TRA Wordtalks

TRA Episode 37/00
November 5th, 2000
"The Greek Games."

1 Cor 9:26-27

When historians seek to find origins of popular activities, they find national pride claiming the origins, whether there is evidence for it or not. For example, China, Egypt and Russia usually claim to have invented most activities before others. When it comes to running races there are few historical records of athletics as an organized sport. Egyptian, Greek and Asian civilizations encouraged athletics centuries before the time of Christ. But the prize should go to Ireland. About 1829 BC, Ireland was the scene of the Tailteann Games involving track-and-field activity.

1. The Greek Games
The Olympic Games of Greece started in 776 BC and continued for 11 centuries until AD 393. The ancient Olympics involved men only. A stadium was the focal point of the contest. The name "stadium" derives from the Greek unit of measurement, the stade, the distance covered in the original Greek footraces. A stade is 180 metres. The sprint in the ancient Olympic Games at Olympia was exactly a stade in length. The word for the unit of measurement became transferred first to the footrace and then to the place in which the race was run, hence "stadium".

I always want people to understand the history and meaning of such things. We have seen why it is important for people to understand such history this week. Unfortunately for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, some of the people making the decisions about the Olympic medals did not know what I have just said. They did not know what you know. That is why the Sydney 2000 Olympic medals have an error in their design.

On the Sydney 2000 medals there is depicted a stylized building which is obviously the ruins of the Roman Colosseum. It should have been a Greek stadium. The artist who designed the medals said the building is the Colosseum in Rome, site of the bloodthirsty gladiatorial battles. Classical languages Professor George Kanarakis, of Charles Sturt University, said the building on the medal was clearly the Roman Colosseum. "Australians are going to appear really ignorant in front of the whole world. The Colosseum was a place of death and savagery, where they killed the gladiators, and the animals. It has nothing to do with the Olympic spirit of peace." The design was approved by the International Olympic Committee.

SOCOG medal ceremonies producer Sandi Harding tried to put a spin on the error by saying it is a generic representation of a colosseum. She said, "It's not the Colosseum, it's a colosseum. We never said it was the Colosseum in Rome." But the artist who designed the medals, Wojciech Pietranik, said he was instructed by SOCOG in 1998 to include on the medal a picture of the "the colosseum". "That's the Colosseum in Rome, I made it. It's not very much like the Colosseum but it is supposed to be the Colosseum."

Ms Harding's insistence that it was only "a colosseum" shows she does not know, but there was only one Colosseum in the ancient world. Colosseum is a word derived from colossus, which was the Latin word for 'enormous' - named after the enormous statue of Nero built nearby and because of its own huge size. Classical scholarship is rare at SOCOG.

The Greek stadiums were long and narrow, in the shape of a hairpin. The Roman amphitheatre was round and completely enclosed on all sides. It was used for gladiatorial contests. It was designed to give maximum seating capacity with good sight lines for spectators. The round Colosseum on our Sydney 2000 medals is the stylized Roman building, not a Greek Olympic stadium, which it should have been.

2. The Greek Games Involved Idol Worship
In Corinth, where Paul lived from 50-51 AD, the great Isthmian Games were held in a stadium. In Paul's time many of the public structures were used for the worship of the gods. These included the temple of Apollo, built about 550 B.C., seven of whose columns are still standing today. Nearby was the shrine to the goddess Athena. A short distance west of the Apollo temple stands a stone-cut fountain house. Here, according to Greek myth, the Corinthian princess, Glauke, the bride of Jason, suicided in the fountain waters. In Paul's day small statues in baked clay were thrown into the Fountain of Glauke. This ceremony was a development from earlier human sacrifices made there by the Corinthians.

The goddess Hera was worshiped in a small temple nearby. Another shrine to Apollo had a large paved court and colossal statue of the god in the center. There was also in Paul's time the temple of Aphrodite; a Pantheon, or "temple of all the gods," a temple of Heracles; a temple of Hermes; a temple to Octavia, the deified sister of the Emperor Augustus; the temple of Jupiter and the temple of Asklepios, the god of healing.

