Crossing the Finish Line
For me, the image of crossing the finish line is vivid. Throughout my childhood, into high school and some in college I swam competitively. The goal was to win the race, to cross the finish line first. However, in the race, there is only one winner – only one person gets the trophy. If we desire to win the race, to claim the prize, we must undergo training. Without any training, it would be difficult to compete in a race finish let alone win.
Paul uses the image of running and finishing the race to illustrate the importance of not only competing but finishing as well, “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.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25)
Paul makes his meaning clear with a rhetorical question, “If we will go into strict training in order to win a ribbon that will soon be forgotten should we not take our training in life even more seriously?” We are to run the race with our eyes fixed on the prize of eternal life. But, “How do we go into strict training to gain the crown of eternal life?” Our culture’s entrenchment in religion creates confusion because the right answer is not found in more religion but in greater faith.
Webster defines religion as, “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” Paul’s hope was found in “keeping the faith” not in keeping religious rules and duties. Religious systems will naturally downplay faith. Religion provides us with a set of rules to be followed rather than a faith that sustains us and helps us to withstand the trials that come. Those who approach faith as an institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices will not finish well. Why not? Because the system cannot offer them the certain hope that comes through Christ.
Towards the end of Paul’s life, he answers, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7) I have been thinking about these things recently as I have been caring for those nearing the finish line of their life. What words of hope can we offer them? Is it in the good they have done? Or in their faithfulness to their church? These may be wonderful, but they do not offer us the hope we need. The hope we need comes from Christ who promises those who believe the crown of eternal life purchased for us by His shed blood on the cross.
Many approach life like the hare in the story of the tortoise and the hare. Because the hare assumed his win was guaranteed, he takes his eyes off the goal of finishing. Meanwhile the tortoise fixed his eyes on the goal to not only finishing the race, but winning it. The religious, like the hare, trust in their own righteousness rather than in Christ alone.
Trusting in Christ alone doesn’t mean that there will not be sorrow or pain in this life, but it does mean that we can have a sure and real hope in the face of death. Consider what we can learn from Paul about his own view of life and death, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Philippians 1:21-24)
It isn’t easy to walk with those we love who are facing death, but when we are resting in Christ, we can face death with hope. Having a hope is rooted in the unchanging promises of God gives us something greater than wishful thinking. Our hope rests in the gospel; in how the unrighteous are made righteous when they place their faith in Christ’s death and resurrection for sins. Therefore, in this life we are to undergo strict training by fixing our eyes on Jesus, resting in the finished work on the cross and crossing the finish line to claim the prize of eternal life.