The biggest sporting event in history is being held in Sydney, Australia this month. More than 10,000 of the world’s best athletes from 200 nations will compete in 28 sports in the Olympic Games. The strongest competition in the world will be broadcast to a worldwide viewing audience of 3.5 billion. Every athlete will be striving for medals and fame.
The ancient Greeks celebrated the great national festival known as the Olympics between 800 BC and the 400 AD. This festival was celebrated every four years in the sanctuary of their god Zeus in Olympia. It involved competitions between representatives from the Greek city-states.
Did you know that Paul was thinking of similar games when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:25 that all athletes “go into strict training”? These particular games were celebrated every two years on the Isthmus of Corinth in honor of the Greek gods. The Greeks were passionate about the games and the winners received crowns made of laurel or olive branches. In both the ancient and modern games the athletes practice long hours to improve their endurance, strength, skills and performance.
The Bible compares life to a race, but makes remarkable claims about what is victory. In the game of life we can succeed — but not by our own strength. Let’s look at how we can be winners in life’s race. Our examples are King Solomon, who lived 3,000 years ago, and the apostle Paul, who lived 2,000 years ago. Both competed at the top of their professions.
Solomon was from Israel’s royal family, the son of King David. As king for 40 years he had great wealth and power. You might say he was a winner.
A recent poll voted the boxer Muhammad Ali the greatest sports star of the twentieth century. He carried the torch at the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. As heavyweight champion of the world he boasted, “I am the greatest!” That’s also how Solomon felt, but it did not last. His book, Ecclesiastes, shows how he sought success in life through such things as wisdom, pleasure, possessions, wealth and hard work.
- Wisdom: Solomon was devoted to exploring everything by wisdom, and became known as the wisest man in the world (1 Ki. 4:29-34; Eccl. 1:13,16). He was an expert in botany and zoology. He wrote 3,000 proverbs and 1,000 songs. He was so famous people from other nations came to hear him. The Queen of Sheba visited him and confirmed that his wisdom and wealth were far greater than what she had been told (1 Ki. 10:6-7).
- Pleasure: Solomon tried to cheer himself with wine, and he acted the fool (Eccl. 2:3). He also indulged in entertainment, and had 1,000 wives who gave him great pleasure. He did whatever made him happy (1 Ki. 11:3; Eccl. 2:8).
- Possessions: Solomon had great homes, vineyards, gardens and groves filled with all kinds of fruit trees. He built reservoirs to irrigate his flourishing groves. He had many slaves and owned more livestock than any other king in Jerusalem. It is recorded that he had 12,000 horses, 1,400 chariots and 4,000 stalls to keep them (2 Chr. 1:14; 9:25).
- Wealth: Solomon was the richest man on earth (1 Ki. 10:23) — like Bill Gates is today. His great wealth came from commerce, mining, gifts from visitors, and taxes from countries between the Euphrates River and Egypt (1 Ki. 4:21; 10:25). He collected great sums of silver and gold, the treasure of kings and provinces (Eccl. 2:4-8).
- Hard Work: Solomon enjoyed working hard for his success. He undertook many great projects, among them being the palace it took 13 years to build (Eccl. 2:10-11,17-22). He had everything a person could desire, but didn’t find lasting satisfaction in success. He learned that man’s appetite is never satisfied (Eccl. 6:7). As he looked at everything he achieved, it was meaningless and futile, like chasing the wind. There was nothing worthwhile anywhere (Eccl. 2:11). He concluded that unless you “remember your Creator … everything is meaningless” (Eccl. 12:1, 8).
His despair resulted from looking for success in all the wrong places — of trying to find his way in life without God. Leaving God out of life’s race leads to disappointment, because life is more than success. Solomon had everything money could buy and power could seize, but couldn’t find satisfaction. He discovered that a life not centered on God is meaningless.
The Right Race?
Are you following Solomon by leaving God out while striving for such things as education, career, money, power, popularity, pleasure, etc.? Only the top three finishers receive a medal at the Olympic Games. Many athletes will not receive a prize, even though they did their best. Others will be disqualified because they broke the rules of their event.
The marathon race will be run along a well-marked route through the streets of Sydney, Australia to the Olympic Stadium. Athletes must follow this route to qualify for the prize. Jesus saw people as being in two categories: those travelling a wide road that leads to destruction, or a narrow road that leads to eternal life (Mt. 7:13-14). Which road are we running on? Those who ignore God and live like Solomon are running down the route that leads to hell and torment.
During much of his life Solomon was in the wrong race! If we are in the wrong race, then our best is not good enough. Without God, our best efforts, no matter how good, are never good enough to get us to heaven.
We can only enter the race to heaven by accepting God’s offer of forgiveness for our sins through Jesus Christ. The Bible says we can be saved by faith in God, who treats us much better than we deserve. Salvation is God’s gift to us and not anything we have done (Eph. 2:8). We can only be winners through Christ’s victory (1 Cor. 15:57; 1 Jn. 5:4-5).
