Are You Playing By The Rules?

Not every runner who crosses the finish line first actually claims the prize.

Rosie Ruiz was the first woman to cross the finish line at the 1980 Boston Marathon. Her recorded time was 2:31:56, which then was the fastest time ever for a female runner at the Boston Marathon and more significantly, the third fastest time ever for any female marathoner.

But the problem was Rosie did not actually run a marathon. Soon after she finished, questions were raised as she did not appear to be out of breath or dripping with sweat. She was not able to answer standard questions that experienced runners would be able to answer. An investigation later revealed she had not run 26.2 miles but only half a mile as she came out of the crowd near the finish line unbeknownst to anyone. Rosie was obviously disqualified and would go down as a strange footnote in the history of the Boston Marathon.

Crossing the finish line alone isn’t the goal. Crossing the finish line within the rules is what assures true victory. Many athletes have experienced the shame of having a victory or record taken away because they did not play by the rules.

The apostle Paul uses the analogy of playing within the rules to make a point that there is a right way that we are to live as Christians which centers around the work of the Gospel. In 2 Timothy 2:3 the apostle Paul writes to Timothy and says: “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” Paul is reminding Timothy that the work of the Gospel that we have been called into involves a spiritual battle that we fight as Christian soldiers. And then in the next verse Paul says that an active duty soldier does not get distracted by civilian affairs but stays committed to the task he has been given. Paul is saying, “Don’t get distracted by the affairs of the world but stay focused on the task (the work of the Gospel).”

And then Paul changes the analogy to an athlete and writes, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”

What is Paul saying?

Well, just as there is a certain way that a soldier lives (focused on his task), there is a way that an athlete competes (according to the rules of the games) that allows him to truly win the prize.

When Rosie crossed the finished line in Boston, she looked liked a runner. She was on the right course. She was wearing a runner’s bib with a registered number. She did officially belong in that race. The problem was she was not running according to the rules of the race.

There are many Christians who belong in the race but are not running the race according the rules of the race. They have placed their faith in Jesus Christ. They have a salvation that is secured. They are part of the family of God. But they are not living according to how Christ called them to live. Christ has called us into His work, the work of the Gospel. He has called us to make known the way of salvation to those who do not know Him. But many have not entered into this work. They are not running the race according to the rules of the race, and when they get to the finish line they will not get the prize. We are not talking about the prize of salvation but the reward for those who endured suffering for sake of the Gospel as they persevered in the work of the Gospel.

Timothy was in a place where the work of the Gospel was hard. It was discouraging. And there was the temptation to give up. Paul was reminding him that this work that we are called to do will be hard. And it is a work that will require suffering. But don’t give up. Don’t get distracted. This is the right battle and this is the right race. And if we race according to the rules, there is a heavenly prize awaiting us.

For the church, the difficulty of the work of the Gospel has caused many churches and many Christians to no longer live within the call of Christ. They have given up the difficult work of the Gospel for a more comfortable life of Christian gathering. And the result is, many are no longer running the race according to the rules of the race. We can have salvation in Christ, we can regularly go to church and serve in ministries and not be living life for the sake of the Gospel. We may be involved in Christian activities but not in the work of the Gospel.

And the challenge is many do not even know that they are not running by the rules because when everyone else is running outside the rules it is difficult to even know what the rules are.

This is why we need the words of Paul that call us back onto the battlefield and back into running the right race in the right way. Verses 3-5 should cause us to ask the questions, “Am I participating in the work of the Gospel or am I simply involved in church activities? Am I actively engaged in the spiritual battle for the souls of men or have I settled for the leisurely gathering of church ministry?”

Paul used battlefield and race analogies to describe his life and ministry. In 2 Timothy chapter 4 he writes, “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….”

Paul is saying that he stayed in the battle and he raced according to the rules. Can we say the same about ourselves? Are we soldiers living a civilian life? Are we runners skirting the rules? Or are we truly living out the call of Christ, living out the outward work of the Gospel?

If you are a pastor, may I speak to you for a moment? This world needs people like Paul who will call us back into the battlefield and remind us of the rules of the race. Your church may have started running outside the rules and no one knows. They need you to remind them. They need you to call them back into the work of the Gospel. They need you to remind them that they will suffer when they follow Christ into His work. Pastor, this reminder will not always be an easy thing to hear. You will get resistance because it is much easier to run half a mile and celebrate victory than to count the cost and run a full marathon. But don’t allow your congregation to forfeit their prize.

May we use the words of Paul to bring conviction into our lives and to our churches. And may we allow his words to help us refocus and run the right race in the right way for the sake of Christ.

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