In the past I've always seen the race as my own individual race. The goal was to persevere for my own sake. To do all the "christian" stuff so I can die and go to heaven. It's quite an exhausting and self-focused perspective. It brings on depression, frustration with others, and feeling of hopelessness when I "mess up."
Reading this scripture last Saturday, I saw the goal totally different. It's not me getting somewhere. It's bringing the good news to others and to this earth. In a relay race, only the last runner is going to cross the finish line. The goal for all the rest is to place the baton in the hand of the next runner. But they are all on the same team... all running to get the same prize which is not persevering to make it to heaven. And it is not just doing whatever to "win as many [people] as possible" (the word "cheating" comes to mind with the self-focused perspective - that could be another blog post). The prize is bringing the kingdom of God here and now. That's the baton.
The prize is the completed restoration of God's Kingdom, when we see the Holy City coming down out of heaven and the dwelling of God is with men; no more death or mourning or crying or pain. The old order has passed away. The race is finished. (Rev 21:1-8)
Paul isn't talking about his own perseverance in this passage. He's talking about the thrill of being in the race with others - handing off the baton.
A relay race is different than an individual race. The timing and passing of the baton add more than an obstacle - we're not jumping hurdles to get the prize unless your race is self-focused. It's a real team effort. Each time the baton is passed successfully, there is a sense of moving forward.
When a relay runner passes the baton to the next runner, they have to be in synch for a smooth pass.
When I call on the Holy Spirit to heal someone, I'm passing the baton. When I participate in prayer which releases another person from the bondage of evil spirits in any way, I'm passing the baton and they carry it on toward the finish line from there.
Now, obviously this is a multi-dimensional race. I'm not just out there to pass the baton once. I get to use my freedom (which came with the baton passed to me) to be a slave to everyone. (1 Cor 9:19).
Think of that part this way... if you've ever been in a race or competitive sport of any kind, there is a great let down when you don't win. The race God has set out for us has a no-fail outcome. When we pass the baton, we still have another baton to pass. It's certainly discouraging when others don't take the baton we pass them but it's not the end of the race. Our race is not a mark to get to. Our race is right in front of us each day - passing the baton - bringing the kingdom of God here right now to each person who grabs on to the baton we pass to them.
In all of this is the new perspective of the significance of the life and resurrection of Jesus. I've always been taught of the significance of his death on the cross. But the significance of Jesus as a visual of the restored kingdom on earth is new to me.
I've been taught to look to Jesus as "what would Jesus do" so that I can make it to heaven. Then heaven is supposed to be this place of reward for persevering. With that perspective, messing up (aka not doing what Jesus would do), can be very discouraging. Then, not really knowing what "heaven" looks like can become discouraging because you aren't sure it's worth the effort. Therefore, being "christ-like" becomes a way to avoid the traditional view of hell more than a longing for the prize of heaven.
But Jesus is more than a role model for my actions. He is a visual for living in the new earth which is the finish line. He provides the sightings, the baton, to pass on. I can say to those who experience God's rule with me that this is what heaven (the Kingdom of God) is rather than this is what heaven will sort of be like.
Jesus resurrection is a visual and proof that the finish line is not dying and going to this mysterious place we call heaven. He came back here to this earth in bodily form and he promised to return here to this earth. At which time the batons will be collected and those without a baton will sadly be disqualified from the race. The opposing team (Satan and his demons) will be ushered off the field, out of the arena and God will make all things new.
Heaven is here when we bring the reign and rule of God's kingdom into our current circumstances. I never knew that. I thought all that praying and being "christ-like" stuff was just the stuff you had to do to get to heaven - whatever and wherever that mysterious place is. I thought asking for healing was asking God for a big favor. God's wants his kingdom here. He longs to dwell with us - as many of us who will grab the baton.
Approaching life with this perspective - bringing heaven here and now - makes life a lot more exciting to me. Knowing that the finish line is not just existing and trying to do the "right" things to persevere but the finish line is seeing all the batons lifted high all around the world, knowing that what I enjoy here will be made even better. Knowing the stuff that destroys my hope and joy will be gone.
And as I'm typing, I'm realizing that it just makes sense that the more hope and joy that is passed around, the more enjoyable life is. Even when a team is still in a tough competition, it's nice to see the score is in your favor.
So, yes, we do persevere but it's not a blind perseverance which I've assumed. It's more like a woman who is pregnant. Many women have a hard time believing they are really pregnant the first few months of their first pregnancy because they don't see anything different. Persevering through morning sickness is more difficult if you can't see any evidence of the prize to come. Once the womb starts growing, the discomfort is no more enjoyable but it is tolerated with more hope. God doesn't ask us to try to convince others about his kingdom just with words. He gives us visuals. And everyone knows that a picture is worth a thousand words. :)
I hope all these words help give a better picture of what I'm seeing in 1 Corinthians 9:19-27.
May his kingdom come, his will be done on earth today as it is in heaven.