The Olympic Games date back to Olympia, Greece, in 776 B.C. Although there was a break between the ancient and modern eras, they have generally been held once every four years for the past millennium and a half. They originally consisted of wrestling, boxing, leaping, running, and throwing the quoit (discus).
When Rome conquered Greece in the 100s B.C., they retained these competitions. Faithful Jews opposed the Olympics because many events were played in the nude as a form of pagan worship, and some prizes had images on them (cf. Exodus 20:4). Nonetheless, the games were very popular and the Roman built large arenas to hold thousands of spectators. It is interesting to think that the Olympics were going on during the days of Christ.
The Christian life is sometimes compared to athletic events. Paul saw it as a “good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12). Hebrews refers to it as a race: “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1; cf. Galatians 2:2; Philippians 2:16). It could be called a “relay race,” for we must strive together (Philippians 1:27; literally, “athlete together”). It is also compared to a wrestling match (Ephesians 6:12), for we are in a deadly struggle with Satan.
GOD’S ATHLETE MUST TRAIN RIGOROUSLY.
Every Olympic competitor was required to train stringently under demanding teachers and diet restrictions for ten months. As each festival started, he had to prove to judges that he had fulfilled his training and was not thief, slave, or morally corrupt.
Interestingly, travelling from Athens to Corinth, Paul would have passed the stadium of the biennial Isthmian Games. A year later (spring of A.D. 51), the games were to be held. Therefore, Paul probably observed athletes going through their practices. Since the Corinthians naturally had the games on their minds, Paul used them to illustrate a Christian’s self-discipline. He wrote,
Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; cf. Luke 9:23; Matthew 16:24; Romans 6:12-16).
Paul told Timothy,
Exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come (1 Timothy 4:7-8).
Physical training is beneficial, but spiritual training has longer lasting and more important effects.
GOD’S ATHLETE MUST GIVE IT ALL HE HAS.
I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14).
The image here is that of a runner giving one last great effort to break the tape as he crosses the finish line. For Grecian runners, the “mark” was a goalpost at the end of the racecourse. A good runner never looked back to see the distance he had covered or the competitors he had passed, but fully concentrated on that mark. Paul did not see himself as having arrived. Instead, he strained with all his being to reach the goal of heaven.
GOD’S ATHLETE MUST PLAY BY THE RULES.
Athletes are always looking for an edge. The battle rages now over the use of muscle builders in Major League Baseball. Some athletes in all sports have crossed the line with steroid use; they returned the medals or were banned from the sport they loved. God expects Christians to “play by the rules.”
Paul wrote, “If a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully” (2 Timothy 2:5; cf. 1 Samuel 13:12). We should abstain from anything contrary to God’s will (1 John 3:4). Sometimes cheaters get away with breaking the rules in sports, but the omniscient God never misses a violation. Play fair!
GOD’S ATHLETE MUST AVOID DISTRACTIONS.
Runners must tune out the crowds when they step up to the starting line. Basketball players who cannot block out the noise will miss free throws. Many gymnasts have allowed a camera flash or fan’s yell to distract them at a crucial point, only to lose their balance and lose the competition.
Christians, too, have to avoid letting someone turn them from pursuit of the crown. Paul warned the Galatians, “Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?” (Galatians 5:7). The word hinder was an Olympic expression that meant “coming across the course while a person is running in it, in such a manner as to jostle, and throw him out of the way.”
Don’t let anyone-or anything-knock you off course. The stakes are too high. Jesus asked,
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:26).
GOD’S ATHLETE WILL EVENTUALLY TRIUMPH.
The Christian Race is the only one where everybody who finishes wins! Paul’s long-standing dream was to stand on that victory stand before the Captain of his team (cf. Hebrews 2:10). He admitted:
I am now ready . . . I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8; cf. Acts 20:24).
The imagery is obviously athletic. The word for course (dromos) refers to a one-lap race around a track about 600 yards long, about a third longer than our 440-yard tracks.
The Greek athletes gave up everything to gain an Olympic crown, which was made literally of leaves-pine, olive, parsley, apple, laurel, celery, and/or ivy. A wreath was placed over the victorious athlete’s neck.
The Christian’s crown is far greater, for it will never wilt (1 Corinthians 9:25; 1 Peter 5:4). Besides receiving a crown, a victor in the Olympic Games was lauded by triumphal processions, odes sung to his glory, and a statue placed near and adjacent temple. Christians won’t have to settle for such small rewards; we will have the applause of heaven: “Then shall every man have praise of God” (1 Corinthians 4:5).
Can you imagine God cheering you on as you cross the finish line into heaven?