In his letters, Paul makes a number of references to the Greek games, mostly using them as a metaphor for the Christian life.
The games were very important in Greek culture, particularly because the Greeks exalted the human body and athletic prowess. The majority of the Jews did not approve of the games, partly because they were held in honour of pagan gods, but also because the athletes participated naked.
The Olympic Games are well known, but the second most important were the Isthmian Games held near Corinth every two years. We know from history that these games were held in the spring of AD 51, around the time Paul was in Corinth. Many thousands of people from around Greece and further afield attended the games, so for Paul it was a good opportunity to preach the Gospel.
The Isthmian Games were held in honour of the god Poseidon (Neptune), the god of the sea. At the centre of the site of the games was a temple to Poseidon, together with a stadium for the foot-races, a theatre and a hippodrome for chariot races. Inside the temple was a small building called the Palaimon where athletes took an oath, swearing to obey the rules of the games and not to cheat, otherwise they would face disqualification. Athletes competed in foot races, wrestling, boxing, throwing the discus and javelin, the long jump and chariot racing. For each competition, there was only one winner, who received a crown of celery leaves. There was no award for second place.
No permanent accommodation was provided, so athletes and spectators stayed in tents set up in surrounding fields. This would be a good business opportunity for Paul, together with Aquila, who arrived in Corinth at the same time as Paul, to work together as tent-makers (Acts 18:3). They could make or repair tents for the spectators and preach the Gospel at the same time.
The Roman historian, Suetonius, gives quite an amusing description of the Emperor Nero competing in the games. He insisted that singing and poetry reading should be added to the games. Nero did not have a good singing voice, which was described by Suetonius as feeble and husky. No one was allowed to leave the arena during Nero’s presentation, and everyone was expected to applause enthusiastically. His performance lasted such a long time that women gave birth in the arena, and others pretended to be dead so they could be carried out. Of course Nero always won. He bribed the officials by giving them Roman citizenship, and bribed or threatened other competitors to withdraw. In other words, Nero certainly deserved to be disqualified from the games. (Suetonius: Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Nero 20-24)
These are some of the passages where Paul refers to the games in his letters:
1 Cor 9:24-27
“Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do
I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”
This passage comes in the first letter Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, near where the Isthmian games were held every two years. It contains many Greek words associated with the games, and some of these words are familiar in English too. Paul focusses on analogies with two sports: running and boxing. The word for 'race' (v24) is 'stadia', which is the word for a race-track, as well as a unit of measure. The length of a stadium was one furlong, which is an eighth of a mile (about 200 metres). In the games, there was only one winner, and no second prize. The lesson in the Christian life is that we are also in a race, so we have to run to win with determination and perseverance.
The word for 'exercise' (v25) is 'agonizomos' from which we get the English word 'agony'. To win at the games, the athletes needed to commit to an agonising regime of exercise and training lasting for ten months, forsaking other pleasures in the determination to win. They did this to win a perishable wreath of celery leaves, which would quickly wither. The word for 'wreath' (v25) is 'stephanos', which is a crown of victory. This word is frequently used in the Book of Revelation to describe the victory of Jesus and of the believers. The lesson here is that if the Greek athletes suffer a regime of self-denial and training to win a perishable crown of celery leaves, how much more should the follower of Jesus exercise self-denial to win the imperishable crown of victory, leading to eternal life.
Paul says he does not run aimlessly (v26). The picture is of an athlete wandering around the track and not keeping to his running lane. The athlete has to have the finishing line in sight, and have the determination to get there first, and not to wander off course. The lesson for the believer is that we also have a finishing line, and also need determination to keep on course and reach the finish without wandering off or being distracted.
He now changes the analogy to boxing, when he says does not box as beating the air (v26). The word for box is 'pukteuo', from which the English word 'pugnacious' is derived from. Roman boxing was brutal and vicious. The boxer’s knuckles were wrapped with leather straps, or even with pieces of lead or iron spikes, which would do serious injury to his opponent. The fight would continue for up to four hours or until the opponent was knocked out or left dead. Boxing the air, or shadow boxing, is sufficient for practice, but not for a real fight. The aim was to hit the opponent with an effective blow. The lesson is that the Christian life is also a fight, a spiritual battle, which is why we need the armour of God (Eph 6).
