My husband loves to run. For the duration of our marriage, several days a week, he has consistently risen before daylight to run a few miles. His discipline has paid off. He still fits in the same size pants he wore when I met him 20 years ago!
No one likes to discipline one’s self to do the hard work (except perhaps my husband when it comes to exercise!), but there is no payoff without it. Certainly, we are called to rest in God’s grace, but a “doing” component exists in the Christian walk. While we don’t earn our salvation or standing with God by our works, we are called to discipline ourselves to follow the call of God, which involves willingly persevering through difficulties and trials and “running” the race of faith (Hebrews 12:1; Philippians 2:16).
One such place where perseverance in our faith walk is emphasized and the idea of an athlete (possibly running a race or participating in another athletic event) is used is 2 Timothy 2:3-6. Sitting in a Roman prison awaiting execution, Paul writes to Timothy in this letter and exhorts him to persevere through the challenges and suffering he is enduring and will continue to endure as a minister of the faith, saying:
Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules. The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive the share of the crops.
Just as Paul encourages Timothy to compete like an athlete in his letter, we as Christians can be encouraged to “run” strong in the Lord and remain faithful in our service. An athlete isn’t the only picture Paul uses to describe the dedicated Christian. He also uses two other pictures to make his point. We should observe the pictures he uses and how he encourages us to mimic the actions of these individuals in our Christian walk:
1. No soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs.
Paul urges Timothy to stay focused on his calling and not allow himself to be distracted by anything that might take his energies away from his ultimate task, which is to follow the Lord Jesus Christ and obey His voice.
Soldiers are required to be obedient to their commanding officers and forsake activities that distract them from their duty. Similarly, as Christians, following Jesus means being willing to leave behind certain tasks and interests in order to pursue the course God has for us.
However, so often, as Christians, we get pulled off course by plans that may take us away from what we know we should do. I can recall a season where I had a huge list of to-do items I wanted to get to for my house, and I remember God telling me that my focus was in the wrong place. It’s not wrong to do home fixer-upper projects or take care of your home — we should do that — but my plans were taking me away from the project that God wanted me to complete in that season.
Rather than go to the store daily for new house items and fill my days with repairs and decorating plans, I surrendered and instead invested my time in the project He had for me. The Bible tells us, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33, AKJV). You know what happened when I surrendered to God? I didn’t get my repairs done right away, but sometime later, when I finished the tasks God had for me in that season, all of these “to-do” items got done when my husband had a job change and we had to put our house up for sale.
As Christians, we will have to attend to certain affairs in the world. We will have jobs and families. We will have to do normal things like grocery shop, pay bills, and mow our lawns. This verse isn’t urging us to forsake everyday tasks, but rather, reminding us not to get “entangled” in those affairs where they take precedence above what God would have us do.
As James Burton Coffman quotes E.M. Zerr as saying, “Any kind of occupation, whether right or wrong in itself that prevents a disciple from doing his duty would constitute the entangling affairs mentioned in this verse.” Similarly, Matthew Henry says, “The great care of a soldier should be to please his general, so the great care of a Christian should be to please Christ, to approve himself to him.”
2. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.
Here, Paul switches from his soldier metaphor to one of an athlete, and we are told that we will not receive a crown unless we compete according to the rules.
An athlete must compete despite fatigue, thirst, and physical discomfort. He must not allow those obstacles to prevent him from finishing the event or race. Similarly, in our spiritual walk, we will face persecution, temptation, opposition, and other trials — that will wear us down and make us want to quit running the race. However, to obtain a crown we must stand firm to the end (Hebrews 3:14; Revelation 2:10).
The Bible mentions several types of crowns that we will receive at the judgment seat of Christ — among them the imperishable crown for people who exercise self-discipline (1 Corinthians 9:24-25) and the crown of life for those who endure trials, testing, and persecution (James 1:12).
However, to win such a crown, we must exhibit discipline and endurance. We won’t achieve the plans God has for us and successfully answer our call with a “lassez-faire” attitude. As I found in my study of this passage, Paul may have been addressing “I’ll do it my way, how I want” approaches to religion in his day and emphasizing faith meant a dependence on Christ and adherence to His commands.
Perhaps in Paul’s time, just as in ours, there were those that were hoping to obtain God’s rewards and promises without putting in any effort in their Christian walk or others creating their own faith apart from Christ.
However, just as an athlete must adhere to guidelines for competitions, we as Christians have the Holy Spirit and the Bible to guide us as we go through our days. Our run is not aimless, but rather one where we follow the model of Christ and have a clear goal in mind (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).
3. It is the hard-working farmer who should have the first share of the crops.
The last picture Paul uses to illustrate how we must approach the Christian life is of the hard-working farmer. Again, this kind of illustration uses someone, like the soldier and athlete, who must be disciplined and steady as he labors on his farm: cultivating the soil, planting the seeds, and fighting off insects and other threats to ensure a good crop.
As Christians, we must work intently just like a farmer if we expect to see a crop. This means we must discipline ourselves to soak in the Word of God, learn God’s will, and faithfully sow in the lives of others as we walk in His Spirit.
However, the work is hard, and we won’t always see immediate results. Elsewhere in Scripture we are told that “at the proper time,” when we are faithful, we will “reap a harvest” (Galatians 6:9). Yet, whether we see visible results or not when we follow Christ and endeavor to do His work, we will still benefit and reap a reward in our lives when we invest in the lives of others and do the will of God.
As far as the farmer getting the “first share of the crops,” I found varied ideas among scholars about what this could mean. One meaning could be that in order to serve others we must stay connected to God’s power in order to offer Him to others.
Another meaning could be that only those who labor will have fruits to partake in. Along these lines, I love what Albert Barnes observes: “The point was not that the husbandmen [farmer] would be the first one who would partake in the fruits; but that he must labor first before he obtained the reward. Thus understood, this would be an encouragement to Timothy to persevere in his toils, looking onward to the reward.”
All of these pictures Paul uses show us that the Christian walk is one where we must be intentional about doing what we are able to do on our end to run the race of faith and run it well. We don’t have to strive to earn salvation or earn our standing with God, but each day we have choices as to how we will spend our time and our efforts.
The passage reminds us to put God’s interests at the forefront and live a disciplined life in service to Him in order to bear much fruit and win a crown that will never fade.
“It is the enduring, patient, self-sacrificing toil that is rewarded in the affairs of common life — the man that endures hardness and whether as a soldier, or athlete, or tiller of the ground, wins the reward, and as in the world — so in religion.” – Ellicott’s Commentary
Want to hear the post in podcast form? Check out the accompanying podcast episode above the article where co-hosts Suzy Lolley and Carol Whitaker talk over the points of this post.
For additional podcast episodes from Season 1 & 2, check out our podcast archive.
Podcast Notes and Corrections:
James Burton Coffman quotes E.M. Zerr when he says in his commentary, “Any kind of occupation, whether right or wrong in itself that prevents a disciple from doing his duty would constitute the entangling affairs mentioned in this verse.”