We don’t normally think about there being sporting events or Olympic style games during Bible times, but in fact this was the time period when the Olympics began and actually were flourishing. The Olympic Games themselves can be traced back to 776 B.C. in ancient Greece. These ancient games, which pitted Greek city-states against each other, consisted of running events, jumping, discus, javelin, boxing, wrestling, and equestrian (horse) events. The sporting aspect of the games tied closely into the Greek’s religious beliefs. There were always ritual sacrifices to Zeus and the other Greek gods that were associated with the events that took place. The games were held every four years and this time period was know as the Olympiad. Winners of the events were given a garland wreath as a crown. Well-known Olympians were immortalized in poems and statues.
The Olympic Games were still very important during the time that Jesus lived. King Herod the Great was himself an Olympian that excelled in fighting, the javelin throw, and in bow and arrow marksmanship. Herod built Olympic stadiums in Jerusalem and in Caesarea Maritima. In fact, Caesarea, Herod’s magnificent seaport city, was dedicated to Caesar Augustus in 12 B.C. by the holding of Olympic Games there.
The apostle Paul evidently enjoyed and was familiar with the Olympic Games. Many of his illustrations and examples involve running, boxing or wrestling. Consider these verses:
However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me —the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.
— Acts 20:24
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
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
— 2 Corinthians 4:8-9
…as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.
— Philippians 2:16
I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain.
— Galatians 2:2
You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?
— Galatians 5:7
Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. 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 4:7-8
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
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
— 2 Timothy 4:7
In these verses Paul talks about being pressed but not pinned, knocked down, but not knocked out, fighting the fight, finishing the race, running for the prize, pressing towards the goal, and finally receiving the prize. Paul knew that these images would be familiar to his readers and he used them to describe what the pursuit of the Christian life was like.
The writer of Hebrews seems to sum up this imagery of life perfectly. The writer spends all of Chapter 11 telling about the men and women who have run the race before us, men and women who finished the race and ran it well, with patience and endurance. Then he sets up the imagery in Chapter 12:1 of a great amphitheater or coliseum, with this great crowd of people who have gone before us, cheering for us, saying, “Come on! You can do it! Hang in there! Keep working at it! Don’t quit!” This crowd is not a crowd of spectators, but inspiring examples of the people that have gone before us. The crowd is made up of our aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, and mothers and fathers who have gone before us and run the Christian life well. They are cheering us on, telling us that we can make it, also!
The Christian life is a marathon, not a short sprint. It calls for training and discipline in order not to come up short and quit or have to stop and take a break. The picture is of someone training for an Olympic event, every day, giving it all they have. Do we know anyone who is training and disciplining themselves in this way for God’s Olympics? Are we holding back, or are we training our body to make it a slave, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27? Or, are we saving some back for the finish line? Are we treating life more like a walk in the park? Are we running with perseverance the race marked out for us? Will we have to tell God that we still had some left in the tank when we crossed the finish line? Will we have to tell him that we walked or set on a bench for part of the race? Training is not that pleasant. It involves hard work and pain. You have to discipline your body so that it will perform. We are not willing to pay the price as a general rule, to run the race like it should be run.
Our forefathers are crying out to us, “Don’t Quit! Don’t give in! You can do it! Keep trying, you can go a little farther!” We must hear what the great crowd of witnesses are saying. They are encouraging us on to our own finish line. Run with passion the race marked our for you! You can do it!