Paul says that he punishes the body (v27), so he will not be disqualified, as Nero should have been. In the boxing analogy this would at least mean getting a black eye. The Christian life needs self-denial and commitment to the fight, so we do now lose out on the rewards. This is not suggesting that we would lose our salvation, but could miss out on God’s rewards for faithful service (2 Cor 5:10).
We have to remember that the author here is Paul, the apostle of grace. He is not contradicting his message of being saved by grace and not by works, as laid out clearly in Romans and Galatians, but he urges the believer to press on and run the race, and fight the fight because we have been forgiven by grace.
“Not that I have already obtained this (the resurrection from the dead - v11) or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul is using a similar analogy of the athlete participating in the foot-race. The Greek stadium was U-shaped. The race started at the top of one end of the 'U', the athletes ran down one side, rounded the end and then ran to the finishing line at the top of the other end of the 'U'.
Again, Paul uses the metaphor of a race to describe the Christian life. He is very aware that he has not yet reached the goal, but he presses on, as an athlete in a race, to make the goal his own (v12). The word to 'press on' is a word from hunting, meaning to pursue the quarry, which was also used in the games, where it shows the dedication and determination needed to win the race. In verse 13, Paul says that he is forgetting what lies behind and is straining forward, just like an athlete in the foot-race. He is running full-speed with his body bent forward, hand outstretched toward the goal, and eyes fastened on the finishing line. He has just turned around the curve at the bottom of the 'U', and is now in the home stretch, where he can see the goal or finishing line. The athlete would never look back, as that would cause him to slow down, and to wander off track. The lesson for the believer is to have the same level of commitment to the race of Christian life, with our eyes fixed on the finishing line where we will receive the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
1 Tim 4:7-8
"Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life, and the life to come.”
Timothy joined Paul on his original visit to Corinth (Acts 18:5). Now, in his letter to Timothy, Paul urges him to train himself in godliness, as an athlete would train for the games in the gymnasium. He says that physical training as some value, as least for the present life, while training in godliness has value in both this life and the life to come. He urges Timothy, (and the believers) to have the same determination to train for godliness that an athlete has to train for the games.
2 Tim 2:5
“In the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules.”
In the games, no athlete would receive the celery-leaved crown (stephanos) of victory if they cheat instead of obeying the rules. Before participating, each athlete had to swear an oath in the temple to Poseidon to obey the rules, and not to cheat.
In his second letter to Timothy, Paul says this in a series of three examples from the army (v3-4), the games (v5), and farming (v6), where he urges Timothy to be strong in the grace of Jesus, and to pass on the teaching he received from Paul to others. Believers also need to have the dedication and commitment of the athlete to obey the rules, as given in the Word of God, and not to cheat.
2 Tim 4:6-8
"As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy at the end of his life. He was in prison in Rome, knowing that his trial before the Romans had gone against him, and was now awaiting execution. In his final words to Timothy, as he hands over his apostolic ministry to him, he uses the same analogies as he used in 1 Corinthians. He has fought the good fight (as in boxing) and finished the race (as in athletics), and has kept the faith to the end of his earthly life. He is now ready to receive his crown (stephanos) of righteousness.
In Paul’s letters, the Christian life is described as both a race and a fight (as in boxing), with a reward of a crown for victory.
The Christian life is a race. It is not a sprint, but a life-long marathon, with a challenge to persevere to the end, to keep going and not to give up. This life is a life of faith. We need to have the goal in sight and push on with determination to the finishing line, where we will be rewarded with the crown of victory. This victory is eternal life with him, as well as rewards for faithful service.
The Christian life is also a fight. We will face opposition, discouragement and disappointment. We will get a black eye, and get knocked down, but are urged to get up and fight to the end. We need to overcome the strong temptation to give up, always remembering that we have the help and grace of God to continue.
The challenge for us now is to consider whether at the end of our lives on earth we will be able to look back on our lives and repeat the words of Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day” (2 Tim 4:7-8).