Are you ready for the Olympics?
Thousands of athletes, millions of supporters, and billions of TV viewers watched the last Summer Olympic Games in 2016. Approximately the same number of athletes and supporters prepared for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, but nobody watched on TV because the coronavirus disease pandemic forced its postponement.
How did that impact you? Inconvenienced? Disappointed? Devastated? It probably depends on how much you felt invested in the Olympics.
Such sports as football, basketball, hockey, and baseball present professional athletes with the opportunity to be paid millions of dollars as they seek an annual championship. But the Olympics occur less frequently, calling for amateurs (supposedly) who are gifted and disciplined to prepare and excel as the best in the world. And, unlike most sports that have competitions once a year, the Olympics, like soccer’s World Cup, come around only once every four years. Also, where most sports involve just one game, the Olympics involve many different sports.
go for the prize
The Bible taps into sports metaphors as a way to open our understanding of spiritual realities. One of the best-known of these passages is in Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth. Here’s how Paul stated it: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:24, 25).
Paul went on to explain why he used this “sports” analogy: sports players train hard to be the best in their game. Similarly, Christians should train spiritually to have the very best relationship with Jesus and His Father. For Paul, that relationship with Jesus was “the prize.” And, like an athlete, Paul kept his focus on sharing the gospel.
Unfortunately, a variety of things can compete to be our highest propriety in life: family, friends, financial security, reputation, achievement, fame, a sense of community, and more. Like an athlete intent on winning, Paul focused his energy and actions on a different kind of winning—people embracing the gospel of Jesus.
And he snuck in a second analogy, but this time with a contrast. In Paul’s day, the winning runner in the Olympics received a wreath of olive leaves he could wear on his head. This wreath was formed in a circle or horseshoe shape, and the branches and leaves from which it was made came from an olive tree near the temple of Zeus. Of course, such a “trophy” soon dried and died. But for the athlete, that wreath was worthwhile for the short time it remained fresh.
Today’s Olympic champions receive a gold medal. And while that certainly lasts longer than olive leaves, it’s only gold-plated. Thus, the contrast still stands: Olympic athletes receive only a temporary award for their victory, but those who follow Jesus seek a reward that will last throughout eternity!
The example Paul shared with the Christians in Corinth still challenges us today. Whether or not we are athletes, the focus on the prize shows that the primary issue is the intensity of our commitment. For many people today, Jesus is simply an option. What level of dedication do you have for Jesus? Is being like Him your one-and-only objective, or is He just one component of your workaholic life?
Consider how you spend your time. For most of us, work and family take the lion’s share of our 24-hour days. To what extent is Jesus involved, integrated, and Lord of your work and family? Like many, do you relegate Jesus to whatever you have left once your real prize has gobbled up your best?
And what about money? House payments, cars, groceries, and other bills demand the first bite out of many paychecks. How would your life be different if you started with tithing your income as an acknowledgment that all you have comes from God? By making Jesus your primary Prize, what would happen to the rest? Would you have to release some things that detract from Jesus, or would Jesus bless you in other ways? How we spend our time and money provides quick indicators of what our highest prize is. For the athlete, winning is the prize. For the follower of Jesus, He is the Prize and the Model around which we shape our lives.
take it from Timothy
Do you recognize the name Tim Montgomery? This American sprinter won a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics. He also set a world record in the 100-meter dash in 2002. Obviously, Tim was fast. He trained hard for years. But maybe you remember Tim Montgomery more for being stripped of his gold medal because he took performance-enhancing drugs during the games. Later, Tim went to jail for check fraud.
Since that time, however, Tim has gone for a better prize. He embraced Jesus as his Savior, and now he helps train athletes in Florida. What would you take from Tim? His drive to win the prize? His willingness to cheat in order to win? His example of fraud? Or his change for the godly prize of making Jesus first in his life?
The Bible contains two letters to Tim—the young pastor “Timothy,” whom Paul mentored. Each of Paul’s letters to Timothy has a chapter 4 and verses 7 and 8 that draw on the athletic-training metaphor for spiritual understanding and practice. In the first letter to Timothy, Paul instructed him to “train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7, 8).
