The opening ceremony for the 1996 International Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta, Georgia, is scheduled for Friday July 19 and the closing ceremony for Sunday August 4. This means that every church’s congregational consciousness over at least the three Sundays of July 21, 28, and August 4 supplies some unique community and national dynamics for Gospel proclamation through a focus on biblical sermons built from the various athletic analogies referenced in God’s Word.
The Atlanta Olympics
The staging of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games requires a budget of 1.6 Billion, catering to around two million visitors, and involving sophisticated, high-tech, state-of-the-art digital electronics for everything from communications to security protection. The main stadium seats 750,000 at a cost of $120 million to view the 10,000 performers who will celebrate opening day festivities.
Ten other venues are also being built in Georgia for other events. They will sell a total of 11 million tickets for 271 events which involve competitors from 200 nations. NBC will telecast over 190 hours of the competitions and celebrations (for which privilege they paid $456 million!). Some 40,000 volunteer workers will join 17,000 others in paid positions. The 1996 Games will be the 100th anniversary of their modern re-institution.
Historical Background
Greek and Roman athletic games became widely known in Palestine as during their Hellenistic period many Jews absorbed traditional gymnastic programs and competitive games into their everyday culture. Theaters, amphitheaters, and stadia were erected in Jerusalem and Jericho. Herod the Great’s hippodrome in Ceaserea featured competitive athletic games every fifth year. The Olympic games were the earliest and most celebrated of the four national festivals of Grecian society. The Olympic tradition began with foot races and later developed to include wrestling, boxing and discus throwing. Other games quickly developed involving gymnastics, horsemanship, and even musical contests. Victors were called to a podium where their names were announced and they were honored with a wreath or a crown, which in those early Christian times consisted of wild olives, pine or even celery.
Preaching Values
Wise preachers will seek to capture values from this coming context by immediately planting a series of sermon seeds which can be cultivated to a fruitful harvest over the weeks ahead. While in the New Testament sporting references are frequent, they seldom refer directly to the Olympics, but rather focus on drawing spiritual lessons from the athletic analogies proposed.
Pulpit Resources
The information which follows suggests themes, texts, approaches, and resources which may be used to stimulate your own personal planning. A series of five sermons (or selections from them) under the general title of The Bible and the Olympics could include:
# 1. “Passing On The Torch”
# 2. “How To Run The Race”
# 3. “How To Exercise”
# 4. “Going For The Gold” &
# 5. “Finishing The Marathon”
Each entry below (by text) has: (1) a free translation; (2) a potential sermon title and structure. Where + appears these are general materials, thoughts, and illustrations useful as preaching resources and/or other related texts applicable to the proposed sermon.
# 1. PASSING ON THE TORCH – 2 Tim. 2:1-2: (1) “Be strengthened by the grace available through our Lord Jesus Christ. Everything you have heard me teach before many witnesses you must hand on to trustworthy men and women who will be capable of teaching others.”
(2) Sermon: + The Olympic Torch Bearers are 5,500 community heroes chosen from across the nation plus 800 Olympians. They carry the torch through an 84-day relay beginning in L.A. April 27, 1996, which covers 15,000 miles in the U.S. and travels within two hours drive of 90% of the population of the nation. Billy Payne ACOG chief in Atlanta, was stimulated to adopt concept by a question originally posed by Martin Luther King “What are you doing for others?”
+ This text may be likened to the passing on of the torch from one runner to another to initiate the Olympic games, and to our responsibility to see that each succeeding generation keeps the “True Gospel Flame” burning correctly.
Some denominations claim their ministries to be authentic by defining a historical line of succession reaching down from the apostles to today. But 2 Tim. 2:1-2 talks about the “True Apostolic Succession” as something to be linked to the veracity of the Gospel truth passed along through the teaching ministry of the church. (+ Exegete Eph. 4:11-12a, where pastors and teachers are given to equip others for their own work of ministry. In v. 4 Paul has listed, “One Lord, one faith, and one baptism,” then here he talks about one ministry — that expected from all believers).
+ 2. Tim. 2:1-2 teaches that the reception of the faith is founded on hearing and the witness of others; everyone who receives the faith is expected to transmit it; the glory of teaching (formerly, or by quiet witness) is that it links present hearers with the original revelation in Jesus.
+ Faithful men (and women) means believing, loyal, and reliable — we are all equally important participants in this “relay.”
Structure: You Can Be An Effective Bearer Of The Torch if you follow these counsels: I. A SPIRITUAL AIM – To make all Christians strong enough in grace to minister (v. 1); II. A BIBLICAL CURRICULUM – To enable all in the church to be teachers who share with others the Gospel we have ourselves received which follows the Biblical revelation (v. 2); III. A REPRODUCTIVE METHOD – To teach others who can reproduce what we share (v.2).
