Did you know that God has called you to be like an athlete? Paul parallels athletics with the believer’s life and describes a principled life for Christ in several epistles. Even Paul’s ancient readers were familiar with sports, so from them he drew lessons for the Christian. In this article, we will examine five features of athletics and how to apply these disciplines to our lives.
1 Timothy 4 – Training in Godliness
An athlete’s ability to effectively train is crucial to their performance. Our goal is to train in godliness. Godliness is to think and act with God’s interests in mind by living out His Word. At the end of chapter 3, Paul states that true godliness was revealed to us in the person of Christ (“the mystery of godliness,” v16). God also expects that, in the absence of Christ, the local assembly will exhibit godliness as “the pillar and ground of truth,” demonstrating the mind of God through unequivocal obedience to the Word of God (v15). Local assemblies must display godliness in their pattern. Individuals who compose them must also depict godliness in their practices and prioritize “exercise … unto godliness” (4:7).
A key component of training is nutrition. Paul writes to Timothy in Ephesus, imagining him observing men on strict diets going to the gymnasium to train their bodies. Like the trainees consuming only good food, Timothy was to focus on being “nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine” (v6). By consuming healthy spiritual food, including the teachings of chapters 1-3, Timothy could train unto godliness. He warns him to reject “irrelevant, silly” stories; these are poor nutrition for training in godliness (v7 ESV). Paul reminds Timothy in verse 8 that training in godliness is more important than physical training. Bodily exercise has only temporary benefits, but training in godliness is profitable now and for eternity.
Philippians 3 – The Mind Set on the Goal
Every runner knows to keep looking forward, not back. Behind Paul was “confidence in the flesh” (v4), but ahead was Christ as the prize he sought to gain at any expense (v8). Confidence in the flesh will never produce a life like Christ’s. Paul recognizes he must know three things to gain Christ and conform his life to Him. First, knowing the glorified Christ spurs him onward. Next, “the power of his resurrection” overcomes any hindrance opposing him in his pursuit. Lastly, “the fellowship of his sufferings” is understanding that what he endures from men is the same rejection the Lord experienced. Paul desired to lay hold of Christ, even as Christ laid hold of him, regardless of the cost (v13). He pushed on like a focused runner, eyeing the prize of Christ and perfection (v14). Christ is the prize on which we must keep our eyes throughout our Christian race.
1 Corinthians 9 – Running Within the Rules
Each game has its rules. Not abiding by the regulations results in disqualification from the prize. Paul considers the constraints he put on his life because of his ministry and now exhorts the Corinthians to run – living the Christian life as an athlete with only one prize to win. The winner of the Isthmian Games in Corinth received a quick-decaying laurel wreath, but the believer strives for an incorruptible crown. Paul calls the Corinthians to be like him and to live their lives with focus. Paul knew he could be rejected from receiving the crown reward though he was a prominent preacher.
In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul highlights causes for disqualification – not lost salvation but lost reward – with the Israelites in the wilderness as examples. He first points to the spiritual privileges the Israelites enjoyed, yet he writes the startling statement, “Yet God was not pleased with the most of them, for they were strewed in the desert” (v5 JND). Due to several failures, almost every Israelite never enjoyed the future blessing God desired to bestow on them. Paul saw the Corinthians as no different. Their idolatry, lax morals, desire for evil, temptation of Christ, and murmuring would result in disqualification along the path of their lives and coming short of obtaining an incorruptible crown for faithfulness to God and self-control. A believer must run within the rules or miss out at the Judgment Seat.
Hebrews 12 – Hindrance, Endurance and Motivation
God calls the Christian to run a race that is not short or easy. The writer to the Hebrews addresses professing believers in chapter 11 and provides God’s highlights of men and women who were faithful in monumental moments during adversarial times. The writer says, “Let us run” (12:1). Despite the adversities, others – a cloud of witnesses – also ran the race.
How were they – and how are we – to run? First, we must lay aside every hindering weight. Runners strip any impediment that restricts their progress. The writer points to sin as the encumbering agent that besets us. Ridout suggests things are “weights or wings”; sin is a weight which begins in the heart before becoming external. It hampers our endurance to run the race set before us. To run efficiently, we must not gloss over sin but must cast it away from our lives.
The chief encouragement is that the man Jesus, “the leader and completer of faith,” has gone before us (v2 JND). He always trusted God through the abuse, cruelty, mocking and darkness of Calvary with the joy set before Him in His mind. We should be encouraged, like the Hebrews, to run and not be weary in following Christ’s example of endurance.
2 Timothy 4 – The Finishing Stretch
Seeing the finish line after a long race is reinvigorating. As Paul writes to Timothy in his last letter, he acknowledges that the finish is just ahead. Paul uses several metaphors in these verses to describe his life and death. In verse 6, he is a drink offering, poured out in death in worship to God. Perhaps Paul is thinking of his life as the daily burnt offering whose last action was to pour out its libation (Num 28:7). Also, in verse 6, possibly surrounded by soldiers, he thinks of himself as the soldier about to be released. In verse 7, he is the wrestler or boxer who has endured. And he is the runner finishing the race; he has kept the faith. Because of the grace of God in his life, Paul sees a victor’s crown of righteousness being given him from the righteous Judge. It is a crown for all who love His appearing.
 Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.
 Samuel Ridout, quoted in William R. Newell, Hebrews: Verse by Verse (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1947), 400.