With the 2012 London Olympics having come to a conclusion, many of us have witnessed the incredible efforts of talented athletes. Australia was somewhat disappointed with our overall medal result of seven gold and sixteen silver. One newspaper reported that government funding through the Australian Institute of Sport represented $10.6 million for each medal we achieved. But in more than dollar terms, the investment represented years (decades) of training, self-discipline, and painful exercise. Our Olympians forsook certain foods, social activities, and creature comforts so they could dedicate themselves to achieving the valuable prize of a gold medal.
In 1 Corinthians 9, the apostle Paul compares his life’s dedication of declaring the good news of the gospel with someone running in the games.
25Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
I find this passage challenging because it forces me to compare my self-discipline for eternal issues to the self-discipline of professional athletes. I know I really enjoy sitting down at the end of the day and chilling out with TV. I really look forward to a great meal out with friends. But when I compare my relatively comfortable life to a self-disciplined trained runner or a beaten slave, I know I fall far short. We all must step up a gear here.
But Paul goes on in Hebrews 11 and 12 (and I will assume Paul is the author here). In Chapter 11, he goes into great detail to describe the heroes of faith. Abraham, Issac, Jacob, and Joseph are commended not for their personal achievements, but for the faith which enabled those achievements. Moses, Samson, David, and the prophets are cited as examples of people who were justified before God in their race of life, not because of their superior abilities, but because they lived by faith in God.
There is something significant and important that we must not miss here. The power to be self-disciplined and the strength to complete the race of life lies not in our ability to absorb pain, but in our focus on the Lord. This key to success is fleshed out in chapter 12 where Paul says,
1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
As prominent as the Old Testament patriarchs, judges, and kings were, we make a mistake if we think they finished their race because they were internally strong or mentally positive. Yes, they persevered and they constantly sought to remove unhelpful obstacles from their life. However, most importantly, they were forward looking to their coming Messiah. They saw not the finish line, but they saw Jesus beyond the finish line. They trusted (placed faith) in the promises and truth of the gospel. They saw with clarity and literalness, the reality of sins forgiven by their redeemer. They knew that there was more to life than the nine to five grind with weekend sport. They knew that “better homes and gardens” would all burn one day. And so they fixed their eyes heaven-ward.
And the efforts of those patriarchs, judges, and kings is not over. Those men are in the “great cloud of witnesses” who cheer and support us from the stands as we run our own race of life. They desperately want us to win a gold medal, so we can cast it at the feet of the king of kings. And if the example of the Old Testament saints is not enough, Paul concludes with the most inspiring story of all in verse 3.
2For the joy set before him he [Jesus, Lord of the universe] endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
The example of the race that Jesus himself ran is necessary for constant reflection. When we grapple with the sinless God of the universe submitting to ridicule, torture, and death at the hands of sinners, the challenges of our race pale into insignificance. Words cannot describe the love that our God has for us.
So be lifted up and encouraged to step up a gear. Our race is a marathon, not a sprint. Run with perseverance. Ask the Holy Spirit for that second wind to push through the pains of daily life. Listen to the cheers of the Old Testament saints and imagine the celebrations into eternity when we enjoy eternal gold in heaven with our saviour.