God's Word shows us many spiritual lessons we can learn from the Olympic Games.
Excitement is now rapidly mounting worldwide as hundreds of millions of people look forward to viewing, either in person or on television, one of the world's greatest sporting events, the Summer Olympic Games. The Games this year will be in Los Angeles, Calif. Did you know that ancient Games in Greece, the forerunners of the modern Olympics, are mentioned in the Bible? During the days of the early Church, the Olympic Games were an important and famous event every four years, just as they are today. The apostle Paul used these Games, with which most everyone of his day was familiar, to help him explain vital spiritual principles. The same principles apply to God's people today!
The first known Olympic contest took place as long ago as 776 B.C. Thereafter, the Games were scheduled at four-year intervals for almost 1,200 years, until A.D. 394, when they were abolished by Roman Emperor Theodosius I after Greece lost its independence. For the first 13 olympiads, the only event was a footrace of about 200 yards (180 meters), and the Games only lasted one day. All the contestants were male and all ran naked. Gradually, other events such as chariot races, boxing, wrestling, the discus and javelin were added, and the duration of the Games was extended. The Games occupied such an important position in Greek life that time was measured by the four -year interval between them — an olympiad. For 1,200 years, time was counted in olympiads, before years and months began to be used. The greatest honor any Greek could attain was winning the simple branch of wild olive given to a victor in the Games. Kings competed alongside commoners; even the Roman Emperor Nero sought Olympic honors. In time, four similar national contests developed in various parts of Greece — the Olympic, Isthmian, Nemean and Pythian Games. The Isthmian Games took place every two years in Corinth, and would have been familiar to Church members living there in Paul's time. So Paul pointed out some striking spiritual lessons to the Corinthians by referring to these Games. When we understand this background to these passages, they take on added light and meaning.
Strive for the prize
Let's notice, for instance, Corinthians 9:24-27. "Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize?" (verse 24). Only one person in each race at the Games received the victor's wreath or garland. "Run in such a way that you may obtain it." Paul compares our Christian life to a race and urges us to run earnestly, with the comforting knowledge that although only one person in an Olympic race can win, everyone who runs well in the Christian race can win. In verse 25, Paul shows that every successful athlete at the Games had to exercise rigorous self-discipline. So it is at the modern Olympics, too. The athletes who will succeed at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics will be men and women who have sacrificed many of the pleasures other people enjoy to devote countless hours of exhausting struggle, sweat and toil in training for their events. It is interesting that the Greek word translated "competes" in verse 25 is agonizomenos, which literally means "agonizes." Yet these athletes went through all this just to obtain a "perishable crown." The winner's crown at the Olympic Games was made up of olive leaves, which began to wither away as soon as they were plucked. How much more, then, ought we as Christians to discipline ourselves spiritually and agonize for our prize, a "crown of righteousness" (II Timothy 4:8), a "crown of glory that does not fade away" (I Peter 5:4)! The life of a true Christian isn't a simple matter of coasting or cruising along effortlessly, merely "believing in Christ" and thinking we are already saved. Rather, living God's way is a constant struggle. It's a continuing effort to keep sin out of our lives, to seek God and be close to Him in a materialistic world that hates His ways and hurtles along in the opposite direction. It's something we have to strive for with great zeal and energy, something to "contend earnestly for" (Jude 3). We need to drive ourselves forward with every ounce of spiritual strength and, determination we have, just as an Olympic-class athlete urges and pushes his body on to achievement. In I Corinthians 9:26, Paul alludes to the boxing events at the Games, and says that he doesn't fight like a shadow boxer, beating the air without purpose. We know our purpose — we know our goal of entering God's Kingdom. We need to keep our eyes on that goal and never deviate from it. The word translated "discipline" in verse 27 ("But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection") literally means "give a black eye to." Paul realized he needed to box and "pommel" (Revised Standard Version) his own body, with stringent self-discipline, in order to ensure he stayed on the right track in his personal spiritual life. Once again we see that a carefree and complacent attitude will not gain us entry into God's Kingdom. God wants to see that we really mean business in following His way of life. He wants to see us straining and striving to really build tough, resilient spiritual character. Paul realized that he had to discipline himself strictly in this way "lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified" (I Corinthians 9:27). The word translated "have preached" refers to the office of the "herald" at the ancient Greek Games. The herald had the job of proclaiming the rules of the Games and calling the competitors together and exhorting them. The word translated "disqualified" refers to a person whom the judges would reject as not having deserved the prize. See also Galatians 2:2 and Philippians 2:16. Similarly, everyone of us is urgently warned, in the message to the Philadelphia church, not to run our race in vain and end up losing our crown (Revelation 3:11).
