Exposition of 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 The importance of self-control

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

24 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. 25 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. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

In the final section of chapter 9, Paul uses a series of metaphors whose unifying connection is the Isthmian Games held every two years near Corinth. Only the Olympic Games were considered more important. The first metaphor is the race (verse 24a) which we should understand is a reference to life in a competitive world, whether in ancient Corinth or our own locale.

The second metaphor is the prize a (verse 24b) which probably relates to the glory or honor earned by the victor since the ancient prize was a wreath of plant material worn on the head. Paul commands the Corinthians to run to win the prize (verse 24b). Since the culture encouraged and rewarded competition, this was likely welcomed by the Corinthian believers.

In 1 Cor. 9:25, Paul begins to turn up the heat. It turns out that the metaphors of the race and the prize have a significant twist. The non-Christians in Corinth (they) are running for a prize that perishes, but the Christians (we) are running for an imperishable prize. But Anthony Thiselton identifies the most critical issue of this section:

Can the Corinthians, then, not exercise due egkrateia, self-control or abstinence, when what is at stake is not a garland made from vegetation, or even the acclaim of the crowd, but the brother or sister for whom Christ died (1 Cor. 8:11)? This verse does not imply a theology of Christian struggle, other than the struggle for self-mastery to forego indulgence of rights.[1]

Unless we as Christians understand our identity as one of union with Christ crucified, freedom can lead to self-indulgence through overemphasis on rights; what is required instead is self-control guided by love for our fellow believers.

Once again Paul uses himself as an example in closing his argument (1 Cor. 9:26-27). For the most part Paul speaks negatively about what he does not do; we can probably assume that he does this because what Paul does not do is exactly what the self-identified strong believers in Corinth, with their alleged wisdom and maturity, are actually doing. They are like a runner who is running out of his lane or a boxer who hits only air (verse 26).

Paul speaks positively about his own approach (verse 27a), but the interpretation demands close attention. Paul is speaking in metaphors in verse 27. That being the case, we have to figure out what the verb translated strike a blow (NIV) means as well as what body means.

The disputed verb is the Greek hypopiazo, which literally means to give a black eye and figuratively means to put under strict discipline or treat roughly. English translations divide between these two meanings with NIV and CEB preferring the literal meaning and ESV, NET, NLT, HCSB and NRSV choosing the figurative meaning. We join Thiselton[2], Gordon Fee[3] and David Garland[4] in preferring the figurative meaning. Paul is using the boxing metaphor to speak about the strict self-control he imposes on himself in preaching the gospel.

The Greek word for body (NIV) is soma. Fee explains what Paul means by soma in this context: He hardly intends his physical body as such to be the opponent he must subdue in order to gain the prize. He uses body because of the metaphor; what he almost certainly intends by it is myself . . . but only as [his body] is the vehicle of his present earthly life.[5]

Thiselton also sees the body as the vehicle through which our earthly life is lived, so he translates 1 Cor. 9:27 by saying, My day-to-day life as a whole I treat roughly, and make it strictly serve my purposes, lest, after preaching to others, I find myself not proven to stand the test.[6]

In the final analysis, the Holy Spirit is the one who makes self-control possible as the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23), but he does not force it on us. Grace works through love, not compulsion.

Copyright 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 711.

[2] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 715.

[3] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 439.

[4] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 442.

[5] Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 439.

[6] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 708.