In recent weeks all of us couch potatoes have been treated to the spectacular delights of watching the Olympics. And what a spectacle! Eye-popping feats of weight-lifting from Eastern European giants, spine-tingling gymnastics from Simone Biles, mind-boggling sprints from the world’s most muscular maidens, water-wonders from Michael Phelps, and gold-winning exploits from Wayde van Niekerk and Caster Semenya. Gee! The whole thing has taken me back to my own wonder days in school athletics when I astonished the critics by making it into two finals, coming ninth out of ten in the mile and eleventh out of twelve in the 880 yards.
Yes, sport can really get hold of one in the twentieth century. But in the first century too it was integral to life and New Testament writers, it must be remembered, wrote against the background of a sport-mad culture which had produced the Olympic Games in their classic form. The Games and other athletic festivals were in fact decidedly religious in origin and flavour and in their encouragement of discipline, health, and fair play. Victors in the games were accordingly honoured and feted as true heroes of both physical prowess and spiritual integrity.
Small wonder then against this backdrop that a sensitive writer like St Paul should use metaphors drawn from the Games to depict spiritual realities.
Athletic training vs Christian life
Thus he compares the discipline and motivation of athletic training to the discipline and motivation of the Christian life. ‘Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly.’ (1 Corinthians 9:24-26 NASB). Here the Apostle puts perspective on life. If the athlete will so train and compete for a perishable reward, how much more should we be spiritually trained and striving for an imperishable and eternal reward.
He then goes on to take an analogy from the ring. ‘I do not box as one beating the air.’ (1 Corinthians 9:26). In the Greek boxing context, the arms and hands were bound with studded leather which could inflict grave injury. The combatants sought therefore to evade, rather than parry blows, thus causing one’s opponent to miss and so ‘beat the air.’ Paul is saying that in life he does not live in the realm of missing the mark. He had his priorities right and he kept them. He had his targets clear and he hit them. How about us?
Another telling New Testament reference is to the foot race. ‘Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.’ (Hebrews 12:1-2). Are we running the race of life encumbered with weights of impurity, dishonesty or greed which hold us back? If so, let us like the athlete lay them aside, realising also how many are watching us and being influenced by us.
Finally, in Philippians 3:13-14, we have a probable reference to the Ben-Hur type chariot race, a spectacular feature of Roman and Greek sports festivals. ‘Forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.’ No charioteer could look backwards. That would be fatal. Likewise, we need to forget the past, and strive forwards and upwards into life’s ultimate goal – obedience to the call of God in Christ Jesus.
So as the physical Olympics end, may our own Spiritual Olympics start afresh.
And what exactly might this involve? First of all it requires new commitments. None of those athletes in Rio got there without phenomenal levels of commitment, some of them doing nothing else in the last four years other than preparing for the Olympics. The training was a 24/7 day and night thing with virtually no let-up and no place for compromise. Their eyes were simply fixed on getting to Rio and winning a medal.
For us, I think the first commitment is selling out to Christ in a new way, 100%. True Christian dedication can have no halfway houses. Actually, I think that one of the most miserable conditions is having one foot in the world and one foot in the Church, half of us following the way of Christ, and the other following the way of the secular world around us along with all of its compromised values.
I think these new commitments also involve how we live and behave, how we take regular time out for prayer and the study of the Word, and how wholehearted we are in seeking the mind and will of the Lord for all our actions and activities. Apart from anything else this requires systematic Bible reading and regular daily devotions.
And if we are sold out for the Lord it will be required of us to stand up for Christian values and biblical principles in our work-place and in the society around us. None of this is easy, and there will often be a cost involved as for our Olympic heroes who often face mind-bending difficulties and challenges.
So, dear friends, let’s get into the race of living and running for Christ with new dedication, resolution and zeal.
And don’t forget to make sure that you line yourself up deeply with the Right Coach and His Training Manual.