Paul the Athlete

January 24th, 2012
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1 Corinthians 9:24-27

As Paul draws the first part of the digression to a close, he invites his readers, so familiar with the Athenaic and Isthmian games, the latter probably having been staged no more than eight miles from Corinth and most recently less than a year prior to this writing, to think of themselves as athletes, as indeed he considers himself. In the Greco-Roman world athleticism was highly valued, athletes were honored, and every major city had an arena. The games were analogous to war; the events were often those associated with battle. This association of games and battle fits Paul’s notion that God’s plan is like a battle and believers must be fit and ready (cf. 2 Cor 6:7; 1 Thess 5:8). To be the very best possible athlete–the function of the “only one wins the prize” argument (9:24)–requires discipline and self-control, self-mastery “in everything” as everyone in that culture surely knew; and it is this point upon which Paul seizes. Craftily using plurals in an inclusive way, Paul reminds the Corinthians that, to paraphrase, “we exercise self-control in all things . . . in order to receive an imperishable wreath or crown” as victors (9:25). Believers are like famous athletes in that believers must exercise self-control “in all things” (panta, 9:25); they are unlike those athletes in that believers are running for imperishable rewards. In 9:25 Paul’s emphasis lies on the single term panta, “in all things,” “in everything.” Typically, Paul views life as an integrated whole; all of life is to be placed in service to the gospel and others. No compartmentalization. So also here no part of life is exempt from self-control; self-indulgence must be set aside. All of his concern with self-control is Paul’s modeling for his auditors the moral life lived with the full discipline and consideration of others. To be sure, some Corinthians may think of themselves as free like Paul. Now in these verses he invites them to be disciplined “in all things” as he is–not only disciplined, but also committed to voluntary slavery and identification with the weak.

So it is with him, Paul says. He runs not aimlessly (unstated but assumed is that he knows the goal toward which he races). He does not simply shadowbox, but he keeps his body (= himself) under the most rigorous, deliberate discipline; indeed (to no one’s surprise), he likens it to a sort of self-imposed slavery once again (9:27; cf. 9:19). And so he expects of all his readers not only rigorous, self-imposed discipline but also intentional, voluntary slavery to one another in Christ. This reference to “body” and its proper care surely echoes a similar point made earlier about proper temple maintenance of the body for the resident Holy Spirit (3:16-17). And the slavery Paul here embraces is consonant with the perfect slavery in love that is complete freedom.

Along this line it must not go unnoticed that when Paul describes the proper discipline appropriate to life in the gospel he expresses it in two verbs bearing on to; to soma, the body, that is, his own self, understood. The verbs hypopiazo (“to treat roughly” or here “to impose discipline”) and doulago- geo (“to enslave or bring into subjection”) surround and have as their direct object “the body, the self” (9:27). Paul has already touched on the self-mastery motif in this letter (cf. esp. in 7:38, but implicitly in 8:7-13 and 9:12b-14). In 9:26-27 Paul explicitly exemplifies the need and importance of self-mastery as a part of the daily life of the believer this side of the last judgment.

Of equal importance here is Paul’s use of soma as his self because his choice of that expression enforces significant links to what he has already written in 1 Corinthians (and will provide a ground for his comments on soma in 1 Cor 15:35-44). As the auditor thinks back to Paul’s earlier assumptions about soma in this letter, two passages must come to mind. One is the hinge-passage (6:12-20) where Paul claims that the believing self, the soma, belongs to the Lord in a fundamentally definitional way. The soma is what it is in respect to the Lord, as reckoned in its relation to the Lord (6:13), and the Lord is for the soma, which is related to the self, as in a marriage. The connection is so secure as to be expressible in the striking image: Your soma is the temple of the Holy Spirit (3:16-17). Paul’s own exemplary self-portrait in 9:27 shows that, translating from his athletic metaphors employed there, he goes to all lengths to ensure that he practices proper temple maintenance on his own soma.

The first part of the digression closes with an ironic note that may echo Paul’s earlier cry of “Woe” if he does not preach the gospel. Would it not be ironic, he says, if after preaching to others he failed to practice what he preached, and, at the judgment, if he were found to be “disqualified” (adokimos, a technical term of athletics in which a competitor fails the test or is thrown out of the competition)? The implication is palpable: If Paul, the chosen apostle, can anticipate that he might be found disqualified in the last judgment because he did not exercise a training code and life appropriate to the gospel, then all other athletes in the gospel must reevaluate their discipline and practice and bring themselves into comportment with the gospel. With that, Paul closes the largely positive part of the digression and turns to the story of Israel’s exodus out of Egypt (10:1-13) as a means of advancing his argument with a cautionary illustration precisely on this same point.

This article has been adapted from The New Interpreter's® Bible, a commentary in twelve volumes. The complete digital NIB® is included with a subscription to Ministry Matters.

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New Interpreter's® Bible

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