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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.
Third, self-control. An athlete is required to exercise mastery over his body during his training. If he is to win, it is incumbent on him that he limit his freedoms. It is necessary that he abstain from unwholesome foods for weight control. He needs to monitor his sleep to preserve his strength. Likewise, this same self-control is required in the Christian life. Paul writes, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things” (1 Cor. 9:25). “Self-control” means “self-restraint, self-government.” As believers, we must guard what we allow to enter our minds and hearts. We must refuse to consume the toxic junk food of this world that is poisoned with its secular ideologies. Instead, we must choose to be “trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:6). This requires daily feasting on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4).
Fourth, strenuous effort. An athlete has to exert maximum effort in order to win his event. Half-hearted efforts will never capture the crown. Lax joggers who merely shuffle their feet will lose the race. The wreath belongs to the one who expends every ounce of energy in his competition. Likewise, Paul says we must “toil” (1 Tim. 4:10) if we will win the prize. “Labor” (Greek kopiaō) means “to toil to the point of exhaustion.” In the pursuit of holiness, we must give ourselves until we have nothing left to give. Again using the athletic metaphor, Paul writes, “I press on” (Phil. 3:12), employing a word (Greek diokō) meaning “to move rapidly and decisively after an object.” Paul states that he was running after the knowledge of Christ as fast as his spiritual legs would propel him. The Bible says, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). This “race” (Greek agōn) was the excruciating long-distance event that involved agony and agonizing. We must be expending ourselves in running the lifelong race set before us.
Fifth, strategic aim. In the ancient world, a boxer entered the ring to fight his opponent. His aim was to land direct blows that would pummel his foe until he was bloodied and broken. An ancient boxer could not afford to wear himself out by throwing wild punches that never connected. He had only so much strength to expend. Every punch had to be on target. In the same way, the Apostle Paul saw himself like a boxer: “I do not box as one beating the air” (1 Cor. 9:26). In his spiritual life, he was not shadowboxing and jabbing at thin air. The Apostle clarifies, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (v. 27). “Discipline” (Greek hupopiazō) literally means “to bruise, to beat black and blue.” The Apostle says that he must beat down his formidable foe until he bleeds. Ironically, this opponent is his own sinful flesh.
Sixth, singular focus. Every athlete has to remain riveted on the goal. He must maintain an intense concentration on the prize. It is this myopic focus that propels him forward with bursts of renewed energy. Looking elsewhere at the other runners or in the stadium will slow him down and lead to his defeat. Similarly, Christians must be “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). Our singular focus must remain on Christ, who generates the strength we need to run with endurance. Keeping our gaze on Christ produces the stamina required to win the imperishable crown. As he ran his race in life, Paul wrote that he was “forgetting what lies behind” (Phil. 3:13). He could not win the crown if he was looking back over his shoulder at his past failures or victories. He had to keep looking to Jesus Christ.
If you are to “run that you may obtain” the prize (1 Cor. 9:24), you must compete like a fully committed athlete in the Christian life. Sanctified sweat is required. But it will be worth it to receive the imperishable wreath from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.