Consider past champions
Hebrews 12:1-2 portrays another aspect of the ancient Greek Games in order to bring us further vivid spiritual lessons. Olympic athletes receive added motivation from the awareness that they are surrounded by stadiums full of spectators spurring them on to success. Particularly in ancient times, when success at the Games was even more highly prized than today, all the principal leaders of the nation, as well as past heroes and champions, would be at the arena, supporting the competitors. Those in the audience would seem like a vast cloud because of the athlete's blurred vision when running as fast as he could. Paul comments that we also "are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1). In our Christian effort, we can look to the outstanding examples set by the men and women of faith, the heroes and champions who have preceded us, such as those cataloged in the previous chapter, Hebrews 11. Meditating on these examples, keeping them in our mind's eye as we run our race, should spur us on.
Cast off the weight of sins
An Olympic athlete can't afford to carry any unnecessary weight. Heavy clothing is a slowing, hindering burden. Runners in the original Games even went so far as running naked to avoid any unnecessary encumbrances. Hebrews 12:1 encourages us to "lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us." Sin is the heavy burden that holds us back and thwarts us from doing our best in our Christian endeavor. Proverbs 5:22 compares sins to strong cords binding us down. So sins of any sort must be discovered and cast off as we speed forward in our race for God's Kingdom. Hebrews 12:2 shows the importance of having a goal to strive for in our life, just as Olympic competitors fix their eyes on the finishing tape or the goal they have to reach. We need to always look to Jesus as "the author and finisher of our faith." He was there at the start of our individual race, showing us the way to go, and He will be there at the finish, awarding the prizes to the conquerors. Jesus Christ is the great champion who endured in His life on earth, striving against sin "for the joy that was set before Him." He kept His eyes on the great goal of reigning in glory with His Father. Considering the example of Jesus, who "resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin," helps us avoid growing weary and faint in the strenuous, grueling contest in which we're engaged (verses 3 and 4). Paul gives another vivid description of the intense effort we need to employ as we drive ourselves toward the goal of God's Kingdom in Philippians 3:13-14: "Brethren I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."
Instruction to Timothy
Paul makes frequent references to the Olympic Games in his epistles to Timothy. In I Timothy 4:7 he tells Timothy to "exercise yourself rather to godliness." The Greek word rendered "exercise" here is gumnaze, referring to the gymnastic exercises used by the Greeks of Paul's time in preparation for the Games. Paul goes on to show in the next verse that physical exercises only profit the body for a little while, but the dedicated spiritual training we undertake — the exercising of our bodies and minds after godliness — living God's way of life — is "profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come." In I Timothy 6:12, Paul refers again to the boxing and wrestling contests at the Games, and to the crowd of witnesses in the on-looking audience: "Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses." Yet another allusion to the Games is in II Timothy 2:5: "And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.". Athletes have to strive and work hard, to "endure hardship" (verse 3), for their success, and they have to abide by the rules of the contest. In the same way, we as God's people must labor diligently to enter God's Kingdom, and we must be obedient to the laws of the greatest judge of all — God (Genesis 18:25). Nearing the end of his life, Paul used an Olympic Games analogy to graphically sum up his life's endeavors: "I have fought the good fight [the Greek words refer to a wrestling bout], I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (II Timothy 4:7). Paul was able to look back with satisfaction that he had run the race right to the finish and had kept the rules. Are we able to look at our spiritual lives with that feeling? Are we putting out as much effort as we can in our bold bid for the glorious prize of God's Kingdom? In verse 8, Paul concluded, "Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness," not just a wreath of fading leaves or a gold medal subject to tarnishing (see Matthew 6:19-20), "which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing." Will you be numbered among the group of conquering heroes who mount the dais along with the apostle Paul to receive the glorious reward of entrance into the universe-ruling Kingdom and Family of God? Run to win in your personal spiritual "Olympic Games"!
