The Olympics represent the pinnacle of athleticism, training, and competitiveness, going all the way back to ancient times. The apostle Paul used illustrations from the world of athletics in several of his letters. In three Epistles, he used the image of all-out racing to urge vigorous and lawful pursuit of spiritual growth and service. Four times Paul spoke of his own growth and service in terms of his own such race.
To the gifted but immature believers in Corinth, Paul wrote, “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” (1 Corinthians 9:24). Here, Paul compares the disciplined effort necessary for spiritual growth to an Olympic athlete’s effort to win the prize that awaits only the winner of a race. Growing Christlikeness does not just happen on its own. God certainly “works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13), but the believer must cooperate with God by exerting responsible and serious effort to follow what the Holy Spirit teaches. “Anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5). For the disciplined believer, the prize is the “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14, ESV). To what does God call the believer? It is to become like Jesus Christ in heart and lifestyle (Romans 8:28–30).
The true believer demonstrates the reality of God’s work in his heart by enduring all sorts of tests in the development of Christlikeness. The believer is in training, much as an Olympic athlete must train for a race. No pain, no gain. That is why the writer of Hebrews exhorted, “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, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:1–3). Jesus is portrayed as the finest runner, the One who set the pace, our model and hero in life’s race. Just as a runner in the Olympics must dispense with anything that would hinder his running, we must disentangle ourselves from sin. As a runner in the games must keep his eyes on the finish line, so we must keep our eyes on Christ and His joyful reward.
Some believers in Galatia had lost faith in God’s grace and were returning to a legalistic, performance-based religion. Paul wrote strong words to them: “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you” (Galatians 5:7–8). The true Christian life can be lived only by faith—faith in the pure Word of God and faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. To follow Satan’s deceitful advice to try to earn God’s grace and free gift of salvation is to stumble in our race. Trusting our own works only insults God and does us no good.
Paul wrote with similar urgency to believers in Philippi, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then . . . I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain” (Philippians 2:14–16). Paul encouraged the Philippians’ pure faith and likened his own labor on their behalf to running a race. He had invested hard work and deep suffering in teaching them God’s story, and he wanted his exertion to pay off—much like an Olympic athlete deeply desires his sacrifices to result in victory.
Another passage in which Paul uses the metaphor of a race is Galatians 2:1–2. There Paul tells how he had visited Christian leaders in Jerusalem in order to check with them the gospel he preached to the Gentiles. What was his reason for taking such care? “For fear that I was running or had run my race in vain” (NAS). It was vital to Paul that he knew, believed, and taught God’s truth. This was the way that he “ran his race.”
It was in peaceful confidence that Paul approached the end of his life. Anticipating his impending martyrdom in Rome, he wrote to his young protégé, Timothy, “The time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 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” (2 Timothy 4:6–8).
We don’t know if Paul had been an athlete in his younger years. In these references to the Olympic races, he certainly showed deep interest in and understanding of competitive running. He used that understanding of the Olympic races to illustrate the basics of the Christian life.
A runner must train for his race, know the rules, and commit to winning. A believer must endure hardship, exercise absolute and enduring faith in the Word of God, and keep his eyes on the goal. In the power of the cross, the believer grows more and more like the Savior. Despite obstacles, challenges, temptations, and even the threat of death, the Christian continues to run the race Christ has marked out for him.