“Run in Such a Way”
IMAGINE yourself in a sports stadium jammed with excited people. The athletes march onto the field. The crowd roars as their heroes come into view. Judges are on hand to enforce the rules. As the events get under way, shouts of triumph mix with cries of disappointment. Deafening applause greets the victors!
You are attending, not a modern sporting event, but one held some 2,000 years ago on the Isthmus of Corinth. Here, every two years from the sixth century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E., the famous Isthmian Games were held. For many days the event captured the interest of all of Greece. The games were more than simple athletic contests. Athletes were symbols of military preparedness. The winners—idolized as heroes—received crowns made of tree leaves. Gifts were lavished upon them, and the city gave them a large pension for life.
The apostle Paul was familiar with the Isthmian Games near Corinth and compared a Christian’s life course to an athletic contest. By referring to runners, wrestlers, and boxers, he aptly illustrated the rewards of good training, well-directed efforts, and endurance. Of course, the Christians to whom he wrote also knew about the games. Some had undoubtedly been among the shouting crowds at the stadium. So they would readily appreciate Paul’s illustrations. What about us today? We too are in a race—for everlasting life. How can we benefit from Paul’s references to those contests?
‘Contending According to the Rules’
The entry requirements for the ancient games were very strict. A herald would present each athlete to the spectators and shout: ‘Is there anyone who can accuse this man of any crime? Is he a robber or wicked and depraved in his life and manners?’ According to Archaeologia Graeca, “no person that was himself a notorious criminal, or [closely] related to any such, was permitted to contend.” And breaches of the games’ rules were heavily penalized by barring the violators from the contests.
This fact helps us to understand Paul’s statement: “If anyone contends even in the games, he is not crowned unless he has contended according to the rules.” (2 Timothy 2:5) Similarly, to run in the race for life, we must meet Jehovah’s requirements, complying with his lofty moral standards as they are set out in the Bible. However, the Bible warns us: “The inclination of the heart of man is bad from his youth up.” (Genesis 8:21) Thus, even after entering the race, we have to be careful to keep on contending according to the rules in order to continue having Jehovah’s approval and gain everlasting life.
“Put Off Every Weight”
In the ancient games, runners were not weighed down by clothes or equipment. “At foot-races, . . . the combatants used to appear quite naked,” says the book The Life of the Greeks and Romans. Wearing no clothes gave the athletes agility, ease of movement, and deftness. There was no wasted energy resulting from unnecessary weight. Paul likely had this in mind when he wrote to the Hebrew Christians: “Let us also put off every weight . . . , and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”—Hebrews 12:1.
What type of weight can hinder us in the race for life? One would be the desire to accumulate unnecessary material things or to maintain a costly life-style. Some may look to wealth for security or see it as a source of happiness. Such excess “weight” may slow a runner down to the extent that, eventually, God may not really matter very much to him. (Luke 12:16-21) Everlasting life may come to seem like a distant hope. ‘The new world will come someday,’ a person may reason, ‘but in the meantime we might as well take advantage of what this world offers.’ (1 Timothy 6:17-19) Such a materialistic outlook can very easily sidetrack one from the race for life or prevent one from even starting it.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stated: “No one can slave for two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will stick to the one and despise the other. You cannot slave for God and for Riches.” Then, after telling of Jehovah’s caring for the needs of animals and plants and saying that humans are worth more than those, he admonished: “So never be anxious and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or, ‘What are we to drink?’ or, ‘What are we to put on?’ For all these are the things the nations are eagerly pursuing. For your heavenly Father knows you need all these things. Keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you.”—Matthew 6:24-33.
“Run With Endurance”
Not all ancient footraces were short sprints. One race, called doʹli·khos, went for about two and a half miles [4 km]. It was a demanding test of strength and endurance. According to tradition, in 328 B.C.E., an athlete named Ageas, after winning this race, set off and ran all the way to his home city, Argos, to announce his victory. That day, he ran approximately 70 miles [110 km]!
The Christian race is also a long-distance run that tests our endurance. Enduring in this race to the end is needed to gain Jehovah’s approval and the prize of everlasting life. Paul ran the race in such a way. Near the end of his life, he was able to say: “I have fought the fine fight, I have run the course to the finish, I have observed the faith. From this time on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness.” (2 Timothy 4:7, 8) Like Paul, we have to run “to the finish.” If our endurance wanes just because the race is somewhat longer than we expected at first, we shall fail to gain our reward. (Hebrews 11:6) What a tragedy that would be, seeing that we are so close to the finish line!
