Preaching the Gospel, Preparing a People

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Down through the ages athletes have been a source of inspiration and motivation. The apostle Paul often described our calling in terms of athletics. Spiritually, all too often, we don’t live like competitors in a game but more like spectators in the stands. This sermon discusses how can we have the right perspective in this race of our life.

Transcript

[Steve Myers] Have you been keeping up with the Olympics? They've been going on for the last week or so, and it has been amazing watching some of the highlights. I haven't gotten up in the middle of the night to watch any of them, but watch some of the highlights. And some of the competitions have been just absolutely amazing. The skill that these athletes exhibit, the gymnastic efforts, the swimmers, and their amazing times that they've been turning in have been just really phenomenal. In fact, there's been a couple of new events, you may have heard that, that have been added this time around with the Olympics. One of those is surfing. So surfing is one of those new events that were added, as well as skateboarding. So skateboarding is now an Olympic event. But actually, one of my favorites is just kind of getting going in the last day or so, and that's the track and field events. They are amazing. And when you consider the Olympics themselves and the athletic competition that is a result of that, it really has been a source of inspiration, not just for those of us who watch today, but really down through the ages. Athletics have been a source of inspiration and motivation I think partly because of the amazing potential, the thrill of challenging yourself to even better and better results all the time.

And so it's no wonder that the Bible uses many athletic metaphors. And one individual who loved to use those analogies was the apostle Paul. The apostle Paul often described our spiritual challenges, our spiritual calling in terms of athletics. And there's quite a few examples in the Bible. One I'd like to focus on is in the book of 1 Corinthians this afternoon. And when Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he wanted to teach them something very important, something that was critical, and by extension, he's teaching us as well because God wanted spiritual truth to sink in deeply into their minds and into their hearts, into their thinking. And so God inspired the apostle Paul to speak to them in terms that they could really identify with, things that could really capture their attention and their interest. And so Paul spoke to them in the language of sports.

Now, to get a little background to this, let's turn over to Acts 18. In the book of Acts, as we get into the later chapters, it describes the apostle Paul on his various journeys as he travels through the Roman Empire to preach, to teach, and to make disciples. So he has taken God's commission to heart, and he's preaching and teaching the Word of God. And in Acts 18, he goes to Corinth. So in verse 1 of chapter 18, we see after going to Athens, he ends up in the City of Corinth. And in verse 2 of Acts 18, it says he found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy, and his wife, Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome, and he came to them.

And so here we have Paul on his second journey, they normally call this, and he stops in Corinth. Then you wonder, "Well, why would you go to Corinth? What's the point? Why choose that city? Is it just that you just happened to go there, or did he choose to go there?" Well, it seems that he went there for a number of specific reasons. One of those was because of where Corinth was located, not because it was near Athens. That doesn't seem to be the reason. But Corinth was a great shipping port. It was a harbor city. It was the major east-west maritime trade route on all products that would be heading either direction, from Rome or to Rome. And so Corinth was critical. In fact, it wasn't just the city of trade routes, but it was also the land. Because of all the trade that was coming in, it was also a strategic area for north-south roads, so those material goods could be shipped throughout the empire, and so it was a strategic location. And so Paul must have had that in mind as he thought about going to Corinth.

We even get a little glimpse of perhaps another reason why he would go to Corinth. We see that he found Aquila and Priscilla there. Well, he was a Jew. There were Jews in Corinth, which meant there were God-fearing people that perhaps the gospel could have some impact with those who understood the true God. And so that seems to be part of the reasons Paul would go there as well, that there was a Jewish community in Corinth, and it might be a door to preach the gospel. And yet, that's not the only reasons that he would have went here. There was something else that ties in with this whole concept of how Paul preached. This was the home of the nearby Isthmian Games. Now, I don't have a lisp, but that's the way that it said, the Isthmian Games. They were held, and it seems if you do the timeline, right during this time that Paul would have been visiting Corinth. And the Isthmian Games would have had people attending from all over the empire, not only from Greece, from that area, but from everywhere, coming to participate, and to be spectators for the games. And in this area of the world, the games were really important.

