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|13 August, 2000|
WE are living in Sydney at the most wonderful of times. This is the year of the commencement of the twenty first century, of the bi-centenary of Australia, of the start of the new Millennium and of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. This is the year little children will ask us about in decades to come. As we approach the commencement of the Olympics, there are no more relevant passages in the Scriptures than those written about athletic competitions by the Apostle Paul. Paul, or Saul as he was known in his pre-Christian days, was a citizen of the world. He was born a Jew, trained in the university of Tarsus in southern modern day Turkey, became a Pharisee in the Pharisaic School in Jerusalem, spoke fluent Greek and Hebrew, travelled freely as a Roman citizen, and if you have every walked along the routes of his prodigious travels, you will realise quickly he was superbly fit and tough. Little wonder he should look to the arenas for analogies of the Christian life.
1. The International Games In Paul's Time
In the same way as we have a great variety of international competitive sports today, such as the World Championships, the Pan-Pac Games, the European Games and so on, there were many international games and inter-country competitions in the centuries about the time of Jesus Christ. Greece was the home of international sport and sporting competitions between the Greek city states. They continued over a period of eight hundred years. The most important games were the Olympic at Olympia, high in the mountains, the Pythian at Delphi, also high on a mountain side, the Nemean at Argos and the Isthmian close to Corinth.
I have visited three of those sites. Competitions were held in foot running, chariot racing, horse racing, javelin, boxing, wrestling, throwing quoits, discus and putting the shot. Only men attended, because only men competed and they competed naked. The competitors trained vigorously under very strict rules demanding great self-control. At Olympia, my friend and former work colleague John Graham, challenged me to beat him down the 100 metres track. The starting blocks, cut into the rock, were used by athletes 2500 years before us every four years. Twenty-five years earlier, my times for the 100 metres were much faster than those of the younger John Graham. He beat me in the race, which was filmed by Martin Johnson. There were no judges so I could not appeal, but I think the reason why John Graham won, was that he had been on steroids!!
The prize in the Greek games was "a corruptible crown". It varied according to the location of the games. At Olympia it was a crown of olive leaves. At the Isthmian Games, it was a crown of pine leaves. At Delphi a crown of laurel leaves and at Nemea a crown of parsley leaves. Victory always involved saluting the statues of the prevailing gods at the side of the track, and in the nearby temples. The victor was announced by a judge, crowned, and then paraded before the crowd with a herald proclaiming his name. Because the Isthmian Games were held at Corinth every two years, and Paul was there in 50 and 51AD, he would have seen the excitement in the city. The city was a holiday area and attracted large crowds. The office for the Isthmian Games in Corinth was in the southern Stoa, close by the tent-makers shop where Paul said he worked with his hands in the business run by Priscilla and Aquila.
During the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, about 170 years before the birth of Jesus, there was an attempt to import the Greek Games into Palestine. Later, Herod the Great who was educated in Rome by Greek tutors, introduced Greek games to the Jews. They rejected his attempts because the games came from pagan sources, were associated with idols of the Greek gods, and were often violent with the defeated being killed. The boxing gloves, for example were made of hard leather studded with iron nails. Herod, however, built a remarkable stadium and hippodrome for horse and chariot racing at Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast that survives, in ruins, to this day.
2. Paul's References To The Games
There are many references to the Games in Paul's letters. Every Sunday night between now and the close of the Paralympics I will use an example to illustrate a great Christian truth. Paul's references to the games, have a challenge to everyone of us. Paul tells us that we should live our Christian life with purpose, aiming to please God by being successful in our witness and service for Him. If athletes train for a fading prize of leaves, how much more should Christians endeavour to succeed. 1 Cor 9: 24-25 "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever." Paul's challenge to the early Christians challenges us still today. We need not worry that we are in a minority, because only a minority ever wins the prize, and Christians are winners.
Committed Christians must have a determined purpose, a desire to make our efforts count, and a discipline about our Christian living that will ensure our efforts will be rewarded. Athletes run straight to the finish line. Boxers aim their blows to the body not to the air. Competitors discipline themselves in strict training. Otherwise they fail in the eyes of people about them. Paul writes: 1 Cor 9:26-27 "Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize."
