Christian Olympics

I Corinthians 9:24-27

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
January 2011

The passage I would like to share with you tonight is found in I Corinthians 9:24-27. It is an incredible passage that is full of applications for us. Paul is writing to Greek Christians in the city of Corinth and he uses an athletic metaphor here to describe the Christian life. If you like sports, if you are athletic, you will be interested in what Paul says here.

The ancient Greeks loved sports and loved competition. They loved them so much that they had four major athletic events in four different cities. They were called the Pan-Hellenic Games. The four were the Olympic Games, Pythian Games, Isthmian Games and the Nemea Games.

The most famous one was the Olympic Games. We still have them today. They happen every four years. London will host the Olympics in 2012. The modern Olympics are only a hundred years old. They started in 1896. The Greeks were the ones who started the Olympics. They started them in 776 BC. The Greeks were big sports nuts.

Every four years a truce on war was declared and they had these games. They attracted spectators and competitors all over Greece. A second major competition in ancient Greece was called the Isthmian Games. They were held every two years and were named after the Isthmus of Corinth where they were held. Paul writes as if he had actually seen some of these games. People came from all over to watch this event.

These games went on until they were banned in 393 A.D. by the Roman Christian emperor Theodosius, who considered them pagan festivals. Why did he do this? Did he just hate sports? No. There were two problems with these games. First, Greek athletes often competed in the nude. In fact, the Greek word for “naked” is γυμνος.   The Greek word for “exercise” or “train” is γυμνάζω.

Second, these events were not just athletic events, they were religious events complete with sacrifices to Greek gods. The Olympics were held in honor of the god Zeus, the god of the sky and thunder in Greek mythology. The Isthmian Games were held in honor of the god Poseidon, the god of the sea. Athletes had to swear an oath to these gods before the games even began.

The Corinthians were Greek. They were familiar with these games. Paul didn’t have to explain them to them. Some of them may have been big sports fans. Paul writes as if he has seen some of these games. He uses all kinds of sports metaphors in his epistles.

He mentions runners and boxers in our passage in I Corinthians 9. Boxing was an ancient Greek sport. In Ephesians he compares our spiritual battle to wrestling. In Ephesians 6:12 he says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

In this particular passage in I Corinthians, Paul uses the metaphor of a race (αγων) to describe the Christian life. The Christian life is compared to a race. For the first fifty years of the ancient Greek Olympics, the foot race was the only contest. Later they added things like wrestling, boxing, the long jump, the javelin, the discus throw and chariot races.

At the end of his life, just before he died, Paul said, “I have finished the race” (II Timothy 4:7). Hebrews 12:1, “Let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us.” Some are walking in the race, not running. Foot racing was a popular sport in Paul’s day. What are some characteristics of foot races in Paul’s day?

Characteristics of Foot Races

1. They Require Physical Training (9:25)

People training for marathons can run forty to forty-five miles per week. Swimmers swim ten miles a day to be competitive. Gymnasts work out about six hours a day for six days a week. In ancient Greece, athletes trained for at least ten months before the start of the games. The Christian life involves spiritual training, rather than physical training.

Physical exercise is popular today. Everyone is talking about “getting into shape”. Paul said in I Timothy 4:8, “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come”.

Paul was not against exercise. He did NOT say that physical exercise had no value. He said that it has some value (builds muscle, relieves stress, helps with weight loss, good for the heart).

Paul goes on to say that spiritual exercise is far more valuable. Physical exercise will help in this life but that is all it will do. Spiritual exercise is good for this life and the life to come. Godliness is good for this life.

That seems like a strange statement but it has been proved scientifically. There have been all kinds of studies that say that people who are religious and attend church live longer lives and are healthier than those who do not. They have lower mortality rates.

As a general rule, the righteous live longer than the wicked. Paul goes on to say that spiritual exercise is also good for the life to come. It has eternal value. It benefits your soul, as well as your body. It renews your mind. Physical exercise gives you some rewards in this life. Spiritual exercise will give you rewards in this life and the next life.

For some of us, are priorities are completely messed up. Many of us are in great shape physically but are in terrible shape spiritually. Where do we spend most of our time and energy?

We develop our physical muscles pretty well but do very little to develop our spiritual muscles. We give ourselves a physical workout but rarely give ourselves a spiritual workout. Paul says in I Timothy 4:7, “Train yourself to be godly”.

Godliness requires training. It doesn’t happen by itself. What are we doing to train ourselves to be godly? What type of spiritual exercise program are we on (consistent prayer, Bible study, Scripture memorization, one-on-one accountability, small group, church attendance, fasting)?

A. This Training takes Time.

This training in ancient Greece lasted for months. Today, people train for years for the Olympic games. Spiritual training takes time as well. You can train really hard for hours but it won’t do you any good if you do it only once a month or even once a week.

