Currently the news media, whether that be television, radio, newspapers or internet, is saturated with news from the Olympics in Tokyo. Being the greatest sporting spectacle on earth, athletes from around the world, competing in popular sports and as well as in more obscure disciplines have converged on Japan to realise their dreams. For some anything less than a medal, or even a gold, will be failure, while for others the opportunity to take part and become an Olympian is simply enough. While many sports have become swallowed up by commercialism and the lure of big money there remains something fascinating about the purity of the Olympic ideal. The Olympic spirit is erected upon commitment and energy coupled with fairness and opportunity. In a world where the sports that earn huge money dominate the headlines from year to year there is something refreshing about seeing unknown people becoming famous within sports of which we know little.
Whether we are sports fans or not, however, the Bible student cannot study the New Testament without being aware of the sporting background, which considerably influenced the writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul as a Roman citizen in an empire dominated by Greek culture wrote and preached as a man who was familiar with the prevailing culture and he used this knowledge to teach Christian truth in a most relevant way.
The modern Olympic movement grew out of the Ancient Greek Olympics, which were held in the city of Olympia on a four year cycle from 776BC to 393AD. The competitors pitted their talents against one another in a variety of disciplines such as boxing, wrestling, sprinting, chariot racing and the pentathlon (a multi discipline event consisting of discus, javelin, wrestling, jumping and running). There were other sporting competitions, also, one of which was convened only ten miles from Corinth, and would have coincided with the Apostle Paul’s ministry there.
As a Roman citizen, reaching a world steeped in Greek culture Paul was most adept at illustrating truth, making his teaching clear for the people. In so doing he used the ancient Olympics and the spirit of the contestants as a fitting example of the Christian spirit.
He likened the Christian life to a race where the members are not spectators, but participants, striving with commitment and energy, looking unto Jesus for the eternal reward. Such a picture presents the Christian as one wholly devoted to the cause and who is interested only in pleasing Christ.
Paul also compared his own life to a boxing bout. As the boxer fears defeat so Paul trembled lest after he had preached to others he himself should become a castaway. Hypocrisy and duplicity were terrors to him. He therefore resolved to discipline his soul, to remain focused, not beating the air but making every punch effective. Towards the end of his life and ministry as martyrdom beckoned, it was with gratitude he could reflect, “I have fought a good fight”.
The theme of the struggle was never far away from Paul’s thinking as he exhorted and encouraged the people of God. As the wrestlers grappled with one another seeking to gain supremacy, so the Church of Christ is wrestling not with flesh and blood but with principalities and powers, with spiritual wickedness in high places. There is a spirit in this world which is an enemy to grace and which is endeavouring to overthrow the Church of Christ; a spirit that we must resist with every fibre of our moral resolve.
Whether we think of our Christian life as a race, a boxing contest or a wrestling match we must persist and persevere. As we do so there is the happy prospect of the great award ceremony when the crown of life is given, a crown that never will fade away, as we receive the prize of the high calling of God.
“Only one life t’will soon be past, Only what’s done for Christ will last.”