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Olympics -- ancient, modern, and "Christian"

Olympia, in western Greece, was an ancient religious shrine and the scene of the original Olympic Games. Not far away is Mount Olympus, the highest peak in Greece and traditionally the home of the Greek gods.

The religious festival, of which the sporting competitions were a part, was held every four years from the 8th century BC (approximately the time of Isaiah) to the 4th century AD (when they were abolished by the Roman rulers).

The Olympic stadium was excavated and restored in the 1960s.

The sacred precinct, called "the grove of Zeus" (who was the greatest of all Greek "gods"), was a great sanctuary over 200 yards on a side, encircled by a stone wall. In it were the temples of Zeus and the goddess Hera, altars and offering sites, treasuries, and administration buildings. Outside the sanctuary were athletic installations, accommodations for visitors and competitors, and public baths.

The Temple of Zeus was the largest and most important building at Olympia, and one of the largest temples in all of Greece.

In the temple was the great gold and ivory statue of Zeus, the most famous of all ancient statues, considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The god was seated on an elaborate throne, and held in his right hand a figure of the goddess of victory (Nike -- a name familiar to athletes even today!) and in his left hand a royal scepter.

In front of the statue of Zeus, the competitors dedicated their skills and abilities to the great god, and took a solemn oath not to cheat or indulge in foul play during the contests.

In addition to the stadium, there was a great gymnasium with a covered running track, and a "hippodrome" (horse racing track).

The ancient Olympic competitions (for men only) included running, the discus and javelin throw, the long jump, boxing, wrestling, the pentathlon (composed of five separate events), and chariot racing (remember "Ben Hur"?).

Winners received the stephanos (a wreath of laurel or olive leaves). Returning home, they be- came national heroes: musicians composed songs about them; sculptors preserved their strength and beauty in marble; and their feats of skill and courage were recorded by the poets and writers of the times.

For many years winning athletes received only the simple "crown" of greenery, and the respect of their fellows. But later on, if an athlete dominated his event over a long period of time, he earned the right to be "immortalized" in the eyes of Zeus -- by having a victory coin struck honoring his achievement before the gods.

The modern Olympic games were begun exactly 100 years ago, with the intent of bringing together athletes from all nations in competitions that would stress peace, goodwill, and inter- national brotherhood. From a modest beginning in the late 19th century, they have now grown to be one of the greatest spectacles in the world.

New Testament references

The ancient Olympics were well-known to New Testament writers:
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb 12:1,2).
The "great cloud of witnesses" describes the audience at Olympic contests. (In the "Christian Olympics" the phrase may refer to the exemplary lives of the faithful mentioned in Heb 11, or possibly to the angels, who watch over the struggles of the saints.)

The original contestants competed naked (the Greek word is "gymnos", from which is derived the modern "gymnasium" and "gymnastics"); this explains the exhortation to "throw off everything that hinders" -- that is, get rid of all unnecessary encumbrances in your "race" for eternal life! (This command to prepare for faster movement is also very similar to the Passover command: "Gird up your loins.")

Every runner was to run with perseverance the race as it was marked out; in other words, he was required to stay within the lines of his running lane, which had been marked out on the track.

As he began the race, the runner looked to the "author", or "starter". (For those running the Christian "race", this is Jesus, at whose signal the race is to begin.) As he struggled to reach the finish line, the runner kept his gaze on the "perfecter", or "finisher", the one who stands at the finish line to judge the race -- for the Christian, Jesus again!

Jesus himself was the first winner of the "race" for eternal life. There was a "joy" set before him at the finish line -- the "crown" he received was the favor of his Father, and eternal life. Knowing what a wonderful prize was to be his, he never gave up in his "race". And now, having won, he has "sat down at the right hand of the throne of God". Greek winners were supposedly exalted or lifted up to the "pantheon" (the host of Greek gods), but Jesus was truly lifted up, to heaven, to sit at the right hand of the one true God.

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize" (1Co 9:24-27).
It is not strictly true that only one gets the prize in the "race" for life; however, if anyone is to receive a prize, it can be only because of and through the one true "winner", Jesus Christ. But this phrase also stresses the exclusive nature of our "calling": not everyone will "win"! Many are called, but few are chosen (Mat 20:16; 22:14).

