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Incorruptible Crowns

Understanding Paul’s analogy of an Olympian competing for a crown.

In 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, the Apostle Paul compares a Christian’s spiritual walk to that of a runner in a race. He says to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (NIV).

The apostle here is almost certainly alluding to the so-called sacred games of the ancient Greeks, of which there were four. The two most celebrated of these, however, were the Olympic and Isthmian of which the Olympic took precedence.[1]

Interestingly, it was Corinth that hosted the Isthmian Games every two years and it occurred at least once during Paul’s stay (Acts 18:11,18).[2] Thus, to make his point to these Corinthian believers, Paul used imagery that, as residents of Corinth, they would’ve understood very well. As they full-well knew, runners who wanted to compete in these games had to go into very strict training and had to exercise great self-control as they trained. As a matter of fact, “Athletes who competed in the games in Olympia had to swear an oath confirming that that they had abstained from wine, meat, and sexual intercourse in the previous ten months.”[3] The first century Greek philosopher Epictetus beautifully illustrates the rigors of such training: “Would you be a victor in the Olympic games? So in good truth would I, for it is a glorious thing; but pray consider what must go before, and what may follow, and so proceed to the attempt. You must then live by rule, eat what will be disagreeable, refrain from delicacies; you must oblige yourself to constant exercises at the appointed hour, in heat and cold; you must abstain from wine and cold liquors; in a word, you must be as submissive to all the directions of your master as to those of a physician.[4]

This is the level of commitment that Paul expects both of himself and other Christians in their spiritual race in order that we too may receive the victor’s crown, which will be of much greater glory than the Greek crowns which were nothing more than chaplets (or wreathes) of leaves. Indeed, the Olympic crown was made of the leaves of the wild olive while the Isthmian crown was made of pine or withered celery.[5] Since the earliest of times, such chaplets were bestowed upon great conquerors of the battlefield. Thus, the Psalmist declares of the triumphant Messiah in Psalm 132:18: “Upon himself shall his crown flourish” (KJV). “The idea of a crown flourishing is very expressive when spoken of a leafy chaplet.” Actually, “[t]he crown of thorns which was placed on the Saviour’s head was a mockery of these wreaths of triumph, as well as of the golden crowns of kings.”[6] Nevertheless, Paul’s point is that just as an Olympian runs with the purpose of winning the prize, which is perishable, we also need to run with the goal of winning the heavenly crown which is imperishable. [7]

Ryan Hembree is a daily co-host, speaker, and writer of Bible Discovery. He also hosts a YouTube channel that shows the unity of the Bible and how science and Scripture fit together. Ryan also has an honorary Masters of Ministry in Creation Science from Phoenix University of Theology.

[1] James Midwinter Freeman, Hand-Book of Bible Manners and Customs, 864.—Temperance—Chaplets, 457.
[2] Craig S. Keener, NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, Note on 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.
[3] Eckhard J. Schnabel, NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible, Note on 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, 2066.
[4] From Enchiridion, Chapter 35, Quoted in James Midwinter Freeman, Handbook of Bible Manners and Customs, 864.—Temperance—Chaplets, 457.
[5] NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, Note on 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.
[6] James Midwinter Freeman, Hand-Book of Bible Manners and Customs, 864.—Temperance—Chaplets, 457.
[7] See also 2 Timothy 4:8, James 1:12, 1 Peter 5:4, and Revelation 2:10, 3:11.

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