In fact, it wasn't just the Isthmian Games. They had four ancient festivals of games, and, of course, the most well-known is the one that's happening right now, the Olympic Games. These four different festivals were known as the Panhellenic Games. Sometimes it was called the circuit or the Periodos because they would happen throughout the years. The Olympics every four years, still happens today, every four years. And the Olympics were dedicated at Olympia, honoring the Greek god Zeus, the god of the heavens, the father of all the Greek gods, and so they honored Zeus in the Olympic Games. But there were other games as well. There were the Pythian Games. The Pythian Games honored Apollo and they happened at Delphi. And Apollo, the Greek god of the sun and light and music and poetry and virtue, and he was supposed to be honored at Delphi with the Pythian Games. And then there were the Nemean Games, also honoring the god Zeus. And then the games that Paul refers to, the Isthmian Games, which happened near Corinth. And Paul refers to these games as he writes to Corinth.

So if you hold your place here in Acts 18, let's turn over to 1 Corinthians 9, 1 Corinthians 9:24 1 Corinthians 9:24Know you not that they which run in a race run all, but one receives the prize? So run, that you may obtain.
American King James Version×
. We'll see Paul referencing the Isthmian Games in chapter 9 of 1 Corinthians. So he had visited Corinth. Now looking back, he's writing to God's people at Corinth. He's writing to us as well by inspiration as well. And verse 24 of chapter 9, we'll see this athletic metaphor being used here. And Paul says this, "Don't you know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it." And this is definitely a reference to the games. And the Isthmian Games were interesting because they weren't like the Olympics. Olympics is held every four years. The Isthmian Games were held every two years, every two years. So every other spring, these games would be held, so held twice as often as the Olympics. And those Corinthians, they loved sports. They loved it. They identified it. They were very proud of this amazing festival that was held every other year.

And by the time of the apostle Paul, by the time he gets to Corinth, do you know how long these games had gone on? They had been happening for more than 500 years. Now, the Olympics were the oldest, but the Isthmian Games not very far behind. So they'd been happening for 500 years. And instead of honoring Zeus, they were held in honor of Poseidon. Poseidon. You may be more familiar with the Roman counterpart to Poseidon is Neptune. Neptune, the great god of the sea, and, of course, that makes sense. Corinth, a sea harbor, a great port, honors Poseidon, the god of the sea. And so those games were held in his honor. And they had many different events that took place, and whether it was races like track and field, the foot races, they were kind of one of the big events of the day. But they also had wrestling, and they had boxing and discus and javelin, and some of those things that you might imagine, a long jump, and, of course, they had the chariot races, which was also a big draw. But did you know they also had singing? Can you imagine singing as an Olympic event? Looking at skateboarding this year, and we've got surfing. Singing? Yeah, it was. In fact, it seems that Nero actually forced himself into the games at one point before the death of Paul and participated in the singing event. Of course, you can imagine who might have won in the singing event if the Caesars… yeah. Okay.

But one interesting thing about the Isthmian Games as well, it wasn't like the Olympics, they allowed women to compete as well. So they found inscriptions digging up, you know, archeological finds. They found that women were winners of some of the races as well. So, anyone could compete in that regard. And so when we consider what Paul's writing about, he is getting to the heart of the people and things that they were interested in in order to make a point about how to live a Christian life, how to be true followers of Jesus Christ, how to honor God, the Father.

So if you've still got your marker in Acts 18, go back for just a moment because it gives us a little bit more information of why Paul went to Corinth and the impact of these games and the spread of the gospel as well. So if you look back at Acts 18, he found Aquila and Priscilla. And in verse 3, it says, "He was of the same trade." Aquila was of the same trade as Paul. So Paul stays with them, for by occupation it says, they were tentmakers. Okay. What's that? Just a little bit of extra trivia there, something that doesn't really matter that much? No, it's actually very important in connection to the whole scenario of what's happening here. So being a tentmaker, he identifies with others who are tentmakers, leather workers. And then he goes to those Jews to begin to preach the gospel.

