With the COVID-19 pandemic having a global impact since last year, we have faced many limitations in what is called a ‘new normal.’ Sadly, one of the areas that was badly affected was the field of sports with many important events, including the Olympic Games, being canceled or postponed. As a result, many sports fans felt a huge void. Thankfully, with more and more sporting events opening up (although with certain restrictions), sports fans are now able to follow some of their favorite sporting events once again.
Sports, as we well know, have been a vital part of human life throughout history. It has helped inspire and bring communities, cities, and nations together through times of victory and defeat. In my own nation of Sri Lanka, Cricket, which has a huge following, helped keep our nation’s hopes alive during difficult periods of unrest. I well remember the pride and inspiration we felt when our national cricket team won the 1996 World Cup against all the odds.
Besides providing great entertainment, sports instill many important values like perseverance, hard work, discipline, and fair play, which are important for our Christian journey. It also provides much-needed exercise for our bodies, often advocated as vitally important to overcome most of today’s health issues.
It is interesting to note that the Bible carries many images of sports, often relating them to our Christian life. In this article, we will reflect on some of those scriptures. But first, let’s take a somewhat lighthearted look at sporting imagery in the Old Testament.
Sports Imagery in the Old Testament
There are many skillful people with strong athletic abilities shown in the pages of the Old Testament. They would have probably done very well if they had competed in the high-profile sporting events of today. Here are some examples from the Old Testament.
He could have easily made it to any wrestling team as he was blessed with awesome strength through God’s anointing (Judges 14:6). However, he sadly lost his strength due to disobedience (Judges 16:20). It is interesting to note that after his disobedience, when the weakened and blinded Samson was brought out to the Philistines as part of a religious celebration, Judges 16:25 says that they expected him to entertain them and perform for them. The KJV refers to their expectations as follows: “that he (Samson) may make us sport.”
He would have been a good competitor on the racing track because he was identified by his driving speed. In 2 Kings 9:20, it is said, ‘he drives like a madman’!
Ahimaaz probably would have made a good long-distance runner. 2 Samuel 18:19-27 shows us that he too was identified at a distance by his style of running (2 Samuel 18:27). He in fact overtook the first runner who had already been sent out by Joab to inform David about Absalom’s death.
In I Kings 18:46, it says that Elijah outran horses for around 25-30 miles under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. All the more exciting is the fact that he ran in the rain, with his cloak tucked into his belt. Not too long after, however, he ran to save his life because of a threat from a lady (1 Kings 19:3)!
If the Israel Games had a slingshot event, David would have probably won Gold. Isn’t it amazing that he felled a giant with just one throw from his sling? (I Samuel 17:45-49)
Contrary to the above examples, however, someone who probably would have failed badly at any Games would have been King Saul. He loved throwing spears (the javelin). The scripture records that he did it on maybe 4 occasions, thrice at David and once at Jonathan. He missed the mark on all 4 occasions!! (1 Samuel 18:10-11, 1 Sam. 19:9-10, 1 Sam. 20:33)
Additionally, when it came to mountain-climbing, some of the early fathers and prophets seemed to climb mountains quite effortlessly and skillfully to meet with God and to hear from Him. Two examples of this would be Moses (Exodus 19:3) and Elijah (I Kings 19:8-11). Caleb too conquered a mountain filled with enemies at the age of 85!! (Joshua 14:12 KJV)
Let’s now move to sports imagery in the New Testament.
Sports Imagery in the New Testament
Looking at the New Testament, I can’t help but believe that the Apostle Paul was an avid sports fan. He referred to sports images many times in his writings and, through them, highlighted the following important principles for our Christian journey:
In Acts 20:24, Paul exemplifies the obedience needed to finish the Christian race he had begun and to complete the vision God had given him, which was to testify about the gospel of God’s grace to the Gentiles. He was willing to do so even at the risk of facing death! He later emphasized that he had been fully obedient to the vision God gave him (Acts 26:19). He also warned other believers who were being tempted to give up the race and yield to disobedience (Galatians 5:7).
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul draws attention to the ‘strict discipline’ required in training to succeed in sports. He specifically refers to boxing/wrestling, and also to athletics (refer also to 1 Timothy 4:8). Paul also realized that he could be disqualified if he competed poorly as a result of not being disciplined adequately (1 Corinthians 9:27). These images portrayed clear references, not only to the famous Isthmian Games of that time but also to his Christian journey (The NIV Study Bible in its notes on this passage says, “The Corinthians were familiar with the foot races in their own Isthmian games, which occurred every other year and were second only to the Olympic games in importance).
Paul also emphasized the importance of being committed until the end of the race by saying that he didn’t want to run (athletics) or to beat the air (boxing) aimlessly (1 Corinthians 9:26). In Galatians 2:2 and Philippians 2:16, he reiterated that he didn’t want to run or labor in vain.
4. Eternal Values
In 1 Corinthians 9:25, Paul refers to the crown he would receive at the end of his journey with Christ, drawing attention to the fact that the wreath a winning athlete would receive at the Games would perish one day, while the crown he would receive would be ‘imperishable.’ He was therefore keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the winning line as an athlete would, and pressing on towards his heavenly, eternal prize (Philippians 3:14) (The Apostles Peter and James also refer to crowns in 1 Peter 5:4 and James 1:12).
5. Finishing Well
In 2 Timothy 4:7-8, Paul looks back at a lifetime of Christian ministry. Like a successful boxer/wrestler or athlete, he states that he has fought well, finished the race, and kept the faith! He was looking forward with anticipation to the reward he would receive from the Lord (These thoughts are also emphasized in 1 Timothy 6:12).
In 2 Timothy 2:5, Paul highlights the importance of integrity through yet another sporting image. He refers to the example of a winning athlete who may lose his crown unless he competes according to the rules of the sport.
Hebrews 12:1-2 encourages us to run the race well and with perseverance, by dropping off all hindrances. To do that, we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and on heaven (the finish line). The word ‘persevere’ in this passage obviously refers to more of a long-distance race than a short-distance one. The NIV Study Bible in its comments on Hebrews 12:1 says, “The Christian life is pictured as a long-distance race rather than a short sprint. Some Hebrew Christians were tempted to drop out of the contest because of persecution”.
Even as we reflect on the above thoughts taken from sporting imagery in the Scriptures, we realize that the Christian journey is a long and challenging one. We need to therefore encourage and help one another to complete the race. An African proverb says, “When you run alone, you run fast. When you run together, you run far.” Together, we can surely run the race well and complete it successfully!
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Paul Bradbury
Palitha Jayasooriya is an Executive/Preaching Pastor at the People’s Church in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He is married to Regina and blessed with two sons, Sheriah and Sheramiah. His devotionals can be found on YouVersion and his inspiring sermons can be downloaded at sermonsearch.com.