by Bible Study Tools | "They do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible."—! Cor. ix. 25. (biblestudytools.com)
The imagery which the Apostle employs here is drawn from objects very familiar to the Corinthian Christians. A set of the most illustrious of the games of Greece was celebrated every third year within sight of their city. Every one of them had no doubt seen the stadium, or racecourse, of which he speaks in the previous verse, with its white marble seats crowded with eager spectators. They had all witnessed the racers straining every muscle to be first at the goal; and had marked the contrast between the many who failed, and slunk unnoticed into the crowd, and the one victor, received with a roar of welcoming applause. They knew the severe and long-protracted discipline of abstinence and exercise which was needful to give even a chance of success, and they understood what was the prize of all this effort—a twist of pine-leaves from the grove round the temple of the god. So all these points the Apostle seizes in order to enforce the lesson of self-denial which he has been avowing as the law of his own life, and desires to press upon his brethren of Corinth. For that purpose he suggests a parallel and a contrast. The aims are wonderfully unlike, but the methods are identical. What were all the discipline and toil and pains of the racer for? A garland that would wither before the brows had become accustomed to it. "They do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible." And yet their effort for an unworthy end is worthy to be our pattern and our stimulus for the loftiest end that men can set before them. So this poor runner is both a beacon and an example—a beacon in regard of what he chooses for his• object; an example in regard of the noble and the wise way by which he pursues it. We have, then, here a double contrast—the world's sad folly in its aims, and noble wisdom in its methods, and the Christian's wisdom in hi& aims, and alas! too often folly in his means. "They do it to obtain a corruptible crown." Do we do it to obtain an incorruptible?
I.—Here we get, in a symbolical and picturesque fashion, the preaching of the world's sad folly in its ordinary aims.
The wreath of oak, or ivy, or laurel, or parsley, or vine which was twined round the brows of the victors in the various games of Greece was, of course, not what he ran for. It was only a symbol, and its entirely valueless character made it all the more valuable. Far better that it should be a twist of greenery that would soon fade, than silver cups or anything of material worth. For it expressed simply honour, pre-eminence, the joy of success, reputation. In front of the temple that presided over the games with which the Corinthians were familiar, was a long avenue,, on either side of which stood ranged in order the white marble portrait-statues of the victors; and the hope that flushed many a man's face was that his image, with his name on its pedestal, should stand there. And where ar& they all? Their names forgotten, the ma•.•ble likenesses gone, buried beneath the green-sward, over which the shepherd to-day pastures his quiet flocks.
"So passeth, in the passing of a day,
Of mortal life, the leaf, the bud, the flower."
And all our pursuits, unless they be linked consciously and by repeated effort with eternity and with God, are as evanescent and as disproportioned to the magnitude and the capacities of us, the doers of them, as was the wreath for which months of discipline, and moments of almost superhuman effort, were considered but a small price to• pay.
Oh, dear friends, surely I need not press upon you this lesson, that it is folly for men to take as the object of their lives and the aim of their efforts, the things that are• shorter lived than the men that work for them. Surely,, surely, it is folly that we should lavish our energies and render our hearts unto that which makes for itself wings and passes away. Business, providing for a family, the acquisition of some more or less modest competency, these• are the things that necessarily demand a great deal of your attention and interest. You may so use them as that, whilst they are the nearer aims, the remoter aims of growing like your Master and fit for the inheritance may be reached through them all, and then they are blessed. Or you may so use them as that you build up of your earthly duties a thick, opaque barrier between you and your eternal wealth. In the one case you are wise, in the other case your epitaph will be "Thou fool!"
Do any of you remember the homely words in which a poet has put the lesson for us: "What good came of it at last ?" asks the little child, when the old man is telling him of the great victory. "What good came of it at last ?"• That is the question that shivers into insignificance, and convicts of something not much different from insanity,. much of all our lives, and the whole of some of our lives. "They do it to obtain a corruptible crown,"—two pennyworth of parsley twisted into a wreath that will be brown to-morrow morning. It is a symbol of what some of you are living for.
II.—Now, in the next place, take the other side of that contrast, and consider the Christian's wisdom in his aim.
