Pauline Metaphors – Part 8: Athletics

By the time Paul was writing in the New Testament, the Olympic games were an established event. Started sometime in the 700s BC, they had become so significant ‘that in late antiquity historians measured time by the interval between them—an Olympiad’.1By the end of the 6th century BC, three other games had attained ‘classical’ status and were held at varying intervals throughout the Olympiad: the Pythian held at Delphi; the Nemean at Nemea; and the Isthmian at Corinth. Their cultural importance, along with the honour given to the victors, can perhaps be explained by the religious festivals of which they were a part.

Within the games, Paul found rich illustrations for the Christian. The desire, discipline, and determination shown by the athletes were all things that he drew on to challenge and encourage the attitude of the believers. We will look at some of those attitudes that are found in 1 Corinthians chapter 9 verses 24 to 27, while looking at the athlete’s purpose, passion, and prize in Philippians chapter 3 verses 12 to 14.

The athlete’s purpose - ‘this one thing I do’, Phil. 3. 13

To enter the Olympic games was not to be done lightly; total dedication was required by both the athlete and his training team. ‘It is the custom for athletes, their fathers and their brothers, as well as their trainers, to swear an oath upon slices of boar’s flesh that in nothing will they sin against the Olympic games. The athletes take this further oath also, that for ten successive months they have strictly followed the regulations for training’.2 The athlete was expected by the game’s authorities to be willing to give up all, to be singleminded so that he would be able to compete properly.

Earlier in Philippians chapter 3, Paul had spoken of his willingness to suffer ‘the loss of all things, and … count them but dung, that I may win Christ’, v. 8; that he would be able to ‘know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead’, vv. 10, 11. Understanding that he had not ‘attained’ this, he would ‘follow after [pursue, press on, strive]’ in order that he might take hold upon that kind of life for which Christ had laid hold upon him, v. 12. The strength of language shows us the seriousness and single-mindedness with which the apostle views the purpose of the Christian life. Could the same be said of us?

That seriousness is in evidence again in 1 Corinthians chapter 9, ‘So run, that ye may obtain’, v. 24. The athlete knows that there is only a prize for one, so he prepares and runs in a way that means he can win. Earlier, Paul expressed his commitment to sacrifice his rights as an apostle, making himself a ‘servant unto all, that I might gain the more’, v. 19. Willing service would bring a reward, v. 17, ‘So run’! Be serious about the race. If the Olympic athlete was willing to sacrifice to ‘obtain a corruptible crown’, v. 25, should not the believer sacrifice to obtain ‘an incorruptible’?

The writer to the Hebrews says, ‘let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us’, 12. 1. The serious runner removes anything that will hinder his running effectively, and especially that which will positively harm his chances in the race. Is the purpose of the Christian race so firmly in our hearts that we see clearly what needs to be removed - and have sufficient desire to do something about it?

The athlete’s passion - ‘forgetting … reaching … pressing’, Phil. 3. 13, 14

The attitude of the Greeks towards their games is summed up in the word they used for it, agones, meaning competition, or conflict. The contrast in purpose with the Roman games is interesting, ‘The Greeks originally organized their festivals for the competitors, the Romans for the public. One was primarily competition, the other entertainment’.3 If to be victor rather than entertainer was the purpose, then the competitor must maintain an inner passion for that purpose. Paul describes three things that will be essential to, and evident in, the passionate competitor.

