AAT and TEV begin this section with verse 23. There is a close association between verse 23 and this section. Paul has the preaching of the Gospel in mind. That becomes clear in verse 27. He is concerned equally with his hearers and with himself. He begins verse 24 with a rhetorical question just as he did at verse 13. Paul is about to speak about something with which they are well acquainted . The question requires the answer: "Yes."
The sentence becomes one of contrast between the "all" and the "one." All run but only one receives the prize. Paul is using the Isthmian Games, which occurred every three years in Corinth, to teach a lesson. A "race" was a running track which was a long parallelogram about 200 yards long and 30 yards wide. The prize consisted of a wreath.
The last phrase is the application. Paul combines the "all" and "one" of the previous sentence. All should run strenuously in order that all should receive the prize. The point of comparison is not the number but the strenuous effort. This is an example of illustration and immediate application.
Of course, Paul is not advising the Corinthians to run in the Isthmian Games. He is speaking of living as he does at Galatian 5:7 where the verb "run" is also used of Christian living. "You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?"
The first part of this verse covers both illustration and application. Literally it reads: "Every contender practices self-control in every respect." "They do it" denotes the participants in the Isthmian Games. "We do it" denotes Christians. The Isthmian athletes practiced self-control to attain a corruptible crown. Christians practice self-control to attain an incorruptible crown. Everyone knows how quickly a wreath fades. It is very momentary. But the Christian knows that his everlasting crown will never fade. Look at 1 Peter 5:4, a good parallel passage. Also James 1:12 and Revelation 2:10.
Morris: The strenuous self-denial of the athlete in training for his fleeting reward is a rebuke to all half-hearted, flabby Christian service. Notice that the athlete denies himself many lawful pleasures. The Christian must avoid not only definite sin, but anything that hinders his complete effectiveness.
Paul is speaking about agonizing for eternal life, but rather for the goal of faithfully proclaiming the Gospel. We already have eternal life by faith. We do not earn it by agonizing and practicing self-control.
From here on Paul speaks in the first person singular, informing us about himself and serving as a model for all Christians. It is similar to Galatians 2:19-20 where Paul speaks of himself in the name of all Christians. Note the emphatic "therefore." The two examples are instances of litotes. He runs in such a way that he is very certain. He boxes in such a way as to make every blow count. Of course, the running and boxing are only figurative. The point of comparison is the strenuous and careful effort.
The translations of this verse are interesting. TEV reads: "That is why I run straight for the finish line; that is why I am like a boxer, who does not waste his punches." A previous edition of the NIV used "I do not fight like a man shadow boxing."
Kretzmann: This is one of the reasons why this apostle, whose physical constitution seems to have been anything but robust, was able to accomplish so much in the work of the Lord.
Grosheide: Paul now sets forth what he does himself. He exerts himself as is his duty. The apostle is not driven by pride but by the realization that also by his example he has to edify the church.
This verse explains verse 26. That verse was illustration. This verse is application. "Beat my body" from the verb that means to give someone a black eye. Here "body" means more than just the body. It means one's very self. Note the position of "my." As a boxer Paul constantly deals himself very effective blows. He treats his body as a slave, a person who has no will of his own. The Book of Concord cites this passage at least six times. In each case the sinful flesh is understood.
The Augsburg Confession, Tappert 69,37: Paul said that he pommeled his body and subdued it, and by this he indicated that it is not the purpose of mortification to merit grace but to keep the body in such a condition that one can perform the duties required by one's calling.
Apology, Tappert 221,47: 'I pommel my body and subdue it.' We should undertake these exercises not as services that justify but as restraints on our flesh, lest we be overcome by satiety and become complacent and idle with the result that we indulge and pamper the desires of our flesh. In this we must be diligent at all times because God commands it at all times.
Formula of Concord, Tappert 480,3: The Old Adam must be coerced against his own will not only by the admonitions and threats of the law, but also by its punishments and plagues, to follow the Spirit and surrender himself a captive. 1 Corinthians 9:27; Romans 6:12; Galatians 6:14; Psalm 119:1; Hebrews 13:21.
Grosheide: Paul's great antagonist is sin, which always drives him in the wrong direction, Romans 7.
In chapter 8 Paul dealt with those Corinthians who, though they had proper knowledge, were not exercising love toward their weak brothers. Paul is quietly confessing that he, too, was tempted to be impatient with the weak. But he pommeled his flesh.
In chapter 9 Paul explained that he had become all things to all men. That certainly was not an easy matter. That required severe self-denial, fighting his own pride, giving up the use of things which in themselves were neither commanded nor forbidden.
Now follows the negative purpose clause at the conclusion of verse 27. There are those who think that the word "preached" refers to the herald in the Isthmian Games who called the athletes to order. For example, TEV reads: "to keep from being rejected after having called others to the contest." And JB: "having been an announcer myself, I should not want to be disqualified." We agree with those who translate: "lest somehow after preaching to others I myself prove to be disqualified." Paul is touching on the subject which he had mentioned in verse 23, preaching the Gospel.
Lenski: Now follows the final negative purpose clause, which explains the purpose clause of verse 23, in which Paul states that he himself may be a joint partaker in the Gospel. At the same time this purpose clause found at the very end of the chapter illumines the entire chapter, it reaches back to the desire to eat idol-meats, continues on through the self-denials which Paul practices, and culminates in Paul's determination to preserve his own share in the Gospel.
In verse 16 Paul expressed the fear of becoming disqualified, of losing his very soul, if he would not fight his sinful flesh with all of his might for the sake of the Gospel.