Verse 4, it says, "He reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, persuaded both Jews and Greeks, and some people became believers." Verse 8, it says, "Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians hearing believed and were baptized." Now imagine the scene with all these visitors to Corinth, being this maritime port, and then the games going on. People listened and heard, and he had a unique connection with them as well. It's interesting. Verse 9, it says, "The Lord spoke to Paul in the night vision, 'Don't be afraid, but speak, don’t keep silent.'" Of course, in some of the other towns that Paul visited, he got ridden out of town on a rail, and they didn't want to hear it. But God inspires Paul and says, "Keep preaching. I'm with you." Verse 10, He says, "No one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city."

In verse 11, it says, "He continued there," not just a day, or two, or a week, or two, but it says, "He continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them." And, of course, having this wonderful opportunity to preach and to teach came partly because of the games and partly because of Paul's occupation. He was a tentmaker.

Well, where did people stay when they came to participate in the Isthmian Games? Well, it wasn't like the Olympics today. You know, in Tokyo, they had to build all these housing units, and you've got dormitories for all the athletes, and they stay together. Not in ancient times. Where did they stay? They stayed in areas surrounding the fields of competition. And what did they stay in? Tents. Tents. You think they might need a tentmaker? Do you think they might need their tents repaired? Do you think any of the competitors might need some leather like if you're competing in the chariot races, or you might need a saddle? You need a bridle. You need some reins. You need a gourd for water or wine. You need sandals or a shield. Paul would have an automatic in and a road to preach the truth as he served people. I mean, what an opportunity to share the gospel? And if we read over it too quickly, we miss this amazing opportunity that Paul took to preach and teach God's Word at a level where people could identify with it. They could relate to what he was saying. So no wonder he uses these athletic metaphors to really make a point with those that were coming for the games and that those who lived in Corinth as well. And so as Paul uses that analogy in the book of 1 Corinthians, he really gets to the heart of who we are, and what we do, and why we do it as God's called-out people.

So if you turn back to 1 Corinthians 9, if you held your place there, we take a look at verse 24 again, and we begin to see Paul initially starts to discuss why. Why do we run? Why are we in this race? Why are we called to the spiritual, what, competition you might say? Why? Why do we run? Let's take a look at 1 Corinthians 9 a little bit more closely and see exactly what it has to say and teach us about running this great spiritual race. Of course, Paul says, "Those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize?” Of course, the Corinthians would know exactly what he was talking about because this is where they live. This is what they live and they breathe.

Now, of course, we understand with what Paul wrote here. He's not talking about certain things here. He's not saying you can earn your salvation. That is not what he's saying. That only comes by the grace of God. God gives us eternal life. We can't earn it. So he's definitely not talking about that. And he's not talking about you and I competing against each other. Christians aren't competing against each other to win the spiritual race. That's not the case at all. It doesn't mean that only one Christian is going to win, and everybody else is going to lose. That's not what he's saying here. But what he's getting at is our motivation. He's getting at the intensity that we ought to have that moves us to love God and to have a relationship with God and to run this spiritual race, applying it in our everyday life.

And so the Corinthians would be the first to recognize a couple of things about this very statement. Was it good enough just to be in the race? I'm just happy to be a part of things. Maybe you've watched some of the Olympic interviews where an athlete might say, "An athlete in Isthmia would never say that. I'm just happy to be here." "No, I'm here to win," is what an Isthmian participant would have said. So, Paul is pointing that out. We're not here just to enter the race. No one in Isthmia entered a race without the commitment to obtain the prize, to absolutely be committed to winning. That's what they were about. Every athlete-focused and were committed to receiving that prize. In fact, it was the only thing on their mind. That was everything. And so they really were the epitome of winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. That's the Isthmian Games. And they were so committed that they did a number of things to express that commitment to the competition. They even vowed in that regard. They swore that that was their perspective. The athletes that came to Isthmia took an oath, an oath, in order to participate in the games.

And so it's interesting, if you were to go to ancient Isthmia, you would see a temple, probably the biggest building there, that was dedicated to Poseidon, Neptune, because that's whose honor the games were held. You'd also see the competition facilities, the stadium, and the theater. Yeah, theater for singing and performing. And the hippodrome where they'd have the chariot races, the horse races there, all the fields of competition. But there is also a smaller structure. They called it the Palaemon, which was also dedicated to another phony Greek god, and it was situated right near the Poseidon temple. And do you know what took place there? That was where the athletes took a vow. They swore allegiance to Zeus, and they swore and vowed that they had prepared for these games and that they were dedicated to these games, and that they had disciplined themselves to follow the rules and compete with honor. And if they broke those rules, they could be disqualified, and being disqualified would probably be the best thing that could happen to them. A lot of worse things could happen to them as well. And so they were totally committed and showed by an oath by swearing that they were to compete with honor and dignity and follow the rules and swore allegiance to their god.

