“Strive for masteries” is a metaphor for boxing. The only other time the phrase is used, Paul speaks about running in a race and then says “I therefore so run” (I Cor. 9:24-26), then talks about someone who strives for the mastery and says, “so fight I” (ICor.9:25,26). See how he defines it as fighting? We know he meant boxing because he said he didn’t fight as one that beat the air (v.26), an allusion to shadow boxing.
These passages speak of boxing with two different opponents. The Corinthian passage is about boxing with their physical bodies (v.27), something the Corinthians struggled with (ICor.6:13). Paul wrote this to a church because this is a struggle all Christians must deal with. When Paul says he beat his body into subjection (ICor.9:27), a word that means he made his body his servant (cf.Jer.34:16).
But once you learn to beat your body into submission, you are ready for another boxing opponent. When Paul talked to Timothy about striving for the mastery, he was talking to a pastor, so he was talking about boxing an opponent only pastors and those involved in the work of the ministry would face, the defense of the truth of the gospel (Phil.1:7,27,30). You’ll notice that Paul spoke to the Corinthians about striving for the “mastery” singular, but to Timothy about “masteries” plural. That’s because you have only one body to subject, but many false teachers and doctrines to fight.
At the Isthmian games that were held in Corinth, athletes competed for “corruptible” crowns (ICor.9:25). It is said they were given olive leaf crowns. But we strive for the mastery for “incorruptible” crowns (ICor.9:25). In the context, this crown refers to reigning with Christ (IITim.2:12). “We shall judge angels” (ICor.6:3), though we may not wear literal crowns. Adam had dominion over the world, so he was king of the world, but he wore no crown that we know of. When the Jews were good they were kings of the world, but they wore no literal crowns. But when they “sinned,” we read that “the crown is fallen from our heads” (Lam.5:16). Similarly, our crowns will be symbolic of our right to rule and reign with Christ.
In the Isthmian games, “one receiveth the prize” (ICor.9:24), but “every one” can receive a prize when we strive for the mastery (IITim.4:7,8). Paul is drawing a contrast, not a comparison! If there was only one prize, Paul would get it!
But we must strive “lawfully” (IITim.2:5). Since we are not under the law (Rom.6:14,15), it must mean striving according to some other law. The Jews had the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law (Rom.2:17-20), but we have the form of truth in Paul’s epistles (IITim.1:13). These are the rules by which we must strive lawfully.
Paul uses another metaphor when he speaks of the “husbandman” or farmer (IITim.2:6). This is speaking of pastors and others who do the work of the ministry by planting and watering the seed of the Word (ICor.3:6). Men in the ministry must partake of the “fruit” that results from their labor, i.e., the financial fruit (ICor.9:7,11). Paul didn’t want Timothy to think that eternal rewards could be his only rewards. And he must “first” be partaker of this fruit. It’s only right, but too often people give God what is left, not what is right. What’s left after all the other demands on their money. God says His work should come “first.”
Paul told Timothy to “consider” these metaphors because when he spoke to the Corinthian “babes” (ICor.3:1), he explained the metaphors. But in speaking to a “man of God” like Timothy (ITim.6:11), he didn’t explain the metaphors, he expected Timothy could meditate on them and understand the point, as we’ve done in this message. Paul would also like us to understand that if the Isthmian athletes trained and abstained from rich foods and put all that effort into their games, shouldn’t we put that much effort and more into striving for the mastery?