"But we an incorruptible," says Paul. Of course, the crown that is spoken about here is not the kingly crown, but the garland of the victorious athlete. It is interesting to notice the various instances of the employment of this figure in the New Testament, and the various aspects of the future blessedness which are represented by it.
For example, the same Apostle tells us, in almost the last words of his which have been left to us :—•'Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness.." That there he is thinking of the crown of the victorious wrestler, coming wearied and yet conqueror out of the arena, is clear from the previous words, " I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course ;" where both the pugilistic contest and the race are applied as emblems of Paul's career. Then again we read in the Epistle of James :—" Blessed is the man that endureth temptation, for when he is tried he shall receive the crown of life which the Lord hath promised." Then again we read in one of Peter's letters, that the elders who do their work faithfully and manfully shall receive at last from the Chief Shepherd "a crown of glory which fadeth not away." And then we read in John's Revelation, in the message to the persecuted Church at Smyrna, "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life."
Possibly there may be a reference to the kingly crown in this promise from the Apocalypse, as royal dignities are very prominent in the promises of that book, and those who wear the crowns are, in another of its visions, seated on thrones. If so, there will be a threefold allusion in the emblem. It will stand for a symbol of dominion, of victory, and of festivity. It is the crown of the king, or the wreath of the victor, or the garlands on the temples of the guests at the feast. It is a crown of life that is, it consists of life. The true life of the spirit which partakes of the perfect glorified immortal life of Jesus is the crown. It is a crown consisting of glory. The radiant lustre of a manifestly God-glorified spirit is the crown. The garland that encircles the calm brows of those who sit at the feast is no mere external adornment, but the lustre of a perfect character which is the outcome of a Christ-given life. It is the crown of righteousness, that is to say, the crown which is, and can be given only to righteousness. Only pure brows can wear it. It would burn like a circlet of fire if it were placed on other heads. Righteousness is the condition of obtaining it. The condition is further expressed in other forms in the other passages quoted, according to which, those " who love His appearing," or those who "endure temptation" and "love Him," or those who do the task of their calling in the Church, or those who are "faithful unto death," receive the crown, that is to say—the fundamental condition is love to Christ, that love which is the effect of faith and leads to loving His appearing, and the subsidiary conditions which follow on that love are faithful endurance, patient service, and strenuous effort in the Christian cause. They who possess these graces shall at the last receive, as the prophet nas it, "a garland for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness." And these, thus attired and anointed and crowned for the banquet, are led in to sit for ever at the marriage-supper of the Lamb.
This, then, brethren, is the aim which the Apostle would propose, and which he more than proposes, which he asserts to be as a matter of fact, the aim of every person that has the right to call himself a Christian. Now, there is a sharp test for you. "They do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we "What is to be filled in? We
*' do the same thing" to obtain an incorruptible crown. Is that your aim, Christian people? Do you live to win the laurel wreath of the victor, and that your brows may be twined with the garland of the feast? Have you triumphed over the nearer and lower objects, and are you living for the remoter and the nobler? If you are not, what business have you to call yourself a Christian? Men are classified by their aims in life. This is the description of Christ's followers: "We do it to obtain an incorruptible." Does that far-off wreath, extended from the hand •of the Judge Who sits at the winning-post, draw your eyes? Does it mold your life? Do you shape your conduct in such a fashion as to secure it? Does it gleam before you with a brightness that makes all other and nearer objects insignificant and pale? Put the questions to yourselves. If you can answer them in the affirmative you are a happy man.
And more than that, if you can thus answer, if it is true about you that you do own this as your formative motive— "" to obtain an incorruptible,"—then all these nearer object, will become even more blessed, and your whole life nobler than it otherwise would be.
The green of the lower slopes of the Alps never looks so vivid, their flowers never so lovely or so bright as when the eye rises from the grass to the snow, and from the flowers to the glaciers. And so all the lower reaches and levels of life look fairer, brighter, and the flowerets, that His providence sheds along across the grass like a smiles look the brighter and smell the sweeter because our eyes pass beyond them, and fix on the great white Throne that towers above them all. If you want life to be blessed and •noble, subordinate the present to the future, the material to the spiritual, all the corruptible crowns to the crown incorruptible. For the remoter our object the nobler our lives.