Now, it is interesting even today. Most don't realize it, but even the Olympic athletes today kind of take an oath. They kind of do it by extension these days, and it's often overlooked. A few representatives during the initial opening ceremonies, usually those of the host country, on behalf of all the competitors with usually a judge and a coach in the competitions would take the Olympic oath. And that's very interesting too because it harkens back to what happened in ancient times in Greece. Today, those representative athletes say, and this is what they say, "We promise to take part in these Olympic Games, respecting, and abiding by the rules in the spirit of fair play, inclusion, and equality. Together we stand and commit ourselves to sport without doping, without cheating, without any form of discrimination. And we do this for the honor of our teams in respect for the fundamental principles of Olympism and make the world a better place through sports." I don't know that that's happening. It doesn't seem to be having an effect in that regard. But I think it does emphasize the commitment that those athletes have, and it does bring us back to those ancient times that focused on vowing, vowing to the race, vowing to the competition. And, of course, you begin to relate that to what Paul wrote. Paul wrote to God's people in Corinth because they were in this great spiritual race.

And you think about the oath. Had they taken an oath? Absolutely. Not the athletic oath, but an oath like you have taken. Have you taken an oath and vowed before God? At baptism, we do that. We vow before God, and we say, "Yes, I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior. He is my Lord and my Master. I have a relationship with God the Father and Jesus Christ. And I am fully committed to follow them no matter what." And so we took a vow at baptism. And Paul's reminding Corinth, he's reminding us, we're to personally run the spiritual race with the motivation of an athlete who is totally committed to win, totally committed to win. We're not to run half-hearted. We're not to run so-so, or uncommitted, or take it, or leave it, or I think I'll show up once in a while to serve. No, be all in. And we verbalize that commitment just like those ancient athletes did, but our dedication is to the true God, the only true God, not some phony Zeus or Poseidon or anybody like that.

And so Paul says “Run. You're in the spiritual race. Get moving in such a way that you might obtain it. You might obtain it.” And so, that's not the gold, that's not the silver, that's not the bronze. In fact, in Isthmia, it wasn't like that at all. It's like you don't win the silver medal, you lose the gold. You lose the gold. And in ancient games, there was one, one winner. Only the winner received the crown of victory. There was no second place. There was no backup. There was no third. Winning was everything, and so they competed with the goal to win the event, not to second place or third. Second place was the first loser. That's facts in ancient times. And oftentimes, they would motivate those in the competition. Sometimes in the foot races at the finish line, they would have a little pillar with that victory crown on top of that pillar so as the athletes ran that race, they could see that victory crown straight ahead and not lose focus because that's what it was all about. It was all about winning. And so no wonder Paul puts it in those terms that winning is everything.

So look at verse 25. 1 Corinthians 9:25 1 Corinthians 9:25And every man that strives for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.
American King James Version×
, "Everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown." Yeah, that's what we're competing for, something that doesn't fade, something that doesn't wear out. I mean, their victory, their reward, well, they'd have this victory crown, but that wasn't like a king wears. That wasn't like a diadem and diamonds and jewels and all of that. Now, that wasn't it at all. It was a crown. Originally, in ancient times, it was a crown made out of something like celery or parsley. Celery was what they were made out of for the Isthmian Games. Later on, during Roman times, they made that crown out of pine boughs. You know, so you've got needles that you get to wear because you're the great victor. So that was the prize, this victor's crown. And the pine bough became the iconic symbol of the Isthmian Games.

