Thaddeus’ heart began to beat heavy as he stepped into the stadium at Antioch. It had been three long years since he had walked into an arena so packed with cheering spectators. No doubt, visitors had come from all over the province to watch the games. The sun was blazing and the sand was warm beneath his bare feet. He and his competition waved at the thousands who had taken to the stands to watch the final race.
The stadium, like all others, was a lengthy structure lined by tiered seats. The starting and finish line were marked by a square beam of stone. At the far end of the stadium sat Governor Maximus on the judgment seat. He was precisely positioned at the direct end of the running track. He sat on the other side of the finish line, and would be watching each sportsman’s performance very closely. It would be him who decided the fate of this race, and it was him and him alone that Thaddeus and the other contenders wished to please. Although Thaddeus could not see it, he knew his prize was sitting next to Governor Maximus, little more than a stadia away. It was his prize, that is, if he came in first place and did not disqualify himself by making a mistake.
Maximus made the gesture for the athletes to take their mark. Each lined up and began the proceedings. Thaddeus reached for the tie that held his robe closed. It was never his favorite part to disrobe before thousands of watching eyes, but as he tossed his clothes to his attendant and stood naked in the sun he knew it was the only way to win. Serious athletes threw off any weight that hindered the run. Clothes were an unnecessary entanglement. Running in robes, even of the lightest material, was out of the question for those who wished to be victorious. Thaddeus was racing to win and that meant, as always, he and the other athletes would run completely naked.
The racers took their marks and for a split second only the sound of his own breath was audible. He trained his attention on Governor Maximus who was seated at the opposite end of the stadium. Sitting high on his judgment seat, all could see him. Each athlete watched unblinking at his hand which was now in the air. Governor Maximus gave the demonstrative wave which signaled that the race had begun.
The runners were off, charging like trained stallions. With each step the crowd grew louder. The fervent cries of the audience drove Thaddeus on. The two who raced at his right fell behind quickly, but the one at his left was going to be a challenge. He had raced him in the games three years prior, and he was a true contender then as now.
As they approached the midpoint, marked by another square beam of stone, Thaddeus knew it was time to increase his pace. Races could be won or lost in the last leg, and Thaddeus was wary of the seasoned competitor at his left. He matched him step for step, yet with each stride he felt the gap was closing.
Thaddeus could hear his coaches words playing in his mind. “Fix your eyes on the governor.” His coach had instructed him at least a million times. This was especially important as he sped down the sandy lane trying to keep the most efficient route. The racer who deviated from the straightest path was sure to lose. It was imperative that each athlete keep his eyes on the governor, the one who both marked the finish, and waited to offer the reward to the winner.
In the last seconds Thaddeus drove with every ounce of strength he had. He poured his heart and soul into each step being careful to never let his eyes wander from the the one who so calmly remained seated on his judgment seat.
He was within range now. Thaddeus was close enough to see the prize. Sitting on a pedestal next to Governor Maximus was the garland of gold to which all of his hopes were pinned. Thaddeus had worked for years, training, and disciplined his body for this one moment. That wreath represented not just years of hard work, but an entire career of discipline. With the last few steps he leaned forward, straining with every bit of power left in his tired muscles.
Neck and neck until the last paces, Thaddeus leapt past the finish marker only slightly before his closest competitor. He had finished first, but had he won the race? It was up to the governor to decide. Thaddeus slowed his pace never taking his eyes off of Maximus, hoping he would judge the competition fairly.
It took a few moments for the cheers and adulation from the crowd to die down. Thaddeus and the other runners lined up before the judgment seat of Maximus awaiting his ruling. There were many things to consider. Had each runner stayed in his lane? Had any jumped the start? Did all compete within the rules? It was completely up to Governor Maximus to judge, and Thaddeus hoped with every fiber of his soul that he had not disqualified himself with a false step or a false start.
“Well done, Thaddeus!” Maximus called loud enough for the entire stadium to hear. The crowd’s excitement filled the afternoon sky with screams of praise. The shouts of the onlookers were nearly deafening. Maximus rose from his judgment seat, took the victor’s crown in his hand, and stepped down the marble platform. Thaddeus bowed slightly and allowed the garland to be placed upon his head. It had been hard work, but that moment he could see that it was all worth it.
Above is a fictional short story of Thadeus a Roman era athlete. I’ve written and included this story as a historical background to help you understand the sports lingo that appears in the New Testament. The things Paul unearths in these verses about sports would have been common knowledge to his original audience. Though some of the details may be unfamiliar to us, sports in the first century had enough similarities to modern athletics for us to still gain a good understanding.
In case you decided to skip the short story I’ll give you the highlights. Runners would remove their clothes, knee or ankle length robes, before a race in order that they not get entangled in them. The one judging the race would sit at the end of the track. The runner would fix his eyes on the judge as he ran. The winner would be given a prize by the judge who sat upon a Bema, often translated “judgment seat.” The judge had complete authority to judge the race. If one of the athletes stepped out of his lane, or jumped the start, it would be up to the judge to award the rightful winner.
If you’ve read much of the New Testament, this might sound familiar, because the Apostle Paul and the writer of Hebrews used this imagery a number of times to describe what awaits those who diligently run in the race called the Christian life.
Think of these words of Paul’s:
My only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.1
Paul had a specific task. He uses the analogy of a race to explain what that task was like. A runner can compete well in the first leg of the race but then blow it in the last half. This concept is why sports are entertaining until the very last moments. Even a game that looks like it’s won, can shift on a dime.
