Summary: Paul often compared our living the Christian life to the athletes who participated in the ancient Olympic games. This lesson examines those similarities.
Do you have the fever yet?
No, not the flu!
Do you have Olympic fever, yet?
August 13th marks the beginning of Olympic competitions in Athens, Greece! 10,500 athletes from 202 nations will be gathering for the games. Upwards of a couple million will travel to watch the contests. Amazingly, the number of people who will tune-in to any part of the TV coverage is predicted to reach 3.5 billion. It would be an understatement to say that the Olympics is a big deal!
Back in ancient history, the Olympics were a big deal! The ancient Olympic Games, part of a major religious festival honoring Zeus, the chief Greek god, were the biggest events in the ancient world. The ancient Olympics were rather different from the modern Games in the following ways -
There were fewer events (a half dozen sports compared to the 28 sports of today).
Only free men who spoke Greek could compete. However, Greek was the common language of much of the ancient world so athletes from different parts of the Mediterranean world were represented. Thus, the games were still the familiar scene of political rivalries between people from different parts of the Greek world, and the site of controversies, boasts and humiliations.
The ancient games were always held at Olympia instead of moving around to different sites as today. The Olympic festival brought huge numbers of visitors to Olympia. Most people slept outside, under the stars, although the wealthy and members of official delegations erected elaborate tents and pavilions. Merchants, craftsmen, and food vendors arrived to sell their wares. The busy schedule included religious ceremonies, including sacrifices; speeches by well-known philosophers; poetry recitals; parades; banquets; and victory celebrations.
No medals were given to the winners. Rather, the victor received a crown or wreath made from olive leaves, and was entitled to have a statue of himself set up at Olympia.
However, like today, winning athletes were heroes who put their home towns on the map. Although he did not receive money at the Olympics, the victor was treated much like a modern sports celebrity by his home city because his success increased the fame and reputation of his community in the Greek world. Their hometowns might reward them with free meals for the rest of their lives, cash, tax breaks, front-row seats at the theater and other public festivals, honorary appointments, or prestigious leadership positions in the community. The victors were memorialized in statues and also in victory odes, commissioned from famous poets. Their names became known in every household.
Yes, the Olympics were a big deal back then even as much as they are today. They even caught the attention of the Apostle Paul. He refers to the Olympic games in a few of his letters and, in one notable passage, mentions two of the sports that were part of the Olympic competition in his day - Running and Boxing.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
I am not much of a boxing fan but I do enjoy watching the oldest of Olympic sports - running. In addition to this passage, there are several other passages wherein Paul likens our Christian vocation as a long-distance Olympic race. Today, lets examine some of those passages and see what lessons we can draw from the Olympic contest.
1. Not all runners win the race (1 Corinthians 9:24).
The first lesson we can learn is that not all runners win the prize. In the final competition, just one receives the victory wreath or today’s gold medal.
Sadly, most people do not even make it to the starting blocks because they have no interest in entering the great race. They want to walk entirely their own path in life. However, Jesus implores, in Matthew 7:13-14, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
Jesus beckons us to be among the few who enter the race. He calls us to the race track through the Gospel.
And there are those who obey the Gospel and start the Christian race toward Heaven and they do gloriously reach the finish line and await to be rewarded. But, sadly, there are those who obey the Gospel call and start the Christian race toward Heaven… but fail to reach the prize. They begin well, but do not make a good finish.