Article : Sports Imagery in the Scriptures

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Photo Credit – @Doug88888 courtesy flickr

Since last week, the eyes of the sporting world have been firmly fixed on the Rio Olympics. As expected, new records have been set, new talented athletes haven been discovered and some of the more seasoned campaigners have also proved that they are still at their best!

I have always been a fan of sports and my favorites have been cricket, football and tennis, in that order. As a schoolboy, I remember waking up very early to listen to cricket commentaries on short-wave radio from Australia, staying up late when they were being transmitted from England, and staying up even later to listen to commentaries from the Caribbean. All the listening was done through a small radio we owned. Another memory that will always be entrenched in my mind is tuning in at around 3 in the morning to listen to the 1970 Football World Cup final between Brazil and Italy, being played in Mexico. I still remember the thrill I felt when the legend Pele scored the 1st goal and very specially, the final goal scored by the Brazilian captain, Carlos Alberto, later to be described as one of the most memorable goals in World Cup history! The commentary team from BBC Radio made you feel like you were actually watching the game!

Olympics Trivia – Last Sunday, I read a newspaper article that mentioned that when Michael Phelps won his 22nd Olympic gold at Rio, he bettered a record that had been held for over 2000 years for individual events (12 titles)! That record was apparently held by an athlete named Leonidas from Rhodes! (Sunday Times of 14/08/2016 courtesy of BBC)

In this article I would like to focus on references to sports in the scriptures. There are many skillful people shown in the scriptures who would have probably done well if they competed in the games. Here are some examples from the Old Testament.

  • Elijah – in I Kings 18:46, it says that Elijah outran horses for around 25- 30 miles. All the more exciting is the fact that he ran in the rain, with his cloak tucked into his belt. Of course, we know it was God’s power that helped him!
  • David – If the games had a slingshot event, David would have done very well. Isn’t it amazing that he felled a giant with one shot from his sling! Once again, God was in control. (I Samuel 17:45&49)
  • Samson – He could have made it to any wrestling team as he was blessed with awesome strength through God’s anointing. Please read that when the blinded Samson was brought out to the Philistines on the day of a religious festival, Judges 16:25 says that they expected him to entertain them and perform for them. The KJV says, ‘that he may make us sport”.
  • Jehu – He would have been a good competitor on the racing track because he was identified by his riding speed. In 2 Kings 9:20, it is said, ‘he drives like a madman’!
  • Ahimaaz – Probably 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 (v 27). He in fact overtook the 1st runner who had already been sent out by Joab to inform David about Absalom’s death.
  • Also amazing is the fact that some of the early Fathers and Prophets used to climb mountains quite skillfully to meet with God and to hear from Him. Example: Moses (Exodus 19:3) and Elijah (I Kings 19:8-11). Caleb conquered a mountain filled with enemies at the age of 85!! (Joshua 14:12)
  • Contrary to the above examples, someone who probably would have failed at the games would have been King Saul. He loved throwing spears (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, 19:9-10, 20:33)

Coming to the New Testament, I can’t help believing that the Apostle Paul was an avid sports fan. He refers to the games many times in his writings as follows:

 

  • Acts 20:24 – Paul talks about finishing the race he had begun; of completing the task of testifying about the Gospel of God’s grace.
  • 1 Corinthians 9: 24 -27 – Here Paul refers to possibly both boxing and wrestling and to athletics. He talks about the ‘strict training’ required to succeed (also referred to in 1 Timothy 4:8), not only for the famous Isthmian games*, but also for the Christian journey. He didn’t want to run or to beat the air aimlessly (v 26). He also realized that he could be disqualified if he competed poorly (v 27).

*[The Corinthians were familiar with the foot races in their own Isthmian games, which…. were second only to the Olympic games in importance. – unquote]. (The NIV Study Bible page 1746)

 

  • 1 Corinthians 9:25 – Paul refers to the imperishable crown he would receive at the conclusion of his journey, drawing attention to the fact that the wreath the winning athlete would receive at the games, would perish one day. The apostles James and Peter also refer to crowns in James 1:12 and in 1 Peter 5:4
  • 2 Timothy 4:7-8 – Here 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 crown he would receive from the Lord.
  • Please also refer Philippians 2: 16, Philippians 3:12-16, Galatians 5:7, 1 Timothy 6:12 and Hebrews 12:1-2 for similar sporting imagery from Paul.

One thing is clear from all this. In Hebrews 12:1-2, we are encouraged to run the race well and with perseverance, by dropping off all hindrances (sin/disobedience).  To do that, we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and on heaven (the finish line). The word ‘persevere’ obviously refers to more of a long-distance race than a short-distance one. The prize will be way better that what any successful Olympian could receive!

Let us therefore 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”!!

God bless you. We will conclude our series on Nehemiah’s prayer life titled, ‘Building a City on Prayer’- Part 3 in our next post. In the meantime, enjoy the games in Rio and stay close to Jesus!

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