That is why I have been looking in the Scriptures to see what can be said on this current subject.
I started at the beginning, and saw that as early on as Genesis we can observe that Abraham was able to raise a fighting force of 318 men. Esau, his grand-son mustered 400, and Jacob’s sons were sufficiently martial to have raised Shechem even if the circumstances were dishonourable. Then, by the time the Israelites leave Egypt a few centuries later under Moses, there is a full blown, although irregular army. Scroll forwards a few hundred years again to the days of Saul, and David, and it has become a standing army, professional, a soldiering class supplemented by conscripts. It was around this time, and this is where the matter of the Olympics begins to come in, under the leadership of David really, we see the cult of the warrior begun, the hero, a person whose skill and qualities were to be emulated, held up as examples.
These heroes were the masters of the sword, the bow, the sling very famously, and later under Solomon, became master charioteers, and men of the horse – all the accompaniments of war-making in the Bronze, and Iron ages. With all that came the need not just for physical mastery, but also, for the mental, and spiritual disciplines befitting of a warrior class – the right spirit.
I suppose what we are talking about is the development within Israel of what we would call today the martial arts. You see, to attain the levels of skill and discipline required, it demands training, development of mental attitudes, and these high levels of fitness and proficiency. As soon as this becomes the case people had to work on these attributes away from the actual field of mortal combat, and be in a state of readiness, and this preparation, off the battle field, is the origin of sport. People competing, sparring, testing and proving themselves against one another in a friendly arena.
Ecc. 9:11 written at least 500 years before the Greek civilization even began, records that the author was an observer of races being run in Israel. He had seen enough to know that despite whatever preparations you make, on the day, or as people are so fond of saying ‘at the end of the day’, it can be quite unpredictable who wins, and this is I suppose what makes it so exciting to watch. Notice though, this is a reference to competitive sport in Israel a thousand or more years before Christ and during the theocratic reign.
In short, what I have been illustrating is that sport is not unique to Greece, despite our modern association, nor was it unique to Israel I am sure, but like all nations with a military tradition, sport became an inevitability, the Olympic games being but one example. Nations all around the World have their games with their competitions rooted in the skills of survival, warfare, hunting, and so on, and likewise these games would be brought under the eye of their respective deities, and religious traditions too. David acknowledges that his military training comes from God.
I say this because I want to dismiss the idea that sport is Greek, and that the Bible is somehow anti-sport. This idea does have a lot of credit, and is supported by the suspicion that sport is pagan in origin.
Verses like 1Tim. 4:8 is often cited as typical of the Bible’s dismissive attitude to physical exercise, but this is only the case when this verse is read out of context. The point Paul makes here is that physical exercise is not the path to spiritual improvement. The idea that spiritual perfection might be attained by asceticism is what is being dismissed, the kind of idea of many religions have that to perfect the body, is to perfect the soul, no, says Paul. The Greeks were typical of that, they worked their bodies, and minds in Palaestra/Gymnasia to become like gods. Then they placed the image of the perfect body up as an idol to be worshipped. This idea is not foreign in our own day, and we all know it does not lead to peace with God. Yoga, which is so popular these days, effectively supports this view, one aims to purify the body, then mind, and the spirit will attain bliss, but it doesn’t. Our faith opposes that, you start with a man’s spirit to be right with God, that’s where it must begin, the heart, and that then affects their body, even eternally.
This priority of a persons spiritual welfare above all does not mean though that we dismiss physical fitness, sport, or excellence. On the contrary, without embarrassment scripture cites examples from competitive sport and holds it up to Christians as models of certain virtues. It has been argued that this was done as a way of bridging from Hebrew to Greek culture. That for Paul the former Pharisee to be able to converse, and convince Greek pagans of Christianities claims, he links onto essentially pagan social phenomena as part of his cross-cultural evangelism. In other words he only talks about sport so that he can get onto Jesus.
It is certainly true that the Pharisees had, in that period of history, reacted aggressively to the spread of Gymnasiums in Judea during the period of Hellenisation by the Greeks, then the Romans – they declared the Games to be lewd, and pagan, and effected a boycott. Hellenistic Jews however at that time, felt no such compunctions and competed openly in games. This was a source of great division within the wider Jewish community. I wonder however, if to some extent the Pharisees were reacting to foreignness generally, and consolidating their grip on the people. What I am arguing for is that Paul’s analogies to sport were not only appeals to idolatrous Greco-Roman society, but to people generally, Jews and Gentiles, as the whole point is, there is something universal about sport.
It is worth noting that it is to the Ephesian Elders, the leaders of one of the earliest and most significant Christian congregations, a more genuinely pious group one cannot conceive of, not the pagans, that he speaks of ‘finishing his race’ to. He related to well established Christians in the language of sport. Also Christians, the Church in Corinth is reminded of all running for one prize, and so the need to run to win. He takes these, no doubt Greek speaking Christians, and points them to competitive sport for sober example. In fact he is incredulous, beginning ‘Do you not know?’ Assuming that they would, even should, know about about the subject of sport, and have benefited in some way from observing the way it is conducted. In the end, it is not because they were in Greece that they should know, although that is a point, but because whoever they were, wherever they have come from, whether young or old, the universality of sport has a beneficial message to convey. To the Gaulish Christians he can speak of ‘not running in vain’, and ‘running a good race’, and in a moment of closely observed insight he asks them, ‘who has cut in on you?’ How could such a line be written but by someone who at least has closely watched, and probably experienced, even as a boy, that moment in the race when from no-where it seems another runner appears, boxing you in, cramping your style, keeping you from the lead you enjoyed . Paul clearly watched, and enjoyed sport.
We must remember that 1 Tim. 4;8 which people use as that pessimistic pronouncement on the subject, is preceded by an encouragement to ‘train’. Nor is this only Paul, but the writer to Hebrews too calls us to ‘run our race’ in the presence of a very great crowd of witnesses, conjuring up not the solitary jogger, but the athlete entering the stadium, going for the final line in perhaps the hardest and most admirable race of all, the long distance, the one that requires the great stamina and patience. In short, the writer of Hebrews takes us away from the sprint, and to the Marathon, which you remember was a commemoration of a messenger’s run to Athens to tell them of their troop’s victory at the battle of Marathon – we too have a message to carry, a message of good news, a message of victory! Paul again, reminds us this is not just running for pleasure, or fitness, but we are being scrutinised by officials.
But these are all analogies for spiritual struggle and discipline which is the priority, but can you doubt that Scripture would not have us watch or even compete so that we too can benefit from this mine of parallels?
Just because the spirit is the priority though, does not mean the body doesn’t matter. It matters so much in fact that John and Paul describe the body as a temple – so it may be secondary, but it’s in no way insignificant. So, the idea we can neglect the body is false, in fact Paul pays it strenuous attention. He speaks of subjugating it, so that he will not be, and using sporting analogies again, be disqualified for the prize. There is a real danger that neglecting to keep your body in check, and good order, could have unwanted spiritual consequence. We can learn something about how to do that from athletes.
From all this I cannot see that the Olympics could fail to inspire the necessary qualities of endurance, discipline, sportsmanship, faith, and commitment. Although these will only profit us into eternity if we are first put right with God. A person cannot use these things as a means or substitute but only as an aid, and support. Then we can be like the Psalmist said three thousand years ago, which is so relevant today ‘like a champion rejoicing to run his course‘.