+ HYMN: Faith Of Our Fathers; CHOIR: Pass It On (It Only Takes A Spark…)
# 2. HOW TO RUN THE RACE, 1 Cor. 9: 24-27; (1) 24: In a race all runners compete, only one wins the prize, so run in such a way that you win the prize; 25: trains himself by self-control and restraint to obtain a wreath that is temporary and withers, but we are to gain one which never fades; 26: I run not as a racer uncertain of his goal but straight to the goal with purpose, I fight to win — I am not just shadow-boxing; 27: I keep beating and bruising my body to make it my slave so that after I have summoned others to the race I myself should not be disqualified.
2 Tim. 2: 5,7: (1) If anyone enters as a competitor in the games he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules. This passage was especially significant for Corinthian believers as their own Isthmian Games were scheduled every 2 years. The text calls the attention of the local believers to the vigor and demands required of athletes preparing for success. (It relates to service and rewards, not to salvation and life). This includes voluntary disciplines (cf. 1 Tim. 4:7; 2 Tim. 2:5) as those in training committed themselves to specific exercise, and exercised self-control in diet and pleasures. The Christian practices restraint; he runs by the rules1.
+ Boxing -The phrase “I do not box as one beating the air” (1 Cor. 9:26) depicts a boxing contest in which hands bound with studded leather inflicted severe injuries. A participant tried to dodge the other contestant so that he would waste his strength by “beating the air.” Paul concludes his metaphor by comparing himself to a herald who called others to the contest but was himself disqualified from competing if he failed to continue (v. 27, cf. 1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim 1).
+ Wrestling – Eph. 6:12: Our struggle is not to wrestle against opponents who are weak mortals but against the various powers of evil who hold sway in the Darkness around us — master spirits, cosmic powers, forces that control and govern this dark world — and against spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil. That’s why we need the whole armor of God (see vv. 11, 13-18). One small piece of armor missing and they can take advantage of it! See 1:21, 2:2, for the believer’s position of victory which can be claimed in Christ. Our enemies may be strong but our Captain is stronger. We wrestle against elements which are more than flesh and blood — we are part of the struggle of God’s will against the wills of others, of true ideas against false ideas.
(2) Sermon: You can run the race successfully if you run by the rules. The wreath or crown of the winner could not be received unless one had kept the rules of the athletic contest.
Structure: What rules? I. RUN WITH SELF-CONTROL: + You don’t run just for duty (to ease your conscience), or for family (to give them values), or for reputation, but for the eternal joy set before you — to honor God, to witness a good confession to others.
+ He wanted to be sure that his blows would tell and not be just an empty beating of the air. Without a proper self-control of his body his fighting of evil could be just a fake. It is possible to allow natural and not spiritual desires to rule the lives of God’s children — to allow the flesh with its appetites and intemperances to dominate the life so that we let down our authentic Christian standards. Our blows can be sham; rather, we must engage the enemy at close quarters by keeping the body in subjection. So there will be some magazines you choose not to read; movies you choose not to see; TV you avoid viewing; because these can sap the spiritual life, exalt fleshly appetites, and make all our fighting against the devil nothing but a pretence.
II. RUN WITH A CLEAR PURPOSE: + Paul did not run “aimlessly” (v.24) because like those in the Olympics he focused on the goal to be obtained (v.24). The runner’s goal was a square pillar he must reach at the finish In order to obtain you need to be properly entered and to start right (through personal faith in Christ as Savior); you need to make a total commitment.
+ The honor was a “perishable” wreath, but the Christian’s reward is imperishable (i.e. if athletes will so train and compete for an insignificant “perishable” prize, how much more should we for the eternal rewards which last eternally!) (v.25; cf. 2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8; – Phil. 4:1; 1 Thess. 2:19; Heb. 2:7-9; Jas. 1:12; and Rev. 2:10, 3:11, 7:9 also allude to rewards as wreaths or crowns. Rev. 7:9 suggests the carrying of palm branches by victors at the games.) James 1:12: “Happy is the man who has endured under trial, for once he has proved his worth he will receive the crown of life which God has promised for those who love Him.” 1 Pet. 5: 4: “And when the chief Shepherd appears you will receive an unfading garland of glory. 2 Tim 4: 8 may emphasize the “righteous” nature of God’s rewards compared with that of earthly judges who could be bribed, or mistaken in their awards.
III. RUN WITH CONSISTENCY: + You must continue faithful to the end. His testimony and place of opportunity could be lost because he failed to wrestle the enemy as he should.
