The Spiritual Athlete:Running the Race of Life For God

 Warren Wiersbe quips that

“If Christians were putting into their spiritual walk the kind of discipline that athletes put into their chosen sport, the church would be pulsating with revival life. ”  (Wiersbe, W. W. Be Decisive)

 Isaac Watts’ great hymn says the same thing:

“Love so amazing, so divine, demands my heart, my life, my all.”

C. T. Studd the great British athlete turned missionary wrote that

“If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him.”

A. W. Pink writes in “An Exposition of Hebrews” on running the race:

The principal thoughts suggested by the figure of the “race” are rigorous self-denial and discipline, vigorous exertion, persevering endurance. The Christian life is not a thing of passive luxuriation, but of active “ fighting the good fight of faith” The Christian is not called to lie down on flowery beds of ease, but to run a race, and athletics are strenuous, demanding self-sacrifice, hard training, the putting forth of every ounce of energy possessed. I am afraid that in this work-hating and pleasure-loving age, we do not keep this aspect of the truth sufficiently before us: we take things too placidly and lazily. The charge which God brought against Israel of old applies very largely to Christendom today: “Woe to them that are at ease in Zion” (Amos 6:1): to be “at ease” is the very opposite of “running the race.”

The “race” is that life of faith and obedience, that pursuit of personal holiness, to which the Christian is called by God. Turning from sin and the world in penitence and trust to Christ is not the finishing-post, but only the starting-point. The Christian race begins at the new birth, and ends not till we are summoned to leave this world. The prize to be run for is heavenly glory. The ground to be covered is our journey through this life. The track itself is “set before us”: marked out in the Word. The rules to be observed, the path which is to be traversed, the difficulties to be overcome, the dangers to be avoided, the source and secret of the needed strength, are all plainly revealed in the holy Scriptures. If we lose, the blame is entirely ours; if we succeed, the glory belongs to God alone.

The prime thought suggested in the figure of running the race set before us is not that of speed, but of self-discipline, whole-hearted endeavour, the calling into action of every spiritual faculty possessed by the new man. In his helpful commentary, J. Brown pointed out that a race is vigorous exercise. Christianity consists not in abstract speculations, enthusiastic feelings, or specious talk, but in directing all our energies into holy actions. It is a laborious exertion: the fiesh, the world, the devil are like a fierce gale blowing against us, and only intense effort can overcome them. It is a regulated exertion: to run around in a circle is strenuous activity, but it will not bring us to the goal; we must follow strictly the prescribed course. It is progressive exertion: there is to be a growth in grace, an adding to faith of virtue, etc. (2Pe 1:5, 6, 7-see notes 2Peter 1:5 1:6-7), a reaching forth unto those things which are before.

“Let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” We only “run” when we are very anxious to get to a certain place, when there is some attraction stimulating us. That word “run” then presupposes the heart eagerly set upon the goal. That “goal” is complete deliverance from the power of indwelling sin, perfect conformity to the lovely image of Christ, entrance into the promised rest and bliss on High. It is only as that is kept steadily in view, only as faith and hope are in real and daily exercise, that we shall progress along the path of obedience. To look back will cause us to halt or stumble; to look down at the roughness and difficulties of the way will discourage and produce slackening, but to keep the prize in view will nerve to steady endeavour. It was thus our great Exemplar ran: “Who for the JOY that was set before Him ”  (He 12:1, 2-notes of He 12:1, 12:2)

But let us now consider, secondly, the means prescribed: “let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us.” That might be tersely expressed in several different forms: let us relinquish those things which would impede our spiritual progress; let us endeavour with might and main to overcome every hindering obstacle; let us attend diligently unto the way or method which will enable us to make the best speed. While sitting at our ease we are hardly conscious of the weight of our clothes, the articles held in our hands, or the cumbersome objects we may have in our pockets. But let us be aroused by the howlings of fierce animals, let us be pursued by hungry wolves, and methinks that none of us would have much difficulty in understanding the meaning of those words “let us lay aside every weight !”

“Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us.” While no doubt each of these expressions has a definite and separate force, yet we are satisfied that a certain school of writers err in drawing too sharp and broad a line of distinction between them, for a careful examination of their contentions will show that the very things they consider to be merely “weights,” are, in reality, sins . The fact is that in most quarters there has been, for many years past, a deplorable lowering of the standard of Divine holiness, and numerous infractions of God’s righteous law have been wrongly termed “failures…. mistakes,” and “minor blemishes,” etc. Anything which minimizes the reality and enormity of sin is to be steadfastly resisted; anything which tends to excuse human “weaknesses” is to be rejected; anything which reduces that standard of absolute perfection which God requires us to constantly aim at— every missing of which is a sin —is to be shunned.

“Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us” is parallel with, “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross” (Mt. 16:24), and “let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and of the spirit” (2Co 7:1-note). In other words, this exhortation is a calling upon the Christian to “mortify the deeds of the body” (Ro 8:13-note), to “abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (1Pe 2:11-note). There are two things which racers discard: all unnecessary burdens, and long flowing garments which would entangle them. Probably there is a reference to both of these in our text: the former being considered under “weights,” or those things we voluntarily encumber ourselves with, but which should be dropped; the latter, “the sin which doth so easily beset us” referring to inward depravity.

William MacDonald writes that

“The Christian life is like a race. It requires self-discipline. It calls for strenuous effort. It demands definiteness of purpose. The verse (1Cor 9:24, 25, 26, 27) does not, however, suggest that in the Christian race only one can win the prize. It simply teaches that we should all run as winners. We should all practice the same kind of self-denial that the Apostle Paul himself practiced. Here, of course, the prize is not salvation, but a reward for faithful service. Salvation is nowhere stated to be the result of our faithfulness in running the race. Salvation is the free gift of God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”(MacDonald, W & Farstad, A. Believer’s Bible Commentary: Thomas Nelson or Logos)

Jerry Hullinger discusses the Historical Background of Paul’s Athletic Allusions…

One of the apostle Paul’s favorite methods for applying and illustrating Christian responsibility was through the use of athletic metaphors. For example he used words for “running” and the “race” on numerous occasions (Acts 13:25; 20:24; Ro 9:16-note; 1Co 9:24; Gal. 2:2; 5:7; Phil. 2:16-note; 2Th 3:1; 2Ti 4:7-note). In addition he referred to other sports such as boxing (1Cor. 9:26) and wrestling (Eph. 6:12-note). Paul also used words that would have conjured up images of the games in his readers’ minds. These include “prize” (1Co 9:24), “crown” (1Co 9:25), “goal” (Phil. 3:14-note), being disqualified (1Co 9:27), “strive lawfully” (2Ti 2:5-note), and the giving of the crown by the righteous Judge (2Ti 4:8-note

).

To feel the full impact of Paul’s words, one must understand this part of his historical milieu.1 This study seeks to demonstrate that Paul’s athletic allusions are indeed based on the local games with which he and his readers would have been familiar. It also seeks to provide background material that will illumine Paul’s words and give further insight into why he chose these metaphors.

The History of the Games – The Olympic Games

The chief athletic contest in Greece was the Olympic games. Founded in 776 B.C., these games were held every four years. In 472 B.C. the Olympics were extended to five days. The first day was occupied with sacrifices to the gods and the taking of oaths by the judges and competitors. The second morning began with the naming of the competitors by the herald, and was followed by chariot races, horse races, and the pentathlon for men. Contests for boys were held on the third day. On the fourth day the men’s games in foot racing, jumping, wrestling, boxing, and pankration were held. The final day of the games was spent in sacrifices and an evening banquet in which the victors were entertained. (Jerry Hullinger – Historical Background Paul’s Athletic Allusions from Bibliotheca Sacra 161:643 July 2004) (Theological Journal Subscription info) (List of 22 journals – 500 yrs of articles searchable by topic or verse! Incredible Online Resource!)