Winners in ancient Greek athletic contests were given wreaths that were usually made of the leaves of trees and were adorned with flowers. In the Pythian Games, winners received a crown made of laurel. In the Olympian Games they got crowns of wild olive leaves, while in the Isthmian Games they were given crowns made of pine. “To excite the ardor of the combatants,” notes one Bible scholar, “the crowns, the rewards of victory, and palm branches, lay, during the contest, full in their view, on a tripod, or table, placed in the stadium.” For the winner, wearing the crown was a mark of great honor. On his return home, he rode triumphantly in a chariot into the city.
Having this in mind, Paul asked his Corinthian readers: “Do you not know that the runners in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may attain it. . . . Now they, of course, do it that they may get a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible one.” (1 Corinthians 9:24, 25; 1 Peter 1:3, 4) What a contrast! Unlike the fading crowns of the ancient games, the prize awaiting those who run the race for life to the finish will never perish.
Regarding this finer crown, the apostle Peter wrote: “When the chief shepherd has been made manifest, you will receive the unfadable crown of glory.” (1 Peter 5:4) Could any prize this world offers compare with immortality, the prize of incorruptible life in heavenly glory with Christ?
Today, the great majority of Christian runners are not anointed by God to be his spiritual sons and do not have a heavenly hope. They are not running for the prize of immortality. However, God also places a matchless prize before them. It is everlasting life in perfection on a paradise earth under the Kingdom of heaven. Whichever prize a Christian runner has his eye on, he should run with greater determination and vigor than any runner in an athletic contest. Why? Because the prize will never fade: “This is the promised thing that he himself promised us, the life everlasting.”—1 John 2:25.
With such an incomparable prize before the Christian runner, what should be his view of the enticements of this world? It should be that of Paul, who said: “I do indeed also consider all things to be loss on account of the excelling value of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord. On account of him I have taken the loss of all things and I consider them as a lot of refuse.” In line with this, how hard Paul ran! “Brothers, I do not yet consider myself as having laid hold on it; but there is one thing about it: Forgetting the things behind and stretching forward to the things ahead, I am pursuing down toward the goal for the prize.” (Philippians 3:8, 13, 14) Paul ran with his eyes fixed firmly on the prize. So should we.
Our Finest Example
In the ancient games, champions enjoyed widespread admiration. Poets wrote about them, and sculptors made statues of them. Historian Věra Olivová says that they “bathed in glory and enjoyed immense popularity.” They also served as role models for a younger generation of champions.
Who is the “champion” setting the finest example for Christians? Paul answers: “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, as we look intently at the Chief Agent and Perfecter of our faith, Jesus. For the joy that was set before him he endured a torture stake, despising shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1, 2) Yes, if we are to be victorious in our race for eternal life, we need to look intently to our Exemplar, Jesus Christ. This we can do by regularly reading the Gospel accounts and meditating on ways in which we can imitate him. Such study will help us appreciate that Jesus Christ was obedient to God and proved the quality of his faith by his endurance. As a reward for his endurance, he received the approval of Jehovah God along with many wonderful privileges.—Philippians 2:9-11.
Of course, Jesus’ most outstanding quality was his love. “No one has love greater than this, that someone should surrender his soul in behalf of his friends.” (John 15:13) He gave deeper meaning to the word “love” by telling us to love even our enemies. (Matthew 5:43-48) Because he loved his heavenly Father, Jesus found joy in doing the will of his Father. (Psalm 40:9, 10; Proverbs 27:11) Our looking to Jesus as our Exemplar and as the one who sets the pace for us in the strenuous race for life will also move us to love God and our neighbor and to find real joy in our sacred service. (Matthew 22:37-39; John 13:34; 1 Peter 2:21) Keep in mind that Jesus does not ask the impossible. He assures us: “I am mild-tempered and lowly in heart, and you will find refreshment for your souls. For my yoke is kindly and my load is light.”—Matthew 11:28-30.
Like Jesus, we need to keep our eyes on the prize that is reserved for all who endure down to the end. (Matthew 24:13) If we contend according to the rules, if we put off every weight, and if we run with endurance, we can be confident of victory. The goal in sight beckons us onward! It renews our strength because of the joy that it infuses in us, a joy that makes the road ahead of us easier to tread.
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The Christian race is a long-distance run—it requires endurance
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Unlike crowned athletes, Christians can look forward to an imperishable prize
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The prize is for all who endure to the end
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Copyright British Museum