Lessons from Paul’s References to Athletics

The athletic metaphor seems to transcend time and culture. Some 3000 years before Christ, we see the Egyptians involved in sports for the purpose of training for war, strengthening their bodies, and pure recreation. Today, we hear catch-phrases that are rooted within the context of athletic metaphors: No pain, no gainGive it your best shotHe who aims at nothing hits it every timeDon’t throw in the towel, etc.

Paul of Tarsus often compared the Christian life to athletic analogies. Consider his “fight the fight,” or “run with patience,” or “wrestle not with flesh and blood” statements. His writings are peppered with references to the Greek games.

It’s beneficial for the Bible student to understand this context. One observation from Paul’s illustrations is telling: in his metaphors, there is no concept of a “team sport.” While it is true that the church is “one body” and “strives together,” the games to which Paul may have observed individual competitions.

There was no place for a “weak link” to hide behind stronger players. Crowns were won on the merit of the individual. In the Christian “race” to which we are called to run, God is not handing out the victor’s crown to the entire body. Those who would win this crown must do it by being faithful to their own course.

The Discipline of the Athletes

The Olympic and Isthmian Games were not designed for the casual runner. It was not intended as an outlet for recreation. Competitors in the Olympic Games, for example, were required to swear that they had trained diligently for at least 10 months.

But the Zeus in the Council Chamber is of all the images of Zeus the one most likely to strike terror into the hearts of sinners. He is surnamed Oath-god, and in each hand he holds a thunderbolt. Beside this image it is the custom for athletes, their fathers and their brothers, as well as their trainers, to swear an oath upon slices of boar’s flesh that in nothing will they sin against the Olympic games. The athletes take this further oath also, that for ten successive months they have strictly followed the regulations for training.


Whether it was Epictetus, Seneca, Plutarch, or Marcus Aurelius, using athletics as an analogy for life was common. Each writer emphasized the same concept: self-discipline. This discipline was displayed in the training, the dieting, and the intense pressure to which their bodies were subjected. There were great benefits for the winning athlete. He was offered tax-free living, free meals at the city hall, the ability to marry whomever he chose, and welcomed as a hero with his city singing his praises. With his eye on the goal, he endured and “brought his body under subjection” because he felt that the benefit was worth it.

In today’s games, officials must constantly be on the lookout for performance-enhancing drugs. The name Rosie Ruiz lives in infamy because of cheating in the 1980 Boston Marathon. Consider the recent cheating scandal in baseball. What kept these ancient athletes from yielding to the pressure to take shortcuts to perfection?

There were at least three motivators for Grecian athletes: 1) a sworn oath to not sin against the games, 2) financially set for life if victorious, and 3) the shame / fear of being disqualified.

The name Ruiz can be found easily online – she will forever be remembered as the “Disqualified Champion.” Ancient Greece had a similar way of broadcasting the names of those who had been disqualified for violating the rules. Each guilty athlete was required to build a bronze statue to Zeus with his name inscribed upon it as the offending party. In future games, the athletes would run into the arena and pass these statues. This form of punishment cost the athlete both in finances and in reputation. His statue represented a “castaway.” No athlete wanted this stigma. These factors contributed to the athletes’ desire to follow the rules, some of which were:

  1. He was to be Greek, a citizen of the Empire.
  2. He had to understand the language of the Empire.
  3. He had to arrive to the Elysian Fields one month before the Games began.
  4. During this time, he would be inspected by the Hellanodikai.
  5. A proven athlete was not allowed to withdraw from competition.
  6. There was to be no bribery or self-promoting techniques.
  7. Any athlete found in violation of the rules would be whipped, fined, and then disqualified from competing again.
  8. False starting in a race brought a whipping.
  9. An athlete must swear that he had trained for ten months.

Understanding Paul’s References

            Once the Bible is read through the lens of “athletics,” the metaphor is found often in Paul’s writings (it is not found at all in the Gospels). Paul, as a Jew that understood the Hellenistic culture, was familiar with the Greek games – both in Olympia and Isthmia. Perhaps one of his favorite metaphors was that of the runner (1 Corinthians 9:24, 2 Timothy 4:8; Philippians 3:13-14; Galatians 5:7; Hebrews 12:1-3).

In this summary, two passages deserve special attention: 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 and Philippians 3:13-14. In the first passage, the historical backdrop provides tremendous insight and cultural context.

