Summary: Cage fighting is a particularly gruesome way of fighting, and yet Paul used the fighting of his day (more brutal than MMA) to describe Timothy's responsibilities. What could we possibly learn from MMA that could make us better servants of Christ?
How many of you know the meaning of these letters used to describe a sporting event:
MMA? (Mix Martial Arts).
It’s kind of like boxing where the contestants not only hit each other with their fists, but also with their feet and knees and elbows. It’s also called “Cage fighting” because the contenders are literally inside a cage. They can’t fall over the edge of the mat like in standard boxing and wrestling.
Another definition of this type of contest is that it is “Unarmed Combat” because when a blow is struck enthusiasts say “it may reasonably be expected to inflict injury.”
As you can imagine, Cage fighting is a particularly rough sport. Contestants often are knocked out, tear ligaments, break bones, and even - in very rare cases – die. They punch, kick and beat on each other as they fight to the finish.
Top champions may earn millions, lower level pros may only earn a few hundred dollars per fight, and amateurs (the majority of those who participate in this grueling challenge) earn nothing. And yet 100s of young men and women engage in this kind of contest in order to prove their skills in the ring.
And they aren’t the first to engage in this kind of Sport.
One source I read said that “The art of boxing, whereby two men enter a contest to see who can withstand the most punches from the other, dates back at least as far as the earliest civilisations and is probably one of the oldest sports of its kind in the history of fighting.”
By the day of Paul and Timothy, such fighting contests would have made our present day cage fighting contests seem tame by comparison. They wrapped the hands of the fighters in leather straps, and THEN had metal inserted into them.
You might ask why would they do this? Well, this kind of leather wrapping with the metal insert was called the “caestus” and was more like a knife than a boxing glove it could actually stab and rupture the other fighter.
“Unsurprisingly, boxing matches in Rome often ended in the death of the loser.”
It’s against that backdrop that Paul writes these words to Timothy: “Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience.” I Timothy 1:18-19a
And later in this letter Paul repeats himself: “Fight the good fight of the faith” I Timothy 6:12a
And in his last letter to Timothy, Paul says:
“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” II Timothy 4:6
Now, knowing how brutal such a fight could be, why would Paul use this kind of language? Why use a bloody contest that often ended in death to describe Timothy’s task?
Now I have to admit, this cage fighting theme was not my idea. One of the other preachers in our group came up with it. For the longest time I struggled with using this kind of illustration as part of my sermon and I almost just dropped the idea and started looking for some other way to frame this sermon.