The Bible has something to say about the Olympic games.
“Everyone who competes in the games,” writes the apostle Paul, “exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9:25). Comments John Piper,
When Paul wrote these words to the Corinthian Christians, he assumed that they all knew about the games. The Olympic Games took place in Greece every four years without interruption from 776 BC until they were suppressed by the Emperor Theodosius in AD 393. That's 1,169 years. Everyone knew about the games. So Paul didn't have to explain the games. Everybody was aware of the games then. And everybody is aware of the games today.
Why would the Christian Scriptures mention the games? To help us upgrade our two weeks of Olympic watching by opening our eyes to what they have to say about God, the gospel, and the Christian life.
Transposing the OlympicsThe good Brit C. S. Lewis (who’d be happy to see London host the games) would call it “transposition” — taking in the Olympic games, engaging and entertaining as they are, and seeing through them, and beyond them, to the ultimate realities to which they point in God’s created world, spring-loaded at every turn to teach us about redemption.
Continues Piper, the apostle Paul took the well-known Olympic games and
taught the Christians to transpose them into a different level, and to see in the games a reality very different than everyone else is seeing. He said in effect, "The games are played at this level of reality. They run at this level. They box at this level. They train and practice and deny themselves at this level. They set their sights on gold at this level.
"Now I want you to see all that at another level. I want you to transpose the temporary struggles and triumphs of the Olympic Games onto a different level of reality — the level of spiritual life and eternity and God. When you see the athletes run, see another kind of running. When you see them boxing, see another kind of boxing. When you see them training and denying themselves, see another kind of training and self-denial. When you see them smiling with a gold medal around their neck, see another kind of prize."
That's what Paul was trying to do in this text [1 Corinthians 9:23–27] for the Christian Corinthians, and that is what I am trying to do . . . for you. I want you to transpose what you see and hear into a different key. Every time you turn the television set on, I want you to hear God talking to you through the games. If I understand Paul in this text, the games . . . are meant to be seen and heard by Christians as a tremendous impulse to fight the fight of faith and run the race of life with nothing less than Olympic passion and perseverance. . . .
You will see in [the Olympics] this week the path of discipline and pain that athletes are willing to pursue for one gold medal and an hour in the glory of human praise. I urge you as you watch to transpose what you see from games into ultimate reality. Above all remember this: what God offers you and pledges to you in the gospel and in the prize and in the crown is 10,000 times more valuable than all the gold . . . .
David Mathis wrote this article for Desiring God. For more, see Piper’s two-part series, “Olympic Spirituality,” from the summer of 1992: Part 1 (“Beyond the Gold”) and Part 2 (“How Then Shall We Run?”).
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