Now, there'd be some monetary rewards as well. Some accounts say they could live tax-free for the rest of their life, which would be… yeah, that's pretty good deal. Some accounts say they would have a payment that would be like getting paid for three years' salary today, which wouldn't be too bad. But the other thing that came with this was hero-like status. They were treated like royalty. They were the winners. There were times that they would actually build statues to the winners of the games. Sometimes they would have their names inscribed on a wall and bronzed on that wall. You would see their name and the competition that they won. And others even had songs written about them. And so if you won the games, you were pretty well set for life. You were set for life. But Paul says that's all fading away. That's all nothing. This idea of perishable means it's not going to last. The honor that went along with it isn't going to last. And I think it's a perfect representation with Paul, pointing to this victory crown because oftentimes in the Isthmian Games, they would wait till the end of the games to give out the prizes, to give out that victory crown. What do you think happened to the celery by the end of the week? It was already wilting by the time they won it and got to put it on. And so here Paul says that's not what we're after. We have something much greater, and he says, "Run to obtain it. Run to obtain it." That word obtain doesn't mean we'll just try to get it. No, it means to seize it, to grab onto it, to really make it your own. Make it your possession. Catch it. And so you see this as an active thing. This is not anything that's passive and ho-hum, but you have to go after this. Our Christian life is to go after the prize, and, of course, it's not just a crown of celery or pine boughs. It's not just a statue. Paul talks a lot about the prize and why we run.

If you hold your place here and turn over to 1 Timothy 6:11 1 Timothy 6:11But you, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.
American King James Version×
. Paul uses another sporting analogy here. If refers to the athleticism in connection to this great spiritual calling that we have. And as he talks to this young minister Timothy and teaches him how to be a good minister notice the wording that he uses as he describes the prize— the ultimate victory that we as God’s people can have. 1 Timothy 6:11 1 Timothy 6:11But you, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.
American King James Version×
, the apostle Paul says to Timothy “But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue…” hey, that’s running! Be a spiritual track star, in other words, be a spiritual track star. You get away from everything that’s bad, that’s evil… he went through a whole list of things just before this. And now what will you go after, what will you obtain, what will you lay hold on? He says “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life,” and sure enough, that lay hold, the same word, the same word we read in 1 Corinthians 9, obtain it. Lay hold of it. Grab it. Make it your own. Make it your possession. Catch this. Do you have that vision? He says, "Lay hold on eternal life to which you are also called and confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses." And so that's our focus. We have a relationship with God the Father and Jesus Christ, and it is so close that we're going to do everything we can not to jeopardize that relationship and run to that finish line. Our focus is not some pine bough, but that focus is eternal life and everything that's represented by this imperishable crown. And so we're told to run in such a way to obtain everything that God wants to give us. And so Paul encourages us. He encouraged the Corinthians in that way as well. But that wasn't all. He not only talked about why we run, but he also talked about how we run.

How do we run this great spiritual race? We've been called by God to His way of life. How do we do it? How do we run? Well, if you go back to 1 Corinthians 9. Let's go back to verse 24, and we'll go on from there once again. Now, if you're reading in the New King James or the King James Version, it might be a little different. I have the New Living I'd like to read for just a moment in 1 Corinthians 9:24 1 Corinthians 9:24Know you not that they which run in a race run all, but one receives the prize? So run, that you may obtain.
American King James Version×
. It says it just a little bit differently but notice the emphasis here. 1 Corinthians 9:24 1 Corinthians 9:24Know you not that they which run in a race run all, but one receives the prize? So run, that you may obtain.
American King James Version×
New Living says, "Don't you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win!” Run to win. Verse 25, "All athletes are disciplined in their training." That's temperate in all things in the New King James Version. "All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize, an eternal prize." And the imagery that would come to mind for Corinthians must have been overwhelming as they considered what Paul was writing about. Because athletes, they would well know, had to give everything they had to train for the Isthmian Games, for the races. And they would become temperate. They would become disciplined. They would become determined. And they would restrain themselves. They would practice self-control. Being temperate means self-control.

They would be controlled in all things. So anything that might slow them down, anything that would get in the way, anything that would trip them up, they would avoid it. And they would train and discipline themselves. In fact, that vow they took, that involved vowing to the fact that they had trained for months or maybe even years of strict discipline training, even just to be able to compete in the games. And that was repetitive training over and over and over again. And you've probably seen that today with athletes that are on that level. Repetitive training over and over again really helps them to gain the strength and the perspective that they need to compete in the various events.

