This past weekend I participated in the New Mexico Special Olympics state track meet. I am proud to say that, for the second time, I am an Olympic gold medalist. I ran one leg of the 4 X 100 meter relay. That’s pretty good for an almost 65 year old man whose running motto is “the hardest stretch of road by far/ is any stretch from here to thar,” considering that I ran my leg of the race against a high school girl.
The Jewish people had a reputation of being anti-sport because they could not participate in the Olympic Games. Unlike today, the Greeks competed in the nude (although some would say that some of today’s track suits almost qualify), and the Hebrews would not strip down all the way. Nevertheless, the Jewish people were fans of the most popular Roman spectator sport. The arena in the movie based on Ben Hur was actually modelled (fairly accurately) after a chariot arena in Jerusalem. Perhaps the difference between the popularity of the Olympics and the chariot races was that women were able to watch the latter.
Paul was familiar with training for boxing, but seems to be a bigger fan of footraces.
Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
In that passage Paul mentions the practice of shadow boxing. He makes the spiritual application that we have a real opponent, rather than mere air. Paul believed that one did not compete in sport for a participation trophy; rather one competed to win. He applied that to our spiritual lives. We are not to run just to finish, but to win. “Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?” (Galatians 5:7) Do not give up because someone crossed into your lane or tripped you. Get back up and finish the race.
Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)
Whether it were Paul or Priscilla, or James or someone else, who wrote the letter to the Hebrew believers, the writer uses the races to teach a lesson. After writing about a number of men and women who acted by faith, the writer says that they ran their races and are now in the stands as spectators. How much faster would somebody run if they knew that Jesse Owens, Paavo Nurmi, Jim Thorpe, or Usain Bolt were watching the race? In the same way, we are to run to show that we can stand on the shoulders of giants. (I know, that is a mixed metaphor.) Actually, this writer would be more of a fan of the Flying Finn than of the others I mentioned, because this is a distance race, a race that requires patience.
The Bible doesn’t specifically mention the chariot races that were so popular at the time, but it does mention sports. With the Olympic Games coming up in Brazil in a couple of months, perhaps we can watch those events and be encouraged in our spiritual run.