HYMNS: Bound For the Promised Land; When We All Get to Heaven (…Onward To The Prize Before Us…)
# 3. HOW TO EXERCISE: 1 Tim. 4: 7 – 11: (1) “Have nothing to do with unholy and silly myths but rather spend your time and energy training yourself in the practice of keeping spiritually fit. This because, while bodily training has a certain value, godliness is beneficial all around for it contains promise for the present life as well as for the future. To this end we are continually toiling and struggling because our hope is fixed upon the ever-living God who is the chosen Savior of all mankind, and of believers in particular. Dwell on these things in your teaching!”
(2) Sermon: This text encourages us to focus on spiritual health by offering these supports.
Structure – I. A UNIQUE PROMISE: an unrivalled eternal benefit pledged as an outcome of spiritual maturity. Nothing else but godliness brings eternal blessings. All your business, your education, your bodily health — these are fine but they relate to this life and not the life to come.
+ The quality of life after death depends upon the quality of life before death. The soul needs spiritual training to become truly godly just as the body needs physical exercise to mature to its full advantage. This is no denigration of gymnastics– which has its own benefits — but a plea for proportionate attention to the soul. The Greeks paid great attention to physical culture and the Apostle says this is not sinful, but its values remain limited compared with that kind of exercise which profits both for time and eternity.
+ Bodily training only develops a part of a person and only affects time, but fitness of the soul affects all things, in time as well as eternity. In this life we have guidance, fellowship, growth, forgiveness, joy, and “peace in every valley” — nothing can separate us from God’s love if we are His (Rom. 8: 38-39); in the life to come there will be no separation, no tears, eternal service for God etc.
+ Note, “having” promise represents a current and present possession; we do not need to wait to secure it — godliness brings immediate blessings. For the unbelieving, life can be depressing, purposeless, unsatisfying, but the Christian can be used by God, and grow spiritually strong. We already have “the earnest of the Spirit.” (cf. 1 Cor. 2: 9-10: all that we see, hear or imagine in this life cannot bring the reality of heaven’s joys to us, but the worship, fellowship, joy, and understandings of that which we experience through the Spirit through God’s Word and in the church has done this. The experience of heaven will be the best of these times multiplied magnificently.
+ This is one of Paul’s four “faithful” sayings — worthy to be received and practiced by all (1. Tim. 1:15, this, 2 Tim. 2:12, and Titus 3:8).
HYMNS: I am Thine O Lord…; Take Time To be Holy.
#4. GOING FOR THE GOLD, Phil. 3: 13, 14: (1) “I am not all that I should be but I do concentrate on forgetting the things behind, and straining every nerve for that which lies in front, with the goal in view I push on to secure the prize to which God through Christ Jesus calls us upward.”
(2) Sermon: “You can win the prize if you claim these truths”.
Structure: What truths must we claim? I. ADOPT A HUMBLE VIEW OF YOUR PRESENT: + Be aware of the much progress yet to be made; II. TAKE A BALANCED ESTIMATE OF YOUR PAST: “It is OK to honor the past but not to be so enamored of it that you avoid the future. Forget past failures and successes and III. MAKE AN AUTHENTIC COMMITMENT TO YOUR FUTURE THROUGH FAITH: + A clear focus energizes future success.
+ Going to heaven is like riding a bicycle — the moment you quit pedalling you tend to lose your balance and stop progressing; you have to “keep going” to “keep going.” Are you throwing yourself forward or are you just content to “jog along with the crowd”? If you want to win, the rule to follow in any race is to stretch forward all the time and to waste no energy worrying about how others are faring.
+ Phil. 3: 13f. may refer to a chariot race. The Roman city of Paul’s readers had it own hippodrome. Paul seems to picture himself in the role of a charioteer who, in the decisive moments of the race, strains forward with an “intense pressing toward the goal for the prize” because at that high speed a glance behind could be fatal. Paul continually reminded the young Christians that they could lose the race if they allowed themselves to be turned aside from a total commitment.
+ Gal. 2:2. He wanted to make sure that the goal he pursued was worth achieving. The fruit of the Phillipian believers proved he had not run the race in vain (cf. Phil. 1: 3-7; 4: 1) Who were these? (i) A Jewess who fulfilled her Messianic heritage as the Apostle introduced her to Christ! (ii) A jailor converted at midnight, and his whole family also gathered in! (iii) A woman out of whom seven devils had been cast! So the likely and the unlikely can all be part of one’s joy and crown.
HYMNS: Victory In Jesus; Precious Lord Take My Hand.
# 5. FINISHING THE MARATHON – 2 Tim. 2: 5,7: (1) “And if anyone enters as a competitor in the games he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules. His whole effort is thrown into the encounter; his eye is fixed on the prize.” 2 Tim. 4: 8: (1) “I have fought in the grand contest, the course I have set I have finished, I have firmly held the faith; and now the prize awaits me – the victors’ crown for being right with God and doing right, which the Lord, the upright judge, will award me on that great day of His return; and not just to me, but also unto all who eagerly await His appearance.”