And so Paul is saying that's the kind of discipline that we need as Christians. That's the kind of discipline we need in order to run this Christian race. And these great athletes suffered and put that effort and that training first and foremost so that they could obtain this perishable crown, but that's not what we're after. That's not what God has called us to. I mean, is it true? Sometimes we lose that zeal. Sometimes we lose that consideration and that perspective of having that dedication and commitment, and all too often, we are not like competitors in the games. Too often, we're like the spectators. We're sitting in the stands. We're watching things happen before us, "Oh, go everybody. Yeah. That's great." We're cheering on those that are in the races, those that are truly committed, but we've lost that zeal. We've lost that commitment. And then you get done watching for a while then you go back to life as usual. But Paul's getting to the point, we cannot be like that. We cannot be like that. We've got to put God's way into practice, and we've got to have that zeal and enthusiasm for running this race and repetitively training for the competition because life is a competition, whether we like to recognize that or not, Paul is putting it in those terms.

In fact, if you hold your place here in chapter 9. Go to 1 Timothy 4:7 1 Timothy 4:7But refuse profane and old wives' fables, and exercise yourself rather to godliness.
American King James Version×
. We'll go back to another athletic metaphor that Paul uses to really drive home this point of how we run, how we run the spiritual race. We have to be competitors. We can't be spectators, not in the Christian walk. You can't be a spectator. 1 Timothy 4:7 1 Timothy 4:7But refuse profane and old wives' fables, and exercise yourself rather to godliness.
American King James Version×
. Paul says, "Reject profane and old wives fables. Don't fall for the ways of this world for their kind of thinking." Be spiritually minded in other words is what he's saying here. And what else? "Exercise yourself toward godliness. Bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that of which is to come." And, of course, Timothy, boom, would have seen this beautiful illustration come to mind because guess who was at Corinth with Paul, may have even went to some of the games. Timothy was there too. So Timothy would have recognized this wording. Exercise yourself. Yeah, bodily exercise. Oh, you might win the crown, but it's not going to last. That's going to fade away. We look forward to what's to come. And so what does Paul say? Exercise. And this is the Greek word, gymnazo. We get our word gymnasium from that very word. Gymnasium, exercise, spiritual conditioning, that leads to godliness. So what's your spiritual shape? It's like the guy that went to the doctor, and he was heavily overweight. And the doctor told him, "You've got to get into shape." The guy said, "Doctor, I am. Round is a shape." Wrong shape. Spiritual conditioning is what Paul is getting at, and he's reminding Corinth, he's reminding us. And that comes with exercise, spiritual exercise, and that's repetitive training exercises, repetitive like Bible study, "Oh, I get bored reading the Bible over and… What am I supposed to read now? I don't get it." You better be repetitive in reading the Bible. It's God's Word. It's His revelation to us. We don't have that repetitive training, we're not really in the race.

When it comes to prayer, if we're not praying and close to God, we're not in the race. We're not doing that continually, repetitively, petitioning God for our needs, for others' needs, for the work of His church. If we're not doing those things, we're not in spiritual shape. If we're not fasting, we're not in spiritual shape. We're not showing love if we don't have the fruit that he's talking about here, you know, whether it's, you know, the godliness that is patience, and kindness, and goodness, and gentleness, self-control. All of those things are evidence of the fact we are in spiritual shape. And that's going to take effort, that's going to take commitment, and that's going to take the challenge because sometimes it's just not easy. But we need that muscle memory. Great athletes have the muscle memory that then they get into trouble, their body just reacts because they've done it so many times, over and over and over again. It's like it comes naturally.

And we have to fight our natural tendencies, our human nature, and allow the spiritual benefits to take over. That's the way it's got to be. But if we don't have that repetitive training behind us, it's not going to come, and our human nature, our natural tendencies are going to come out instead. And it's interesting in all of this. The connections to athletes point to the sacrifice of training. Do you know the word athlete in the Greek comes from a base word that means suffer, suffer? And so athlesis exercise means to struggle with suffering. To struggle to endure. And so we are spiritual athletes. Paul even told Timothy, just a couple of chapters later, 2 Timothy 2:5 2 Timothy 2:5And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully.
American King James Version×
. He told Timothy, "If you compete in athletics, you have to compete according to the rules. If you're going to suffer and endure and take on the challenge of training spiritually, yeah, you took the vow. You've got the rule book. Compete according to the rules." And so in Isthmia, athletes were known for their severe discipline. They would endure suffering, and they would work through the pain.