Warren Wiersbe commenting on Romans 15:30 writes that

“The words “strive together” (sunagonizomai, see discussion of agonizomai) in Romans 15:30 suggest an athlete giving his best in the contest. Perhaps the words “wrestling together” better express the idea. This same term is used of the praying of Epaphras in Colossians 4:12 . This verse does not mean that we must fight with God to get what we need. Rather, it means our praying must not be a casual experience that has no heart or earnestness. We should put as much fervor into our praying as a wrestler does into his wrestling! (Wiersbe, W: Bible Exposition Commentary. 1989. Victor or Logos)

Commenting on 1Cor 9:15 Wiersbe writes

“An athlete must be disciplined if he is to win the prize. Discipline means giving up the good and the better for the best. The athlete must watch his diet as well as his hours. He must smile and say “No, thank you” when people offer him fattening desserts or invite him to late-night parties. There is nothing wrong with food or fun, but if they interfere with your highest goals, then they are hindrances and not helps. ” (Ibid)

Commenting on Gal 5:7 Wiersbe writes

“A contestant in the Greek games had to be a citizen before he could compete. We become citizens of heaven through faith in Christ; then the Lord puts us on our course and we run to win the prize (see Phil. 3:12–21 ). We do not run to be saved; we run because we are already saved and want to fulfill God’s will in our lives ( Acts 20:24 ). (Ibid)

Commenting on Phil 3:13 Wiersbe writes

“Too many Christians are too involved in “many things,” when the secret of progress is to concentrate on “one thing.” It was this decision that was a turning point in D. L. Moody’s life. Before the tragedy of the Chicago fire in 1871, Mr. Moody was involved in Sunday School promotion, YMCA work, evangelistic meetings, and many other activities; but after the fire, he determined to devote himself exclusively to evangelism. “This one thing I do!” became a reality to him. As a result, millions of people heard the Gospel…I press!” This same verb is translated “I follow after” in Philippians 3:12 , and it carries the idea of intense endeavor. The Greeks used it to describe a hunter eagerly pursuing his prey. A man does not become a winning athlete by listening to lectures, watching movies, reading books, or cheering at the games. He becomes a winning athlete by getting into the game and determining to win! The same zeal that Paul employed when he persecuted the church ( Phil. 3:6 ), he displayed in serving Christ. Come to think of it, wouldn’t it be wonderful if Christians put as much determination into their spiritual life as they do their golfing, fishing, or bowling? There are two extremes to avoid here: (1) “I must do it all” and (2) “God must do it all!” The first describes the activist, the second the quietist, and both are heading for failure. “Let go and let God!” is a clever slogan, but it does not fully describe the process of Christian living. What quarterback would say to his team, “OK, men, just let go and let the coach do it all!” On the other hand, no quarterback would say, “Listen to me and forget what the coach says!” Both extremes are wrong.”   (Wiersbe, W: Bible Exposition Commentary. 1989. Victor or Logos)

George Washington wrote to the Virginia regiments in 1759 that

“Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all.”

Samson is an example of a believer who did not practice discipline (Judges 13, 14, 15, 16). Instead of keeping his body under control, Samson lived to please himself, and the consequences were tragic. His sad career has been duplicated more than once by naive people who defend their sins and lack of self-control as “enjoying freedom in Christ.” Such “freedom” is the worst kind of bondage.

The great Puritan Richard Baxter wrote of the Christian’s race that…

“It is a most lamentable thing to see how most people spend their time and their energy for trifles, while God is cast aside. He who is all seems to them as nothing, and that which is nothing seems to them as good as all. It is lamentable indeed, knowing that God has set mankind in such a race where heaven or hell is their certain end, that they should sit down and loiter, or run after the childish toys of the world, forgetting the prize they should run for. Were it but possible for one of us to see this business as the all-seeing God does, and see what most men and women in the world are interested in and what they are doing every day, it would be the saddest sight imaginable. Oh, how we should marvel at their madness and lament their self-delusion! If God had never told them what they were sent into the world to do, or what was before them in another world, then there would have been some excuse. But it is His sealed word, and they profess to believe it.”

The Christian athlete must compete according to the rules. One of the most tragic examples in sports history occurred in 1912 when the American athlete Jim Thorpe won the decathlon and the pentathlon at the Olympic Games in Stockholm. But the next year he had to give back his gold medals because it was discovered he had played professional baseball in 1911. He had won the events but had broken the rules, so he lost his prizes. At the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles the committee restored his awards. But even this did not alter that fact that Thorpe had broken the rules.

