Did you know that, if you are a believer in Christ, you are in a race? That’s right, you are a spiritual athlete, serving on Jesus’ team and competing in a heavenly race! Sadly, many Christians think that salvation is the end, or culmination, of their spiritual journey. They erroneously believe that salvation represents their spiritual finish line – the reward being the proverbial nine-inches of cloud and a golden harp!
The truth is that salvation is only the beginning – the spiritual starting line for the real spiritual race! Salvation is simply the entrance requirement that enables us to compete on the track and in the ring! The goal of every Christian should be to run their spiritual race to win – to be disciples worthy of obtaining the prize. The apostle Paul consistently and emphatically taught this central Christian truth throughout his New Testament letters, including in his letter to the believers at Corinth:
“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
The Judgment Seat of Christ
The Apostle Paul frequently turned to sports to illustrate the truths declared in God’s Word. In this case, Paul turned to the “Super Bowl” of his day – the Olympics – to relate God’s truth about discipleship to the folks.
In ancient times, the world’s greatest athletes would come from near and far to compete against one another for glory in Olympic competitions held in Athens, Greece. The massive arena that hosted the popular event surrounded the track, with ample seating for thousands of adoring fans to sit and enjoy the contests as they boisterously cheered-on their favorites – just as any good sports fan does today.
However, there was one seat that was elevated above all the rest. From that seat of honor and authority, the official judge of the competition had an unobstructed view from which to observe the athletes as they competed in the races. At the conclusion of the event, all the competitors would appear before this judge at this judgment seat (bema in Greek). There, the winners would receive their reward – usually a crown made of an oak leaf cluster, which they would proudly wear around their head. Today, this place is known as the medal podium, where the top athletes are rewarded with gold, silver and bronze medals.
The Nature and Reality of Our Spiritual Race
Even more relevant to his readers in Corinth, Paul was directly eluding to the Isthmian Games, which were held in the city. This major athletic event was part of the Olympic “cycle,” held the year before and the year after every Olympics. The Isthmian Games were actually even more popular with the folks than the Olympic Games. Due to its convenient location and accessibility, far more people travelled to Corinth to attend the Isthmian Games than made the journey to Athens to attend the Olympics. In addition to its entertaining festivals, the Isthmian Games featured two highly popular events – the dolichos and the pankration.
The dolichos was an endurance race that utilized a course of varying distances, normally ranging between 2,000 to 4,000 meters. Athletes endured ten months of intense, mandatory training to earn the privilege of competing in the race and, while many would compete, only one runner would ultimately win the prize.
The pankration was a no-holds-barred, martial arts competition that blended boxing and wrestling. The event boasted no rules except the prohibition against gouging the opponent’s eyes out! This was the forerunner of today’s mixed martial arts sports, including the ever popular Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
Paul drew upon both of these well-known Olympic traditions in order to illustrate an essential truth to believers: We are also engaged in a “race” and a “fight” and our “Judge” is sitting on high, surveying and evaluating our performance! Just as those ancient athletes did, we will also all appear before a judgment seat – the judgment (or bema) seat of Christ. It is there that Christ, the Great Judge, will evaluate our performance and reward those who are worthy. However, unlike the perishable rewards of man, Christ’s rewards will be imperishable!
This glorious, coming event will focus on rewarding the good and faithful disciples of Christ. It is not a place of judgment based upon salvation from sin. This appearance before Christ will take place at the bema seat and not at the Great White Throne, where the unsaved will be judged and sentenced to an eternity apart from God in hell. What will be judged here is whether or not each believer is worthy of reward – not whether they are worthy of eternal life. The believer already has eternal life (salvation), received at the moment they placed their faith in Christ.
Paul makes it clear that all believers will appear before Christ to give an accounting for their lives, writing, “For we [believers] must all appear before the judgment seat [bema] of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)
The Consequences of Our Spiritual Race
While believers will not receive punishment for their sins at the judgment seat, this does not mean that the unfaithful believer will not suffer tremendous loss! Paul continues, “Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men…” (2 Corinthians 5:11)
Believers should tremble at that fact that they will stand before Christ with their hearts and minds exposed, including all hidden motives. Every moment of believer’s life should be lived in light of this knowledge, focused on whether they will be approved by Jesus or ashamed at their performance in the race! It was this very knowledge that motivated Paul to persuade others to run their race to win.
Paul reinforced this truth when he wrote, “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day [the appearance of believers before the judgment seat of Christ] will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved [again, the believer’s salvation is eternally secure], yet so as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:9-15)
Running Your Spiritual Race to Win
Far too many Christians are living as though they will never have to stand before Christ and give an accounting for their life. Don’t make that mistake! There will be temporary (though significant) consequences for those believers who fail to run their race faithfully. Don’t forfeit your reward and your inheritance as a potential co-heir with Christ! Strive to hear Christ say, “Well done my good and faithful servant,” rather than the dreaded words “Depart from Me you wicked and lazy servant!” (Matthew 25:26)
Don’t let your performance in the race exempt you from participation in the Wedding Feast, having been “cast into the darkness outside the festivities” to “weep and gnash your teeth” in sorrow and shame! (Matthew 25:30)
The reward, or loss of reward, that awaits each believer will be great…Run your race to win!
Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.