There were annual sports days in Greece during the times of the Apostle Paul, days for testing and rewarding physical strength and prowess. Attainment to a high standard of bodily fitness was eminently important to the ancients, particularly because of the type of warfare in which they engaged. It enabled them in hand to hand combat to make sudden and unexpected attacks, or to engage in rapid retreats.
Apparently, this yearly event in Greece rotated among four different centres. Games were celebrated at Neman, at Delphi, at Olympia, and at Corinth. The Apostle in his many references to gymnastic exercises probably had in mind the Isthmian games held near Corinth. Because of his labours there, it is plausible to believe that he was conversant with those practices.
The exercises performed on those occasions, so we are told, consisted of leaping, running, throwing the discus or quoit, boxing, and wrestling. Sometimes there also were horse and chariot races, but the emphasis was placed upon human endeavours.
Paul, generally speaking, refers only to two of these activities in his illustrations, running and boxing.
He may have known some of those excellent specimens of health, vigour, and physical fitness who were contestants in the games; at least, he must have seen some of them and appreciated the results of their long months of rigorous training and discipline, for he says, “Bodily exercise profiteth little (for a little while)” Tim. 4:8. The effects of such training upon the frame and the condition of the body are not to be despised. Systematic exercise increases the strength and improves the health.
The individual who engages in gymnastic exercises within proper limits is more useful to others, more reliable in an emergency. The soldier, the policeman, the fireman, and the life-guard are examples of physical training and its usefulness. These men are not only thus trained to protect the rights and the properties of others, but to save life itself.
“A fit body is a fine boon,” is an old saying and a true one.
Since the body belongs to the Lord any exercise should be undertaken to improve its state for Him. Let us constantly remind ourselves of two important Scriptures: “Ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:20). “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Horn. 12:1).
There are mental as well as physical benefits to be gained in such performances. This feature of the competitive game is given but scant consideration by many, but they are of vital importance in life. In the gymnasium one learns not only to be a good winner, but also a good loser. To lose graciously is a greater triumph than to win successfully. In the game one learns that he cannot always be first. Without any resentment, a young girl, when asked about her own success, said, “No, I did not get a prize; we cannot all be winners.” Some of God’s people who manifest the overbearing attitude of being always right and always first could have learned better had they played more in competitive games when they were younger.
There are also spiritual lessons to be learned from Paul’s references to the Corinthian games which are much more important than the helpful results upon mind and body. It is true that the Apostle states, “Bodily exercise profiteth little (for a little while),” but to this he adds, “But godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).
Let us seek by the grace of our Lord Jesus to learn some of these lessons.
In certain passages of the New Testament both Christian life and testimony are compared to the race, the Christian being the runner.
The stadium: The Apostle Paul asks the question, “Know ye not that they which run in a race (in a stadium) run all?” The allusion here is to the course, the running ground, or the place where boxers contend. There seems to be the suggestion that there are also spectators at the stadium who are witnessing the race in which everyone listed runs (See Eph. 3:10).
The preparation: This period is intimated in the sentence, “Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things.” For some months before the actual contest the contestants imposed upon themselves a strict dietary discipline as well as a rigorous physical training. Paul’s spiritual application undoubtedly is that for Christian life and testimony there is a definite need of self-denial and endurance.
The identification: There is a passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews which treats of the believer’s life of faith in God and likens it similarly to a race. In this passage the Captain of our salvation, the Lord Jesus, is pictured as the Champion Who had run successfully, and the exhortation is given, “Let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the Author and Finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:1-2). With the example of Christ who ran so well in spite of obstacles before Him, the believer is stimulated to greater endeavour in Christian life and testimony.
The race: There are several points here to be considered. First, the runner must carry no unnecessary weight. “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us” (Hed. 12:1). Second, there must be constant unrelenting effort, “Every man that striveth for the mastery (1 Cor. 9:25),” that is, every one that agonizes to succeed. This suggests the straining of every muscle for a concerted effort. Third, the mind must be set upon winning, upon gaining the mastery. “One receiveth the prize. So run, that ye may obtain” (1 Cor. 9:24-25).
The execution of Christian life and testimony demands continual expenditure of physical and spiritual exertion.
The reward: As Paul recalled the strenuous struggle put forth by the young Greeks in the annual games, he wrote, “One receiveth the prize.” “Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible” (1 Cor. 9:24-25). Of himself, he wrote, “I press toward the mark (the goal) for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).
While in the race we have illustrated certain principles applicable to the Christian’s life and testimony, in the boxer we likewise have illustrated certain principles applicable to spiritual sanctification and victory.
The words, “So fight I,” suggest the pugilist in the Grecean games. The fighting or boxing enjoined by Paul here is against oneself, not against others.
Shadow-boxing: “So fight I, not as one that beateth the air.” Before the actual contest there was a play with the fists or weapons, a striking out at an imaginary opponent, called a mock-battle. It was a mere show of bravado. Paul, in this figure, informs us that true sanctification, the considering of self as crucified with Christ, is not play, not a sham-battle, but a stern reality.
Boxing: Paul now uses a very strong word to intimate how we must deal with self, “I keep under my body.” I weary my body by rendering it black and blue. Paul used spiritual means to reduce his corrupt and carnal nature into subjection. He sought to subdue natural tendencies and passions until he had the mastery over them.
Disapproval: These daily bouts with self went on in the life of Paul because of the fear he might be castaway or disapproved. This difficult word denotes that which will not stand the test. Paul did not want to be disqualified in his running by the divine Umpire.
In writing to the Philippians, Paul again uses the athlete as a background for his exhortation, and thus suggests a unity and fellowship in Christian service.
There are certain expressions used by the Apostle which intimate the united effort of a team against some opposition. For example; we read, “Stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Pil. 1:27). Again, we read, “Help those women which laboured with me in the gospel” (Phil. 4:3). In writing to the Romans, he uses similar language, “Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye strive together with me in your prayers to God for me” (Rom. 15:30).
There is a great need of teamwork in our service for the blessed Master. Believers, in their service for Christ, would be much more successful if there was more accord of thought, more concentration of effort, and more co-operation in their work.
S. O. M.
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“There are four emblems near the Queen’s castle at Balmoral: a tree by the water, lilies of the valley, a vine in process of pruning, and waving palms. The four together represent the four stages of Christian life. First, growing through truth; second, blossoming into beauty; third, undergoing chastisement; and fourth, enjoying final triumph.”
“Our life is like the dial of a clock. The hands are God’s hands passing over and over again. The short hand is the hand of discipline, the long hand the hand of mercy. Slowly and surely the hand of discipline must pass, and God sneaks at each stroke; but over and over the hand of mercy showers sixty-fold of blessing for each stroke of discipline or trial. Both hands are fastened to the one secure spot, the great unchanging heart of the God of love.” —Pierson.