According to the rules

“Marathoner Loses by a Mustache.” So read the headline of a recent Associated Press story. It appeared that Abbes Tehami of Algeria was an easy winner of the Brussels Marathon—until someone wondered where his mustache had gone! Checking eyewitness accounts, it quickly became evident that the mustache belonged to Tehami’s coach, Bensalem Hamiani. Hamiani had run the first seven-and-a-half miles of the race for Tehami, then dropped out of the pack and disappeared into the woods to pass race number 62 on to his pupil. “They looked about the same,” race organizers said. “Only one had a mustache.” It’s expected that the two will never again be allowed to run in Belgium. (Today in the Word, Moody Bible Institute, Jan, 1992)

William Barclay writes that

“Eric Liddell was one of Britain’s great athletes, and later became a missionary who died for the cause of Christ. In 1924 he was to run for Britain in the Olympic games. It was discovered that the preliminary heats of the hundred meters race were on Sunday. Quietly, but definitely, Liddell said, “I’m not running.” Through a series of events the situation changed. The day of the 400 meters came. As Liddell went to the starting point an unknown man slipped a little piece of paper into his hand. Liddell opened it and read it. It was a text: 1Sam. 2 :30 ”Them that honor me, I will honor.” That day Eric Liddell set a world’s record time for the 400 meters race; and who will deny that that slip of paper gave him a strength to run as he had never run before. Jesus Christ never fails the man who refuses to fail Him.” (Barclay, W: The Daily Study Bible Series. The Westminster Press or Logos)

We often go back to our ancient history and think about the original Olympic games in Greece. In the ancient Olympic games the stadium was an ellipse or circle, and the starting point was also the goal; instead of running from one end of the racecourse to the other in a straight line, the athlete ran around the curve at its far end and returned to the point where he started. The Christian life has Jesus as Author and Finisher because we begin with Him on earth as Savior, we finish with Him as Lord and Rewarder in heaven.

As the victorious Grecian athlete appeared before the bema receive his perishable award, so the Christian will appear before Christ’s bema to receive his imperishable award. The judge at the bema bestowed rewards to the victors. He did not whip the losers .

Finishing the race

“The 1992 Summer Olympics featured two tremendously poignant moments. American sprinter Gail Devers, the clear leader in the 100 meter hurdles, tripped over the last barrier. She agonizingly pulled herself to her knees and crawled the last five meters, finishing fifth—but finishing.

Even more heart-rending was the 400 meter semifinal in which British runner Derek Redmond tore a hamstring and fell to the track. He struggled to his feet and began to hobble, determined to complete the race. His father ran from the stands to help him off the track, but the athlete refused to quit. He leaned on his father, and the two limped to the finish line together, to deafening applause.” (“What Makes Olympic Champions? John E. Anderson, February, 1994. Reader’s Digest)

Remember: We are judged by what we finish, not by what we start and that triumph is just umph added to try.

C. H. Spurgeon reminds us that…

By perseverance the snail reached the ark.

Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that

“The thing that ultimately is going to test the value of our professed Christian faith is the way in which we face old age, is the way in which we face death. When I come to be an old man, and when I come to die, if I am truly Christian, death to me will be but an entrance, an entrance into a glorious life” (Expository Sermons on 2 Peter).

The late president of Moody Bible Institute, Dr. William Culbertson, often prayed,

“Father, may we end well.”

Among ancient Greeks the runner who won the race was not the man who crossed the line in the shortest time, but the man who crossed it in the least time with his torch still burning. We are so often so busy with life’s activities that we are in danger of allowing the torch of our spiritual life to become extinguished. A good woman once said that in the rush and hurry of her life she felt in danger of being “jostled out of her spirituality.” There is a real danger of being too busy to be good, of running too fast to keep our torch burning.

Joseph Stowell president of Moody Bible Institute also alluding to the torch race wrote that…

“The Greeks had a race in their Olympic games that was unique. The winner was not the runner who finished first. It was the runner who finished with his torch still lit. I want to run all the way with the flame of my torch still lit for Him.” (Stowell, J: Fan the Flame. Page 32, Moody).

The renowned and eloquent British evangelist, George Whitfield,  in his dying words prayed

“Lord Jesus, I am weary in Thy work, but not of Thy work. If I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for Thee once more in the fields, seal the the truth and come home to die.”

