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1 Corinthians 9:26

ESV So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.
NIV Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.
NASB Therefore I run in such a way as not to run aimlessly; I box in such a way, as to avoid hitting air;
CSB So I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air.
NLT So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing.
KJV I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air:

What does 1 Corinthians 9:26 mean?

Paul has shifted his metaphor a bit to make himself the focus. He has been describing what an athlete must do to win a race, including the exercise of great self-control. The training programs for athletes in Paul's day included commitments to abstain from specific food, drink, and sensual experiences in order to be ready to compete at the highest level. In the previous verse, Paul pointed out they did all of this to win a wreath that would quickly die. Paul sees himself as competing to win souls for Christ and to receive an eternal recognition for that effort. Such a "crown" would be far more valuable.

Now Paul turns the spotlight on his own training for this prize. He insists that he does not run aimlessly. His work is very intentional. Then he includes another common competition of the day, boxing. Paul writes that he does not train so that he can beat up the air. Boxers often use "shadow boxing" as a training tool, where they duck and strike against an imagined opponent. That's a training tool, however, not the end goal of one's training. Paul plans to win the fight, to land some serious blows on his opponent. He is disciplining himself for actual competition.

Paul's commitment to setting aside his freedoms and rights wasn't mere exercise. He is competing for recognition from Christ for how well he fought to win people to trust in Jesus. He is living this way intentionally. This is in keeping with the main theme of his metaphor: that Christians should be committed to faith as is a dedicated athlete to their sport.
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