On several occasions Paul used the illustration of running a race in relation to the believer’s judgment at the Judgment Seat of Christ, the Bema (1 Cor 9:24-27; 2 Tim 4:6-8). Finishing the race is vitally important (2 Tim 4:7). It is what leads to Christ’s praise and approval at the Bema.
On some occasions Paul uses the running metaphor in reference to potential failure in the Christian life. He calls failure in the Christian race “running in vain.” There are two verses in which he uses that expression:
And I went up [to Jerusalem] by revelation, and communicated to them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to those who were of reputation, lest by any means I might run, or had run, in vain (Gal 2:2, emphasis added).
Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain (Phil 2:14-16, emphasis added).
There are also three passages in which Paul uses the related expression of laboring in vain:
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord (1 Cor 15:58, emphasis added).
I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain (Gal 4:11, emphasis added).
For this reason, when I could no longer endure it, I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter had tempted you, and our labor might be in vain (1 Thess 3:5, emphasis added).
What does Paul mean by running in vain or by laboring in vain?
The word vain means “empty…devoid of spiritual value…without purpose or result” (BDAG).
So, to run or labor in vain would be to have nothing of eternal value to show for your labors and your running. It would mean that there would be no eternal reward at the Bema for a given labor (e.g., ministering to the Galatians and Philippians).
Of course, we know that our labor is not in vain in the Lord. First Corinthians 15:58 is one of my favorite verses. Our labor in Him is not in vain because He has risen, and we will rise as well. When we are judged by Him at the Bema, we will be rewarded for all our labors in the Lord.
But one thing we often forget is that if someone we have discipled falls away from the faith, then our expected reward for the ministry will be greatly lessened. I realize that Paul speaks as though his labor in specific churches would be totally worthless in terms of reward in passages like Gal 4:11; Phil 2:16; and 1 Thess 3:5. (In Gal 2:2 Paul is speaking in pragmatic terms. If the leadership in Jerusalem did not endorse his ministry, then his labors among the Gentiles would essentially be in vain.) However, what he means is that his ministry in those specific churches would have very little in it that was rewardable if they would fall away. Compare 2 John 8 in which the same idea is found: “Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward.” There would be some reward for John’s labors among these believers even if they fell away. However, for John and the other laborers to receive “a full reward,” the recipients of the letter had to persevere in the faith.
In sixth grade, all the boys in my classroom would run one lap around the school yard. The teacher thought it was a good way to run off some of our energy. It was about a quarter mile. Day after day I won handily, beating the other dozen or so boys. No one was even close. It turns out that another class had been watching. One day another sixth-grade class challenged me to a race. I was to race the four best boys from their class. I expected to win. But after half a lap, I was in fourth place, and the only other boy in the other class was trying to pass me. I ended up finishing dead last. I ran in vain that day. There was no reward for my running. In fact, I had to go in front of the other class and do ten push-ups.
But if we run for the Lord, our labors will not be in vain. Any good works we do with the right motives will be rewarded at the Bema.
We can run the Christian race with gusto, knowing that we are not competing against other Christians. We are each held accountable to Christ for what He has given us (Matt 25:14-30). If we serve Him wholeheartedly, then one day soon we will hear, “Well done, good servant” (Luke 19:17).
While our eternal destiny has been secure since the moment we believed in Christ for everlasting life, our eternal rewards depend on how we live. We need to finish the race and fight the good fight. We need to labor for the Lord until we die or are raptured.