The well-known British Bible teacher, Dr. F. B. Meyer, was greatly concerned that his life “not end in a swamp.”

More than one person in the Bible started gloriously but ended tragically — The Bible is filled with people who began the race with great success but failed at the end because they disregarded God’s rules. They did not lose their salvation, but they did lose their rewards (1Cor 3:15). It will be even more exciting when we experience that “upward calling” and Jesus returns to take us to heaven! Then we will stand before the bema to receive our rewards! It was this future prospect that motivated Paul, and it can also motivate us.Of course, we want to end well and receive the reward, not to boast, but to bring honor and glory to our Savior. No matter how glorious may be the beginning of the race, the important thing is how it ends.

Someone has defined a football game as an event in which thousands of people who need exercise pay for the privilege of cheering for twenty-two healthy men who need no exercise.

William Barclay says that Paul has in mind 2  characteristics of the athlete: First

“The athlete is a man under discipline and self-denial . He must keep to his schedule of training and let nothing interfere with it. There will be days when he would like to drop his training and relax his discipline; but he must not do so. There will be pleasures and indulgences he would like to allow himself; but he must refuse them. The athlete who would excel knows that he must let nothing interfere with that standard of physical fitness which he has set himself. There must be discipline in the Christian life. There are times when the easy way is very attractive; there are times when the right thing is the hard thing; there are times when we are tempted to relax our standards. The Christian must train himself never to relax in the life-long attempt to make his soul pure and strong.” (Barclay, W: The Daily Study Bible Series. The Westminster Press or Logos)

 Secondly Barclay adds that

“The athlete is a man who observes the rules . After the discipline and the rules of the training, there come the contest and the rules of the contest. An athlete cannot win unless he plays the game. The Christian, too, is often brought into contest with his fellow-men. He must defend his faith; he must seek to convince and to persuade; he will have to argue and to debate. He must do so by the Christian rules. No matter how hot the argument, he must never forget his courtesy. He must never be anything else but honest about his own position and fair to that of his opponent. The odium theologicum: the hatred of theologians, has become a byword. There is often no bitterness like religious bitterness. But the real Christian knows that the supreme rule of the Christian life is love, and he will carry that love into every debate in which he is engaged.” (Barclay, W: The Daily Study Bible Series. The Westminster Press or Logos) (Bolding added)

Guy King asks…

What is this about a crown? Why, this is the reward of the Returning Lord for His faithful servants,

“Behold, I come quickly; and My reward is with Me, to give to every man according as his work shall be,” (see notes Revelation 22:12).

This is the award which, in Paul’s eyes, was worth all the “toil and sweat and tears” of his utmost endeavouring,

“Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” (see notes Philippians 3:13; 3:14).

Dwell for a bit on that “upward” calling for the prize, the crown. Presiding over the Greek Games would be some important personage, perhaps even the Emperor himself. From his “royal” box, perched high at the top of the tiered seats, he would watch the contests. When the programme was completed, this Person would distribute the awards. A herald, in announcing the name of a winner, would call him to come upward to the Box to receive his Prize, amid the plaudits of the crowd – he had successfully pressed toward the mark, and now he has come to receive a prize at the upward calling.

So will it be when Earth’s Programme is done. The Lord has watched us from His throne, as Alice Janvrin sings:

He who died for us is watching
From the skies

When the time of the awards has come, He will give to those who have [not after the manner of Galatians 5:7] “run well” to the end, the “call” to come “upward”, to receive their “prize”, their “crown” at His hands.

What then will they think of their strenuousness and of their sacrifices? The “fruits” now, and the “crown” then, will vastly outweigh any giving-up there may have been. When a man said to Hudson Taylor, “You must have made many sacrifices”, the veteran missionary replied, almost angrily, “Sir, I never made a sacrifice in my life”.

It was his experience of the generous grace of his Master, that he always got more than he gave. But, if we want the gains, we must have the pains; or, as Dr, Alfred Plummer said, in summing this matter up, “No cross, no crown!” (2 Timothy 2:1-7 Some Things Every Christian)

Courtesy of precept austin at http://preceptaustin.org/2_timothy_25-7.htm#athlete

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