Paul's Use of Athletic Language -- Part One

That the apostle Paul referred to the Grecian/Roman games in his writings is well known among Bible students. The main references are found in I Corintians 9:24-27; Phil. 3:12-14; I Timothy 4:8; 2 Timothy 2:5; 4:7-8; and Hebrews 12:1-2. In addition there are many other words that are rooted in athletic language scattered throughout the epistles. However, my focus in this article will be on the main passages. There were a number of famous athletic contests that took place during the days of Paul – the Olympic, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian games. These contests involved boxing, wrestling, fighting wild beasts and running. They took place on intervals of 2, 4, or 6 years depending upon the particular contest. There were large amphitheaters throughout the Roman Empire, in Palestine and even in Jerusalem. Although the influence of such games was felt throughout the empire during the time of Christ, neither the devout Jews nor the early Christians participated in such games. The historical sources of their objections to the games are found in the writings of Josephus, a Jewish historian, and in literature of the early church fathers. They objected on the grounds of nakedness, violence, and the connection with pagan worship. These games became increasingly violent to the extent that in later history Christians were thrown to the beasts in the midst of a jeering and cheering crowd of spectators.

                 Why Did Paul Use Athletic Language?

Since the above facts cannot be disputed, why did Paul make reference to these games? The main reason appears to be for the purpose of communication. Paul was using language that was familiar to those addressed. Paul was no doubt exposed to the games while growing up in Tarsus, a Roman city of his birth, and he certainly came in contact with the games as he founded churches among the Gentiles. His longest references are found in his writings to the church in Corinth and in Philippi.  People from these cities would be especially familiar with the games. The Bible is God’s revelation to man and is adapted to man’s understanding. Jesus frequently used parables about everyday life in order to teach spiritual truths.  Paul’s use of such language is not to be understood as his endorsement of sports any more than his description of the “armor of God” (see Eph. 6:10-17) was an endorsement of physical warfare. Paul ignores the negatives and focuses on the essence of sports in order to illustrate spiritual truths. He stresses the ideals of the games in order to teach about the nature of our life in Jesus Christ. Paul’s use of athletic language has been of particular interest to me for my own background has been a combination of professional sports and preaching. The longer references draw a parallel between sports, especially the runner, and living the Christian life. The question is simply this, “Can we learn something about how we are to conduct our lives as Christians by studying Paul’s references to athletics?” The obvious answer is “yes”. Some, knowing the extreme nature of sports competition, may object to such things having anything to do with Christianity. I am aware of the stoic nature of sports, of the great discipline involved, of the pushing of the body to its very limit, and the long hours and dedication involved in order to become successful. I am not suggesting that Paul is teaching religious asceticism which he condemns in Col. 2:20-23 which is according to the commandments and teaching of men, but I am suggesting that we ought to render to God a discipline that is reasonable and logical (See Romans 12:1-2). It is not unreasonable to look to sports for patterns of Christian living. This is exactly what Paul has done. As Christians we are involved in a race, a battle, and a great competition whether we wish to admit this or not, and in order to win it will require the same kind of dedication as that required of an athlete.

A Question Posed Years ago a veteran New York sports writer, knowing that I was a Christian, skeptically asked me, “Lindy is there any relationship between sports and Christianity?”  He, of course, was familiar with the reputation of many athletes and he did not observe much godliness. Describing the frequent evil influence of sports, my friend Homer Hailey wrote: “Another idol set up in the hearts of our people is dedicated to the god of sports. There may be nothing wrong with sports activities, but when they take precedence over the spiritual life and worship of God, they become another false god. When one considers the billions of dollars spent in the total field of sports, the many hours spent by the devotees of the games, and compare these with the money and time spent in advancing the true religion of God, and in the development of the spiritual life of the individuals, one realizes that these have become another false god. In ancient times Greece and Roman games were held in honor of the gods. Now sports have become the gods themselves” (God’s Judgements & Punishments, page 116). To this statement, I could add the use of drugs and alcohol, vulgarity, cursing, and womanizing so common among many athletes today. Also consider the huge amount of gambling that is done on sporting contests. Even so, I surprised my sportswriter friend by saying, “Yes, there is a very definite parallel between sports and Christianity.” I knew my answer had to be right or Paul would not have made so many references to sports. Then I mentioned such things as (1) striving for excellence; (2) goal setting; (3) importance of confidence; (4) the economy or perfecting of motion; (5) learning perseverance; (6) having to compete according to the rules; (7) overcoming obstacles; (8) imitating the example of others; (9) dealing with mistakes (10) and learning humility. I told him that the problem is that the obvious factors that make an athlete successful on the playing field do not always translate to what they do off the playing field. Ferguson Jenkins, the great pitcher of the Chicago Cubs, on his induction to the Baseball Hall Of Fame said, “Baseball was relatively easy, it is life that is hard!” Yes, and I suspect that all Hall of Fame players could say the same thing. Paul is actually teaching us about life by using the language of sports. Now let us consider these main references one by one.