III.—And now again, passing by much that I wanted to say about this matter, let us turn to the other side of the double contrast that is here. Look at the world's noble •wisdom in the choice of its means.
This poor racer, of whom my text speaks, had ten months of hard abstinence and exercise before there was even a chance for him to succeed in the conflict. And then there was a short spurt of tremendous effort and expenditure of energy before he came in at the goal. These things, both of them, self-denial habitually, and spurts of energy up to the very edge of physical endurance—are conditions of success in the world, and they are both of them noble and beautiful. No matter for what the man is doing it, however low may be the aim, the act of self denial and the fact of effort are always better than the rust of self-indulgence and of languid indolence. It ia better for him to be braced into self-control, and stirred into energetic activity, than to be rotting like a fat weed in the pestilential marshes of self-indulgence, and losing all pith and manhood in the languid dissolution of indolence.
And so, following out the Apostle's lead here, one cannot but look with admiration, and with a recognition of the beauty and the nobleness of the spectacle, at a great deal of the toil and effort that the world puts forth, even for its own shabby ends. Why, a man will spend twenty times as long in making himself a good conjurer, who can balance feathers and twirl plates upon a table, as some of us ever spent in trying to make ourselves good Christians. The hard toil that all these people who contribute to the public amusement go through in order to secure eminence in their profession, ought to bring the blush of shame to the cheek of a great many of us. The world teaches us a lesson, as Paul set the lesson of these Corinthian races before Corinthian Christians. Think of the months of abstinence that any athlete, or horse-jockey, or pedestrian will go through here in England, and set by the side of that the sort of easy, languid, half-and-half pursuit of their great aim which characterizes, alas! such a melancholy number of people that profess and call themselves Christians.
IV.—That brings me to the last side of the contrast here; and that is the folly of so many professing Christians in their way of pursuing their aims.
A languid runner had no chance, and he knew it. The phrase was almost a contradiction in terms. A racer that would not go into training would lose his breath in the first five minutes, and might as well drop out of the race. What about a languid Christian? Is that a more consistent idea? What about a man that sets out on the Divine life, and exercises no self-restraint or discipline over himself? Will he get on any better? If I let my desire and affections go flowing vagrantly over the whole low plain of material things they will be like a river that is lost in the swamp; there will not be force enough left in the channel to make a scour and to run, and the stream will never get to the ocean. If I set out on the race without having girt up my loins by honest, resolute self restraint, self-denial, and self-crucifixion when need be, what can I expect but that before I have run half-a-dozen yards my ungirt robes will trip me up or get caught in the thorns and keep me back? My brother! No Christian progress is possible to-day, or ever was, or ever will be except on the old-fashioned conditions :—" Take up your cross, and deny yourself, and then come after Me." Learn from the world this lesson, that if a man wants to
succeed in any course He must shut out other, even legitimate ones. And do you put the lesson in practice in reference to your Christian life.
And then further, the runner that did not put all his powers into the five minutes of his race had no chance of coming in at the goal. And there is no different law in regard to Christian people. Up to the very edge of the capacity must be the effort. A languid Christian who does not strive with all his powers to live soberly, righteously, godly, and that with increasing completeness, will never make anything worth the making of his Christian career. It will be as in the old story,—the golden apple flung down before the racer will slacken his footsteps, and he will fall behind in the race. You must put all your strength into the work if you mean to run the race that is set before you, and to come at last to the goal.
God be thanked! We are crowned not because we are good but because Christ died. But the teaching of my text, that a Christian man must labour to win the prize, is by no means contradictory to, but complementary and confirmatory of the earlier truth, that a Christian man is crowned, as he is accepted, "not for works of righteousness which he hath done," but out of God's infinite mercy in Jesus Christ. Do not you pervert, as some are tempted to do, the great truth, that we are saved by Christ's death, .and that Heaven is all a free gift from God, into the great falsehood that an idle Christian can excuse himself for his indolence by pleading his "faith," or can be crowned, "unless he strive according to the laws" of the arena; of which the first is this:
—" Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved "; and the second is
—" Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling."