Inside the Winner’s Circle

1 Corinthians 9:24-27
David R. Denny

ancient Greek boxer.

Ancient Greek boxer.

This morning Paul orders every one of you here in the Greek stadium to approach the starting line. (I say ORDER because the Greek word in verse 27 is a strong imperative–RUN!) τρέχετε …You’re all expected to compete. There are no exceptions. The Greek text says clearly PANTES—everyone runs. Paul not only expects you all to run, he expects you to compete at the highest level. For that was absolutely the Greek standard. You trained for months, watched your diet, abstained from all practices that would lessen your effectiveness. You came to Olympia ready to win.

Now I have a few simple questions that any spectator would want to ask as they watch you line up: These are yes/ no questions. (Index finger wiggle means yes--little finger wiggle means no. Everybody practice first. Hands low so nobody can see).

  1. Are you in top shape?
  2. Do you plan to win? Do you have a place on your wall to mount the winning wreath?       (Run that you may win the wreath).      
  1. Did you write your acceptance speech in advance? **In ancient Greece, the winner of the race was honored. He was allowed to erect a statue in his hometown and to write an account of his victory.

All right. Now total up your answers. If you wiggled all yesses then you’re a model for all us. Would all my yes people please stand?—Hmm. It looks like we’re all candidates for improvement. Understand one thing though—PAUL ANSWERED YES TO ALL OF THEM. He makes it clear in this provocative text that he is highly serious about his calling, his conditioning, his zeal and determination to win at any cost.

**The Air Force used to have an exercise plan called the 5 BX. It used 5 basic exercises to get fit. It is no longer used today but in my dad’s era it was big. You only had 11 minutes to finish them all. You started simply by doing some stretching. Then you did your situps, then some awful back extension by lying on your stomach and rocking up and down. I hated those. Then came the push ups and finally the running in place. No cheating here. You had to get your knees high. –When I was in high school and playing basketball, I used to try to do them all.

Our text today is Paul’s 5BX. It is a call to action, a call to evaluate your spiritual calling and goals. Accordlng to Paul, every Christian is to be in the winner’s circle. There’s no joking around with Paul. He’s intense. He means business.

*My high school BB coach was just like this. He was a short stumpy Methodist man who made it clear on the first day of practice that by golly—(he used other words)—we had by golly—(other words)—win all our games. If we didn’t by golly (other words)—he would by golly–get us by golly–good.

One game at half time we were losing. We were all sitting in the locker room wondering where the coach was. Then suddenly the coach entered kicking the door open with his foot. He stomped right over to some folding chairs near us and began throwing them all across the room. We were dodging chairs and saying prayers at the same time.   That’s intensity–That’s Paul in our text.

I remember after the season was over, a scheme developed in my mind about the coach. I was gong to go into his office and confront him! —It took a long time for me to get the my nerve up but the day came when I did it! I marched right in there and looked him in the eye and I asked him point blank–Coach–are you saved?– I was into soul winning then. It was the hardest thing I ever did.    He looked at me like I was a Martian. I expected chairs to start flying at any second. Then he started laughing uncontrollably. When he was finished, he wiped his eyes and looked at me and said, “Of course I’m saved. I’m a Methodist. Now BY GOLLY –git out of here.”

Paul expects everyone of you (especially if you’re a Cub’s fan) to be in the winner’s circle. So I want you step into that circle for a minute and let’s see what it feels like. Let’s examine the items in this haloed space. They come right out of the text.

Glance at your text one more time and see if you can identify three essentials for winning. What are they? If you have a pen, write them down or just remember them.

  1. Runner’s shoes. The first thing I see in the winner’s circle is a pair of worn out running shoes. **I was looking at an ancient statue of Hermes, dated 350 BC. He is the inventor of foot races. He sits in a reflective position fit and resting. On his feet are winged sandals, just little wisps of leather that barely cover his feet.

In the Christian life, every believer is a runner. Every winner’s circle has a pair of running shoes. For the believer, running is the symbol for our spiritual lives. Running implies spiritual fitness, dedication, discipline and purpose. You can’t be a serious runner without these qualities.

*Just before I left school on Friday, I slipped into the gym whre the coach had a class still going. About 6o kids, half girls, half boys. He barked orders and they obeyed. “Boys, sit! Girls run.”–And the boys sat without talking and the girls ran. He blew his whistle. “Girls, sit! Boys, run!” And they sat and they ran. Then he blew his whistle. “Everybody come to the center of the gym and sit. No talking.” And they did. Then he got after them a little. “Some of you wren’t really giving it your all. This leads to bad health. And that leads to heart attacks.” etc etc..

There’s the attitude Paul is looking for in each you. He wants to see that intense determination to achieve the spiritual goals God has for your life. He wants to see you lacing up your running shoes each morning, heading out to the track, striding toward the finish line with full intentions of winning the race.