Run in such a way, Paul exhorts, so as to get the prize. That is, obey all the rules:
"If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor's crown unless he competes according to the rules" (2Ti 2:5).
Also prepare yourselves to go into strict training. Paul says elsewhere:
"Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come" (1Ti 4:7,8).
Then, if you train properly, and if you compete according to the rules, you will receive -- not just the stephanos, which will dry up and turn to dust in no time at all -- but rather an eternal crown!

In a similar way, Jesus received a "crown of thorns" (perhaps modeled after the crown of olive branches) (Mat 27:29; John 19:2,5). This was in a sense a crown of "victory" over the power of sin and the flesh, but a temporary crown soon to be replaced by the truly lovely "golden crown" of glory and immortality.

"Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him" (James 1:12).

"And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away" (1Pe 5:4).

"Now there is in store 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 longed for his appearing" (2Ti 4:8).

"I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown" (Rev 3:11).
I do not run about aimlessly, Paul says (1Co 9:26). (The Olympic athlete followed a well-planned and rigid training regime, to prepare himself to perform to the best of his ability.) Paul continues: Nor do I fight like a man beating the air, or "shadow boxing"! No! I fight real "opponents", and I strive to win. But, most of all, says Paul, I keep my body under control: The most important discipline, for an Olympic athlete as well as a "Christian athlete", is self-discipline. Jesus did it best: "Not my will, but thine be done!"

The modern Olympic spirit

Today, the "Olympic spirit", as it is called, is memorialized in many ways:
  1. The motto, "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (signifying "Fastest, Highest, Strongest").
  2. Medals (of gold, silver, and bronze) are presented, in elaborate ceremonies, to the winners.
  3. The "sacred flame", lit on ancient Mount Olympus, and carried by relays of runners to the site of each modern Olympics.
  4. The adulation of a worldwide audience, which now watches the games by television. The Olympics are described by the media in such ways as "a place where heroes can still be born"... "going up to the mountain"... "where a new world gathers"... "an international fellowship".
  5. Commercial endorsements and contracts worth many millions of dollars await the winners (especially if they are photogenic).

What other lessons emerge from the example of the Olympic Games?

The Olympic motto

Consider the applicability of the Olympic motto to a believer:

  1. Citius: "Fastest": To the Olympic marathon runner, but also to the disciple who runs his "race" with perseverance.
  2. Altius: "Highest": To the Olympic pole-vaulter, and also to the one who seeks to live in the "high places" with Christ.
  3. Fortius: "Strongest": To the Olympic weight-lifter, as well as to the believer who finds real strength in the Lord.
The prophet Isaiah provides a wonderful summary of this motto:
"Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength (fortius!). They will soar on wings like eagles (altius!); they will run and not grow weary (citius!), they will walk and not be faint" (Isa 40:30,31).
The gold medal

Like the Olympian, the believer in Christ seeks for a prize of gold. But his or her "gold medal" is earned through faith:
"These [trials] have come so that your faith -- of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire -- may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed" (1Pe 1:7).
And this prize, when "won", is infinitely more precious than any gold medal ever struck!
"For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect" (vv 18,19).
The "sacred flame"

To which "sacred flame" should we look, the one on Mount Olympus, or the one revealed on Sinai?
"Now Moses... led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb [Mount Sinai], the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush.... 'Do not come any closer,' God said. 'Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.' Then he said, 'I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob... I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain' " (Exo 3:1-12).

"Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently" (Exo 19:17,18).
Again, to which "sacred flame" should we look, the one recently lit, and then extinguished, in Atlanta, or the continuously burning "sacred fire" of the altar of God, typified in the temple at Jerusalem?
"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings... At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke" (Isa 6:1-4; cf Rev 8:1-4).
Adulation, and endorsement

What should we seek for, the adulation and worship of the world, and the material rewards that come with it... or the praise of God?
"This is what the LORD says: 'Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,' declares the LORD (Jer 9:23,24).

"Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things -- and the things that are not -- to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God -- that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, 'Let him who boasts boast in the Lord' " (1Co 1:26-31).

Many of us will have watched the Olympics this past month. We will have enjoyed the breathtaking spectacles, though we might have felt qualms at some of the blatant paganism. We will have admired the courageous performances. We will have considered seriously the sacrifices that went into such marvelous achievements.

But, especially, we will have remembered the courage and sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, who ran "the race" and won, because he placed all his trust in God:
"Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phi 2:9-11).
And we will have remembered that, following him, we have a "race" to run also -- and a "crown" to win that will last forever.

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