The Christian as an Athlete
Scripture Reading 2 Timothy 2:5
Continuing to pen his Spirit-inspired instructions to Timothy, his young “son in the faith,” the Apostle Paul takes us from the military world to the sports world; from the rugged routine of the battle-ready soldier to the rigorous requirements of the contesting athlete.
Whether it be a “Babe” Ruth in baseball; a “Red” Grange in football; a “Rocket” Richard in ice hockey; a Joe Louis in boxing; or a Bob Petit in basketball; somewhere along the line, even if only in a passive way, our interest and enthusiasm are aroused. Yet, no matter how keen our interest and enthusiasm may be in the realm of sports, it is well to keep in mind that the “crowns” and glory of the stadium are temporal and transient. Our interest and emphasis, as was Paul’s, must be upon the spiritual and the eternal. From 2 Timothy 2:5 we can glean a number of valuable spiritual lessons for positive Christian living with a view to winning God’s unfading “crowns” in that coming crowning day.
In our study of this particular portrait of the Christian as an athlete, we want to focus our attention on three main themes unfolded in our text, the first being,
The Runner (Wrestler)
The athlete was one of Paul’s favorite metaphors and this may be indicative that he was not averse to an occasional visit to the sports stadium when time permitted. It is not certain here whether the Apostle has the runner or the wrestler in mind. The Greek word he employs is the one from which we get our word “athlete,” and in our text it is translated by the phrase “strive for the masteries.”
In either case, whether the runner or the wrestler is in Paul’s mind, an energetic figure is brought to our attention. As we look at the athlete’s strained muscles, tense face, and concentrated effort, we as Christians are reminded that ours should be, and must be, an all-out exertion and endeavor if we are to be faithful runners and wrestlers for the glory of God. The question to ask ourselves about our Christian testimony is, Do we really throw ourselves into the encounter with an all-out effort? (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24; Eph. 6:12; Heb. 12:1).
Let us remember that the Christian race is not a hundred yard dash, though there may be times when, like Philip the Evangelist, it will be necessary to exert extra effort in the carrying out of God’s will (Acts 8:29, 30). Mr. George Goodman once said that if Philip had not run he would have lost his text. Actually, the Christian race is more like a marathon and it must be run “with patience” (Heb. 12:1; illus. of Dan. 1:8, 21). Moses, Joseph, Joshua, Caleb, Daniel, Paul, John the Apostle, and Timothy are all examples of men who continued with patient steadfastness the race that was set before them in their service for God and His glory.
This brings us to our second major theme, and that is,
The Christian cannot do as he pleases any more than the athlete can do as he likes or follow through with his own dictates and desires. There are rules of training and track which must be diligently adhered to if one is to be classed and called a true contender. Paul had in mind the games which were held at such famous places as Olympia, Athens, Corinth, and Delphi. These games had various rules and regulations governing them, and fundamental to all was that the contestant or entrant be a TRUE BORN GREEK. Regarding qualifications for entry into the Greek games, Erich Sauer has interestingly stated the following: “Certain definite conditions were attached to taking part in the contests and gaining the victory. No slaves, but only free men were admitted; no foreigners but only citizens; no impious men or criminals, but only those without reproach. Freedom, citizenship, and civil honour were indispensable. And naturally, bodily strength and practice were required” (In the Arena of Faith, p. 55).
The Christian race is open only to those who are TRUE BORN BELIEVERS IN CHRIST (cf. John 3:3, 7; Jas. 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23). Subsequent to the “New Birth” the believer has many “commandments” regulating and governing the race set before him, and implicit obedience to these “commandments” is the key to power, blessing, success, and crowning (John 14:15; 15:10). What are some of these “commandments”? Many others might be added, but the following list of seven basic and key “commandments” or precepts from the Word of God serve as definite rules regulating and governing the Christian race and the race of the Christian:
1. Love (Matt. 22:37-40; Rom. 13:8).
2. Prayer (Luke 18:1; Col. 4:2).
3. Reading God’s Word (Josh. 1:8,9; 2 Tim. 2:15).
4. Witnessing (Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8; 1 Tim. 6:13).
5. Confession of Sin (1 John 1:9, 10).
6. Abiding in Christ (John 15:4; 1 John 2:28).
7. Fellowship with other Christians (Heb. 10:25).
Let us ever remember that in the lowly path that was His, our Lord Jesus Christ “pleased not Himself” (Rom. 15:3), but joyfully and perfectly submitted Himself to His Father’s will (Heb. 10:7; Matt. 26:39), and Christ is our Example that we should follow His steps (1 Pet. 2:21).
