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Going for the Gold Running the Race for Heaven's Crowns

I originally prepared this lesson for a home study group shortly after the 2000 Olympics, held in Sydney, Australia.  I later converted the notes into this article for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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Running the Race

For the past couple of weeks, the world’s focus has been on 29th Olympiad from Beijing, China.  Despite the deceptions by the Chinese government during the opening ceremonies, and the usual controversies with the judges, it generally has been fun to watch.  The networks seemed to do a better job this year also, actually showing some of the events rather than endless profiles of the participants.  That said, the highlight for me was the special feature by Mary Carillo on Eric Liddell, the Scottish missionary who was born in China and competed for Great Britain at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, France.  He is best remembered for the 100 meter event that he didn’t run, withdrawing because it would have required him to compete on Sunday, the Lord’s day.  He was able to switch events with teammate Harold Abrahams (who went on to win the 100 meters) and Eric won the 400 meters in world record time, a huge upset.  He ran the race clutching a sheet of paper that someone slipped into his hand at the start of the race which said “Those who honor me I will honor” (1Sam 2:30).  His Olympic triumph was portrayed in the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire.  At the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Scotsman Allan Wells became the first winner from Britain in the 100 meter dash since Abrahams in 1924.  When asked after the victory if he had run the race for Harold Abrahams, Wells replied, “No, this one was for Eric Liddell.”

Upon completion of the Olympics, Eric began his life's work as a missionary to China, following in his parents footsteps.  After the Japanese invaded China, and the British government strongly urged its citizens to leave, Eric elected to stay, but sent his wife and children back to safety.  Eric was imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp in 1943, where he developed a brain tumor that was inoperable under his current conditions.  In spite of tremendous pain, he maintained his faith and continued to be an inspiration for others before dying in January 1945 at the age of 43, shortly before the camp was liberated.  In 1991, a memorial headstone was erected by Edinburgh University at Liddell's previously unmarked grave in Weifang.  The stone’s inscription (from the book of Isaiah) read “They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary.”

Returning to the 29th Olympiad, with improved technology and training techniques, the athletes keep getting better and the world records continue to fall.  The training and preparation to compete becomes a full time endeavor.  The Apostle Paul was familiar with the Olympic Games, held every four years in Greece.  In a letter to the Corinthians, he wrote:

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 (1Cor 9:24-25).

Since this letter was written to the Corinthian Church, he was probably referring to the Isthmian games, held every five years in the city of Corinth.  For almost an entire year preceding the games, athletes trained and measured every decision (eating, sleeping, relationships etc) against a single goal, winning the prize.

We can just imagine that, for an athlete to make this kind of extreme sacrifice, the price must have been magnificent and of enormous value.  Actually, it was a garland wreath that died in about a month.  Now, if these athletes focused and dedicated their life to obtaining a perishable award, how much more should we run our race such that we may receive an eternal award?

We might wonder, why is it that more of us don’t run this race to win? I think that one of the primary reasons is that it takes discipline.  Simply going through the motions won’t get the job done (just as buying a jogging suit doesn’t make you a runner).  Another obstruction is procrastination.  “I should have… I’m going to… I need to…” won’t get us across the finish line.  Perhaps, the most common obstacle is that we get distracted by our job, hobbies and other temporal activities.  Paul refers to distractions and singleness of purpose in his letter to the Romans, Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us (Rom 12:1).  This doesn’t mean that we should quit our job or abandon our hobbies.  Our job, when done unto the Lord, becomes part of our worship, and Scripture speaks of our responsibility to take care of our families, our church and the less fortunate.  We were also made with a need for relaxation in order to refresh our minds and bodies.  God established the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship.  Paul is speaking of priorities.

There are many reasons for us to run this race, not the least of which is that God commands it, as we’ve seen above.  Another great reason is to do it in appreciation of what Jesus has done for us.  He came to earth, bore our sins and died for us.  The least we can do is to live for Him.  One final consideration for running a good race is that, ready or not, a payday is coming.

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Bema Seat / Judgment Seat of Christ

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2Cor 5:10).

The Judgment Seat of Christ is also known as the Bema Seat, a concept that comes from the ancient Olympics, where a judge would sit on the raised Bema Seat at the finish line.  The judge's purpose was to determine what position the runners finished, insure that all the proper rules were followed, and to give out the appropriate rewards.  At the 1988 Olympics, in one of the most publicized and dramatic races of the decade, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson beat American (and my fellow University of Houstonian) Carl Lewis in the 100 meter final in world record time.  Three days later, Johnson was striped of his medal after testing positive for steroids and the gold medal was awarded to Lewis.  So, we must not only be concerned with winning the race, but following the proper rules (as found in the Holy Scriptures).

While athletes are judged solely on their performance and conformance to the rules, Christians are additionally evaluated by the condition of our hearts.  For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart (1Sam 16:7).  At the Bema Seat, we’ll not only be judged on the faithfulness of our deeds, but on our words, thoughts, attitudes and motivations as well.  Our judge will be the omniscience (all knowing) Christ, so as Pastor Tony Evans would say, “shuckin” and “jivin” won’t work on that day.

Paul wrote that, at the Bema Seat, our work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light.  It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work.  If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.  If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames (1Cor 3:13-15).

