Did Paul the Apostle Approve of Sports and Greek Games?
It seems that many preachers and teachers are under the impression that Paul followed first century sports and approved of Christian participation in this worldly activity. They think that Paul and probably other NT Christians were sportsmen and avid fans of first century athletics. Why do they come to this rather strange conclusion?
Generally these preachers cite Pauls references to the Greek games. We might remember that the apostle spent 18 months in Corinth, which was situated in Achaia. This is where the Isthmian games were held every two years. The public games of Greece and Rome where familiar to the Christians and non-Christians of the first century, providing the NT writers with rich source material to illustrate spiritual truths (New International Bible Dictionary).
What do we know about the first century Grecian games? For one thing, these events were pagan festivals:
The Ancient Olympic Games were religious and athletic festivals held every four years at the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia, Greece. . . . Olympics were of fundamental religious importance, featuring sporting events alongside ritual sacrifices honoring both Zeus (whose famous statue by Phidias stood in his temple at Olympia) and Pelops, divine hero and mythical king of Olympia. Pelops was famous for his chariot race with King Oenomaus of Pisatis. The winners of the events were admired and immortalized in poems and statues. The Games were held every four years, and this period, known as an Olympiad, was used by Greeks as one of their units of time measurement. The Games were part of a cycle known as the Panhellenic Games, which included the Pythian Games, the Nemean Games, and the Isthmian Games. (en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Olympic_Games
Thus, we must realize that sports like this in the first century were intimately related to false religion. Do we think that Paul would devote himself to these heathen athletics?
Paul assumed that his Corinthian readers would be acquainted with these games. He wrote, Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? (1 Corinthians 9:24a). He continued, Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable (v. 25). He uses athletic terminology in other places as well (cf. 2 Timothy 2:5; 4:7-8), as does the Hebrew writer (12:1). But do these references suggest that Paul was a fan of these sportsor that he even attended the Isthmian Games, the Olympic Games, or any other games?
The reason that Paul used races and fights in his writings was to emphasize the need we have of endurance in the race of life or the fight involved in our Christian life. Indeed, our life is like a race and we aim to reach the finish line: I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14). When he came to the end of his earthly life, Paul could write, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7).
Surely Paul could know what a race was without becoming a spectator at the worldly games. He could understand that a fight was without cheering the fighters in a Greek wrestling content. Other Christians would be aware of the athletic contests in the games, either because of their pre-salvation participation or because the games were the talk of the town quite regularly.
Similarly, I might know that there are games being playedsoccer, football, baseball, and basketball. But I may not know the names of the teams or who happens to be playing. This past Sunday, I am told, the Super Bowl was played. I didnt even know that it occurred or who was playing! (I still dont know, although I read or heard recently that it was a huge event only a few days ago, with over 100 million viewers!)
There are several reasons why we believe Paul was not condoning either participation in the games or any athletic event. First, these sports are based on competition, something that the Christian knows is not wise (2 Corinthians 10:12). Second, winning at such an event almost surely promotes a prideful spirit. Scripture warns us, everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD (Proverbs 16:5). Further, Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling (v. 18). Paul tells us that we must not have a superior attitude since God is the one who gives us skills and abilities (1 Corinthians 4:7). A competitive, boastful, envying spiritthat which sports promotesis a carnal or fleshly attitude rather than a spiritual one (Galatians 5:25-26).
Maybe the reader is unware of one aspect of the Greek games that would show that Paul surely would not have attended. I refer to the fact that the participants competed totally naked! In our own day, athletes participate with very little on; surely there is much immodestyfrom both male and female participants. The Christian who fails to see this nakedness factor may reveal that he has been too influenced by our own libertarian culture. But the Greeks went beyond this for they were entirely naked! There is much evidence to this and a little searching on the internet will show what I mean.
In an article entitled, Ancient Olympic Games, we read:
The athletes usually competed nude, not only as the weather was appropriate, but also as the festival was meant to celebrate, in part, the achievements of the human body. Olive oil was used by the competitors, not only as a substitute for soap for washing, bathing, and cleaning, but also as a natural cosmetic, to keep skin smooth, and provide an appealing look for the participants. Because the men competed nude, married women were forbidden to watch the Olympics under penalty of death. Contrastingly, in Spartawhich, compared to Athens, was less restrictive to its female citizens in generalboth men and women did exercise unclothed. (en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Ancient_ Olympic_Games).
Thus, men were naked with they participated. Apparently, married women were not permitted to see them and they faced the death penalty if they did. However, unmarried women were able to view these nude participants. On the other hand, at the Spartan games, women were not only naked but also participatednaked! Can any informed Christian imagine that any brother or sister in Christ of the first century would attend these games? Would Paul have done so? Here is another informative comment:
Because the men competed nude, married women were forbidden to watch the Olympics under penalty of death. Contrastingly, in Spartawhich, compared to Athens, was less restrictive to its female citizens in generalboth men and women did exercise unclothed. (en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Ancient_ Olympic_Games).
We can see that there are a number of reasons why Paul and the early Christians would not have approved of the believers participation in the Games or even their attending as a spectator.
As we noted earlier, these games were thoroughly permeated by pagan idolatry. False gods were celebrated and the games were dedicated to them (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Ancient_Olympic_Games). Paul the apostle warns, Flee from idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:14). John also wrote, Little children, guard yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21). Would Paul or John have endorsed believers interest in and participation in idolatrous sports events? Certainly not!
Hopefully we can now see that the references to sports or athletic contests in the New Testament do not support the idea that Christians approved of sports, participated in sports, or attended sporting events. We must not take certain illustrations and go too far with them. Take them as far as the apostle Paul did and no further.
Lets not cite the apostle Paul in an effort to promote our own interest in sports and athletic contests. No, such activities are thoroughly fleshly or carnal and we must instead pursue a spiritual life in submission to the Holy Spirit.