                                    I Corinthians 9:24-27

“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.” I Cor. 9:24. Paul says nothing here about what is involved in qualifying for the race. He is focusing on the race itself. However, we know that the runners went through a long process of qualifying, eliminating all runners except for these few who would be qualified to run in the big race. Paul points out that the Christian is to imitate the successful runner. That is, the Christian should run to win. As I think of my life as an athlete, I can still feel the rush of adrenalin as I walked out to the baseball mound. There was always only one thought in mind, that is, to win! Any athlete that does not strive to win with all of his might is no athlete at all. No sacrifice is too great to achieve the goal. Athletic performance does build character, but only if the athlete is striving to win. Here, Paul touches on the main ingredient to athletic success – the striving to win! In speaking to various sports groups, I emphasize the fact that players must compete to win. If that is not our goal, then such things as training, discipline, overcoming obstacles, courage, patience and other character traits cannot develop. Second best is never good enough. Today, it is not politically correct to talk about excelling or winning. We are told it destroys self-esteem if we speak of “winners” and “losers”. Everyone has to be a winner whether they deserve it or not. But Paul understood that the Christian was involved in a great contest, and it does make a difference whether we win or lose. I define the ideal of sports as “an all out effort to win in open, honest competition.” That seems to be precisely how Paul is defining sports. Except his application is to life itself rather than sports. Likewise, our service to Christ is always based upon the highest goal or ideal. It is impossible to hit that which we do not aim for. God teaches, “You shall be holy for I am holy” (I Peter 1:16). Since God is light, we must walk in light and not darkness (See I John 1:5-7). We must always look to God’s standards, not those of man. Paul wrote: “For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding” (2 Cor. 10:12). When we lower our standards, we become complacent and lazy. We cannot rise higher than the gods we worship. The results of lower standards are clearly seen in Romans 1:18-32. God will not, under any circumstance, accept being #2 in our lives. He must be #1 and that establishes our goal. Unfortunately in sports only one can win the contest. But that is not Paul’s point. We all have a chance to win in the great game of life. We know that “God is not willing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all men” (Tit. 2:11).

“Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (I Cor. 9:25). Competing to win involves great self-control. There are the hours and hours of rigorous training under all kinds of adverse conditions (heat, wind, cold, etc.). There are many sacrifices that must be made if one expects to compete. They do this for the glory and honor of being crowned as the very best in the world. This Christian must also exercise great self-control. Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24). Paul wrote: “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2). Paul also wrote: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12). In doing this, God provides us with all the encouragement and help that we need. But if we fail, it will not be God’s fault, for He has made every provision for us. The athlete must get rid of bad habits and replace those with good habits. This is exactly what the Christian must do. He must put off the old man with its evil deeds, and put on the new man who is patterned after Christ (see Eph. 5:1-17; Col. 3:5-11). Now as we consider these things, do not tell me that discipline of the athlete is more difficult than that of a Christian. I have witnessed athlete after athlete who has displayed remarkable discipline on the playing field, but were dismal failures in life itself. Yes, compared to life, success in sports is easy. Ask any great athlete. To live moral and godly is the greatest challenge of all.  Paul draws a contrast between the goal of the athlete and the goal of a Christian. Although the challenges to the Christian are many, the rewards are much greater. The athlete has earthly goals and ambitions, but the Christian has heavenly. He is seeking for the “crown of life”. Peter calls it “an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (I Peter 1:4-5). Continuing this contrast, Paul wrote: “for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the world to come” (I Tim. 4:8). No one can truly say that the Christian life is easy, but the reward is great. This reward will not come to us fully until we have run the race faithfully to the end. More about this later.

Paul continues his thought:  “Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (I Cor. 9:26-27). Just like the Olympic runner, Paul runs with focus, keeping his eyes on the goal. Christians must run the race with singleness of mind. Otherwise, we will become distracted with many things. How many people go through life without any real purpose or aim?  In this regard, we can learn something from the successful athlete. Not only does Paul run with purpose, but he makes every blow count. He does not throw wild punches wasting his energy. True athletic success involves the perfecting of motion. I call this the economy of motion. That is, making every motion count for something. Another way of expressing it is the least amount of motion for the greatest amount of effect. Often times a young athlete compensates his lack of skill by pure energy and quickness. But the experienced athlete learns to get rid of all unnecessary motion. As a Christian, we cannot afford to waste precious abilities, opportunities and time God has given to us. Paul wrote: “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16). Why waste time on those who are not receptive to the gospel of Christ?  Jesus said that we should not give that which is holy unto dogs nor cast pearl before swine (see Matthew 7:6). We ought not to pay attention to those who would distract us by throwing stumbling blocks in our way (see Matthew 15:14). Peter wrote: “For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries” (I Peter 4:3). We need to get rid of everything that would hinder us in living the good life in Christ. The battle goes on between the flesh and the spirit. The spirit must win over the flesh.  In athletics this involves mind over body. The athlete must force the body to do its bidding. Paul stresses that the spirit must win in this battle, and that this victory over the flesh is only possible through Jesus Christ (see Romans 7:25). Christians are continually admonished to walk by the Spirit and not by the flesh (see Romans 8:6-8; Gal. 5:16-26). Even Paul could become a castaway if he did not subdue the flesh through Jesus Christ. Next month I will continue to write about Paul’s use of athletic language.

                                              * * *

Note: This article published in the blog, Pitching For The Master, June, 2012. All of my articles can be accessed by going to and then click on the Pitching For The Master blog button. If you desire to be placed on my special e-mail list for advanced attached copies of monthly articles, or if you know others who would like to be placed on the list, please let me know by contacting me at The photo at the beginning of this article was taken in 1956, my rookie season with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Find It