“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.” 1 Corinthians 9:24–25

The Bible does not speak directly to the Olympics, but it does indirectly. Paul never was led of the Spirit to go to the Olympic Games in ancient Greece, held at Olympia every other year. However, he did go to Corinth, the site of the very popular Isthmian Games which were held on every year between the Olympic Games. The games included boxing, wrestling, chariot races, foot races, javelin, discus, long jump, and also music and poetry. Even Nero was a contestant at one of the Isthmian Games, in singing, of all things. It is said he badgered, bribed and bullied his competitors into submission, forbade anyone to leave his hours-long performance, and then bribed the crooked judges into awarding him the crown with the promise of Roman citizenship and money!

There was no housing provided for the spectators who came from all around the area. They lived in tents for the durations of the games. Paul was very aware of the popularity of the games. Interestingly, we know that Paul supported himself in his ministry at Corinth by making and mending tents. One can reasonably imagine Paul, Aquila and Priscilla busily working about their trade repairing tents while they shared the Gospel at one of these grand events.

Throughout Paul’s writings are terms and references directly associated with superb athleticism. 1 Corinthians 9:24 commands believers to excel and be the one who gains the prize. Believers are to cut through the crowd of contestants in life’s race, win the race, and prevail. This seems very out of touch with today’s “everyone is a winner” mentality. In Paul’s day there was no silver or bronze medal, there was only victory, or there was defeat. And the one symbol of surpassing victory was a wreath made of olive leaves that would very soon fade away. He tells us that being a winner in life’s race is for an incorruptible crown.

The winner’s attitude is what Paul preaches time and again in his epistles. Though he teaches “good sportsmanship” along the way (Philippians 2:3), he is always pressing upon himself and upon his readers the fact that believers are in the race of life to win. Paul’s desire to win is something like Vince Lombardi’s famous words, “Winning is not everything, it is the only thing.” Never approach Paul’s challenges to strive, to labor, to fight, to exercise, to struggle, to contend, to wrestle, and to press toward the goal (Philippians 3:14) as if intended to be a challenge to “give it your best shot.” His chosen words are the words of a winner. Like Emmitt Smith said, “For me, winning isn’t something that happens suddenly on the field when the whistle blows and the crowds roar. Winning is something that builds physically and mentally every day that you train and every night that you dream.” The Christian life is a long, arduous, challenging marathon that must be pursued with the heartiness of a winner, a spiritual winner.

Observe Paul’s approach to the strenuous Christian contest (life). He commands to exercise in godliness (the Greek word from which we get gymnasium) in 1 Timothy 4:7f: “Exercise yourself toward godliness. For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come.” In Hebrews 12:1 we read the words of a serious competitor for the prize, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Paul’s writings often use the word labor (the Greek word from which we get agony) to describe the performance of Christian duty, as in Colossians 4:12: “Epaphras, who is one of you, a bondservant of Christ, greets you, always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.” (When was the last time you pushed yourself to be a prayer athlete?) The same word is used in 1 Timothy 4:10: “For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.” And again in 6:12, “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called….”

Paul evokes the heart of a focused winner with his words in 2 Timothy 2:5: “And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes [our word athlete comes from this Greek word] according to the rules.” Contrary to the general thinking of many Christian millennials and many representatives of other generations, God does tell us to be driven to be a winner but He also expects us to run the race of life according to His rules.

Paul may very well have had the Isthmian Games in mind when he reflectively declared, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with maintaining a spiritual drive to be a winner! Strive to be the best! Like the 1996 Olympics Nike commercial said, “You do not win the silver medal, you lose the gold!” So it is with the Christian life. Let nothing sidetrack your spiritual athleticism. Trust and obey.