**running in Dephi stadium—

  1. Boxing gloves. Step into Paul’s winner’s circle and you see his boxing gloves.   They’re blood spattered, and sweat stained. Once again they represent his life, his approach to the goals God set before him, his obedience to the calling God gave to him. Paul shows us his gloves. Can you show Paul your gloves?

πυκτεύω — 1 Occ. (box).

In the ancient world, boxing was a huge sport. It has a history that stretches back hundreds of years before Christ. In the original boxing matches two men would sit facing each and would beat each other with their fists until one of them was killed. —- But in later times boxers wore a form of gloves. They were called HIMANTES            These were thongs of ox-hide about 3-4 yards long that were wrapped around the hands and knuckles. The fingers were kept free. —There is a beautiful ancient bronze sculpture of a boxer sitting with his hands on his knees waiting for the match to begin. You can see the ox hide wrapped around his hands.

The rules of ancient boxing were simple: No finger gouging. No rings. No time limits. No weight classes. You were paired with an opponent by chance. You fought until you died or gave up by lifting a single finger.

Now let’s watch the great apostle Paul prepare for a bout. He strips down as was the Greek method. He wraps his hands carefully, methodically with the himantes—the leather strips. He faces the opponent. WHO WAS THE OPPONENT? HIMSELF!!

Paul fights himself. He says I buffet my body. hypōpiázō (/hypó, “under” and ōps, “eye”) – properly, to strike under the eye, i.e. giving someone “a black eye.”

This word is only used twice in the NT. It means to hit myself just below the eye. The Greek word for that very spot is OPS. It is the boxer’s favorite target.

Most of Paul’s battles in his Christian life were with himself. Isn’t that true for all of us? We might have our occasional battles with the world about us or someone in particular but our biggest enemy is usually ourselves.     (doulagōgéō (from /doúlos, “bond-slave” and /ágō, “to lead, bring along”) – properly, to lead as a captive.)   

**I’m not a great golfer but I follow the sport a little. And of course you can’t help but make a reference to Tiger. He wasn’t defeated by his opponents on the course. He lost to himself. Paul said, that he was not going to let that happen to him. So each day he boxed himself to knock out the enemy within. His biggest fear was that somehow he might find himself one day disqualified. (counterfeit coins)    (ἀδόκιμος, (δόκιμος) (from Euripides down), not standing the test, not approved; properly of metals and coin,…).

In the ancient games if someone cheated, the judges would come down and whip them publicly, fine them and then disqualify them. Paul feared that. And so when you step into Paul’s winner’s circle you see his shoes that represent his daily striving for the crown of victory and you see his gloves that he used for self-discipline).

  1. Wreath.

Now what’s the last thing you see in the winner’s circle? It is the prize—the imperishable wreath, the trophy for winning, for being the best. Paul says, when you run, run toward to the crown. When you box, box to win the crown.   (9:24—τὸ βραβεῖον;Only used twice–Means “umpire” or the arbiter of a sporting event. Then it came to mean “prize.” στέφανον

Paul kept this symbol of the prize before him at all times. Please take a moment to find a text. Look up Philippians 3:14. I press on toward the goal for the prize τὸ  βραβεῖον; of the UPWARD CALL OF GOD IN CHRIST JESUS.

The boxers and runners and javelin throwers and wrestlers and discus athletes all gave each contest their very best. They ran and boxed to win the wreath. But of course the olive wreath didn’t last long. The glory of the wreath was short lived. It was a treasure that faded away with time, like day lilies and roses in the fall air.

*A few years ago, a humble British laborer was out doing what he had done for 18 years. He had a bulky metal detector in his hand and he was walking over his field. His friends always mocked him because all he had ever found was a little scrap metal. Nothing more. But on this day as he unpacked his gear he repeated his little good luck mantra before he started: “Spirits of yesterday, take me where the gold is.”

That day he made one of the most important archaeological finds in British history. First he pulled one golden artifact out of the ground and then another and another. Before he was done he had filled box after box with 7th century Anglo-Saxon treasure worth millions today.

It is the ultimate prize for a treasure hunter.   But as great as this is, you won’t find anything like it in Pauls’ winner’s circle. The only treasure you’ll see there is the imperishable wreath, the never tarnished UPWARD CALL OF GOD.

What motivates you today? Is it a higher salary, a bigger house, a faster car? What get your blood pumping? Is it a big stock day, a huge promotion at work? Those things might have their place in the modern world but the Christian is to focus a different reality. We are to always be standing on our toes looking past these temporary wreaths toward the glories of heaven.


All right. What’s in the winner’s circle?

We have the runner’s shoes,

the boxer’s gloves

and the imperishable wreath.

I hope as you go about your duties this week you will repeat these three items to yourself. Visualize them in your mind. Let them guide you and motivate you to strive to the highest level for Christ.

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