The Christian Marathon by Val J Aspenns
Herbert W. Armstrong has often said that knowledge is of no real value unless it is put to use. This is especially true in respect to spiritual knowledge. When God reveals His truth to us, we can come away with a greater sense of commitment, dedication and resolve toward God, the work His Church is doing and the Christian way of life in general. Or we can allow our sense of purpose and enthusiasm to go the way of the proverbial New Year's resolution, which lasts about as long as the hangover. It's quite clear that unless we use the knowledge God gives His people — unless we apply it to our life and circumstances — it will be lost, perhaps never to be regained. There is an old motto that says, "Use it or lose it." It's simple, yet so profound. When viewed in this light, it seems that our options are somewhat limited. We all need to make the right choice and, with God's help, go on to greater spiritual growth, no matter what obstacles or trials this life may bring to us as individuals or as the entire Body of Jesus Christ.
Paul led the way
In another time, in another setting a man named Paul trod this same Christian road before us. He was not unfamiliar with the trials and tests of life. In fact, few can match his record (II Corinthians 11:25-27). Paul's life is a glowing example of how to be a Christian no matter what the circumstances, be it in poverty or wealth, in sickness or in health. If the stress of life is seemingly too much, take heart — Paul has been there. He overcame and freely gives us the benefit of his experience. Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, far predated the jogging and running fad. Yet, on a number of occasions, he used an interesting analogy by comparing our calling to a race and exhorting us to "run with endurance the race that is set before us" (Hebrews 12:1). To participate in this race, you don't have to be a beautifully conditioned athlete. There is no specific age qualification, and the official judge of the race — God — doesn't discriminate against women or men. But you do have to be a Christian — willing to work hard and expend a lot of effort. The race Paul alludes to is not a short 60- or 100-yard dash over a perfectly level, artificial running turf encompassed by stands filled with admiring, cheering fans. Rather, it is more like a long-distance cross-country run winding over unpaved dirt or gravel roads as well as hard concrete, with stretches of both level ground and hilly, gut-wrenching terrain.
A long-distance run
Because of the long distance, the field of runners spreads out quickly and at times you may feel you're running all alone in this race. At other times, you see runners pass you and you're tempted to drop out in discouragement. After all, who would know or care if you gave up? And then there's the pain of blisters or just plain fatigue. What a relief it would be to quit! There's also the double threat of heat and humidity, which can sap your strength, but you go on. Finally, you will reach the long-awaited finish line. Only one person can come in first in a race. Jesus Christ has already done that in this spiritual marathon (Hebrews 12:2). But when you've run hard and done your best, you, too, can know you've won the race. Those who have experienced this feeling in physical races know the joy of running. At the end of his life, the apostle Paul expressed this joy, knowing he had run his spiritual marathon well and won the crown of righteousness (II Timothy 4:8).
We must race
We as Christians have been called and chosen to participate in this race for eternal life. To reject this opportunity could mean our salvation. So run we must, day by day, week by week. Along the route we might stumble at times or have to stop momentarily at an aid station for some thirst-quenching water, but remember that Paul, who was tried and tested in much the same manner, is cheering us on. "Run," he wrote, "in such a way that you may obtain [the prize]" (I Corinthians 9:24). We are also encompassed by a great "cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1) — the people of God who have successfully run before us and who now, symbolically, are encouraging us to victory. The apostle Paul met his challenges, accomplished his work and his race. He won his crown. We, too, have a crown prepared for us. Jesus Christ tells us: "Behold, I come quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown" (Revelation 3:11). As we all near the end of this Christian marathon — as the road of life gets tougher and tougher, remember Paul and keep on running!