Every four years thousands of athletes from over 200 nations gather in a pre-determined city to compete in the modern summer Olympic Games. Since 1896 with the first modern games held in Athens, the Olympics have caught the wonder and inspiration of billions around the globe. The quintessence of human speed, strength and skill will once again be displayed this coming August 5-21 in Rio de Janeiro with the much anticipated Games of the XXXI Olympiad. But with all the hype, hubbub and hullabaloo, is there anything more meaningful that we as Christians can take from this worldwide spectacle?
The origins of the Olympics can be traced back to Ancient Greece when young athletes began to compete as a way of honoring Zeus. The name Olympics actually comes from Mount Olympus, home of the gods in Greek mythology. In antiquity these games were just as much a religious festival as they were an athletic event. When you really think about it, today almost seems no different. But instead of gathering to worship Zeus, we gather to worship human achievement. We often watch in idolatrous adoration and covetousness as we revel in competition and longingly hope that our country metaphorically conquers all others. The Olympic games celebrate winners, rejoicing in those who are in first place.
Jesus inspires us to something a little different. He reminds us that to be first, we must be servant of all. He conquered His opponent — sin and death — not on Olympus, but on Calvary. Can you imagine if Christians came up with the games: the Golgothic Games? Instead of climbing the pedestal for a medal of honor, we’d climb the skull-shaped hill for a garland of humility. In Ancient Greece, victors were bestowed a crown made of an olive branch. In His victory, Christ wore a crown of thorns.
Now please, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the Olympics are inherently bad or that Christians should boycott or have nothing to do with them. The Olympics can be a wonderful thing as many people are inspired to live more disciplined lives, and many Christians participate for the glory of God, giving Him all the praise. I would just like us to take a brief moment and reflect. If we look at things from a different perspective, hopefully, at the risk of over-analyzing a global pastime, we can glean some spiritual insights from this custom and strengthen our faith.
Parallels to faith
The Apostle Paul wrote to a people who would have understood quite clearly the comparison between athletic training and the Christian walk. Corinth was actually the hosting city for the Isthmian Games which were very similar to the Olympics.
“Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! 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. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-26).
For the Greeks, only winners were recognized — none of this second and third place stuff. Paul is urging us to press on until the end, to finish strong with our eyes on the prize. In the way that Olympic athletes have been training for Rio 2016, we as Christians must be training for Heaven ∞.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
You may already know this, but the Greeks often competed completely nude. This was for both aesthetic and pragmatic reasons — to celebrate the human physique, but also to prevent anything from hindering optimum performance. It is difficult to run with weights. The writer of Hebrews tells us to cast off everything that slows us down from running the good race of faith — all sin, doubt, shame, worry, and insecurity. In Greece, only free men were allowed to compete. In the Kingdom of God, we are made free indeed by the Champion of the Universe. Jesus wins every event. It wasn’t even a contest. He didn’t stand on a podium. He stood on a cross. And now He sits on the throne and offers a place for us all in the winner’s circle.
Finley is a doctoral student researching Organizational Leadership. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org