B. It Starts out Slow.

If you are out of shape and begin training to run a marathon, you have to build up your endurance. As with a physical exercise program, you may not see results immediately. When you start praying for the first time, don’t try to pray for two hours.

C. It Requires Discipline.

Athletes had to train on a regular schedule. They had to be disciplined. Training is not always fun. The word “compete” (9:25) is the Greek word αγονίζωμαι. We get our words “agony” and “agonize” from it. For Lance Armstrong, training often meant riding six hours in the mountains in the pouring rain. They have to train, even when they don’t feel like it.

D. It Involves Self Control.

There were many things they had to give up for training. Many of the things they had to give up were perfectly normal and good. They had to stay away from desserts and certain foods. It requires discipline over the sins of the body. Instead of giving up some foods, some of us need to give up some sins and go on a spiritual diet. Self control is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22)

2. They Require Concentration.

You have to keep running. You have to look forward. You can’t look back (Philippians 3:13). You can’t stop and take a break. When you are running a race, you can only think about one thing. They are short races.

Ten months of training for a ten minute race. Track events were sprints (200, 400 and at most 4,800 meters). The marathon was not an event of the ancient Olympic Games. The marathon is a modern event that was first introduced in 1896.

It may seem like a long time but the time goes fast. It is not a long race. Your life seems long but it is actually short. The Bible uses a few similes and metaphors to describe the brevity of life. The Bible says that people are LIKE grass and LIKE flowers that fade (Isaiah 40:6-8).

It also says that we ARE mists that are only here for a short time and then vanishes (James 4:14). There was a finish line to the race. The finish line is when we die or Jesus returns.

3. The goal of the race is TO WIN

Athletes in the Olympic Games want to win. They want to bring something home (gold medal). They don’t have the philosophy that “it does not matter if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game”.

They did not have the attitude that they only thing that really matters is if they just finish the race. They want to win. They are competitive. Paul does not say that this is bad. He says that it is good and that Christians should be the same way.

He says that we should “Run in such a way as to get the prize.” (9:24). It is a command. Run to win. They were not just to run but to run to win. Don’t just run to finish but run to win. Finishing the race is not winning.

You can finish the race and be in last place. Not everyone who runs wins the race (9:24). In any race there are going to be winners and losers. You don’t get the prize just because you ran in the race. You only get the prize if you win. Only the fastest runner gets the prize.

The analogy that Paul uses here is not a perfect one. There are several ways the Christian race is very different from an Olympic track and field event. It is important to see the differences.

  • The prize is different (one temporal and one eternal).
  • In the Christian race, EVERYONE can win.

The prize is offered to each and every believer (though the reality is that many will not receive the prize).

  • Another difference is that we’re not competing against each other. In an Olympic sport, everyone competes against the other person. In the Christian race we can and should actually help one another to win(I Thessalonians 5:11). Some Christians are very competitive, even when it comes to ministry. He said that some preached Christ out of selfish ambition (Philippians 1:17) but we should not be competitive in the church. Paul tells us to do nothing out of selfish ambition (Philippians 2:3).

4. There were several ways you could LOSE the race

You can lose the race by not coming in first place. You can also lose the race by breaking the rules. Races have rules. The winner of the event received the prize only if he followed the rules (II Timothy 2:5).

What were some of the ground rules of the Isthmian Games? It was limited to men. Women were not allowed to participate. It was limited to free men. Slaves could not participate. It was limited to people who spoke Greek and could prove that they had Greek parents.

Foreigners were not allowed to participate, nor were criminals. In addition, you have to train for ten months before you could compete. The ancient Games opened with an oath. This took place right in front a statue of Zeus. A sacrifice was offered and the athletes had to swear that they had trained properly for the prescribed ten months and that they would obey the rules of the games.

Races still have rules even today . When people athletes in the Olympic Games break the rules, The International Olympic Committee (IOC) disqualifies them from the event and takes their medal back. The Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was hailed as the fastest man on earth but in 1988 he was stripped of his goal medal when he tested positive for steroids.

People at one time thought that the American runner Marion Jones was the fastest woman on earth and the best female athlete in the world. In 2000, she was caught using steroids was stripped by the IOC of five Olympic medals in 2000.

In 1913 American Jim Thorpe was stripped of his two gold medals he earned in the 1912 Olympics (decathlon and pentathlon) and banned from further competition after it was learned he had played semi-professional baseball. At that time the Olympics only allowed amateur athletes. In the 1970s that rule was removed from the rules. The IOC later returned his medals.

What are the rules of the Christian race? They are the commands that God has given to us. They are His instructions found in His Word. What disqualifies the Christian from winning the race? Sin disqualifies people, as we will see in chapter 10.

