Exactly two months two months from today, the 2021 Summer Olympic games are set to begin in Tokyo, Japan. I don’t know about you, but I am excited to watch the best athletes from across the world participate in a wide variety of sports and athletic disciplines. The agility and ability of the men and women who will compete will be wonderful to see.
Olympians train for years to be at their absolute peek when the games begin. Their devotion to both physical and mental conditioning is exemplary. They are fixated with achieving the pinnacle of their respective sports. Few actually make it to the top, and those who do have a host of hungry competitors ready to defeat them.
Physical fitness and sport is not just for the elite. The apostle Paul acknowledged in 1 Timothy 4:8, ““bodily exercise profits a little.” There is a benefit to being active, both physical and mental. However, I want us to focus on the rest of Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 4, “…but godliness is profitable for all things.” The Lord doesn’t want us to ignore physical health, but He wants us to prioritize spiritual health. He wants us to excel, to display devotion, to achieve the pinnacle of spiritual health. Several New Testament texts use athletic figures to prompt us to become the greatest and strongest servants of God we can possibly be. We will consider some of those texts here.
Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth,
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
At the Olympics, there is only one gold medal per event. There will only be one winner. The spiritual race ends with more than one receiving the prize, but Paul encourages us to run as though just one crown were available. We must be temperate or self-controlled (2 Peter 1:6). Don’t run in uncertainty, but know the will of God (Ephesians 5:17). Battle the real enemy, don’t engage in foolish quarrels (2 Timothy 2:23). Be disciplined; bring your entire life into subjection and obedience to our Lord Jesus (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Paul reminded Timothy,
…if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. (2 Timothy 2:5)
Sadly, it is not uncommon to hear of athletes who try to cheat, whether it be through performance enhancing drugs or skirting the rules in some fashion. There are a myriad of consequences which follow: disqualification, removal of medals won or records set, suspension and possibly even a life-time ban. It pays to play according to the rules.
Those who do not walk in the way of God have no heavenly hope—they are disqualified. Paul urged the Christians in Corinth to “…examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves…” (2 Corinthians 13:5). We must do so also!
The purpose of the epistle of Jude is identified by the writer in these words:
Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
Much could be said of the “common salvation,” but that is best left for some other time. Our interest is the phrase “contend earnestly,” translated from the Greek epagonizomai. This word combines epi (striving) with the strong agonizesthai (agonizing contest). Barnes tells us that the word alludes to the “Grecian games”1. This is the word used to refer to Olympic wrestling. Any who have wrestled understand the huge exertion of energy involved. It’s not a leisurely tussle; it is a battle to and beyond exhaustion.
When we have run the race with endurance (Hebrews 12:1), have defeated the advances of the wicked one and laid hold of eternal life (1 Timothy 6:11-12), we will be able to say with the apostle Paul,
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness… (2 Timothy 4:7).
1 Barnes’ NT Commentary