In a previous post in this series, I explained that while running recently I was reminded of several passages related to running a race and athletes. Since I started running as exercise a few months ago, I decided to look into those passages a little more closely to see if my experiences helped me to understand them.
In this post, I’m going to look at two short illustrations in Paul’s letter to the believers in the cities of the region of Galatia. Here is the first passage:
I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. (Galatians 2:2 ESV)
Before this passage, Paul had explained that he did not receive his gospel through human intermediaries, but instead received it directly from God. (Galatians 1:15-17) But, Paul did go up to Jerusalem later to meet with the apostles in order to compare what he understood about the good news of Jesus Christ with the gospel that the apostles were proclaiming.
In this illustration, Paul is concerned that the two gospels (his and the apostles’) might be different (i.e., one might be a gospel of grace while the other a gospel of works). He says that if he was proclaiming a different gospel than the one that the apostles had heard from Jesus, then it would be like running a race in vain – that is, a race that could not be won or could not be completed.
For the second passage, I’m going to include the wider context:
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. (Galatians 5:1-10 ESV)
There was a time when the Galatians were living according to the gospel of righteousness by grace; but, lately, and apparently through the false teaching of one or more people, some of them were turning back toward righteousness by keeping the law.
He compares following these false teachers to being hindered during a race, which would make the false teachers and the false gospel the hindrances or obstacles.
In both of these examples from Galatians, living according to a false gospel (a gospel that teaches righteousness by works instead of righteousness by the grace of God through faith in him) is like running a race in vain (one that cannot be finished) or running a race filled with obstacles.
Imagine for a moment running a race that has no course and no finish line. Imagine a race that is never finished – never complete. That is the illustration that Paul uses for a life lived by the righteousness of keeping the law.
Imagine a race where every path is blocked by obstacles – every turn leads to a dead end. That is the illustration that Paul uses for a life lived by the righteousness of doing good deeds.
Both of these types of races are impossible to run. In the same way, it is impossible to live in such a way as to be righteous by keeping the law or by doing good works.
Running the Race as an Illustration in Scripture: