Note that the race is for believers, and they are running against themselves to determine their rewards - it is not a race to determine whether someone will get to Heaven or not. That is determined on what you do with the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. If there was a time and place when you turned from your sin and turned to Jesus Christ to save you from your sins, believing in your heart that He is the only Saviour and that He paid the complete penalty for your sins when He died on the cross, then at that moment you entered into this race.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. 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. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.
Unlike a regular race, where only one prize is available or offered to all, in the Christian life the prize is available to everyone that competes in the race - all believers have the same opportunity to be faithful and rewarded by the Lord. In this race, we are not racing against other believers, and hoping we are the best one serving the Lord - we are racing against ourselves. We are exhorted by the Apostle Paul to run in such a manner that we will win the prize, win the rewards our Heavenly Father is offering (and wants to give) to each one of us.
The Greek word for strive in the above passage is: agonizomai, meaning "to struggle, literally (to compete for a prize)." It is this word we get our English word "agonize" from. As we can see, winning the race will involve some discipline (temperance) on our part, it will involve agony, it will involve us striving against ourselves and our sinful natures, if we hope to win the prize. We are not competing for a corruptible crown of laurel leaves, but for the victor's crown, one that is eternal and incorruptible. There is a definite aim and discipline involved if we hope to attain the prize.
Philippians 3:12-14 Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
2 Timothy 2:5 And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully.
The word for strive here is athleo, where we get our word athlete from, meaning "a contest in the public lists; to contend in the competitive games." We cannot win the victor's crown, unless we are striving according to the rules - and the rules for the Christian life are found in the Word of God. If we hope to be rewarded for our service to the Lord, we need to run according to the plan He has for our lives, according to His will as revealed in His Word.
The last passage comes right after Hebrews 11, the victory chapter where we see how the heroes of the faith all conquered by their faith. In light of these witnesses and the testimony we find of them in the Word of God, we are exhorted to run the race:
Hebrews 12:1-4 Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.
Patience here means "to persevere, endure." We are to lay aside those weights and sins that would hinder us in our Christian life, lay aside those things that sidetrack, lay aside our unbelief, lay aside anything that dampens our devotion or cools our fervour. We are to persevere in this race - how do we do so, when at times we may stumble and falter, grow wearied and faint? By looking unto Jesus.
As a younger believer, I thought the emphasis of the Christian life was in putting out those sins and weights - but now I realize more than ever that our focus is to be on the Saviour, and as we run this race with our eyes steadfast on Him, He gives us the grace to lay aside those weights and sins that are in our lives. The difference is the focus - not on putting out the sins, but on running with the Saviour. As He gives us wisdom and strength, we take the necessary steps in our lives to draw closer to Him and cast out those weights. Where is your focus?
We can see the exhortation to persevere in the Christian life comes from looking unto Jesus. He came to fulfill the will of His Father for His life (which was in fulfilling the law, and shedding His blood and dying for our sins on the cross of Calvary). Even so, when we are tempted to give up or slow down in the race, we need to remember what Jesus endured for us, knowing that He can identify with all of our struggles - and give us the grace and strength to overcome in all of them. We can fulfill the will of God for our lives if we keep our eyes on our great Example, on our Saviour.
Further Bible passages on this theme:
Galatians 2:2 And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain.
Galatians 5:7 Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?
Philippians 2:16 Holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain.
2 Timothy 4:7-8 I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.
1 Timothy 6:12 Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses.
1 Timothy 4:7-8 But refuse profane and old wives' fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.
Acts 24:16 And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men.
Acts 13:25 And as John fulfilled his course, he said, Whom think ye that I am? I am not he. But, behold, there cometh one after me, whose shoes of his feet I am not worthy to loose.
Acts 20:24 But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.
James 1:12 Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.
Revelation 2:10 Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.
Revelation 3:11 Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.
To cap off the message I preached at the Gospel Mission, I read the following poem. As you read it, though it is describing a physical race, think of it as a spiritual race - think of yourself as the runner, and the father in the poem as your Heavenly Father. The last stanza makes a reference to the race of life, but I want to focus on the race of the Christian life, which starts the moment a person truly turns to the Lord Jesus Christ to save them - then the race begins.
Whenever I start to hang my head in front of failure’s face,
my downward fall is broken by the memory of a race.
A children’s race, young boys, young men; how I remember well,
excitement sure, but also fear, it wasn’t hard to tell.
They all lined up so full of hope, each thought to win that race
or tie for first, or if not that, at least take second place.
Their parents watched from off the side, each cheering for their son,
and each boy hoped to show his folks that he would be the one.
The whistle blew and off they flew, like chariots of fire,
to win, to be the hero there, was each young boy’s desire.
One boy in particular, whose dad was in the crowd,
was running in the lead and thought “My dad will be so proud.”
But as he speeded down the field and crossed a shallow dip,
the little boy who thought he’d win, lost his step and slipped.
Trying hard to catch himself, his arms flew everyplace,
and midst the laughter of the crowd he fell flat on his face.
As he fell, his hope fell too; he couldn’t win it now.
Humiliated, he just wished to disappear somehow.
But as he fell his dad stood up and showed his anxious face,
which to the boy so clearly said, “Get up and win that race!”
He quickly rose, no damage done, behind a bit that’s all,
and ran with all his mind and might to make up for his fall.
So anxious to restore himself, to catch up and to win,
his mind went faster than his legs. He slipped and fell again.
He wished that he had quit before with only one disgrace.
“I’m hopeless as a runner now, I shouldn’t try to race.”
But through the laughing crowd he searched and found his father’s face
with a steady look that said again, “Get up and win that race!”
So he jumped up to try again, ten yards behind the last.
“If I’m to gain those yards,” he thought, “I’ve got to run real fast!”
Exceeding everything he had, he regained eight, then ten...
but trying hard to catch the lead, he slipped and fell again.
Defeat! He lay there silently. A tear dropped from his eye.
“There’s no sense running anymore! Three strikes I’m out! Why try?
I’ve lost, so what’s the use?” he thought. “I’ll live with my disgrace.”
But then he thought about his dad, who soon he’d have to face.
“Get up,” an echo sounded low, “you haven’t lost at all,
for all you have to do to win is rise each time you fall.
Get up!” the echo urged him on, “Get up and take your place!
You were not meant for failure here! Get up and win that race!”
So, up he rose to run once more, refusing to forfeit,
and he resolved that win or lose, at least he wouldn’t quit.
So far behind the others now, the most he’d ever been,
still he gave it all he had and ran like he could win.
Three times he’d fallen stumbling, three times he rose again.
Too far behind to hope to win, he still ran to the end.
They cheered another boy who crossed the line and won first place,
head high and proud and happy -- no falling, no disgrace.
But, when the fallen youngster crossed the line, in last place,
the crowd gave him a greater cheer for finishing the race.
And even though he came in last with head bowed low, unproud,
you would have thought he’d won the race, to listen to the crowd.
And to his dad he sadly said, “I didn’t do so well.”
“To me, you won,” his father said. “You rose each time you fell.”
And now when things seem dark and bleak and difficult to face,
the memory of that little boy helps me in my own race.
For all of life is like that race, with ups and downs and all.
And all you have to do to win is rise each time you fall.
And when depression and despair shout loudly in my face,
another voice within me says, “Get up and win that race!”
Study written March 18th/06
More verses added October 26th/08