You've heard them say, no pain, no gain. Yeah, it applies spiritually according to what Paul says, but they did it in order to be the best that was possible. And if you read some of the historical accounts, the historians will say suffering hardly even touches on how difficult, how brutal it really was because it was a battle, a brutal battleground between fierce rivals in some of those events with honor and national pride on the balance. And the stakes couldn't have been higher with all the glory and stardom and near fame on the line. And so they were going to do everything they possibly could in order to achieve that victory because losing meant scorn. It meant being denounced. It might even have meant a sentence where they could face injury or death. And so Paul uses this amazing analogy to show the discipline, the spiritual discipline that we need, the self-sacrifice that we need, how we've got to get away from the morals of this world and tune into God's wavelength when it comes to living His way and train in that regard.

And so no wonder, if you flip back to 1 Corinthians 9, notice verse 26. In verse 26, he certainly reminds us of the importance of being a spiritual athlete, spiritual athlete, and he mentions this in verse 26 of 1 Corinthians 9. He says, "Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty." Not with uncertainty because he's trained himself. He has that muscle memory. He knows exactly what he's doing, exactly where he's going. And that's why some translations say, "I run every step with purpose." Every step. I don't get out of step because I'm attuned with God. Verse 27, "I discipline my body and bring it into subjection,” we are disciples of Jesus Christ. We are disciplined Christians who bring our bodies into subjection. Paul says, “lest, when I preach to others, I myself should become disqualified." And so he refers to that spiritual conditioning that involves that repetitive training, that exercise of Bible study, and prayer, and meditation, and fasting, and love, and concern, this extreme commitment to do the will of God. And so Paul's saying it's time to quit taking it easy. It is time to get into the spiritual gym and work those spiritual muscles so we can be victorious, so God can give us the victory. And so Paul says, "Now is the time to do this, determine to make your calling that much more sure. Take your calling seriously. Demonstrate your reverence to God. Demonstrate your gratitude.

Demonstrate your commitment to God. Demonstrate that you have a relationship with Him and show it in the way that you live your life." And so Paul says, "Have that kind of determination, the kind that a world-class athlete would have and exhibit in running a race in the games."

And, of course, he inspires us because he gives us the rule book. He tells us, "Here's how you do it." We've got the rule book right before us. He's given us the manual how to win the race. And so it's more than just knowing what the rules are, knowing the rule book. Paul says we better follow that rule book, which means we've got to read it, and know it, and study it, and most importantly, apply it. Apply it in our lives. And yet as we consider those athletes in ancient times, it was up to them to take that prize. Unfortunately, for us, it's not all dependent on us. It's not all dependent on me, or all dependent on you. We're not left only to our own power.

Reminded of this over in Ephesians 3:20 Ephesians 3:20Now to him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us,
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. Let's take note of this because it's a powerful truth that we have to keep in mind as well that we're not left all on our own. God's called us to this amazing spiritual race and given us the power of His Holy Spirit so that we can win. And Ephesians 3 is certainly a reminder of that very fact. We're not left to our own power. We have a great God who's on our side and wants us to win. So Ephesians 3:20 Ephesians 3:20Now to him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us,
American King James Version×
is a reminder of that. Paul writes, "Now to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us." And that little snippet reminds us that power working in us is the power of God's Holy Spirit. God has given us His Spirit so that we can overcome, so that we can train, so that we can be committed, so that we can have an attitude of seriousness and zeal that is ready to stay in this race and turn up the jets so that we can finish this race in the right attitude and with the right fervency. And so Paul reminds us, let's have that kind of an attitude. Let's have the kind of heart that sets our mind to follow God wholeheartedly, and have that kind of devotion that sacrifices self because that's what our great God deserves. He's not some crazy made-up pagan idol, but He is the Creator of the universe. He is the God that deserves all glory and all honor, and our life should reflect that. And so that kind of devotion is what we need, and so we can ask God and pray about that.

