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. 1 Corinthians 9:25
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been going through Olympic withdrawal. Doubtless when Paul was writing to the believers who lived in Corinth, one of the chief cities in Greece at the time, he was making reference to what we now know as the Ancient Olympic Games. The Olympic Games began in Greece seven centuries before Christ’s birth and took place every four years for over a millennium until the Romans finally put an end to them around 400 AD.
Paul’s readers would have understood, just as we do, that Olympic glory can be a great motivator to embrace self discipline and the sacrifices required to get there. If you are anything like me, having spent way too many hours watching the plethora of London Olympic coverage available on smart phones, iPads, computers and TV, you would doubtless agree. So many of the competitions and gold medal stories were in a word – inspirational. It makes you want to get off the couch, get out there and actually start doing some training yourself. The harsh realization for me however is that the only sport I would even have an outside chance of competing in at my age in Rio de Janeiro is dressage, since the oldest person at this Olympics was a 71 year old Japanese dressage rider. Unfortunately I do not have a horse and besides I am allergic to them. And so goes my Olympic dream and I can only say with Shakespeare’s King Richard “a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.”
My eight year old grandson was so inspired by the amazing feats of sprinter Usain Bolt that he wanted to get out on the track himself. His dad found an all-comers meet in a distant suburb and drove Sam there to run in his first 100 and 200 meter competitions just like his hero. Gladly I was there to witness it and celebrate vicariously with Sam as his Olympic dream begins to unfold.
The point of Paul’s writing is of course that there are ultimately much more important crowns in life for which to train and sacrifice than Olympic ones. And make no mistake about it when Paul says that we should “run in such a way to get the prize” he is talking about being willing to do whatever it takes to win. (vs. 24) The context of this discussion is about winning people to Christ. Just before using the Olympic analogy, Paul writes “I have become all things to all people, so that by all possible means I might save some.” (vs. 22)
The crowns of which Paul speaks here are people. In both Philippians 4:1 and 1 Thessalonians 2:19 Paul refers to those to whom he is writing, people who through his ministry came to know Christ, as his joy and his crown. People are always incomparably more valuable than things. And the picture here is that taking people to heaven with us and presenting them before the Father makes touting laurel wreaths and gold medals pale in comparison.
The very best investment of our one and only life is to present Christ to people so that we might one day present them to Christ. Just as Olympic athletes are laser focused on winning the gold, Paul urges us to be similarly focused on winning people to Christ. “I do not run like someone running aimlessly, I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.” (vs. 26)
Imagine what the great reunion of all believers will be like in heaven when we have the delight of meeting people who are there because of us. Imagine the surprise of discovering people there you had no idea were influenced by your life and witness. Imagine the unadulterated joy of having those you love and care about there with you for all eternity. That is what Paul is talking about when he refers to striving to win “a crown that will last forever.” God help us to be spiritual Olympians for your glory and win crowns we can take with us into eternity.
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