Paul's Use Of Athletic Language -- Part Two

Last month I wrote about Paul’s use of athletic language and dealt briefly with the history of the Greek/Roman games. Altlhough these games were popular throughout the empire, neither the Jews nor the Christians participated. The reason had to do with three main factors: (1) the games were dedicated to honor pagan gods; (2) nakedness was involved; and (3) the games became increasing violent. I pointed out that Paul used such language in his writings in order to communicate the message of Jesus Christ to Gentile converts by illustrating his points by using the language of sports. Go back and read part one to get a fuller description of this. As to major passages, I looked only at one passage in that article – 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. This month I will look at other passages used by Paul.  

                                   Philippians 3:12-14

Again Paul uses the language of the athlete in describing the nature of his life in Christ:  “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do; forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12-14). 

Paul was willing to give up everything in order to achieve certain goals. He states these goals as (1) knowing Christ; (2) sharing in the sufferings of Christ; and (3) attaining unto the resurrection from the dead (see Phil. 3:10-11).  Sharing the sufferings of Christ is taught over and over in the gospels and the epistles. In sports we say, “No pain, no gain.” The ability of the martyred saints to overcome Satan is clearly stated in Revelation 12:11: “And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death.” In another place Paul wrote: “It is a trustworthy statement; for if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:11-13).

It may sound trite, but the game is not over until it’s over. Paul said that he didn’t have it made but he had to keep pressing toward the goal. Arrogance is a great stumbling block to athletic endeavor. Paul wrote: “Therefore let him who thinks that he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). What manager would tell his baseball team in spring training: “Look guys, we are guaranteed to win the pennant. It is a done deal. It is impossible for us to lose. Even so I want you to work hard in spring training, and play each game the rest of the year with all of your strength. But remember, you already have it won!”??  We don’t have to guess what kind of results we can expect. The fact is that we are up against a great opponent. Although God has provided everything that we need to win, it is up to us to press forward toward the goal. Thus, the Bible contains many warnings and admonitions. These are not in the Bible just to take up space. Some religions teach “Once saved, always saved.” They teach that once you enter the race you can never lose. They teach that Christ does everything for you. They have so emphasized the sovereignty of God that they eliminate man’s choice or free will. This principle doesn’t work in sports and it doesn’t work in Christianity. The word “press” means “agonizing toil”. It has to do with great exertion both mentally and physically. It means that the runner is putting his whole body under stress and is exerting every muscle to its limit so as to win the race. I often say that if it wasn’t called “sports” and supposed to be “fun”, it would definitely be called “WORK”, for that is exactly what it is. The key to success is motivation. This makes all the difference. And such is true in living the Christian life. Unless we are motivated by the fact that Jesus Christ died for our sins, and are reaching for the goal of the high calling in Jesus Christ, nothing else really matters.

In order to excel in sports, we need the tension of competition. Some try to take all the tension out of Christianity. They say we ought to say only positive things. Some teach the gospel of health and wealth. They avoid anything that is negative, such as admonitions, warnings, and reproofs. If we wish to avoid such things then we need to tear out most of the Bible and throw it away. Christianity is not living on cloud nine and floating around in bless, but it involves living in the real world. No wonder modern religion has lost its power to save. If we do not warn the world, we have lost our salt. If we are without discipline, then we are not children of God (see Hebrews 12:4-7).

Christ has called us through the gospel: “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:13-14). The Bible clearly tells us how God has laid hold of us and has redeemed us from our sins perfecting us in holiness. But we can reject the truth and be lost. 

All athletic endeavors involve goal setting – both short and long range goals. Everything you done in sports involves purpose and direction. Proper goals enable us to focus our abilities, powers, opportunities, etc. toward a given end. Through such means we can accomplish even beyond what we thought possible. But you will never hit what you don’t aim at. The greatest goal of all is to go to heaven. No one will reach the goal who doesn’t aim for it. But in order to reach goals, there must be dedication and preparation. The great pitcher, Vernon Law, once said, “Everyone wants to win on the day of the game, but few are willing to prepare to win.”
We must forget the past, both our successes and our failures, and keep on running. Forgetting the past does not mean that we never remember the past, but that we do not allow the past to hinder us in the present. The apostle Paul referred to himself as the chief of sinners and often talked about his life before conversion, but he did not allow this to hinder his present service to Christ. Success involves the ability to move beyond our mistakes. Sports involve making mistakes. The only ones who do not risk making mistakes are those watching on the sidelines or in sitting in the stands. When a player boots the ball (even the best players make errors), his teammates encourage him by saying, “shake it off”. We have to constantly deal with our failures and mistakes. But the important thing is that we striving toward the goal. The same is true of Christianity. 

Read the great words of the apostle John: “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.” (I John 1:6-10).

Here is a baseball illustration. Is it possible for a regular infielder to play several games without making an error? Of course, this is done all the time. Do you know any every day infielder that has played all season long without making an error? No, not even close. The point is this, none of God’s commandments are beyond our ability to obey, and when we sin, it is not anyone’s fault but ours. It is possible for us to live without sinning for a day or a week, but try as hard as we may, none of us will live sinlessly. Our relationship with God is not based upon sinless conduct. It is direction (pressing toward the goal) and not perfection that God demands. God looks upon our hearts and our sincere effort.