And we never want to forget that, yes, we are in a race. We're not just spectators, and that continual self-sacrificing, self-denial, discipline on our part is something that God is going to help us to achieve. And so these athletic metaphors are such tremendous reminders that we have to give our all. Be all in and be committed to follow God no matter what just like that world-class athlete would do in order to win the games. And so we can pray about it. If I don't have it, ask God for it. Ask God to give you the zeal. Ask God to give you the desire. Ask God to cement that commitment in you to stay in that race and turn on and have that finish line right before you, and he uses that metaphor once again in 2 Timothy 4. Notice verse 7, a familiar passage, but it seems to me that he probably had the Isthmian Games in mind when he wrote these words to Timothy. 2 Timothy 4:7 2 Timothy 4:7I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith:
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. Here Paul is at the end of his life. He's imprisoned once again in Rome, and he knows he's not getting out this time. His execution is just ahead, and so he wrote 2 Timothy 4:7 2 Timothy 4:7I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith:
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. He writes, "I've fought the good fight, I’ve finished the race, I've kept the faith. Finally, there's laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.”

The Isthmian Games were probably on his mind. And, in fact, archaeologists who have excavated Isthmia look at this passage and they describe Paul's words. One archaeologist said this, "The words in Paul's Greek here have a more distinct athletic flavor." To bring out this passage, it might be rendered, "I have completed the good athletic games. I've finished the foot race. I've kept the athletic oath to compete honestly. What remains to me is to receive the crown of righteousness, which will be awarded to me by the Lord, the just Umpire on that day," alluding to the boards at the games when the prizes were handed out on the last day. And so imagine Paul facing his death with that perspective. It's interesting to put it in a time sequence. Before Paul was imprisoned in Rome, he was on one final journey, one that's not recorded in the book of Acts. You have to put events together in Timothy and Titus to sort that out. But it seems before being imprisoned, there's a distinct possibility that Paul stopped in Corinth one last time, and it would have been 66 AD when this happened. And do you know what was going on in the spring of 66 AD? The Isthmian Games, the Isthmian Games. And I can't help but wonder, would Paul have stopped in Corinth at that time before he was once again imprisoned in Rome?

I could imagine him stopping by the games. Maybe he stopped by the agatitha, the housing for where what we might call the president of the games would have been. And in that building on the floor was a mosaic that they've excavated. Did he look at that mosaic that was on the floor? In that mosaic was an athlete who had competed in the games, and he was standing with that victor's crown on his head and a palm branch in his hand. And he was giving thanks to Eutychia, the Greek goddess of good fortune. I mean, did Paul look at that mosaic? I can imagine him looking at that and kind of wryly smiling, recognizing that's nothing. And as Paul wrote to Timothy, maybe he had that in mind, knowing it's not some phony false Greek goddess that's going to give him a crown, but ultimately, His Savior Jesus Christ would give him the ultimate crown of victory. And so here's Paul at the end of his life. The discipline, the struggles, the suffering had paid off, and he had reached his goal. And he died. He died winning the race.

Now, he used these metaphors to help us because while Paul's race is over, and there is this great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, our race is still on. Our race is still in the time that we are in that lap that we have to finish this race. And it's a contest. It's still a contest between good and evil, right and wrong. And God wants us to win this spiritual contest, and He's made every way possible, given us every provision for success. But as Paul wrote, we have to be willing to undergo discipline, spiritual discipline, and we have to set ourselves to the rigors of spiritual training if we're to receive that prize. God set the course. We follow His will. Death is the finish line, and ultimately eternal life, the ultimate prize.

So where are you in the race? Where are you in the race? Are you at the starting blocks? Are you in the middle of the race? Well, perhaps you're rounding the last curve, staring at the finish line, or maybe you're in the bleachers just watching others run the race. God's Word reminds us, take the challenge. Take the challenge. Get in the race. Stay in that race and run it with everything you've got. And God promises to help us so that we can be determined to cross that finish line victorious. So remember, God's going to enable us. God's going to equip us. God's going to be our spiritual trainer. But let's be dedicated to do our part. And remember why we run, and remember how we run, and take this great spiritual calling seriously and really listen, listen to our great spiritual coach, and run.