Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin that so easily besets us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us....
- Hebrews 12:1
ith the Masters just completed and baseball season underway, Ive been thinking: Were athletic events like ours around when the Bible was written? Did people train tirelessly before a competition then as professional athletes and Olympians do now, or sell their soul for a chance to watch the games like those holding I-need-tickets signs along our thoroughfares did last week?
I did remember that the Scriptures often compare life to a race, but I wondered if other sports also were mentioned. And if they were, knowing the Bible writers didnt waste words on subjects no one could relate to, what lessons were those sports or events supposed to teach at the time, and what do they mean for us today?
First, regressing to my youth fellowship/ summer camp days, I remember a few sports some people SAID were in the Bible. For example:
Baseball: Right from the beg-inning (Genesis 1:1).
Tennis: When David played in Sauls court (I Samuel 16:24).
Car (chariot?) racing: Perhaps when Jehu driveth furiously (II Kings 9:20).
Target shooting: David must have practiced somewhere before his encounter with Goliath (I Samuel 17).
Golf: Though not mentioned by name, if such a game were played in Old Testament times, Samson would have made the cut(Judges 16).
But back to what we do know, both the (ancient) Olympic Games and the prophet Isaiah were in existence at least by the 8th-century, BC. At one time, when the prophet was rebuking the Children of Israel for straying away from God, he used this metaphor:
Beware, the Lord is about to take firm hold of you and hurl you away.... He will roll you up tightly like a ball and throw you into a large country (Isaiah 22:17-18).
Then later, when speaking of Gods loving attributes, he used the example of a race or any event requiring physical endurance: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:31).
In the New Testament, while the Apostle Paul is establishing Christian churches across the land where the Greek-inspired Olympic Games began, we find him in the city of Ephesus, having discussions daily in the hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9). Checking a number of commentaries, I learned that such a hall would have served as both a school and a training facility for Olympic athletes, and the Greek word we translate as hall or school would have been, gymnasium, which needs no translation. So the answer to our question about sports in the Bible is a resounding, yes.
But whether or not Paul, Isaiah, and the others were athletes or avid fans themselves, they werent sportscasters, and they didnt stop their discussions with the medal ceremonies or the end of a game. They were using a concrete, physical idea to teach a symbolic, spiritual truth.
It was also natural for Paul to speak of athletic events when he was in Corinth, because that was where the Isthmian Games - second only to the Olympics - were held. Many of the Corinthians were athletes themselves, and they understood the importance of training and self-discipline if they hoped to win a coveted prize. So it was an easy step for Paul to explain how much more important it is to train for a higher goal, and for an eternal prize that wouldnt fade in time like a winning medal or captured crown (I Corinthians 9:24-27).
There are other lessons in this passage, for us as well as for the Corinthians. Paul uses strong language - fighting... making my body a slave - to explain that flabby soldiers dont win battles and poorly-disciplined Christians miss out on winning spiritual awards.
The author of Hebrews also uses an athletic theme to explain how we are to win the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1), a race, we soon realize, which is not an Olympic event, but the game of life. This late New Testament book was written especially for Jews (Hebrews) who had become Christians, but were facing both persecution and the temptation to turn back to their old, spiritual ways.
The message: Keep on, run the race as Jesus did even with the hardships (verse 2), and one day youll share in His harvest of righteousness and peace (verse 11).
ll these messages were also written for any Christian facing similar circumstances today. Or, in athletic terms, for those playing on Gods team: On your mark, get set, go!
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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