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Running the Race at Ancient Olympia
tunnel for athletes to enter the stadium at ancient Olymphia
The New Testament is full of metaphors about athletics preparing themselves for their races. This is especially relevant to the Hellenistic listeners who are embedded in a culture of athletic endeavors from the four Greek Games. Recent excavations at Olympia which is the site of ancient Olympics brought to light the temples, training sites and the stadium itself where the annual games were held. As with all Greek life, there was a strong religious and political connections of the games with the city-states. Whether they were the Greeks, Mycenaeans, Macedonians or later the Romans, what they had in common was their shared heritage of Greek culture. Being Greek was not so much as living in a certain area as sharing a common legacy of shared values and beliefs. Ancient Greeks were made up of a number of warring city-states. The Games were events where all city-states has to lay down their arms and declare a three month truce to take part. Offenders will be attacked by the combined might of all the other city-states. Not only this allowed time for farming, it enhanced the Games as the religious and socio-political event in their annual calendar. The Games were associated with peace under the watchful eyes of Zeus.
There are a number of metaphors in the New Testament on athletes and I have identified seven. These seven are:
1. Hebrews 12:1 (NIV)
12 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,
Note: Imagine yourself in a stadium full of spectators (witnesses) running in a race on a track marked out for you
2. Philippians 2:16 (NIV)
16 as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.
3. Galatians 2:2 (NIV)
2 I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain.
4. Galatians 5:7 (NIV)
7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?
Note: Runners keep to their own tracks.
5. 2 Timothy 4:7 (NIV)
7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
6. 1 Corinthians 9:24-26 (NIV)
24 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. 25 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. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.
Note: Think of the Panhellenic Games
7. 2 Timothy 2:5 (NIV)
5 Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.
I am sure there are more similar biblical references. The Greeks and Romans are crazy about sports. Like we moderns with our football, basketball, baseball, boxing and other sporting events, they too have their sporting favorites. The winners, like ours, are celebrities. They were crowned with wreaths and rewarded with fame, riches and statues made in their lifelikeness. This is very similar to what our sport celebrities receive today. The Olympic Games were held in the sanctuary of Zeus in ancient Olympia every four years, commencing around 776 B.C.E. The Games were part of a cycle known as the Panhellenic Games, which included the Pythian Games, the Nemean Games, and the Isthmian Games thus ensuring that there were some events taking part in different part of the country in consecutive years.
Paul uses the metaphor of the athlete to describe the training of the spiritual life. This is intentional discipleship. He emphasized the need to for discipline, identity and purpose. The spiritual life needs to be intentional to be fruitful. One is justified by God and faith alone but the process of sanctification is a collaborative effort between the human individual and the Holy Spirit. This is not to say that the Holy Spirit cannot sanctify a person but usually the tacit approval of a person is required. The Holy Spirit respects the right of an individual to decide. There is always the freedom to choose. The intentionality in this process of sanctification or training as athletes as Paul reminded his Hellenistic listeners are important aspect if the athletes wanted to win the prizes. His listeners would be receptive to these concepts because of their exposure to the Olympic Games.
If we are to visit the archaeological site of Olympia today, we can see the stadium where the races were held. The stadium consisted of an oblong arena with sloping grass sides. There were no seats and the watchers would have to sit on the grass. The racing track was a rectangular single sand paved surface with a marble starting point. The athletes have to run towards a pole in the other end of the rectangle, around it and back to the starting point. Often during the race, there would be so much dust that the athletes may not see their own poles or even see the poles. This would be where their assistants may help. Their assistants often wore a brightly colored cloth. The runners will fix their eyes on the cloth and run towards that. Any lapse of attention may cause the runners to become confused, run to the wrong pole or even got lost. This is the main emphasis of Paul’s metaphor. Listeners of the metaphor knows that athletes can only win if they focus on their own pole at the other end of the stadium.
the stadium in ancient Olympia.
The main track. Imagine it can be very dusty when the runners started to run.
another view of the stadium
arch of the tunnel where the athletes entered the stadium
If we focus our eyes on Jesus, it is unlikely we will get lost, distracted or confused.
Discipline is not a ‘acceptable’ word nowadays. Education in the past employs the modality of role learning (and still do). This has given education a bad name. After fifteen years of formal ‘education’ in schools, people are not willing to subject themselves to further form of disciplines. True education is in learning and building up ourselves into our full potential. And this requires some sort of discipline. Many people are cautious about the term spiritual disciplines.
Interestingly they are more cautious about discipline rather than spiritual. Spiritual disciplines are actually developing spiritual habits that helps us to know and experience God better. Richard Foster in his book The Celebration of Discipline, introduced to the evangelical world the values of spiritual disciplines. Actually we are already practicing spiritual disciplines but we do not call it that. Examples of spiritual disciplines may be what what is categorized as inward, outward and community. Praying, Bible reading and study, fellowship, and fasting are all examples of spiritual disciplines.
Being an athlete during the time of ancient Olympic Games was closely related to their city states eg. Athens, Sparta, Olympia. The athletes represented not themselves but their city states. Ancient Greeks think differently from us modern. We modern people think of ourselves as individual first and then community. The Ancient Greek actually think of themselves in terms of their communities. Their community came first. They identified fully with their city states. For the citizens of Athens, they were Athenians first and last.
Our identity comes from Jesus Christ. We are God’s people; a people that God brought out through Abraham through Israel and now the church. This identity is what gives us strength, motivation and purpose. Basically we stand in a special place with God compared with all the other people. We are running the race as God's kingdom people on earth.
We are to regain or reintroduce the kingdom of God into there here and now. God will create new heavens and earth. This will be combined with the heavenly Jerusalem to form heaven on earth. And we God’s people will dwell in this new heavens and earth. In this kingdom, the identity that comes from our citizenship makes us special. And special in many ways.
The citizenship in the Kingdom of heaven gives us a purpose to expand this kingdom. It also a call to bring into this kingdom, people of God who are now still confused and lost. They do not know they have this special citizenship. The present citizen to inform them about this delightful fact and privilege. God will call all that is His into the kingdom.
The key to this is to fix our eyes upon Jesus as we run the race. Our goal is not for wreaths that are perishable but for those which are imperishable. We race for the glory of God. Fixing our ryes on Jesus gives us the discipline, identity and purpose for our great enterprise. To train ourselves to be worthy runners for the kingdom of God.
Archaeological site of Ancient Olympia
Photo Gallery of Ancient Olympia
17 May 2015
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