In a sense, SELF is the Christian’s main problem. Turn the word around, put an ‘H’ on the end of it, and you have the word FLESH! What is SELF, after all, but the FLESH? If we would run and wrestle successfully as believers, SELF must all the time and every time be disciplined and put in subjection to the point of utter exclusion (CF. Matt. 16:24; John 3:30; Rom. 6:6ff.; Gal. 2:20). The practical realization in the life of such passages just cited is the secret of what might well be called, “The Law of Successful Christian Living.”
Before focusing our attention on our third and final major theme, one last point is in order. Through the author of “The Letter to the Hebrews,” the Spirit of God exhorts believers to “lay aside every weight, and the sin (literally, sin, since the definite article is not in the Greek text) which doth so easily beset us …” (12:1). No runner or wrestler takes any excess weight, or weights, into the arena with him. An overcoat is good and useful in its proper place, but it is entirely out of place insofar as the contending athlete is concerned. It would only serve as a hindrance to his all-out effort to win the prize. In like manner, the contending Christian athlete must be especially careful and prayerful about anything in his life that would merely be a “weight,” thereby hindering him from winning God’s approval and prize. The “weight” may be something good in itself, yet a definite hindrance to the believer. Surely, in this complex age in which we live, many believers are hindered from running and wrestling well because their lives are cluttered with such ‘weights.’ What about your life and mine?
As to “sin which doth so easily beset,” unbelief is most certainly the chief besetting sin of believers. Such a conclusion is substantiated by the preceding context, the great FAITH chapter of Hebrews 11. Actually, an unbelieving believer is a paradox, something utterly foreign to the teaching of the New Testament regarding the Christian, yet experience causes us (or should cause us) to bow our heads and hearts before God our Father in confession of our besetting sin of unbelief.
The cost. It has been rightly said: “no cross; no crown.” A price must be paid by the contending athlete in order to win the prize. In like manner, the Christian life — lived as it should be lived — is costly. A price must be paid if we are going to truly live for Jesus Christ. Consider the example of Moses (Heb. 11:26); the Apostle Paul (Phil. 3: 4ff.); and pre-eminent above all others, the Example of the Lord Jesus Christ and the infinite price He paid for our redemption (Phil. 2:5-8; Heb. 12:1-3; 1 Pet. 1:18,19).
A young man was one day conversing with a Christian business man who had a sterling Christian testimony. “I’d give the world to have what you have,” the young fellow remarked. “That’s exactly what it cost,” the business man kindly replied.
The crowns. Just as the contending athletes who were victorious in their particular field of endeavour were crowned, or rewarded, so “the crowning day is coming” for the believer who runs and wrestles faithfully for the Lord. He is some day going to reward His faithful servants (Rev. 22:12). To Paul, this was worth all the “blood, sweat, and tears” of the Christian’s pilgrim pathway (Phil. 3:7-14).
The unique thing about the Christian life is that it is possible for every contender to win the prize, and Paul urged the Corinthian saints (who were especially familiar with the classic Greek games) to so run and to so discipline themselves as to win the prize (1 Cor. 9:24-27). The victors in the Grecian games received merely a wreath or garland of leaves as a reward. Such soon faded away as did the accompanying glory. By way of contrast, the Lord’s rewards, or “crowns,” are unfading and eternal. These incorruptible rewards are to be diligently sought after, not set at naught.
There are five such “crowns” in the New Testament:
1. The Crown of Rejoicing, or The Soul-winner’s Crown (1 Thess. 2:19 with 2:3-6; Phil. 4:1).
2. The Incorruptible Crown, or The Victorious Runner’s Crown (1 Cor. 9:25).
3. The Crown of Righteousness, or The Watchful Warrior’s Crown (2 Tim. 4:8).
4. The Crown of Glory, or The Under-shepherd’s Crown (1 Pet. 5:4).
5. The Crown of Life, or The Martyr’s Crown (Jas. 1:12; Rev. 2:10).
The Lord Jesus Christ’s “Crown of Thorns” is basic to the “crowns” held up before believers (Matt. 27:29). By virtue of His perfect faithfulness in finishing the work His Father gave Him to do, Christ has been “crowned with glory and honour” (Heb. 2:9). Therefore, the “crowns” offered to believers are made possible on the basis of Christ’s finished work.