  1. Only one runner receives the prize. The Hellenic Games knew nothing of team sports. The Christian runner cannot “coast” to victory or be the weak link on a strong team.
  2. There is an agony (from the underlying Greek word), a striving, for the athlete if he is to have the mastery. The “pain” both then and now is worth the “gain.”
  3. The key to victory is discipline and self-control.
  4. If the Corinthian athletes would subject themselves to so much intense training for a corruptible crown (a wreath that wilts), how much should the Corinthian Christians be willing to subject themselves for an incorruptible crown?
  5. A runner does not run aimlessly; his race, or course, is a matter of purpose.
  6. An Olympic boxer does not fight the shadows; his punches have a purpose.
  7. Paul uses a phrase that implies giving oneself a black eye and making himself a slave for the express purpose of not disqualifying himself from the games.
  8. Paul, the announcer of the events, was also Paul the runner. The fear of being a castaway, a disqualified contestant, was a strong consideration in his life.

The underlying theme from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians could be summed up: “Discipline yourself by considering your purpose. Keep focused on the goal and run at it even though it is painful and uncomfortable. It will be worth it when you arrive at the desired prize.”

The second passage to consider comes from Philippians 3:13-14. Similar to 1 Corinthians 9, the runner is going for the prize. There are three key phrases in these verses that form the basis for the athletic metaphor:

“…But this one thing I do…”

            This phrase speaks of the athlete’s purpose. He did not spend ten months of his life training to do varied tasks. His chance for glory was directly related to the intensity of his training for one event. Ten months of pain would be endured for a race that was 600 feet long (Gr. Stadia).

The stadium was an oblong area, with a straight wall across one end, where the entrances were, the other end being round and entirely closed. Tiers of seats were on either side for the spectators or witnesses. The starting place was at the entrance end and was marked by a square pillar. At the opposite end was the goal, where the judge sat and held the prize. The eyes of the competitors remained fixed on him…The goal, as well as the starting point, was marked by a square pillar, and a third was placed midway between the two.

            The runner was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. He had taken off all necessary weights. Ten months of training was all for this moment. This one moment could potentially yield a corruptible crown. Paul presses the analogy to remind us that Christians are not “one moment wonders.” He is to be in a continual race, always looking toward the goal – his “one thing to do.”


This phrase speaks of the athlete’s passion. This phrase is at times removed from its context. At times, people may be reminded to “forget those things which are behind” as though Paul is dealing with past failures. However, contextually it is clear that he is dealing with past accomplishments. He is saying that past victories do not guarantee victory in today’s race.

The picture of reaching is that of stretching, straining, and the runner giving it that last kick against all of his instincts. This is what he has trained for; this is his moment. Discomfort and pain are not strong enough factors to cost him a crown. The runner will reach with all that is in him.

The runner also presses. The word picture here is that of hastening, pursuing, or striving for a purpose. Paul’s phrase forms an idiom, “literally ‘to pursue to a goal, to press toward a goal’ to strive energetically for some purpose—‘to strive toward a goal, to press on with the purpose of.’

“…the mark for the prize…”

            This phrase speaks of the athlete’s prize or pursuit. The mark, the scope of the target, for which this athlete is focused upon is the high calling. This high calling is literally the upward calling. In both the Greek, and later the Roman, games, the judge (and at certain seasons, the Emperor), would call the victorious athlete up to the Judge’s Seat and there in front of the crowd, the athlete would receive the victor’s laurels. The Judge had issued an “upward calling” for the participant. In like manner, the Christian is listening for his Judge, the Lord Jesus Christ, to sound out an upward, high calling to these victorious participants to receive the crown.

To hear the Judge say, “Well done; you have finished your course; you have won,” – this is the longing for the Christian who strives to play within the rules; who desires to not be disqualified and castaway; who believes that any discomfort and pain in this life pales in comparison with the chance to win the victor’s crown from Christ.


Two reoccurring themes appear when studying the Greek athlete: self-discipline and purpose. Both themes were readily apparent to Paul and his usage of the metaphor. If the child of God is going to receive from the Judge a victor’s crown, he must exercise temperance, self-discipline, and control. Further, he must understand the nature of his course. He cannot run aimlessly. He must passionately run with a purpose to win within the confines of the rules that has been set.

As in the Olympic / Pan-Hellenic Games, so it is in our race. Only citizens can represent the Kingdom. We are citizens of a heavenly country – let us represent home well!

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