The Bema Seat judgment is not to be confused with the Great White Throne judgment of Revelation 20, which is a judgment of non-believers prior to being cast into the lake of fire.  The Bema Seat (or Judgment Seat of Christ) will be for believers only, those whose eternal position in the Kingdom has already been secured.  This judgment will actually be more of an evaluation of how we lived our life here on earth, since there is no longer any condemnation for those in Christ (Rom 8:1).  Still, it will be either a day of loss or a day of triumph.  Our works will be tested by fire, and only those performed with the correct attitude in accordance with God’s will and in obedience to His Word, such as furthering the gospel, building up fellow believers, and showing benevolence toward our neighbors will survive.  All our other deeds will be consumed by the fire.  The Scriptures are clear that our faithfulness during our present life will affect the quality of our eternal life in heaven.  We’ll discuss both the White Throne and Bema Seat judgments in greater theological detail in other articles, so let’s move on to the rewards.

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The Crowns (Rewards)

We now see why we should run the race to win, but we might also ask, “What are these eternal crowns mentioned by Paul when he writes we do it to get a crown that will last forever" (1Cor 9:25).  There are two Greek words used for “crown” in the New Testament (NT) of the Bible.  The most common is stephanos, which Thayer’s Greek dictionary describes as "the wreath or garland which was given as a prize to victors in public games”.  The English word Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr, is also derived from this term.  The other word for crown, diadema, from which we get our English word diadem, is used to denote royalty and is found only in the Book of the Revelation.  The NT actually mentions a dozen or so crowns in all (for example, Jesus’ crown of thorns), but we’re only concerned here with the ones awarded to believers.

Incorruptible Crown

This first believer’s crown, to which we’ve previously referred, has been called the “incorruptible crown” or the “crown of mastery”.  As we’ve also noted, this crown will be given to one who competes in the race in a disciplined and godly manner.  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 (1Cor 9:24-25).  The Greek word translated “competes” is agonizomai, from which we derive the English word agonize.  This pictures a person straining every muscle to discipline his body in order to master his sinful nature.  Paul advised Timothy to train yourself to be godly.  For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come (1Tim 4:7-8).

Crown of Rejoicing

For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.  (1Th 2:19-20 ESV).

This crown of rejoicing, aka the “crown of boasting” is awarded for faithfulness in the work of evangelism for those making winning others to Christ a passion in their lives.  Someone once said that “the people we win to Christ will be our welcoming committee in heaven”.

Crown of Glory

Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.  And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away (1Pe 5:2-4).

The crown of glory will be given to those individuals who faithfully fulfill their calling as shepherds of the flock, those who lead and disciple others and help them grow to maturity in Christ.  Leading the flock also involves living a life that others will desire to follow.  I believe that this crown is not just limited to pastors and teachers, but is available to any Christian who faithfully ministers in this sphere of activity.

Crown of Righteousness

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2Tim 4:7-8).

This crown, described by Paul shortly before he was beheaded, is awarded for faithfulness in ministry in light of the promised “glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Many Christians don’t look forward to Christ’s inevitable return because they are not ready, not in the sense of concern for their salvation, but in the sense of the things that have been left undone.  When we are faithful, we can say without hesitation, “come anytime Lord Jesus”.  On the other hand, many Christians are so focused on His return that they neglect their present earthly duties (like the Thessalonians, for example).  Perhaps the best analogy I’ve heard on balancing our focus came from someone (whose name I can’t recall) comparing our earthly existence to a voyage on a ship.  This wise person stated that we should “prepare for a journey of a thousand years, but be prepared to abandon ship at any moment”.

Crown of Life (Martyr’s Crown)

Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life (Rev 10:2).

This final award is given for faithfulness in suffering to those who endure trials and persecution for the sake of Christ.  Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt 5:10-12).  Sometimes we feel all alone during hard times, but rest assured that your circumstances do not go unnoticed in heaven.  In addition, we have the indwelling of Holy Spirit to help us endure.

James, the brother of our Lord, wrote “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him (Jas 1:2-5).

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Going for the Gold

The great news is that these crowns are not just for the super saints and do not require any special theological knowledge.  We should strive to study our Bibles, since the more we know about God, the easier it is to please Him by discerning and doing His will.  Then, winning the crowns simply becomes a matter of being faithful to our calling.  If we yield our lives daily to the control of the Spirit of Christ, He will do the work through us and we get to collect the prize.

I’ve heard many people say, “I don’t care about the rewards, I just want to be a good servant”.  While this statement is usually humbly intended, it is not biblical.  The Scriptures encourage us to strive for these crowns, not so that we might boast of ourselves, but so we may boast in the Lord, then lay them at the feet of Jesus, the One who is truly worthy of them.

Paul writes from his prison cell toward the end of his life, Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Php 3:13-14).

Notice he says to forget what is behind and keep looking forward.  This does not mean to completely forget our past since we should learn from our mistakes, but to the extent possible, we should not allow our past to control our future.  Many people never get in the race because they think it’s too late for them, or they’ve done too many bad things in their life.  We can’t change our yesterdays, but we can let the Spirit control us today, which will lead to a new and better tomorrow.  Remember the parable of the workers in the field (Mt 20:1-16).  Don’t worry if you’re getting a late start.  God puts a premium on how you finish.  Get in the race and go for the gold!

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