Let’s be clear: Physical training has value! Do it! But, in contrast, godliness surpasses the physical in value. It provides you with a relationship with Jesus in this life and eternal life to come. Notice: Paul said that “godliness has value for all things” (emphasis added). It’s not a matter of adding a piece of godliness while juggling a host of other things. Godliness impacts everything a person does. It’s comprehensive, including the physical and more. That’s hard to beat!
The words train and training in the English language come from the Greek word gumnazo, which refers to the Greek health club where Olympic hopefuls went to prepare for their prize. The spiritual analogy points out that following Jesus isn’t a momentary experience but an intentional, lifelong way of life.
When Paul looked back on a full life, he wrote his second letter to Tim that includes these words: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7, 8).
Notice the two sports metaphors in these verses. Paul claimed that he had “fought the good fight” and “finished the race.” Those who expect the Christian’s life to be easy must not have read the story of Paul’s life nor his instructions to Timothy. We can expect it to be a fight—fighting our natural selfishness, fighting the sway when the majority lean on us to do what’s wrong, fighting “the urgent” to remain devoted to “the important.” And just as Paul finished his race, so our experience with Jesus isn’t a one-time event but a lifetime that’s focused on the prize, even in the day-to-day slog.
Hebrews 11 is the great “faith chapter” in the Bible, and it provides multiple examples of both everyday heroes and extraordinary ones who trusted God when it required a vision beyond a merely human perspective. After describing this procession of the faithful, Hebrews 12 continues, “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eye on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1, 2).
how to get ready
If athletes go to the gym to work out regularly, what does a follower of Jesus do for a spiritual workout? What exercises can a person do to strengthen their relationship with Jesus, “using [their] whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God” (Romans 6:13, my paraphrase)?
Drawing on the exercises you can do in a gym or even in your garage or family room, here are some metaphors from today’s physical workouts that can help you to be ready for the spiritual Olympics that matter forever.
- Push-ups (bench press). All kinds of stuff comes your way that you simply need to push up to Jesus. This includes problems, heartaches, mess ups, and whatever is beyond your knowledge or understanding to cope with. Pray these issues to Jesus; push them up to Him.
- Pull-ups (curls). Serve others. When you pull others up, it helps them while at the same time strengthening you. This includes acts of mercy and kindness, and meeting people’s physical needs, emotional needs, and need for spiritual companionship. Do these acts for individuals, for groups, and for your community. God empowers His people to help others the same way Jesus helped people.
- Squats. The weight lifter carries the heavy weights on his shoulders; the strongest muscles in his body are actually in his thighs. Rely on the Bible the same way you rely on your thighs. Read just a verse or two or a phrase, then meditate on it as God’s Word to you. Read a whole story or several pages to let the Bible shape its perspective for you. Imagine yourself as a character in the story. God’s Word provides strength for the weight placed on your shoulders.
- Stretches. Muscles sometimes contract, creating a lot of pain, which, as every physical therapist knows, requires stretching to increase flexibility. A “stretch” for a follower of Jesus takes what God has done and goes one step further. This requires faith and a sensitivity to go beyond what you have previously experienced. It’s another way to “grow in . . . grace” (2 Peter 3:18).
- Crunches. In spiritual terms, working your gut means praying in various forms. Just as your gut has muscles at various angles, prayer can be asking for help, thanking God, expressing amazement about His working in your life, sharing what He’s done for you, meditating on Bible passages, listening for God’s impressions, and waiting in silence.
- Sprints. Sprints require “going all out,” but they are not sustainable for a long time. Plan and participate in celebrations, giving it all you’ve got. The Bible instructs God’s people to celebrate the Sabbath each week, and many Christians also celebrate days such as Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, even though these are not considered to be holy days that are mandated in the Bible.
- Hydrate. Exercise expends energy and fluids, which makes it important to hydrate. From a spiritual perspective, take in God’s forgiveness for your sins and then let it flow through you and out to others. As long as humans are on this earth, forgiveness will continue to be the fluid of life—for athletes as well as everyone else.
The 2020 Olympics were postponed. But athletes all over the world continue to work out in preparation for Tokyo in 2021. That sounds very much like people who work out spiritually in preparation for life now as well as when Jesus returns in person again.
Are you ready for heaven?
Steve Case is president of the ministry organization called Involved Youth, which seeks to energize young people for service. He lives in Carmichael, California.