In the frequent references which occur in Paul’s Epistles to the great event of his life, it is not difficult to discover the strongest and most prevailing impression it left upon his own mind. It was that of admiring wonder at that high Grace of God, which had singled him out—even him—to be brought near to that Jesus, whose name he had once abhorred, and to spend and be spent in that cause he had labored to destroy.
Observe how remarkably, even to iteration, he, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, makes this grace the leading theme of his allusion to that event—
“Last of all He [Jesus] was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. For I am the least of the Apostles, and not meet to be called an Apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am; and His grace, which was bestowed upon me, was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” It is all “grace.” And this perception of the fulness of that grace could not be realized without that correspondingly deep sense of his own undeservings, which he constantly declares. These two things are inseparable; for no one can adequately value or understand God’s grace in saving, who does not know—who does not feel, “in his heart of hearts,” that without it he were utterly lost “utterly;” for as there is no middle condition between living and dying, so is there none between salvation and perdition.
What wonder, then, that with this keen perception of the grace that had been so signally manifested towards himself—grace became the darling theme of his writings and discourses; and that he is never weary in enforcing, by every kind of argument and illustration, the sovereign freedom and exceeding riches of the Divine grace abounding to sinners in the Great Redeemer. In this only he exulted, in this only he rejoiced. Yet did he not consider his most humble and entire confidence in that grace as superseding the necessity of the most constant watchfulness and self-denial. “I keep under my body,” he says, “and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway”—1Co_9:27.
The force of the language in which the apostle expresses his meaning may not be readily seen, unless we recollect that throughout the passage, of which this text is part, the images are derived from the contests, the races, the boxing, the wrestling, of the Olympic and Isthmian games. He had before said, “Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things.” In which he alludes to the severe preparatory training of those who intended to offer themselves as competitors in these games—something like which still exists with us among those preparing for pugilistic and pedestrian contests. But among these ancient competitors training lasted twelve months, during which all the wants of nature, and all sensual indulgences, were strictly regulated under an experienced master of the gymnastic arts. Their eating, drinking, sleeping, walking, were determined as to time and quantity by rule; and they were continually exercised in those arts, at the prize for which they intended to aim. “But they do it,” says the apostle, “to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.” The crowns of the victors in these games were indeed very corruptible, being simply garlands of laurel, pine leaves, wild olive, or even parsley. The other, “a crown of glory, that fadeth not away.”
In the passage before us, however, his allusions are to the pugilistic contests. The apostle intimates the stern reality of the conflict in which he is engaged, by treating the body as the opponent in such an encounter. When he says that he keeps it under, he uses a phrase, which, in the original, signifies to strike one’s opponent, in such a conflict, in the face, or, more exactly, under the eyes, that being the part particularly aimed at in such conflicts, for the purpose of both blinding and disfiguring the antagonist; and here the blow was considered most effective. So, when he says that he strives to “bring it [the body] into subjection,’’ he seems to pass to an image derived from the practice of wrestlers, who strive to secure the victory by giving a fall to their opponents.
Language like this—so explained and illustrated—is strongly expressive of a mind at once divested of self confidence, and, at the same time, well guarded against every tendency to pervert the doctrines of grace to a plea for indulgence to the flesh. Saul was far otherwise minded. He considered the discoveries of the Gospel, as furnishing the most powerful and vigorous motives to constant and vigorous exertion in all the duties of practical religion, and as affording the best assistance in them. Thus, again, after having introduced the beautiful allusion to the Olympic games, to which we have just referred, by mention of the fadeless prize-crown which is set before the Christian combatant, he proposes himself as an example in that glorious contest—striving to win this high honor for himself. “I so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air.” Thus he expresses, by figures derived from the same source as the others, that he ran the race set before him, not by a rambling and devious course, but along a determined line to a definite boundary. Just as in the games, the path the racers were to keep was denoted by white lines, or by posts; and he who trespassed beyond these lines, by diverging from the path which they marked out, lost the race; even though he were the first to reach the goal. So also he fought not in his contest with flesh and blood, with futile and abortive strokes, as one beating the air, but with firm stroke and steady aim, as one resolute in his purposes. In order to acquire the proper dexterity and firmness of muscle, it was usual for the pugilists to exercise themselves with the gauntlets, and to fling their arms about as if engaged with an actual adversary. This was called “beating the air,” and came to be a proverbial expression, applied to those who missed their aim in the actual conflict. This seems to be the allusion intended by the apostle.
In the same spirit he writes to the church at Philippi—“Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended; but this one thing I do, forgetting those things that are behind, and reaching forth to those things that are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus”—Php_3:13-14. Here also the allusions are to the race—allusions so frequent with him, because they were not only highly illustrative, but so familiar and intelligible to those whom he addressed. In the entire passage, which includes these two verses, his first and literal meaning is this—He could not yet exult as one who had attained the goal, and won (though not yet received) the prize; much less as one already “perfect,” or crowned with all the honors of victory. No: not yet (and he wrote this towards the close of his career) had he apprehended, or taken hold of, the post which marked the goal, and thereby gained the victory. He was yet upon the course, still striving in the race. He lost no time in looking back upon the distance he had passed, or to see how far the other racers were behind; but with his attention wholly fixed upon the space that lay before him—between him and the mark or garlanded post that showed the goal, he pressed with eagerness towards it for the prize—“the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
He means not that any duty or service was undertaken by him in his own strength. He had once, in his Pharisaic self-esteem, regarded his virtue alone as equal to any labor or suffering; but his more enlightened experience, or rather his Divine Master, had shown him his mistake, and taught him to rely humbly and actively upon Him for assistance and success in every undertaking. Under this conviction he continually sought His aid, and entreated his brethren to strengthen his supplications by their prayers for him—“I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye strive together with me in your prayers to God for me”—Rom_15:30.
Indeed to a Divine influence showered upon him, and working in him, he ascribed the honor of every great and good design, every becoming disposition, every honorable and useful action of his life. “By the grace of God I am what I am.” And it ought to be remarked here, that amidst a series of the most extensive and important services to the cause of Christ and the best interests of mankind, he speaks of himself in terms of deep and earnest self-abasement, inventing a superlatively comparative diminutive (
), by which to express that sense, for which no existing word sufficed—the most humbling sense he entertained of his own insufficiency and nothingness—“less than the least of all saints.” Nor was this an unmeaning form of words; he lived the language he spoke, and exemplified, in all circumstances, the lowly spirit he recommended and expressed.