Something never seen before!
It hadn’t been seen in modern competitive athletics before. So much money and prestige were at stake and future careers were being made and broken. The race was the 2016 Mexico triathlon. One of the runners saw an opponent struggling just ahead, near the finish line — he was seriously dehydrated and couldn’t complete the race. The runner could have run past him, winning a very important race and the rewards it would bring. But he stopped, pulled his opponent’s arm over his shoulder and propping him up, jogged with him to the finish, where he pushed him over the line ahead of himself.
Some people thought his gesture was madness, but others were inspired by the self-sacrifice. The two men at the heart of this extraordinary act were of course, the Brownlee brothers. They are two of the world’s top athletes and both are fiercely competitive. But Alistair, seeing his younger brother staggering all over the road, realised that his health and success in winning the world title were in jeopardy, so he ceased to be his opponent and tried to become his saviour.
Why am I highlighting this triathlon event? The Christian life of discipleship is described as ‘a race’ and normally, this is seen to echo the Greek Games, where individual athletes competed against each other. But when we look closely at the wider context of the passage about the race (1 Cor. 9:24-27), we see that the author is continually picking up on Old Testament themes, suggesting that the imagery wasn’t inspired by the Greek Games after all but by Old Testament pilgrimage, which is often spoken of as ‘a race’ (see Isa. 40:31).
‘Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.’ (1Cor. 9:24-27)
The runner’s identity
Normally this verse is understood to be about Paul, urging the Corinthian believers to try harder to win the race. Such an understanding presents the Christian life as a competition — competing with other believers to be ‘the best’, making it a very self-centred illustration. But Paul regularly uses the imagery of a man to represent a whole community (see Rom. 5:12-21; 7:24-25). He speaks in the Corinthian letters of two communities (1 Cor. 4; 2 Cor. 10-11; 13:1-10). One follows the false teachers, the ‘super apostles’, who promise their followers quick and easy access to the heavenly Jerusalem. These are full of self-confidence and assert their superiority over Paul and the rest of the Corinthian church. The other community follows Paul and his message of the cross and the discipleship that it calls for. With this reading, the two runners are the representatives of the opposing communities. Only one is going to win the race and receive the prize. ‘He’ (rather, they) will be the ones who have stayed faithful to their Lord and who have obeyed His call to take up their cross and follow Him.
Indeed, the likelihood that Paul is using this Old Testament discipleship/pilgrimage/ race imagery is seen by the fact that, in the following chapter, he warns the Corinthians, saying:
‘For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.’ (1Cor. 10:1)
This gives better meaning to the race imagery of 1 Corinthians 9:27 and leads to a beautiful picture of Christian discipleship. You see, in the Old Testament, the race was all about the pilgrim community striving to complete her journey. She’d been in exile in Babylon and the ransomed pilgrims were now returning to Jerusalem to appear before God. But their journey was only completed when the weakest pilgrim had entered the city. The New Testament writers are taking up the same imagery — the Christian race is all about the Church, not the individual. It is about the Church (worldwide, national and local) striving to complete her pilgrimage/race to appear before God in the Heavenly Zion. And we, if we’re following Christ, are privileged to be counted among her pilgrims!
Significance of a corporate reading
If discipleship is corporate as the Old and New Testaments teach, what practical response should our Christian communities be making today? I make two suggestions, both of which find their origins in Old Testament pilgrim passages.
Firstly, the pilgrim community was to look out for the weak, feeble and anxious, so that they could be helped and encouraged in their faith (Is. 35:3-10). And the results were amazing! Paul urges the Ephesian church to care similarly for the ‘weak’ in its fellowship so that the whole community matures, built up ‘in love’ (Rom. 14:13-15:7; Eph. 4:11-16). So, New Testament discipleship is about caring for the Body — the community that Christ died to redeem to be His Bride. We are to be giving and receiving within the family of God, as the New Testament makes clear. Like Alistair Brownlee, we are to prefer one another above ourselves and give mutual care, support and encouragement whenever we see another believer in need. But, of course, Alistair’s example is nothing compared to what Christ did in laying down his life for those who were his enemies!
Secondly, the pilgrims were not to be silent as they journeyed but were to invite the nations to join them in their pilgrimage to Zion and their worship of God there (Is. 52:7-10). Paul takes the same verse up in Romans 10:12-15 to speak about the church’s responsibility to make known the good news about Jesus. The whole community in which a local church is situated should be continuously hearing the message that God wants men, women, boys and girls to be part of His saved people in heaven.
The outworking of corporate discipleship will show itself in many caring and evangelistic ministries within the church and the local community — and all in the context of a teaching ministry that continually exhorts the congregation to be active disciples of Christ. When this is happening, unbelievers will look on and say, ‘See how they love one another,’ and the Lord will look on with joy at what His people have become and aspire to be.