Since its revival in 1896, the world has been captivated and inspired by the valor and skill displayed at the Olympic Games. Across the globe, millions of people, from avid sports fans to wide-eyed toddlers, watch in awe as mere mortals perform jaw-dropping feats that hearken back to the heroic roots of the competition. Even the apostle Paul seems to have had a significant amount of respect for Olympic athletes, as evidenced by his allusions to the Games in the New Testament.
The CrossFit gym that my husband and I own, CrossFit 925, was actually named in honor of one such Pauline passage, 1 Corinthians 9:25:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the Games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:24-26).
In his epistles to Timothy, Paul makes similar appeals for discipline and perseverance, using the familiar roles of soldier, farmer, and athlete to exhort Christians to obey Jesus Christ, no matter the cost. Of emulating the athlete, Paul writes:
“ … anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5, NIV).
Just as Olympic athletes are chosen from among their peers to represent their respective nations, so too are Christians chosen to be ambassadors for their spiritual country, the Kingdom of God. This is no easy task, however, as our adversary the devil seeks to steal, kill, and destroy Christ’s athletes. Meanwhile, external hardships combined with inward weariness and carnal desires avert our eyes from the finish line. To endure to the end requires no small measure of daily discipline and dedication.
Michael Phelps, who just last week made history by winning his 22nd Olympic gold medal, knows a thing or two about what it takes to be a world-class athlete. He once told The Guardian, “I can’t remember the last day I didn’t train.”
Christian athletes, that is to say followers of Christ who acknowledge that our walk with Jesus is to be taken just as seriously as Olympics training, must adopt the mentality that there are no “off days.” Each morning we wake up, we’re to don our uniforms (the Armor of God spoken of in Ephesians 6), and hit the tracks, lanes, and platforms of life with 100-percent focus, always remembering the victor’s crown.
Notice that Paul also exhorts us to compete “according to the rules.” In the ancient Olympic Games, every athlete had to meet three criteria: the first was being a true-born Greek, the second was swearing an oath before Zeus that he had prepared for ten months before the Games (thus giving Zeus liberty to take his life if he lied), and third was abiding by the rules that applied to his specific event (for example, a rider was forbidden to turn in the hippodrome before the turning pole). Failure to comply with these rules resulted in swift disqualification.
Christian athletes also have rules to follow, commandments that were not abolished by Jesus’ coming but fulfilled by it (Matthew 5:17). Being loyal to our spouses, compassionate toward the sick, generous toward the poor, patient in affliction… these are but a few of the “rules” we abide by as new creations in Christ, not because we’re fearful of the repercussions if we don’t, but because we yearn to glorify the One who gave all to save and set us free from sin and death (2 Corinthians 5:17).
What is also interesting to note is that the ancient Greek athletes were frequently coached by past victors, which forms yet another parallel with the Christian life. Paul, the soon-to-be “past victor” coached the younger Timothy, teaching him perseverance, holiness, and steadfast faith in God. Similarly, we should be mindful that we are to be examples, even mentors, to any “spectators” around us. Whatever we’ve overcome and achieved as Christian athletes, we’re encouraged to share our testimonies with others in hopes of inspiring and equipping them for their own race for a crown that will never perish.
Steele Johnson and David Boudia recently won silver medals in the men’s synchronized diving 10m competition last Monday. Both young men are followers of Christ and, though they confess their journey to the Olympics wasn’t easy, they believe it was a process that brought glory to God.
Johnson sustained a life-threatening injury at age 12 while perfecting his dives, an event that would’ve caused many others to call it quits. But Johnson stayed the course.
“I could have gone back to middle school and just been normal and played different sports like football or soccer. The fact that God gave me the ability to stick with it and persevere and not have fear and anxiety about diving, it all worked out in the end.”
What a powerful parable Johnson’s story paints for us. Jesus never promised us a relaxing, leisurely-paced race. He never promised the track would be free of pain, frustration, doubt, and heartache. What He did promise was to provide the sufficient grace we need to run it with excellence, to renew our strength when we are weak, and to never leave us nor forsake us until we cross the finish line and meet Him face to face.
“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1, NASB).
Sources: Christianpost.com (August 10, 2016); theguardian.com (August 1, 2004)