Today, Friday, February 9, 2018 the 23rd modern Olympic Winter Games began in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Ninety-two nations sent their best athletes to compete for medals in events such as figure skating, alpine skiing, snowboarding, bobsledding, curling, and ice hockey. As you may already know, the modern Olympic Games began in 1896 but are based on the ancient Olympic games, which were conducted every four years from 776 B.C. to A.D. 393 in Olympia, Greece. While the Olympic Games are the basis for our modern international sports competition, it should be noted that it was one of four sports festivals conducted in ancient Greece that collectively were known as the Panhellenic Games. In addition to the Olympic Games, there were the Pythian Games conducted in Delphi every four years, the Nemean Games conducted in Nemea every two years, and the Isthmian Games conducted in Corinth every two years. All of these games were so designed that there was at least one major competition every year in which athletes could compete.
The Isthmian Games are noteworthy because they were “second only to the Olympics” in prominence, and it is quite possible that Paul was present for this competition in AD 51. In fact, his tent making business with Aquila and Priscilla may have been related to the influx of visitors and athletes who were present in Corinth for the games and in need of accommodations (Acts 18:1-3). Regardless of whether or not Paul was present for the Isthmian Games, he seems to have been familiar with, if not a fan of, such competitions because athletic metaphors permeate his letters.
For example, he referenced wrestling, which was one of the main events of the games, in Ephesians 6:12 when he wrote, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but…against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” He also referenced the sport of boxing, another main event at such games, in 1 Corinthians 9:26-27 when he wrote, “I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control.” However, his favorite metaphor centered around the foot race, probably the stadion, which was the most popular Olympic competition and similar to a 200 meter sprint. Paul frequently compared the life of discipleship to running a race, as was the case in 1 Corinthians 9:24 when he told the Christians in Corinth, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (cf. Galatians 2:2; Philippians 2:16; 2 Timothy 4:7).
One of the key elements of Paul’s athletic metaphors is the emphasis he placed on training. In 1 Corinthians 9:25 Paul indicated that “everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.” He may have been referring to the fact that the athletes competing in the Olympiad were “required to go into ten months of strict training and [were] subject to disqualification if [they] failed to do so.” The point Paul was making is that the one who “run[s] aimlessly” or the one who boxes as if he is “beating the air” is untrained or undisciplined at that particular sport and, therefore, liable to disqualification (1 Corinthians 9:26). Paul does not want that to happen to the Christians in Corinth so he instructs them to “so run that you may obtain” the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24), which means that they should, like him, “discipline [their] body and keep it under control” so that they would not “be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). In other words, Paul is saying that in order to avoid disqualification one must train himself or herself.
John Ortberg in his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted points out that “there is an immense difference between training to do something and trying to do something.” Trying to do something refers to our efforts to do something we have never done before with no particular outcome expected and no particular preparation conducted. Training to do something refers to our efforts to prepare ourselves to do something at which we intend to succeed. So, you can “try” to run a marathon or you can “train” yourself to run a marathon. The former refers to an unprepared attempt to complete a 26.2 mile run without the expectation of succeeding. The latter refers to a systematic process of mentally and physically preparing to successfully complete a 26.2 mile. Similarly, you can “try” to get to heaven or you can undergo training that will prepare you to go to heaven. Scripture affirms that, when it comes to our spiritual race, success “is not a matter of trying harder, but of training wisely.” Notice that Paul instructed his protégé, Timothy, to “train yourself for godliness” in 1 Timothy 4:7 and, in the very next verse, indicated that the reason he should undergo such training was because “it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Paul is saying that spiritual training is essential to an eternal reward.
That leads to an important question: how do we train for heaven? In this same passage, Paul identified the source of Timothy’s training when he indicated that Timothy was “trained in the words of the faith” (1 Timothy 4:6). Certainly, Paul was referring to the Hebrew Scriptures that Timothy learned from his mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5), but he also was likely referring to the divinely inspired teachings that came from himself and others. The point Paul seems to be making is that God’s word is the Christian’s training manual. He emphasized this point in 2 Timothy 3:16–17 when he said that “all Scripture is…profitable for...training in righteousness, [so] that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (emphasis added). In other words, the Bible is our training manual because it reveals exactly what is necessary for us to reach maturation and be fully equipped as disciples of Christ. Therefore, our training for a heavenly reward necessitates our constant interaction and absorption of God’s word, which will in turn produce a disciplined and self-controlled lifestyle. That is what Psalm 1:2-3 is referring to when it described the one who “delight[s]… in the law of the Lord” and “meditates [on it] day and night” as a “tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither.”
As you watch the Olympics this year I encourage you to consider your own spiritual training. Are you regularly being equipped by our spiritual training manual or have you abandoned the program? Are you adhering to the rules or are you risking disqualification? The truth is that you cannot be victorious without proper training because, in order to become like Jesus, you have to be “fully trained” (Luke 6:40). May each of us stop trying to get to heaven and start training to do so. May we all be able to utter the same words as Paul when he reflected on his time of departure in 2 Timothy 4:7-8…
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up 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 loved his appearing.
Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1987): 433.
John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002): 43.