5. The winner of the race received a PRIZE

The athletes all competed for a prize. In Paul’s day it was some kind of a wreath. Today, athletes compete for a gold, silver or bronze medal. There is a prize in the Christian race as well. What is the prize? Is the prize salvation? Many teach that, including John Piper. The Bible teaches that salvation is by grace, not by works. If the prize represented salvation, then salvation would be by works (cf. Romans 9:16 KJV).

Paul would be running in the race, beating his body and making it his slave in order to earn his way into heaven. That would contradict other places where Paul clearly says that salvation is not by any kind of works (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 3:20, 28; 4:1-5; Galatians 2:16). Eternal life is not something that God grants us as a result of our effort or service for Christ.

Paul is not talking about being disqualified from the kingdom but being disqualified from a prize . He says, run, not to obtain life, but to obtain a crown, “a crown that will last forever” (9:25). The Bible describes rewards as crowns (II Timothy 4:8). There is a big difference between salvation and rewards.

Difference Between Salvation and Rewards

1) Rewards are for those who work (Matthew 16:27; Revelation 22:12). Salvation is for those who believe.

Rewards are based on works. Salvation is not based on works (II Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5; Romans 4:5).

2) Rewards are earned. Salvation is free.

It is a free gift (Romans 6:23). Rewards you deserve. Salvation you do not deserve. One is based on what Christ has done and one is based on what we have done.

3) Rewards can be lost (Revelation 3:11; II John 8). Salvation cannot be lost.

4) Rewards deal with service. Salvation deals with sin.

At the Judgment Seat of Christ, some Christians will receive awards for faithful service and some will not. A Christian can lose rewards and still be saved (3:15). We know that this is talking about rewards and not salvation from the context.

In I Corinthians 10, Paul gives several examples of what it means to be disqualified for the prize. These examples all come from the history of the nation of Israel.

After the Exodus, two million Jews left Egypt but God had to judge many of these Jews because of sin and many died physically (10:1-10). In fact, MOST of them died (10:5). God scattered some of their bodies in the wilderness (10:5). In one day twenty-three thousand of them dropped dead (10:8). Some of them were killed by snakes (10:9). Some of them were killed by angels (10:10).

Sin disqualified people for the prize. Did all of these people go to hell? If you believe that the prize is eternal life and they did not get the prize, then that is what you would have to believe but this creates a problem. Moses also was disqualified and Moses was a believer.

Remember, Moses disobeyed God. God told Moses to speak to a rock to get water. Instead, he struck it, not once but twice and God said that because of this, you cannot go into the Promise Land (Numbers 20). That shows that personal salvation was not the issue. No one questions whether Moses was genuinely saved.

What is the application for us today? Don’t sin like the Jews in the OT or God will judge you like he judged them. Paul gives some OT lessons for the NT church. If you think that you could never sin like they did or that this could never happen to you, Paul has a warning for you.

His warning to the overconfident is this: “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” (10:12). Pride goes before destruction (Proverbs 16:18). Don’t ever think you are invincible or that you are too spiritual to wall into sin. That’s what Peter said (Matthew 26:31-35). Some of the greatest saints in the Bible fell into sin (Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, Solomon, Moses and Samson).

We can fall into idolatry today (Exodus 32). We may not worship sticks and stones but we can easily put other things before God. We can definitely fall into sexual immorality today, as they did (Numbers 25). One of the chief sins of the Israelites in the wilderness was complaining (Exodus 15).

We can still do that today. We are not immune to any of these sins. The section ends with a word of encouragement (10:13). In the context, this verse is not talking about trials but temptation. It tells us four things about temptation.

Four Lessons about Temptation

1. Temptation is Unavoidable.

We will all face it. God does not promise to remove it. We face temptations every day and some of them are powerful. They do not just come from Satan but from our own sinful natures (James 1:14). What is your greatest temptation?

2. Temptation is Universal.

Even Jesus was tempted. All humans are tempted (“Such as is common to man”), although we are not always tempted with the same things. What tempts you may not tempt me. What tempts me may not tempt you but temptations that come to us are NOT unique. We do not have a special problem. Other people in the world (including some other Christians) have faced the exact same temptation that you are right now facing.

3. Temptation is Limited.

The bad news that we are all tempted and there is a limit to what we can resist. The good news is that God controls every temptation that we face and limits it so that it is not too strong for us to face. He allows us to face only what we can handle and nothing beyond that point.

4. Temptation is Resistible.

With the temptation there is always a way of escape not merely “a way” of escape. The Greek is “THE way of escape”. The way out may be fleeing from it (10:14). That was how Joseph escaped temptation from Potiphar’s wife. The point is that sin is NOT inevitable.

No one can force you to sin. The devil does not make us do anything. Satan can tempt us. God provides the way out but it is up to us to take that way out. God doesn’t force us to use the way of escape, as Guzik points out. If we sin, it is because we choose to sin. If we are tempted right now, we need to find the way of escape (which might be a filter on your internet) and use it.

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