The second metaphor is that of a disciplined athlete. Paul draws his example from the popular Olympian and Isthmian Games. Winners were held in high regard because their victory was the result of hard and disciplined training. The Christian life is like an athletic race or wrestling match (1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7–8; 1 Corinthians 9:24–27; Philippians 3:13–14; Hebrews 12:1). It requires the right motive, habits, and values.
There is no place for half-hearted attempts and incomplete races
Christians must run the race in order to win (1 Corinthians 9:24). There is no point in competing if all they can produce is a half-hearted attempt. Christians must be serious about following Christ and becoming holy through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. The standards set by Jesus are exacting—we cannot be His disciples if we are not willing to give Him everything (Luke 14:26–27, 33). We are to spare no effort in pursuing Christ, so that we can grow in our knowledge of Him and not be ineffective and unproductive (2 Peter 1:5–8). Good athletes run to win and to give their best.
Athletes of Christ must also train hard (1 Corinthians 9:25). They must have disciplined habits. They do not take holidays from training. Paul mentions the fact that no athlete in the Games would be able to win the victor’s crown “except by competing according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5). Scholars believe that this could refer to the rule in the Greek Games that all athletes must have trained for 10 months to qualify as participants. There were no shortcuts. Disciplined training was necessary to run the race.
The rules could also refer to the kind that is necessary in sports. Breaking such rules would bring disqualification. Therefore, the athlete must keep to the rules of the sport. For the Christian, this means that the Christian life cannot be lived without obeying God’s rules. Christian ministry must also be conducted according to divine rules and principles.
In summary, like the highly disciplined athlete, the Christian should have the proper motive (an all-out desire to win the race), habits (of disciplined training and practice), and value system (high regard for God’s laws and rules, and faithful obedience to them). There is no place for half-hearted attempts and incomplete races.