The only time that we actually have it made is when we have finished the race and have reached the goal: At the end of his life, Paul could say: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

                                     I Timothy 4:8-10

As a Christian, we must keep our priorities straight. 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 life to come. It is a trustworthy statement deserving of full acceptance For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers” (I Timothy 4:8-10). Many place great importance upon physical fitness and how their body looks, but these things involve only the physical and temporal. In contrast, godliness involves our relationship with God and eternal things. The world places the importance on the body while God places the importance on the spiritual. Paul warned against “enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their mind on earthly things” (Phil. 3:18-19). Godliness refers to living for God, setting our minds on the things above, and this is profitable to us both in this world and also in the world to come. Christians have the best of both worlds, although this does indeed involve sacrifice.

                                      2 Timothy 2:5

Every sport has official rules that govern the game. Without the enforcement of these rules, chaos would soon set in. I once read a book titled, “Nice Guys Finish Last”. The author obviously did not consider himself a nice guy. He pointed out that he would do anything to win, even if it meant breaking the rules. His position was very inconsistent and hypocritical. It was obvious that even he understood the importance of rules. For when the other team violated a rule, even a small infraction, he rushed out on the field and yelled at the umpire demanding that the rule be enforced. He would even quote the rule to the ump. He just didn’t believe that the rule should apply to himself, but to the other guy. All athletes understand the importance of rules. Paul wrote: “Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Tim. 2:5).

Many today teach that it is not necessary to follow the rules when it comes to religion. They somehow think that Jesus, even though He is Lord of all, has any right to tell us what to do, and they belittle the idea that obedience to Christ is part of faith and is essential to salvation. They think this means we are trying to “earn” salvation or that obedience to Christ somehow contradicts the principle of salvation by grace through faith. But in this they are totally wrong. I could produce hundreds of passages that stress the importance of obedience, but here are a few that you can look up for yourself: Matthew 7:24-27; Luke 6:46-49; Hebrews 5:8-9; I John 2:4-5, etc.

                                  Hebrews 12:1-2
The writer of Hebrews used this athletic language:  “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).

If you will, imagine a giant amphitheater filled with thousands of spectators. Then imagine that you are on the track running in a race with all of those people cheering for you to win. That is the exact meaning of this language. But those in the seats are not just average fans. No indeed! They consist of those who have run the race successfully in the past. These are the great men of faith mentioned in Hebrews chapter eleven. They are pictured as rooting for those now running the race. They are “witnesses” to the faith. Each and every one has faithfully run and completed the race. They have become great examples for us to also run and win. We are never alone. They are yelling, “I did it and you can do it too!”

Example is a very powerful incentive. At one time running the 4 minute mile was thought to be impossible. But once John Bannister accomplished this feat, it has since been broken over and over. We all need examples to imitate. There is one example even greater that all of the heroes of faith mentioned in chapter 11; that is, Jesus Christ our Lord. There are no perfect athletes, for even the great ones have flaws. But Jesus is the one exception. He had no flaws, and He can be followed in every detail. He lived flawlessly before God leaving us that great example worthy of all imitation (see I Peter 2:21). He has never asked us to do what He was not willing to do Himself. He is the author of our salvation, but He is also the perfector of our salvation. He lived under the law perfectly, and then He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. Finally, He was raised from the dead! All of this has been communicated to us by His authority. We serve a living Lord!

The Christian race is one of endurance. It is not a quick sprint to the finish line. Rather, it is a long race. We are to be faithful to the very end. How sad it is that some turn from the way of the savior before the race is over (See Ezek. 18:24; Gal. 5:4; Hebrews 6:4-6). There is no turning back or giving up. “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary” (Gal. 6:9).

Just before the destruction of Jerusalem, many Jewish Christians were losing heart and growing faint because of the many trials and persecutions, but the writer of Hebrews admonishes: “For you have need of endurance so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised. FOR YET IN A VERY LITTLE WHOLE, HE WHO IS COMING WILL COME, AND WILL NOT DELAY. BUT MY RIGHTEOUS ONE SHALL LIVE BY FAITH; AND IF HE SHRINKS BACK, MY SOUL HAS NO PLEASURE IN HIM. But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.” (Hebrews 10:36-39).


Paul used athletic language in order to teach Christians about the nature of our life in Christ. These references contain parallels not contrasts, except in terms of rewards or goals. Obviously, not everything in the games parallels our life in Christ, but only those things mentioned by Paul. Should we expect less of a Christian in terms of striving for goals, dedication, following rules, courage, etc. than we expect of athletes? Since the integrity of sports is based upon an “all out effort to win in open, honest competition” should we expect less of a Christian in his service to Christ? Will God accept lethargic, half-hearted devotion? Should we have less devotion than we expect of our athletes? The obvious answer of the apostle Paul is, “No!”

Apart from the blessings and power of God we cannot possibly hope to win. God helps us every step of the way. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:20-21). “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). In other words, in spite of the great challenges and difficulties, God is telling us, “You can do it! You can win the race?”

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Note: 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 recently in my study.

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