When I was in high school our football team made it to the state game. We played well and held the lead for nearly the whole game. We began to drop behind in the last quarter. The entire year’s run and the state championship came down to a field goal kick. This would be the last game that most of the guys ever played in. The kick veered and came shy of the goal posts. We lost the game in the last seconds. It was a crushing defeat.
Paul seems to be pointing to a similar possibility. His “task” was like a race, and if he needed to finish well. He didn’t want to blow it in the last quarter. The task, which was testifying the good news of God’s grace, could be wrecked by a lot of things. Paul was adamant about avoiding that wreckage in the last leg.
Maybe Paul was kind of a sports nut, because in another place he says this:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.2
This is the last letter that Paul ever wrote, at least that we have record of. He was in prison by this point. He knew his life was coming to an end. He could send that his work was nearly done. His former concern that he finish his race well apparently came to fruition. His impression was that he had done the work that God had given him. He had “finished the race.” What’s most striking is that he had “kept the faith.” If you read through Acts, it’s amazing what Paul had to suffer. He kept the faith despite tremendous odds. There was overwhelming pressure for him to shrink and dissolve back into the old ways of Judaism. However, he fought on. The question that arises from this is, “why?” Why didn’t he take it easy. If his eternal life was assured, why didn’t he just relax and coast on into heaven? Why did he spend his life fighting for the faith, and running this tiresome race?
Paul answers that exact question in his first letter to the Corinthians. He says:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? 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.3
He poured out his life for this cause, not because of gratitude for his salvation, not because he felt guilty, not because he feared hell. All those supposed motivations that preachers often give pale in comparison to Paul’s reason. The reason Paul was willing to give his life to the race was, “the prize!” He was doing it for the pay off. He was doing it because it was going to be worth it in the end. By giving us the philosophy of sports he also gives us the motivation for Christian living, which is to be rewarded.
I love this because we can still relate even today. We compete to win. We want the prize. Millions play Jr. league sports in hopes of hitting the big time in the major leagues. It’s a long shot for most, but for those who make it the reward is apparently worth the work. Forbes publishes the year’s top paid athletes, and the number of zeros on their salary checks is incredible. Even modern olympic athletes win not only a medal but a sizable cash prize. On top of that, winning a gold medal or being a top contender in any sport ensures endorsement and advertising deals that bring in a healthy income. There is a lot to be gained for those who compete at the top of their sport.
Paul uses this analogy in a very exacting way. He says, “Run in such a way as to get the prize.” This is not talking about salvation, but a reward for Christian achievement. There is a prize waiting for those who compete at the top of their spiritual sport. The sport here, is obedience to Christ, often called discipleship.
Paul goes on to say that athletes, “do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” There are two words in Greek for “crown.” There is the type that a king would wear. It signifies authority and royalty. It’s called a diadema.4There is another “crown” or garland that an athlete can win for his performance is called a stephanos5In Greek.
Some kings may inherit a diadema crown because of their royal heredity. If it were that word used there might be some confusion. The type of crown that Paul is talking about, the one that you can win for obedience to Christ, is a stephanos. Since Paul uses stephanos a more general word which comes from “encircled” he means to say that we must work for it. This word lets us know that Paul is not talking about a prize that we receive for free. It’s something we strive hard for. So, this is a reward for hard work. It’s above and beyond our salvation. It’s payback for our current obedience and is given in the life to come.
The author of Hebrews, which may have been Paul, says it this way:
Therefore, 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, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.6
To throw off everything that hinders is a reference to athletes who were so serious about their craft that they were willing to compete naked in order to avoid getting tangled up as they ran. Can you imagine being so committed to winning that you’d be willing to appear taken in front of thousands of spectators? That’s dedication.
Notice from the verse the analogy of a great crowd who watch the race. The crowd which is present are both spectators and previous competitors. The chapter that this verse appears in is the “hall of fame” of the faith. It speaks of the spiritual superstars of the Old Testament. It then says that those are the ones who are watching. They are a crowd of interested spectators, but they are also those we are competing against.
Any who are faithful to Christ will receive a reward, but we are in the running with all believers from all time. Each gets a fair chance to run. So you have as much opportunity to be faithful to Christ, as Moses, Abraham, and Joseph had. Your life may be different, but you are competing in the same sport. You are running just like they did. You have the chance to be as faithful as Daniel, or Debrah, or David. That means that you have the chance to be rewarded as generously as any of these superstars. What a race. We better be well trained. Considering all this he goes on to say:
Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified for the prize.7
This verse, and especially the word “disqualified” have given many people cold sweats. It’s not eternal life that Paul is concerned about being disqualified from, but the prize which he hopes earn and receive when he arrives in Heaven. He really wants that reward. He let the motivation of winning the prize drive him forward.
He hoped that when his race was run and he crossed the finish line, the King of Glory would place a garland on his head for his good work. Jesus, who sits on the ultimate judgment seat is watching so much more closely than any sports judge could. He sees every step and is eager to bestow a crown on any who run in such a way as to earn it.
This brings up an important question, however. When will we receive this reward? The general answer is: we will be rewarded in the future Kingdom of God. The specific answer is that we will be rewarded when we stand before the Judgement Seat of Christ. Those two concepts are what we will tackle in the next few chapters.
1 Acts 20:24
2 2 Timothy 4:7
3 1 Corinthians 9:24-25
4 James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
5 James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
6 Hebrews 12:1-2
7 1 Corinthians 9:26-27