and draws on the hand, the hand reaches before and draws on the foot" (Bengel). The whole attitude is one of determination to keep up the pace. There was to be no resting at the track side and no slowing down.
Third, he was endeavouring to "press toward the mark for the prize". The athlete had the end of the course in view. Every muscle in his body was strained to the utmost, every thought of his mind was governed by this prospect. To win was the overriding, supreme objective. It is thought that at some of these games the prize wreath was placed at the finishing line on a high pole so that the runners could fasten their eyes on it. The closer he came to the "mark" the more clearly the crown could be seen. This shows his anticipation of the prize. To gain that reward was the motive behind every step taken.
And what was the prize that the apostle had before him? What was it that became clearer as he sped toward the finishing mark? It was God in Christ Jesus; the eternal enjoyment of Christ with all the limitations of time gone. Since he heard the words "I am Jesus" on that never to be forgotten day (Acts 9.5), this had been Pauls goal.
The athlete who wore the prize wreath would realise that the discipline demanded by the race, the cost of laying aside all that would have hindered him, the requirement to make every other objective subordinate to the contest on the track, had all been rewarded abundantly. His heart had been set on "one thing", and the joy of attaining that goal was now his.
The Christian life illustrated so graphically in these verses is demanding. There are sacrifices to be made, self-discipline to be imposed, and untiring effort to be exerted in order to run according to the rules contained in Scripture. The question to be faced by all, the self appraisal to be carried out without excuse, is obvious. Are we no longer running; have other less worthy matters halted our progress; are we resting at the track side; has the siren call of a "soft life" enticed us away? If so let us look again towards the prize. It is real; it is there to be enjoyed; it is much to be desired! May the sight of it, ever drawing nearer, encourage us to continue pressing on until the "mark" is gained.