When you read the apostle Paul’s letters, it’s clear that some of his favorite metaphors and analogies for the Christian life come from the realm of athletics. For example, in Philippians, he speaks of pressing on like a runner toward the goal of knowing Christ (3:14). Near the end of his life, he describes his ministry as one in which he “fought the good fight” and “finished the race” (2 Tim. 4:7). And in 1 Corinthians 9:25–27, Paul draws a parallel—one that is worth our time and attention—between the self-control and discipline needed for both athletic competition and the Christian life.
An Alarming Thought
In Paul’s mind, self-control and discipline are not optional; they are essential. “I discipline my body and keep it under control,” he writes, “lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). Paul recognizes that there is a real danger facing every Christian: the danger of disqualification.
This danger is an alarming thought. Paul says that it is indeed possible for us to run the race well for some time and yet to become disqualified. We might press on for a time but eventually fail to reach the prize of hearing our Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21, 23). We may compete but miss out on being rewarded “the crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 4:8). Simply put, it’s possible to preach salvation and show others the way to heaven yet never get there ourselves.
How can we guard against becoming disqualified? Considering Paul’s own life and lifestyle is helpful. He lived with a kind of holy fear. He was under no illusions about the danger of disqualification facing his ministry. Paul demonstrates that reverence, and not presumptuous confidence, is the best security against apostasy. In relationship to God, his perspective was one of holy faith. In relationship to himself, his perspective was one of holy fear.
It’s possible to preach salvation and show others the way to heaven yet never get there ourselves.
A Lesson from History
To flesh out his point on the danger of disqualification, Paul recounts the story of Israel in the Old Testament. He tells the Corinthians, “I do not want you to be unaware” (1 Cor. 10:1). In other words, he says, “I need you to be informed. Be alert. Learn from God’s people before you.” He then goes on to identify the shared privileges of God’s people, pointing out that all were under the cloud, all passed through the sea and were baptized, and all drank together. All of God’s people Israel shared in God’s spiritual blessings. “Nevertheless,” Paul explains, “with most of them God was not pleased” (1 Cor. 10:5). The people enjoyed God’s blessings in the wilderness years, but they abused those blessings.
The lesson for today is clear: we must understand that the enjoyment of spiritual privileges—baptism, Communion, fellowship, etc.—does not negate our need for spiritual watchfulness. Possession of spiritual privilege is no guarantee of immunity from divine judgment. We must be careful not to undo with our actions the truths we profess with our mouths. We must deal with the internal and not merely the external facets of our lives.
Paul wants us to learn from Israel’s bad examples. Our reading of their history should lead us away from sin and toward godliness. When we consider Israel as Paul did, we find that they displeased God in four ways.
We must be careful not to undo with our actions the truths we profess with our mouths
First, they committed idolatry (1 Cor. 10:7). Paul specifically has in mind the incident of the golden calf, citing Exodus 32:6. Second, Israel displeased God in their immorality (1 Cor. 10:8; Num. 25:1–9). Third, they tested God (1 Cor. 10:9; Num. 21:5). To test God is to push Him, determining to discover whether God will do what He promised to do. Rather than trust, Israel would repeatedly test God’s word. And finally, they grumbled against the Lord, leading to their destruction (1 Cor. 10:10).
Yet these things happened to Israel for, among other reasons, our instruction. They are negative examples, teaching us what not to do as we aim to live in a manner worthy of the Gospel.
An Important Warning
Paul then gets to the heart of the matter: “Therefore,” he warns, “let anyone who stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). Speaking to those who are self-deceived, those who think the bad examples from Israel’s history do not pertain to them, he addresses the issue of presumption—having an unrealistic confidence in one’s own spiritual fortitude—which is an issue that can tempt anyone. His words stand to this day as a warning against living the Christian life outwardly to convince those around us, but not in such a way as to convince God or even our own consciences.
Consider the seriousness of Communion, for example. God gives us Communion as an outward sign of His commitment to preserve us in His grace. But it is also possible for the believer, approaching the Table, to eat and drink judgment on himself (1 Cor. 11:29). In other words, we can participate in the externalities of the meal while never dealing with the internal realities—the condition of our hearts. For this reason, we should always examine ourselves and deal with our sin prior to participating in Communion (1 Cor. 11:28). We are not to have too high a view of ourselves at the Communion table. We are to be not presumptuous but humble, contrite, and penitent.
When such humility is our posture, we can see somebody who has fallen into sin and realize that we are a nanosecond away from the very same thing. We guard against presumption, understanding that we have no basis upon which to stand and take the high ground with another brother or sister in Christ, and we pay close attention to our own lives, lest we also fall into sin.
A Source of Encouragement
In light of Paul’s sober warnings and Israel’s bad examples in the past, we might be tempted to despair. But Paul closes out his point by offering a word of comfort and encouragement: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
Temptation is common, but God is faithful.
The danger of disqualification should produce not despair but humility, spurring us on to a deep reliance on God’s perfect faithfulness. Yes, temptation is common, but God is faithful. Rather than yield to sin, we are to flee from it (1 Cor. 10:14). And we can hold fast to the truth that when we are tempted to fall into sin, God will always give us a way out. Always.