“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.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
From the pool to the court to the mat to the field, it’s been an exciting and successful 2016 summer Olympics so far for the U.S.A, as head into the final weekend of competition. We have been dominating in the gold medal count, as well as in total medals won, and there have been several world records set. It’s funny how easily obsessed Americans get with our athletics, even with sports that we don’t care much about the other four years. Athletes we had never heard of just a couple of weeks ago have now become household names.
Of course, that kind of sports fanaticism is nothing new. There have been “fans” of athletes dating back literally thousands of years, even without the around-the-clock television coverage on multiple channels we have these days. The Olympic games can be traced back to 776 B.C., staged on the ancient plains of Olympia, Greece. They continued for nearly twelve centuries, until 397 A.D. when the Roman emperor banned such sporting events, calling them “pagan cults.”
The modern Olympics resumed in Athens, Greece in 1896, and actually even included art competitions from 1912 to 1948. The Winter Olympics were added in 1921 and now there are also Paralympic and Special Olympic competitions as well.
The apostle Paul was familiar with the Olympic games. They were prevalent in the first-century world in which he lived, and historians tell us of the public fascination with the athletes in that day. So, when he was looking for an analogy to use to urge his Corinthian readers to give their all to their Christian walk, he didn’t have to look far. Sports was a natural choice.
And, as much as I understand Emperor Theodosius’s belief back in the fourth century that they can end up being a “pagan cult,” I do still love following sports. I have spent much of my life involved in athletics, as a player, a coach, a sports public relations official, and even a sportswriter. Later, when the Lord moved me into ministry it became a natural step to wed my love for athletics and my love for the Lord, and was involved in several sports-focused ministries, including Athletes in Action and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I served as team chaplain for several years, and have spoken to high school and college teams all over the south.
And many times, I used those very words from 1 Corinthians 9 to challenge players to apply the disciplines of their preparation for athletics to their Christian life. In that familiar passage, Paul was saying, in effect, if you’re going to run, then run to win. If you’re going to compete, then don’t settle for just getting by. Give it your all, leave it all on the field, and have no regrets.
Do you realize the amount of training those Olympic athletes have gone through, the amount of effort and self-discipline they put forth, just to compete for a few weeks in Rio? Some have trained for most of their lives just to run or swim in a single event that may last less than ten seconds. As Paul said about those first-century athletes who competed in “the games,” the ironic thing about their dedication was that they were just trying to win a temporary wreath that would be wrapped around their neck in their version of a “medals ceremony.” But soon that wreath was wilted, the accolades faded, and people had forgotten their names.
On the other hand, our commitment to follow Christ has eternal benefits,and the “prize” we win is imperishable. It is certainly worth the effort, the training and the discipline to give it our all. So, Paul said, if you’re going to run, don’t settle for second place. If you’re going to follow Jesus, give Him your best.
So, as you sit in your comfortable chair this week, eating snacks and drinking your cold beverage, watching those athletes strain and sweat as they compete in the Olympics, I hope you’ll be inspired, not to pick up your game, but to give your 110% to the Lord. Run to win.
I’m praying for you, and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.