CALLED TO BE ATHLETES FOR MORE THAN THE OLYMPICS!

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.

ancient-corinth
Map of ancient Corinth at the time of Paul’s missionary journey.

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.

ancient-acrocorinth
Acrocorinth and ancient ruins.

 

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.

 

isthmian-games-starting-gate
Isthmian Games starting gate for running races.

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.

Pedal! and Perseverance

There is a story that I came across many years ago, and it speaks to me as I consider my journey with Jesus Christ.  It has been duplicated numerous times so you may already have heard it, but I do ask that you read it and think, again, about your own perseverance in the Christian walk. 

At first I saw God as my observer, my judge, keeping track of the things I did wrong, so as to know whether I merited heaven or hell when I die. He was out there sort of like a president. I recognized His picture when I saw it, but I really didn’t KNOW him.

But later on when I met Christ, it seemed as though life was rather like a bike ride, but it was a tandem bike, and I noticed Christ was in the back helping me pedal. I don’t know just when it was that He suggested that we change places, but life has not been the same since he took over steering the bike.

When I had control, I knew the way. It was rather boring, but predictable… it was the shortest distance between two points. But when He took the lead, He knew delightful long cuts, up mountains, and through rocky places at breakneck speeds, it was all I could do to hang on! Even though it looked like madness, He said “Pedal”.

I worried and was anxious and asked, “Where are you taking me?” He laughed and didn’t answer, and I started to learn trust. I forgot my boring life and entered into the adventure.  And when I’d say, “I’m scared,” He would lean back and touch my hand.

He took me to people with gifts that I needed, gifts of healing, acceptance and joy.  They gave me gifts to take on my journey, my Lord’s and mine.  And we were off again.  He said “Give the gifts away, they’re extra baggage, too much weight.”  So I did, to the people we met, and I found that in giving I received, and yet still our burden was light.

Perseverance
Perseverance in Pedaling!

I did not trust Him, at first, in control of my life. I thought He’d wreck it; but He knows bike secrets, knows how to make it bend to take sharp corners, knows how to jump to clear high rocks, knows how to fly to shorten scary passages. And I am learning to shut up and pedal in the strangest places, and I’m beginning to enjoy the view and the cool breeze on my face with my delightful constant companion, Jesus Christ.

And when I’m sure I just can’t do anymore, He just smiles and says … “Pedal!”

(Author unknown)

 

There are many theological words we could insert into this story, but the verbal picture drawn for us is sufficient for our purposes.  Life is hard – the Christian life is harder, especially if you try to do it on your own.  Your way is simply not good enough … we cannot live a sinless life.  That is the reason that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was necessary.  We need to come to the Lord Jesus Christ in faith and repentance, and only then can we rely on His strength to enable us to persevere.

 

In Second Timothy Paul encourages the young pastor to endure even when the “going gets tough”.  In these days of the Olympics in Rio, we can more fully understand Paul’s reference:

 

An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.

2 Timothy 2:5.

 

It is foolish for us to think we can satisfy God on our own, that we can compete in this world according to our rules and not those of the Creator God as established in the Bible.  Do we really think we are bigger and know better than God?  REALLY?

 

Sin has broken the connection between us and the Creator God.  There simply is nothing that we can do to fix that situation because anything we do is just as dirty and sinful as we are.  There must be Someone Who lived a perfect, sinless life, and Who was willing to be the sacrifice to pay for the sins that we have committed, so that we could be reunited with God.  That Person is Jesus Christ, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

 

The Apostle Paul says:

 

And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.

2 Corinthians 1:21-22.  The Holy Spirit is our guarantee of salvation and perseverance.  What a blessing!

 

Jesus describes our security in Him as we persevere in our walk with Him in the Gospel of John:

 

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.  For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

John 6:37-40.

 

The Apostle John reiterates that which Jesus spoke in the Revelation of Jesus Christ.  Regarding Jesus presenting us to His Father in Heaven if we are faithful to Him, Revelation 3:5 states:

 

The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.

 

Perseverance in the Christian life.  It really is not based on our own efforts. We must yield control of our life to Christ, but even that we cannot do on our own!  Rather it is an ability that we receive from the Lord as the Holy Spirit indwells us and supplies the power that we personally do not have. 

 

We still must run the race and exert as much effort that we can muster, as if we were athletes competing in the Olympics, but at the end of the day we must recognize that it is God who worked through us.  The Apostle Paul reminds us:

 

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

1 Corinthians 3:6-7.

 

So, when you want to give up on your Christian walk, when you feel totally inadequate, when you think that you can give no more … listen to Jesus say “Pedal”.  Rely on Him and He will see you through as He uses you for His purposes, all to His glory and honor.

 

 

Father, forgive me when I have foolishly tried to do Your work in my own strength.  What folly!  Enable me to see when I am grabbing control and let me release my grip and rely on You. May my reliance on You be my first choice, instead of my last resort. Forgive me, Lord. Your way is always the best, most beautiful and enduring way there could possibly be. Thank you Father for calling me and for granting me the blessing of a relationship with Your Son and the presence of Your Holy Spirit.