  1. Forgetting - past failures and successes count for nothing within the current race, and both have the potential to hamper the way that we run through guilt or complacency. Each new day requires fresh desire, discipline, and determination. Let us carry the lessons of each day with us, but not the chains of failure or laurels of success.
  2. Reaching - an intensive form of the word ‘to stretch’. Sometimes an athlete will literally fall across the line, so intensely has he been reaching for it. We all know what it is like to put effort into something - and the difference when we put all our effort towards a thing. Paul uses the word agonizomai, 1 Cor. 9. 25, to describe the intensity of the desire of the combatant to gain the victory. Do we appreciate that the Christian life will be a struggle? Hebrews chapter 12 challenges us as it moves from the illustration of the track to the wrestling contest, ‘Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin’, v. 4. May our passion for the prize - and our Lord - energize us in the battle against our former master, sin.
  3. Pressing - the same word as ‘follow after’ in verse 12, it is a focused pursuit. On the running track, there was a pillar to mark where the race would begin, one halfway along, and the final one where the judge sat with the prize. Here the eye of the runner would focus, blocking out all distractions, and gaining that final motivation to give all for the prize. To the Corinthians, Paul says that he is serious about the conflict, and is therefore ‘temperate in all things’, 1 Cor. 9. 25. His focus means that he does not run ‘aimlessly’ ESV, or ‘box as one beating the air’ ESV, and that he disciplines his body to ‘bring it into subjection’, vv. 26, 27. MacDonald says, ‘His service was neither purposeless nor ineffectual. He had a definite aim before his eyes, and his intention was that his every action should count. There must be no wasted time or energy. The apostle was not interested in wild misses’.4

The Christian’s race lasts far longer than the historic 600-foot race of the original Olympics and will need to be run with patience, Heb. 12. 1. Two things are presented as encouraging our passion and perseverance in that chapter. First, the great cloud of witnesses that compass us about. The greatest athletes are inspired, not intimidated, by the watching crowds, and even more so if former champions are in that number. May the stories of the heroes of faith motivate a victor’s passion in us. Second is the great ‘author and finisher of our faith’, Jesus. A concentrated gaze upon Him shows us the perfect example of One who, in keeping His focus on ‘the joy that was set before him’, was able to endure ‘the cross, despising the shame’, v. 2, and will be the safeguard against us becoming ‘wearied and faint in [our] … minds’, v. 3.

The athlete’s prize - ‘the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus’, Phil. 3. 14; ‘Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness’, 2 Tim. 4. 8

The ancient athlete did not train for ten months just to make up the numbers; he was there to win the race on the field, and honour and financial security from his hometown. To guard against the temptation to cheat, there was the twin deterrent of a solemn vow to not ‘sin’ against the games and what would happen if they did. Banned from any future competition, they would also have to provide, from their own expense, a named statue of themselves to be placed where future competitors would pass by. To be a ‘castaway’, 1 Cor. 9. 27, was a shameful thing.

The apostle pressed towards ‘the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus’, but reminded Timothy that, ‘if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully’, 2 Tim. 2. 5. The judge of the race would sit on a raised platform to clearly see not just the winner, but also the way in which the race was run. From there, the victor crowns would be given.

This reminds us that believers ‘must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad’, 2 Cor. 5. 10. A great motivation for Paul’s disciplined life in 1 Corinthians chapter 9 verses 24 to 27 was the concern that, having run in the race, he would find himself disqualified from receiving a reward because of the way he had run it.

It must be emphasized that salvation is not in view at the judgement seat of Christ. Just as those in the early times of the Greek games had to be freeborn Greeks, so we cannot be in the ‘race’ unless we are in God’s family. However, the following will be made manifest, reviewed, and reward given or withheld at that time:

  • The quality of what we have built into the local church, 1 Cor. 3. 12-15.
  • The faithfulness and motives of our stewardship, 1 Cor. 4. 1-5.
  • How we have conducted ourselves towards our fellow believer, Rom. 14. 1-12.
  • Our actions, 2 Cor. 5. 10.

The apostle’s goal was to finish his race well and to receive the ‘prize’, the ‘[victor’s] crown of righteousness’, 2 Tim. 4. 8. By the time he wrote his final letter to Timothy, he was confident that because he could look back over the race run, and the fight fought, that prize was there for him. He had loved the ‘appearing’ of the Lord, and this had so ordered his life that he could be confident that ‘the Lord, the righteous judge’, would meet him at the finish line with the incorruptible crown that he had striven for.

That crown is available for ‘all them also that love his appearing’. Will we be willing to live the athlete’s life, one of purpose and passion, with the prize always in view, resulting in a life of discipline and determination?


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