(2) Sermon – Sitting on the prison bench, Paul reviewed his life, and it was no series of pleasant picnics! (See and quote from 2 Cor. 11: 23-27 – and he found Grace suficient; see 2 Cor 12.)
+ Fought the good fight — he was triumphant in conflicts with evil. Paul had not dropped out of the race as had others. He had held fast faithfully to the Gospel. He has come to the end like a fighter, weary but undefeated; like an athlete, exhausted, but triumphant; like a loyal soldier, battered but with the flag still flying. + “Fighting the fight” is a phrase describing the contest in an arena, when the athlete has done his or her best, put every energy into the task, then can be satisfied, as Paul was.
+ “Finishing the course” (race) emphasizes how easy it is to begin but how hard to continue on to the finish.
+ “Keeping the faith” means I ran by the rules. I have been true to my agreement; I never lost my confidence that He would do His part as I did mine.
+ Only 615 men and women out of the 10,000 participating will gain gold medals at the Atlanta Games. A current survey of previous champions by sports historian Bud Greenspan reveals that, in addition to the basics of talent, pride, and courage, each victor focused on a sheer determination to succeed. All of those champions believed that their enduring patience to run the race to the finish was the major dynamic which energized their ability to win (Parade Magazine, Feb. 18, 1996). Earthly athletes have to win competitively to get the prize, but every one who finishes having fought well spiritually and still trusting gains the same eternal crown.
+ Couple this with Hebrews 12:1-3 which compares the spiritual life to a foot-race where success depends upon laying aside everything that hinders progress, adopting an enduring patience which facilitates perseverance, and focusing on Jesus’ journey within His Father’s will for inspiration. (1) “With all these surrounding us like a cloud (cf. chap 11) — heroes and heroines of faith who have borne testimony to the Truth — let us fling aside every encumbrance and the entanglements of sin, and let us run with steady and patient endurance the course mapped out for us, looking onward to Jesus the forerunner and finisher of our faith who, in view of the joy which He knew which would follow His suffering patiently endured the cross heedless of its shame, and now He sits in the place of honor by the throne.”
Sermon: You can finish the marathon by considering these perspectives.
Structure: I. LOOK AROUND! at the Witnesses. + These “great” men and women of faith (in Hebrews 11) were all failures! (David failed God in his family! David committed great sins.) Yet they endured and received their crowns! Their “witness” to us is that even if you stumble you don’t need to fall.
II. LOOK OUT! – Keep the weight down and the limbs free. Make your own personal list! Sins are easy to find but “weights” can even be good things such as friendships, entertainments, etc. III. LOOK UP! – Focus on Christ for example and strength to keep the eyes right. Even if your progress is slow, you can get to the finish with patience. Earthly races only have a few winners but there is a crown for all who finish the Christian life keeping the faith — if we fall we still have an Advocate who has finished the race for us and is now seated at the Father’s right hand (cf. 1 John 2:1). All we have to do is in expectant faith to look for Him – “to love His appearing.”2
HYMNS: My Faith Looks Up To Thee.; O Jesus I Have Promised To Serve Thee To the End.
These materials originally requested by Noonday Baptist Association Pastors’ Conference in Marietta, GA, must not be reproduced as resources without written permission, but they may be freely used for sermons without acknowledgement. Dr. Craig Skinner (retired Professor of Preaching from SBC’s Golden Gate Baptist Seminary) now serves in special preaching and teaching ministries out of the Atlanta, GA area. He may be contacted at (770) 943-0038.
1 You might wish to review the 1991 Academy Award winning film Chariots of Fire, which tells the story of Eric Liddell, the Scottish Christian who won the 1924 Paris Olympic Games 400 meter race despite his misunderstood obedience to Jesus Christ as Lord by refusing to run on a Sunday. Don’t forget the “rest of the story” with his missionary service in China and death while imprisoned by the Japanese occupation forces because of his commitment to helping wounded soldiers from all sides. Edinburgh University’s paper, The Student, showed the respect in which others held him at the games by saying, “What he has thought it right to do, that he has done, looking neither to the left nor the right, and yielding not one jot or tittle of principle either to court applause or to placate criticism… Devoted to his principles he is (nevertheless) without a touch of Pharisaism”. (Cf. Sally Magnusson, The Flying Scotsman (New York, N.Y.: Quartet, 1981); also D.P. Thompson, Eric H. Liddell, Athlete and Missionary (Crieff, Perthshire, Scotland: Research Unit, rev. ed., 1971).
2 Broadman & Holman released a volume of Olympic illustrations (paper, $ 9.99) titled Olympic Heroes, by Jerry Harris in March. ISBN is # 080 546 2910.

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