Sports is a language that is spoken by people around the world. It was certainly a familiar subject to Roman citizens in the first century. Athletes were the iconic figures of the ancient world, the heroes of young boys, and the craze of the culture. Drawing on this popularity, the New Testament writers chose to convey many important aspects of the Christian life through athletic metaphors. They used sporting events to depict important truths related to our sanctification. Here are some specific aspects they teach us about our pursuit of holiness.
First, strict training. An athlete is required to submit himself to rigorous training in order to compete at the highest level. He works out strenuously to develop his muscles, enlarge his lungs, and expand his stamina. An out-of-shape, flabby athlete will never gain the prize. Only those physically fit will win. In like manner, Paul writes that believers must do the same: “Train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). “Train” (Greek gymnazō) literally means “to exercise naked” and enters the English language as gymnasium. An ancient gym was a place where athletes stripped down so that nothing would restrict their physical movements in training. Likewise, every Christian must remove all hindrances that will impede his spiritual growth. He then must work out diligently in the Scriptures. He must discipline himself in prayer. He must strengthen his heart for God in personal and corporate worship.
Second, steadfast obedience. An athlete has to compete according to the rules. No participant can invent his own set of regulations. The rules are already established and are enforced by the umpire, and breaking them will result in a penalty or disqualification. Similarly, every believer must live in obedience to the Scriptures. Paul writes, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Tim. 2:5). Obedience to the commands of the Bible is required for everyone who runs the race of faith. Obedience pleases God and leans into His will. Obedience is an evidence of true saving faith, brings assurance of salvation, and is necessary for Christlikeness.