To emphasize the importance of keeping in the race, Paul admonished: “Do you not know that the runners in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may attain it.”—1 Corinthians 9:24.
True, in the ancient games, only one could receive a prize. However, in the race for life, everyone is eligible for the prize. It is only necessary to stay the course to the finish! Happily, many have faithfully run the course to the end of their lives, as the apostle Paul did. And millions continue to run. Some, though, have failed to press forward or make advancement toward the finish line. Instead, they allowed other things to hinder them so that they either fell out of the race or became disqualified in some way. (Galatians 5:7) This should give all of us cause to examine how we are running in the race for life.
The question may be asked: What did Paul have in mind when he said that “only one receives the prize”? As noted earlier, he did not mean that among all of those who started out in the race for life, only one will receive the reward of everlasting life. Obviously that could not be the case, for time and again, he made it clear that it is God’s will that people of all sorts should be saved. (Romans 5:18; 1 Timothy 2:3, 4; 4:10; Titus 2:11) No, he was not saying that the race for life is a competition in which each participant tries to defeat all the others. The Corinthians knew only too well that that kind of competitive spirit existed among the contestants at their Isthmian Games, said to be even more prestigious at that time than the Olympic Games. What, then, did Paul have in mind?
In citing the illustration of the runner, Paul was primarily discussing his own prospects for salvation. In the preceding verses, he described how he had worked hard and exerted himself in many ways. (1 Corinthians 9:19-22) Then, in verse 23, he said: “But I do all things for the sake of the good news, that I may become a sharer of it with others.” He realized that his salvation was not guaranteed just because he was chosen to be an apostle or because he had spent many years preaching to others. In order to share in the blessings of the good news, he must continue to do everything within his power for the sake of the good news. He must run with full intention of winning, exerting himself just as hard as if he were running in a footrace in the Isthmian Games, where “only one receives the prize.”—1 Corinthians 9:24a.