We watched the Summer Olympics that were played in Rio last month. The training and physical prowess of these men and women is awesome and is evident when you watch them compete. There are many factors that go into being a successful athlete, including genetics, training, physical strength, endurance, etc. But, there is also the element of determination and sheer grit.
This was apparent in one of the races when the female athlete was coming in, literally, neck and neck with a competitor, and she lunged forward, propelling herself over the finish line to take the win by a millisecond. She was willing to do whatever it took to win, even if it meant splaying her body over the track after her lunge to victory.
In I Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul talks about his witness for Christ and his willingness to do whatever it took to witness to an unbeliever about the Lord:
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
The runner certainly did “all” for the sake of winning when she intentionally became airborne in her (successful) attempt to win the race! This is the same attitude we should have as Christians when we think about witnessing to others, even if it is difficult in our culture.
Since Paul wrote this in the letter to the Corinthians, let’s consider Corinth for a moment and see the culture that Paul was talking about in this letter.
The ancient city of Corinth lay on an isthmus between the Greek mainland and the Peloponnese. This is a close up map of Ancient Corinth as it would have been when Paul visited the city.
Note in the map on the lower left side is the name Acrocorinth. This spot was known in ancient times as High Corinth and is the acropolis of Corinth. An acropolis is a settlement, especial a citadel, that is built on an area of elevated ground, usually a hill with steep precipitous sides, a location chosen for purpose of defense of the settlement.
This is a picture of what it looks like today.
The isthmus at which Corinth is situated is about 6,000 yards at its narrowest point. Ships often sailed to Corinth and transported their goods overland across the isthmus by portage road rather than risk the wild currents and weather around the Peloponnese. This brought trade to the city along with all things associated with bustling commercial centers. The stones on the road used to transport the boats are still seen today alongside the ditch where the canal was ultimately built.
Corinth had a mixed cosmopolitan populace as is reflected in different religious shrines. There is archaeological evidence of offerings made to Asclepius, the god of medicine, in gratitude for healing. These offerings were clay models of body parts, often arms, legs or sexual organs, which the god had supposedly healed. Corinth also was home to a famous temple to Aphrodite that supposedly employed 1,600 temple prostitutes. There were also temples to other Greek gods such as Poseidon, god of the sea, and to Demeter, goddess of an ancient Greek fertility cult. It is not surprising that the ancient city of Corinth became a byword for sexual immorality.
Coming back to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, there clearly was a need to become all things to all people in the cultural hodge-podge that he faced in Corinth. But, in today’s parlance, “But wait! There’s more!” He also compares the Christian life to that of an athlete in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
Paul’s description of his Christian life as an athlete in training is likely premised on his witnessing the Isthmian games while he stayed in Corinth. An analogy using athletes and training would be understood by the people in Corinth because of the games that the city hosted.
The Isthmian games were second only to the Olympic games in prestige. These games were conducted biennially, in the spring of the first and third year of every Olympiad. The games were dedicated to Poseidon. There was a cult place for Poseidon on the Corinthian Isthmus from the 11th Century B.C. His temple was built in the early 7th Century B.C. and the games began in 582 B.C.
The Isthmian Games were in three parts – horse races being the most important because Poseidon was the patron of this sport. There were also athletic contests and, from the 5th Century on, there were musical contests.
Discoveries at Isthmia include starting gates for the races. The runners stood behind the poles which had arms that were at right angles to the pole. The arm looked somewhat like our railroad crossing arm that goes across the traffic lane. These arms were held up, extended, by ropes that ran from the arm to the hole you see in the picture foreground. A game official would stand in the hole, holding the ropes tight, until it was time for the runners to go – then he would let go of the tension on the ropes, the arms would fall, and the runners would get going down the track.
The victor’s crown at the Isthmian Games was made of wilted celery. This makes Paul’s reference to a “corruptible crown” come to life. 1 Corinthians 9:25.
We are followers of Jesus Christ … we are not called to a life of ease, contrary to what the Prosperity Gospel proponents assert. The torture and horrors inflicted on the first century Christians and throughout the ages, even on Christians in many countries of our world today, undermine the concept of a life of ease for disciples of Jesus Christ. Christ’s own life with its rejection, ridicule, mob-ruled trial, torture and crucifixion does not reflect a life of ease. Indeed, He promised that His followers would be persecuted. See John 15:20:
Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.
But, we need to look at the goal when we struggle with some of the demands that the Christian life makes on us. Our goal is not wilted celery leaves – our goal is eternal life with God as secured through the sacrificial life, death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, through the securing and guiding of the Holy Spirit. That is, indeed, an imperishable crown!
Father, thank you for giving us the promise of life with You throughout eternity. This world is not our home and all the pain and difficulty here is only temporary; it cannot compare to eternity with You and the host of those believers who have gone before us, and who are waiting for our arrival. Thank you for salvation and may we do our best to spread Your love to all around us, according to Your will and in the power of Your strength.