On one occasion, Paul was concerned that what he had to say to the leaders of the churches in Galatia would count for little. In that case his efforts would have been in vain. He wrote that he felt like an athlete who had trained well, but who had lost. Galatians 2: 2 "I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain." However, God was good, and his efforts bore fruit. The people in the Galatian area, in central modern Turkey, became believers. Yet, their record of faithfulness to the Gospel was not a good one. They deviated from the true faith and Paul used an analogy from athletics to question them: Galatians 5: 7 "You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?" Everyone who has competed in athletic competition knows that running can be very dirty. I have been elbowed by people trying to stop me passing, my heels have been spiked by those behind, and my shins cut by those who cut in sharply ahead of me to slow me down.
The people of Galatia got the picture clearly because Paul knew the activities of unfair people on the running track. We are positive people, making the running. We let other people try to catch us. But sometimes we have to be on the defensive. There are many within and without the church today who attack the Gospel of Christ, and in particular Christian moral standards. Anyone who attends Wesley Mission, knows that we do not shrink from the active defence of the Gospel and the standards of Christian morality. Paul explained this to the Christians in Philippi by referring to boxing. Boxing is both aggressive and defensive.
In my early life I attended classes for several years in boxing and wrestling. We were taught in punching how to punch in such a way as to make our blows count, and how to box not always aggressively, but sometimes defensively. Paul used such a boxing term when he wrote: Philippians 2: 15-16 "It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel." This was muscular Christianity! It wasn't that Paul considered himself the perfect example of those who had gained eternal life through their faith in Christ Jesus. But he did have a clear goal and purpose to stand beside Christ and to hear his word, "Well done, good and faithful servant." He wrote again: Philippians 3: 13-14 "Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." He was determined to forget the past, and keeping his eyes on the goal, win.
That prize of the heavenly crown was available to all believers who are true to their faith, who live with Christian purpose, and who endure any suffering until the end. That victor's crown is theirs, provided they do not try any cheating shortcuts. No athlete can run in another competitor's lane. No athlete can use a short weight discus or shot or javelin. And no Christian will gain the crown of glory, by practising secret immorality; by hidden dishonesty or lying that fools everybody. Can you fool God? Your cheating, even if hidden from the eyes of everyone else, is observed by God. So Paul warns young Timothy: 2 Timothy 2:5 "If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor's crown unless he competes according to the rules."
Paul always kept the rules. He was saved by faith, but his disciplined life kept the way of Christian living. Hence he could look forward with expectation to God's reward for the way he had believed and lived. That was his hope and expectation. In the early Olympics, the superbly fit athlete who won in the games not only received the temporary crown of leaves, but won the right to fight beside their king in battle. That was Paul's great hope. To stand beside his King and receive his crown. 2 Timothy 4:8 "Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing." He was ready for any further acts of service for Jesus Christ. He was willing to stand beside his King in whatever battle may still lay ahead. He had succeeded in order to serve better. Paul determination about the future had been forged in his watching of how runners, wrestlers, athletes trained, competed and won at the games.
Paul's advice to his younger colleagues in the Gospel was memorable. It was liberally spiced with illustrations Paul had observed from the Games. One young listener wrote an account to the Hebrew Christ-ians in the spirit of Paul about what believers must do: Hebrews 12:1-2 "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."
You wonder what you should do? Do exactly what is said here: Realise others are watching you. Remove any bad habits, compulsions, attitudes that tangle your life and stop you from being your best. Resolve to concentrate, think, fix your eyes upon Jesus, who started this life, endured its sufferings, persevered to the end, and who has received His Crown of Righteousness in the presence of God. At the end of his life, Paul said confidently, 2 Timothy 4:6-8 "The time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing." Will you commit yourself to Jesus Christ now? You are before a great cloud of witnesses in heaven who have run the race before you. Rid your life of every sin and hindrance. Fix your eyes upon Jesus. Run the race set before you. Finish the course. Receive the crown of righteousness.
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Rev Dr Gordon Moyes