The apostle Paul was privileged to have Hebrew religion, Greek culture and Roman citizenship. He had two names: Saul was his Hebrew name and Paul was his Greek name. The son of a Pharisee, he studied under Gamaliel, an esteemed teacher of Jewish law. He was born a pure-blooded Jew of the tribe of Benjamin. He was a member of the Pharisee sect that demanded the strictest obedience to Jewish law. He obeyed Jewish law so carefully that he was never accused of any fault (Phil. 3:5-6).
His first “race” was religion and he excelled in it. He was a fanatical Pharisee who was convinced that Christians were heretics and that God’s honor demanded their extermination (Gal. 1:13-14). He persecuted and imprisoned Christians and approved of Stephen’s death (Acts 9:1-2; 22:2-5,19-20; 26:4-11; 8:1-3). He travelled around the country capturing Christians. So Saul was racing along the broad road to destruction.
But on the way to Damascus he was miraculously confronted by Jesus and converted from the error of his way. He immediately began to live by faith in his Savior. Now on the narrow road to heaven, he preached Christianity, worked with those he had previously persecuted and was persecuted by his previous colleagues.
Paul used the illustration of a race to describe how he lived: “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). He was looking forward to the end of the race, and the prize in heaven to all who put their trust in God.
We are urged to imitate Paul by following his example (Phil. 3:17). He said, “Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone 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. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air” (1 Cor. 9:24-26). He ran hard to win, exercising discipline and self control, with a definite goal and purpose.
Furthermore, he urged us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith … Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:1-3). As runners we should focus on the goal, throwing aside anything that might hinder us, such as materialism and legalism. The “love of money” causes some to wander from the faith, while unbiblical rules stop some from running a good race (Gal. 5:7; 1 Tim. 6:10-12).
As a Christian, Paul could look forward to victory and finishing the race, even victory over death: “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). Paul knew his mission. Near the end of his life he wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7-8). Paul lived by faith.
The Christian’s Race
From Paul’s example we see that Christians are to live by faith and focus on their heavenly destiny. Their goals are: to live like Christ and please God, not others (2 Cor. 5:9; Gal. 1:10; 1 Jn. 2:6); to persevere with passion and be diligent, not lazy (Mt. 25:14-29); to practice humility, not selfish ambition (Mt. 18:4; Phil. 2:3). When asked who is the greatest, Christ said it was whoever is humble like a child. Be a Christ-like servant and don’t have a win-at-all-costs attitude (Mt. 20:25-28).
The Bible says we should: “live” in peace and harmony (Rom. 12:16,18; 1 Cor. 7:15; 2 Cor. 13:11; 1 Th. 5:13; 1 Tim. 2:2; Heb. 12:14; 1 Pet. 3:8); “live” by faith (Rom. 1:17; 2 Cor. 5:7; Gal. 2:20; 3:11; Heb. 10:38); “live” a life of love (Eph. 5:2); and “live” by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16,25).
Sports psychologists coach athletes to be winners because they know how much the mind influences performance and behavior. Christians should have their minds set on what the Spirit desires, as they have “the mind of Christ” (Rom. 8:5; 1 Cor. 2:16). The Holy Spirit is their coach (Jn. 16:13). This is their secret of success: right relationships with God and others. So the key to real success is a relationship, not an achievement.
The Christian’s reward is a prize beyond compare. It is described as “the victor’s crown,” “the crown of life,” “the crown of glory” and “the crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8; Jas. 1:12; 1 Pet. 5:4). Also, since it is kept in heaven, it will never fade away, and never perish or spoil (1 Cor. 9:25; 1 Pet. 1:4; 5:4). As believers are Christ’s servants, their reward is to hear this: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt. 25:21).
Everyone who accepts Jesus into his/her life is a winner. Remember, that the criminal who repented on the cross was told, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” And Lazarus, the beggar, finished up in heaven, while the rich man was tormented in hell (Lk. 16: 22-26; 23:43).
Unfortunately many live selfish lives that lead to destruction (Phil. 3:18-19). If you have left God out of your life, your best will never be good enough. No matter what you may achieve, you will not have lasting success or lasting victory. Instead, you will have the emptiness and lack of purpose experienced by Solomon. In this case you need to get in the right race by accepting God’s offer of forgiveness for your sins through Jesus Christ. No great achievement is required, just childlike trust and commitment (Mt. 18:3).
Although you are not competing in the Olympic Games you are running the race of your life. Are you running the good race (Gal. 5:7)? Christians are not only saved by faith, they should also live by faith. This means trust and commitment to God, to the Scriptures and to other Christians. Success depends on your relationship with God.
Where is your commitment and passion in life? Are you chasing after other things like Solomon? Is your attention distracted, or are you developing a new mindset so you will know what God wants you to do in life (Rom. 12:2)? We only have one lifetime, so let’s make it count for God.
Do your best by following Jesus and imitating Paul; don’t be distracted or sidetracked from the race like Solomon.
Published: September 2000