Chariot Races (and other Olympic events) August 05 2016

The Summer Olympics start this weekend in Rio de Janeiro.  Although the troubles in Rio have been well publicized, I was thinking of thousands of athletes who have worked out, trained, sacrificed, managed their diets, and endured hardship for months and years just to be able to be there.  For their sake, we hope that the Olympics go well.  As a side note, the five events of the original Olympics were reported to be: foot race; chariot race, discus, jumping, and “running with armor.”  I don’t know about you, but I think it would be fun to see chariot races reintroduced.  But maybe it’s a little too dangerous for today’s world, if Charlton Heston’s performance in Ben Hur is any indication.  

On the surface, sporting events may not seem like a place for selflessness.  After all, it’s about winning, being the best, and beating the other individual athletes or teams.  

But let’s face it.  Games would not be very much fun for anyone if the objective was to let the other person win.  In fact, this would be rather pointless, given it would not motivate anyone to strive to do their best.  “May the slowest man win” would be a prescription for long (and boring) events.  

Paul explained it very well in a sporting analogy in I Corinthians 9:24-27:
“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize?  Run in such a way that you may win.   Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things.  They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.   Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”  

Making the body “our slave” is a graphic description of what most Olympic athletes probably have to go through.  Although the ultimate goal would be to win, the process of getting to the point where you can compete at the world-class level involves a great deal of sacrifice, deprivation, and in a certain sense, selflessness.   I expect that athletes have to consistently go against their feelings.

The I Corinthians 9 passage says that Christians are, in effect, in a spiritual Olympics.  God is saying to us that we need to do our best, prepare, exhibit self-control, and discipline our bodies.  The “event” for which we do this is our Christian testimony: to speak of and live out the message of Christ with diligence, self-control, and discipline.  We can look forward to an “imperishable wreath,” a metaphor for having the satisfaction of fulfilling the mission God has for us on earth. For Christian athletes, it also provides an opportunity to give God credit for the gifts and abilities they have been given, and many do just that.

Paul uses additional analogies in II Timothy 2:3-6, citing a soldier (suffering hardship), an athlete (following the rules), and a farmer (working hard).  This is in the context of one of the best known passages on discipleship in II Timothy 2:2, “The things you have heard and seen in me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”  In other words, follow the example of a solder, athlete, and farmer as you go about the job of discipleship.  Also notice in verse 1 “You, therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” In other words, we do these things not in our own power but in response to the grace of God.  

In verse 5, Paul goes on to state: “Also, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules.” The rules are there to keep the games fair and to honor those who play according to the rules. Sadly, there has been some dodging or stretching of the rules in the Olympics and in other sporting events.  We’ll talk about some of these in the next blog under the theme “Notorious Cheaters in Sports.”  There are some biblical lessons to learn about how and why athletes can be tempted to cheat and how we can fall into that same temptation in other ways.  

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Steve Smith