Sick people offered clay replicas of parts of the body that needed healing. Some of these are on display today in the Antiquities Museum at Ancient Corinth. Paul may have had in mind such sicknesses affecting the perishable human body as represented by the clay likenesses of these diseased parts when he declared to the Corinthians the truth of God's triumph over decay and death when at the resurrection the Christian dead "will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed" 1Cor 15:52-55

On the top of the Acrocorinth, the rocky pinnacle behind ancient Corinth was the famous temple of Aphrodite in whose service were one thousand prostitutes. On the Acrocorinth's north slopes facing the city were other temples, such as that in honor of the Egyptian gods, Isis and Serapis, and a temple of the goddess Demeter that had been in use from 600 BC to 350AD. This structure contained a number of dining rooms, like a public restaurant, which may account for Paul's warning about not being a stumbling block by "eating in an idol's temple" 1Cor 8:10

With such idolatry and immorality dominating the life and culture of Corinth, no wonder Paul was so concerned for Christians not to be reckless in exercising their freedom to eat meat sold in butcher shops after it had been offered to some idol and consecrated in pagan worship in the city. Also, that is why Paul disciplined himself 1Cor 9:19-27 in refraining from eating meat sacrificed to idols or in doing any other thing by which he would disappoint the Lord or offend his brothers in Christ. Paul wanted the Corinthians to be disciplined and faithful Christians.

3. Christians Must Live A Faithful Life
Paul refers to the Games held in the city where he once lived and worked, and to which he was now writing. Paul uses himself as an example and employs athletic metaphors familiar to the Corinthians at their own Isthmian games, which were hosted every second year by the people of Corinth. The particular events he refers to are running and boxing.

He writes: 1 COR 9:24-7 "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. 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."

Paul's teaching here makes four emphases that are relevant to our lives today.

a. We should live with an expectation of victory. "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." Christians are meant to be the most positive of all people. The ultimate victory has already been won by Jesus upon the Cross. Our task is to make sure that in the race we each have to run, we run so as to gain the prize. Whatever your race, run your best, confident that with God's help you will win. Christians are meant to do their best in every avenue of personal and public life. They are to run to win.

b. Living victoriously demands strict training. "Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training." For the Christian, our spiritual training is simple. We should meet with other Christians regularly for worship. We should join in a Bible study so we grow in our knowledge of God's Word that both strengthens us and guides us. We should pray, preferably with a group of other people where we learn how to pray. We should regularly partake of Holy Communion which provides us with inner spiritual strength.

c. Our rewards are eternal and heavenly. "They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever." The rewards for being a Christian are out of this world. The Olympic winner's crown, will wither and die, but the Christian is promised a crown in heaven that is eternal. Athletes train vigorously for a "crown that will not last." In the Greek games it was a laurel or celery wreath to place around their heads. In Sydney it will be a bunch of Australian native flowers. That too will soon wither away. But the Christian's crown, eternal life and fellowship with God, will last forever.

d. We must learn to discipline ourselves. "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." Earlier he said living the Christian life victorious requires "strict training". Paul now refers to the athlete's self-control in diet and his rigorous bodily discipline. Strict training and personal discipline are essential for any athlete, and for a victorious Christian.

Paul says of himself that he does not contend like an undisciplined runner or boxer. He states that he aims his blows against his own body. The picture is graphic: the ancient boxers devastatingly punished one another with knuckles bound with leather thongs and nail studs. So by disciplining himself, Paul ensures he will gain the Christian prize. Too many Christians have led undisciplined lives. They have become involved in sexual immorality, or financial impropriety and have found themselves rejected and guilty. The victorious Christian must exercise self-control and personal discipline. The way may be tough, but the victory is worth it!

In a city like ours, at fever pitch excitement with the coming of the Olympic Games, Christians are called to remain faithful to their beliefs, not to be seduced by the idolatry of sport, to keep our eyes fixed upon the heavenly Crown, and to be so disciplined as not to lose our destiny. The cities of the ancient games became centers of immorality and idolatry. Our city certainly is a center of immorality: we will even have a homosexual float in the closing ceremony as if we were all proud of such behaviour. And we are a center of idolatry, with people worshipping the gods of alcohol, chance, sex, wealth and power. In such an environment, Christians are to live like athletes in training. We must run to win, exercise self control and discipline our bodies. The victory is ours if we only learn the lessons of the Games.

Gordon Moyes 2000

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