Summary: We cannot be victorious in Christ unless we compete according to His rules: endurance, integrity, loving His word.
Compete According to the Rules
One World, One Dream
(Lin Hao Clip)
There is a nobility in willingly facing pain when it is necessary. Athletics is a peaceful expression of that virtue.
Training was an important part of the ancient Olympic games. These days, training is more of an optional kind of requirement. A person who does not train cannot expect to qualify, but how she trains is up to her and her coach. In ancient times, though, a person who did not train according to a prescribed regime and diet was not following the rules and would not be allowed to compete. They took an oath to intensively train for 10 months prior to the competition.
For that reason, there is more of a connection between verses 4 and 5 than is immediately obvious to our contemporary eyes. We separate preparation from the rules of competition. Think about the preparation of the soldier then, in connection with the preparation of the athlete and combine the ideas to find the complete picture of what Paul is saying:
• Don’t get involved in outside concerns
• Work to please your leader
• Compete and train according to the rules
These are the elements of ultimate approval, both from your coach and from the judge. If you follow these principles, you will be the legitimate winner of a crown.
The crowns or wreaths that were worn on the heads of winning athletes were different for different places. At Olympia crowns of olive leaves were awarded. This prize was not the only prize that was received by athletes. They often received substantial cash rewards (not Nike endorsement contracts). Sometimes the prize included dinner for life, or expensive household equipment made of bronze or iron. But, for Olympians, the olive leaf crown, like the gold medal, was by far the most prestigious prize.
Paul is saying, "If you want to win the ultimate crown, you must separate yourself and work hard."
• Don’t get tangled up in sin
• Make sure to please your Leader
• Live up to the recognized standards
Paul is not saying these things in a vacuum. I think he is referring (guardedly) to something that everyone knew about, but nobody would talk about. The Olympics should have been held in 65 AD, but a high level bribe had it postponed for two years, for the benefit of a single competitor.
The Olympic scandal of 67
In the year AD 67 the Olympics were held and six events were won by a quite prestigious competitor:
The events were
• Heralds (a trumpet blowing competition - the winners were then enlisted to announce the athletes)
• Tethripon (four horse chariot)
• Foals Tethripon (four horse chariot pulled by foals)
• Ten horse chariot (not a regular event, he had no competitors, fell off the chariot and had to be helped back up ... and still could not complete the course, but was given the crown anyway)
• Lyre (a self accompanied singing competition invented by this "athlete")
• Tragedy (little is known about this event, it too may have been invented for this venue)
After the games, he publically presented bribes to the judges and was accompanied back to Rome by a large retinue of singers and story tellers who loudly announced his victory. The competitor was none other than the vain and violent Emperor Nero (Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum – Nero).