“Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules." 2 Timothy 2:5
For Timothy to be effective in a leadership role, not only is he to endure hardship like a good soldier, but Paul tells him that in order to receive the victor's crown, he must compete as an athlete according to the rules.
Paul is not encouraging legalism, which is trying our best to keep the rules, but if we are going to be a disciple of Christ, we must live according to the Word of God by the power of God within us. Two essential parallels can be drawn between an athlete and a disciple of Christ. An athlete does not just kick a ball around for fun, but is disciplined, trained and focused. An athlete competes according to the rules; otherwise there is no virtue in competing.
To be a disciple for Christ is to become disciplined, trained and focused on living by the Word of God. Paul tells Timothy, "And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others" (2 Timothy 2:2). In other words, "Timothy, do not modify, adjust or change the Word of God in any way, but like an athlete, abide by the rules, preaching and teaching Scripture as it is given, so that it will be passed on in the same way it was given." The emphasis is not about winning, but about competing in submission to the rules, just as the work of God must submit to the Word of God.
The second parallel is that an athlete does not compete against himself, but works in partnership with others. Whether it is football, or one on one like tennis, it involves teamwork with coaches, trainers and the like. Hebrews 12:1 says, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us." Many others are running the race, so we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. An athlete cannot run the race alone, nor should a Christian be a lone ranger in their discipleship.
As Christians, we are all a part of the body of Christ and meant to work in dependence upon God and one another. Like an athlete, we run the race God has set for us, and it is in drawing upon the internal presence of Christ and external disciplines of being a worker together with Him, that we cross the finish line and gain the victor's crown.