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. Philippians 3:13,14
I have to wonder if Paul loved athletics? When explaining spiritual truths about faith, discipline and persistence, he often employed language and metaphors linked to competition.
In antiquity, the Olympics were held since the 8th century B.C., in Olympia, Greece on a 4-year cycle (an Olympiad). The city was probably best known in the ancient world for, housing at its center, the majestic – but thoroughly pagan – temple of Zeus, who was said to rule from Mount Olympus.
But Paul could have been more familiar with the Isthmian games, a smaller production held every 2 years and under the control of the city of Corinth. And those athletic meets might have supplied a more practical component to Paul’s ministry. We know he was engaged in a tent-making venture with Aquila & Priscilla in Corinth (Acts 18:2,3); quite possibly they supplied tents for the games and accompanying festivities.
As an observant Jew, Paul would have been precluded from participating in such athletic competitions. Not only did these athletic festivals mix competition with idolatry, ritual sacrifices, and worship of heathen gods, but competitors ran in the nude (presumably for what contemporary runners call “running economy”!) all of which was repugnant to the Hebrew mind.
As our 21st century world prepares to celebrate the Rio Olympics, here are some of my favorite sporting analogies from the pen of the great Apostle from 2 millennia ago.
The Galatian churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) had begun the race well with the foundation of truth laid by Paul in his early itinerant work. However, hard on his heels came the Judaizers, zealously proclaiming Jewish legalism as an add-on to faith in Christ, thereby polluting the pure Gospel that Paul had preached and the Galatians had originally embraced.
The result was joy-destroying confusion among the Galatian Christ-followers, who were …
… turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. Galatians 1:6,7
In his anguished appeal, Paul pictured runners where one’s progress was impeded by another:
You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? Galatians 5:7
In writing to the fledgling church at Corinth, Paul had his eye on the future prize and his eternal reward from the hand of His Savior. He explains that biblical faith is analogous to the training regimen necessary to compete in running, or boxing.
Successful competition requires self-discipline; maintaining a clear vision of the priority of honoring Christ; strenuous effort as empowered by the Holy Spirit of God; focus on the goal of God’s calling, gifting and purpose; and self-denial, recognizing that the Master rewards when we run the race in constant recognition of His Lordship and sovereign authority over our lives.
Speaking of the laurel wreath worn on the head of the victor, Paul writes,
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 someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
For those of us concerned about such things, staying in good physical condition requires exercise; and the older we get, the greater the discipline required. Paul had that characteristic in mind as he mentored his young protégé Timothy, encouraging him to invest the time and effort in his spiritual sanctification: train yourself to be godly (1 Timothy 4:7), creating what a friend of mine calls “spiritual muscle memory”.
Writing from prison in the final months of his life, Paul contrasted the value of physical and spiritual “fitness”:
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. 1 Timothy 4:8
In his second letter to Timothy – the last correspondence in the New Testament from the apostle before he was martyred – Paul uses the athlete as an example of one persisting in the work of the Gospel and living by the precepts and principles of the Master, when he illustrates:
Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules. 2 Timothy 2:5
Paul was a consistent and powerful example of living and serving Christ with discipline, obedience, self-denial, and a single-minded focus as energized by God’s Spirit. Might his life’s purpose be reflected in mine:
I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:14