I am super-pumped about the Olympics this summer! The thing that raises the hair on the back of my neck is always the opening ceremony. All of those nations dressed in their different garb proudly entering the arena, coupled with the pomp and pizazz is quite impressive! In biblical times, Olympic games were a regular part of society. The Olympics were huge celebrations, usually attended by dignitaries who had their own VIP room called the royal box. The Olympics went on for days, and sometimes weeks, with games galore, and Kings and leaders in attendance. Many of those first Olympic arenas remain standing to this day.
The early disciples of the Christian Church drew much of what they knew about the physical endurance needed for the games and athletics into how they endured in their new calling. The point of sport was not simply the spectacle for the spectators or to determine who was the best at something. The purpose was to declare their gods to be great and awesome. When the emperor began to be considered a god, then the athletes competed, in a sense, to demonstrate to the world, “We declare that the emperor is lord and god!” The Olympic games were religious. It’s interesting that the Gospel writers used this type of image because of the connotations of the pagan religion; however, because people knew about the games, this analogy communicated the message powerfully.
At the beginning of every Olympic event, the emperor came through the gates , wearing a crown on his head and riding on a horse or in a chariot. Thousands of fans stood and cheered as “god” made to his way to his seat. Decrees were addressed to the people, noting where the people had done right and where they had sinned. Rewards and punishments were given out. He was god, and the choirs chanted and sang in his honor. In the end, only the emperor or king could begin the games.
It is from that context that the Apostle Paul draws on the imagery of the games. He knew the games, and he knew that the point of the games were to declare that Caesar was god. Paul uses this reality to make the analogy between Olympians and the followers of Jesus. The call of the Creator and Savior is that we cannot stay in the stands but instead must move onto the track. We are called so that our passion rises in us. As we are pulled out of the crowd, we are ready to run – to tell the world that Jesus Christ is Lord. And we declare that by serving Him in practical ways every day. He tells the church in Galatia that “you ran well. Who hindered you from obeying this truth?” (Gal 5:7) We see this concept repeated when Paul said, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished the race.” (2Tim 4:7) That is compete-in-the-arena language, not grandstand-pew-sitting language. For Paul, the walk with Jesus is an Olympic event. For we are His athletes. We are called to walk after our teacher-Rabbi, Jesus. We are called to do what He did. We are called to bear a cross as He bore one.
“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Hebrews 12:1
In this metaphor, we are God’s Olympians. We entered into this game, to carry our cross, because He chose us, not because we earned it. For us to become like Jesus, God desires that we flat out RUN! “Don’t you know,” Paul says, “all the runners will run, but only one gets the prize. We must run like we want to win.” How dare we dabble and take discipleship like a walk in the park! How dare we treat spiritual growth like it is an option to be admired from a distance! How dare we quit! How dare we give up now! How dare we blame our past! We are God’s Olympians, and our run alone says to the world that He is King. I was never a good runner in school. I was so slow that they timed me with Carbon 14! My problem was that I always held back. Because of this, I lost every race. I don’t want to cross the finish line in my life’s race and have the Lord of my game say to me, “What do you have left in you, Brady?” I don’t want to have to admit that I did not give it my all. I want to cross that finish line and say, “I have nothing left to give, Lord!”
Jesus reminds us, ”Whenever you fall for one of these, you fall for me. So, get back up. You are my Olympian.”
The pain will pass, but the beauty will remain. During this race, it is not measured in the steps taken, but in the falls endured.
*You can read more as this the above is taken from Brady’s book, The Hope Manifesto.