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New Testament Athletic Imagery and the Christian Life

April 18, 2019
By Mr. Picciottoli (Mr. Lee)

The New Testament often uses athletic imagery in order to teach basic lessons concerning the nature of the Christian life. The usage of athletic terminology and athletic imagery to teach such lessons shows that there are beneficial character qualities which can be cultivated by athletic training and competition. In the Bible, and especially in the writings of the apostle Paul, there are at least eight areas of character traits essential for the Christian life that are identified with the usage of athletic imagery.

The New Testament speaks of athletic imagery in two ways: First, some passages directly refer to athletics, such as 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 and 2 Timothy 2:5; and second, some passages speak metaphorically or figuratively, employing a word or phrase taken out of athletic training or competition, but using it with reference to another kind of activity. For instance, Jesus in Luke 13:24 says that we are to strive to enter in by the narrow gate. The word for strive is the Greek word agonizomai, which literally means to compete for a prize, but which is translated in different places as strive, labor fervently, or fight.

Eight areas of Christian traits identified by Pastor McDearmon (Pastor of Ballston Lake Baptist Church) as being contained in the New Testament in one of these two ways are:

(1) submission to authority, 2 Timothy 2:5 ("if anyone competes in athletics he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules); the word for athletics is the Greek word athleo, from which we get our word athletics; in Greek it means to contend in the competitive games; but unless that athlete submits to the rules of the game and to the authorities that would enforce them, he cannot obtain the prize;

(2) discipline, for example, 1 Timothy 4:7-8 ("exercise yourself to godliness, for bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things"); in this passage Paul uses the Greek word from which we get our word gymnasium, and at the time it was written the word refers to the place that the Greek athlete would spend ten months in training for the competition. Pastor McDearmon adds that this discipline unto godliness begins when one comes to grip with the claims of Christ upon him;

(3) self control, 1 Corinthians 9:24-25 ("do you not 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 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. Therefore, I run not thus with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified");

(4) hard work; Luke 12:24 , where one is instructed to strive as if competing for the prize; and Colossians 1:29 where Paul describes his labors for the gospel as striving according to the workings of God; the word agonizomai refers to that laboring or striving for the athletic prize that is hard work;

(5) courage; e.g., 1 Timothy 6:12 where Paul exhorts Timothy to fight the good fight of faith; and Jude 1:3 where Jude exhorts the believers to "contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints"; both of these passages assume that the fighting and contending earnestly would require courage as it would be in the context of opposition;

(6) teamwork; Philippians 1:27 where Paul exhorts the Philippians that with one mind they were to strive together for the faith of the gospel; 4:3 speaking of those who had labored together with him in the gospel; and Rom 15:30 imploring the Romans to strive together with him in prayer. It is interesting that these three passages each combine the Greek word for together or union with either the word athleio or agonizomai. Thus the sense is to strive together as an athlete or in athletic competition or to strive together competing for the prize;

(7) endurance; Hebrews 12:1 where the author exhorts his readers to run with endurance the race set before us; and finally

(8) focus, conducting oneself with single-mindedness fixed upon a goal; Hebrews 12:1, with the imagery of the runner looking upon the finish line; and Philippians 3:12-14 where Paul describes his pressing on towards the prize, and the word used is the Greek word for a prize won in the public games.

As you contemplate if your child should participate in TCS Athletics, we would encourage you to prayerfully consider the many positive benefits that can come from participation. Indeed, in our society, many of these traits may best be learned in athletic competition. Our students have seen the benefits that come from hard work, and the lessons thus learned may well be carried over into every area of their lives.

The above is from a series preached by Pastor McDearmon which we highly recommend. The four messages may be found here: 

Message One
Message Two
Message Three
Message Four

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4/18/19 - By Mr. Picciottoli (Mr. Lee)