Science in Christian Perspective



Physical Fitness and the Course of Life
Edmund R. Woodside
660 Forest Avenue Pasadena, California 91103

From: JASA 34 March 1982): 37-39.

Athletic contests along with the corresponding competitive emphasis on the physical fitness that of necessity accompanies them have become a way of life in contemporary America. Being in good condition is considered a basic essential of better living. This point can be extended into that unique feature of the body of the Christian, namely, that of being the temple of the Holy Spirit. In fact, in the New Testament, these two phases, the physical and the spiritual are combined, with the physical either leading into its spiritual counterpart, or the physical being so described that it is in some degree an example of such. In doing this, the New Testament authors, and in particular Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles, have drawn from a long cultural history of physical fitness and prowess exhibited in widely publicized and attended contests. The continuity of these events extended over a period of hundreds of years, reaching into Christian times until the beginning of the fifth century AD.

In the early accounts of Greek culture, athletic contests were held in connection with funerals. These have a well-defined place in Homeric literature. A chariot race was held commemorating Patroclus (Iliad). On other occasions there was boxing, wrestling, foot races, spear fighting, and such. Prizes given were a woman slave, a mare with a mule foal, a basin, two pieces of gold, a cup, a mule six years old, a tripod to stand over open fire, a silver bowl, an ox, weapons taken from a fallen enemy, and a spear. An ordinary prize for a foot race was an ox hide taken from a sacrificial victim.1

In 776 BC, the traditional date coming down to us, the Olympic festival was founded. At Olympus was located the chief sanctuary of Zeus. The games as today, were held every four years, attracting representatives from many of the city-states of Greece. There was a religious truce which protected celebrants to and from and while attending the festivities. The list of victors from the first of these contests is the earliest on record.2

The real glorification of physical accomplishments came a little later in the Golden Age of Greece. They were recorded for posterity in the lasting qualities of the famed literary works of Pindar (522-443 BC), the "poet laureate" of the great festivals of his day. In this 5th century BC, they lasted for five days, beginning with a sacrifice and ending with a feast. The order of events in Pindar's day were (1) single foot race; (2) double stadium foot race; (3) long race; (4) pentathlon; (5) wrestling; (6) boxing; (7) pancratium; (8), (9) and (10) boys foot race, boxing and wrestling; (11) race in arms; (12) chariot race; and (13) horse race. Pindar greatly admired Athens and made frequent visits there. He was what would be called today an avid sports fan, and lavished great praise on the winners of the Olympiad and other great athletic festivals. In his efforts he "acted beauty and skill, raising the victors in these contests to a plane but a short distance below that of the gods.3 The great contemporary sculptors appeared to illustrate his verse by displaying admiring attention as they carved out physical excellence in the statuary of the winners.

In his lines, the poet lends emphasis to the skill, courage and the smile of fortune upon the winner and calls to memory previous distinctions won by him or members of his family. The crown of the athlete brings credit to his home, city and country. In each ode the poet mentions the god in whose honor the particular games were held, or the festival for which it was composed. The text was full of ancient myth usually connected with the country of the victor. The style was full of metaphor. To give a vividness to the fullest limits of human achievement which occurred in the games, he borrows metaphors from the remotest reaches of travel and navigation. The merits of the victors are countless as the sands or pebbles by the sea.4 The Olympiad stands as the crown or flower of the festivals. As such it is peerless as water, bright as a god and brilliant as the sun.

There was also a practical side to all of this as well as the poetic. Long preparation needed for participation in the games and training for a given contest obviously demanded daily exercise. This had a side effect that was valued. It kept Athenian youth in top condition for any emergency, and wars in those days were certainly periodic. The tradition was perhaps first set at the Battle of Marathon. In later decades, Thucydides and other historians further affirm its value. It must be noted that the athlete was out to win a contest of skill. His primary purpose was not to amuse and entertain spectators. It was not until a later Roman period that this became popular. In this culture, the winning boxer for example was not the best among his peers, but rather a killer contracted to do his job by men who did not box at all.

Game participation was open to all Greeks, who were encouraged to acquire the necessary skill. At one time it was the occupation of the aristocrat but by the time of Pindar and Pericles this was no longer the case. Often in fact the poor were able to compete by being sponsored by an aristocrat. Athletic virtues had reached down to the general male Greek, and their skills, in addition to the Olympiad, were displayed in games at Nemea, Delphi, and Corinth. It was all for the victor's wreath. There were however in additi on, celebrations at home given by family and friends. Without doubt he was accorded great honor among his fellow citizens.

It was against this background that the apostle Paul recognized the prime place athletic contests enjoyed in the culture of his day. For this reason he was able to make some poignant applications. "For physical training is of some value, (for a little while), but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come." (I Tim. 4:8) In I Cor. 9:24 and the verses which follow he elaborates further. "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but one gets the prize." What he is saying is that on the one hand, many run; on the other hand, one gets the prize. Then, unlike so many of our day, he commends achievement-in order to attain or make one's own the award "Run in such a way as to get the prize." (v. 24b) He uses a strong injunction to make one's own. He then takes up a motif known in the diatribe literature. This was a bitter or abusive discussion on a limited topic, and was used by the Cynic and Stoic philosophers. Best known among these were Bion and Teles. The material was composed in highly inflammatory language interspersed with irony and invective. It indicated an intense struggle. As such it entered the exhortations of Paul and also Seneca. It was a prominent feature of rhetoric. Obviously it did not signify passive suffering as it does so often in our modern usage. As for the athlete, and in the race of the Christian, temperence and moderation were the way of life. "Everyone who competes in games goes into strict training." (v. 25) The prize is the wreath. The one in a race will dry up or is perishable. That of the Christian athlete of course is not. It is imperishable. The winner did not get there running aimlessly or beating the air. "No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize." (v. 27).

In this respect in ancient contests as well as modern, there were rules set down to which participants had to conform. If they failed to do so, they were then disqualified and did not receive the crown. This is made clear by 11 Tim. 2:5. "Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete he does not receive the victor's crown unless he com petes according to the rules." As anyone who follows modern con tests knows, officials can be most stringent in their interpretation of rules. A case in point is cutting in on a runner in a foot race. Without doubt this has been done at times and it was either not noticed by the officials, or it was just overlooked. Such is not the case with the Christian athlete. The rules are strictly enforced. God is the final arbiter.5

What can happen is aptly illustrated in a brief description in Gal. 5:7. The NIV here brings out the literal force of the text. "You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?" The result of cutting in on a runner may in some cases result in physical injury. In other instances it may be limited to impeding his progress toward the goal. It will slow him down by breaking his stride along with the rhythm of his pace. This is what the Judaizers had done in Galatia. The Galatians were running well, conforming to the line of thought the apostle had taught them, having received their salvation by faith apart from the works of the law. This doctrine they had been teaching and upholding in their church. Then these Judaizers came along and threw them off stride by cutting in on them. They did this by adding law keeping and circumcision as essential for salvation. Thus these Gentile believers were hindered in their faith and some stumbled on the race course. They were being confused in their doctrine. Those who actually cut in on them would bear the judgment. As for the Galatians, it is implied that they were to recover their stride and maintain their firmness in the liberty of Christ .6

The Colossians had problems of a different nature. They, too, were progressing toward their goal. "Do not let anyone who delights in false humility disqualify you for the prize." The person is then described as setting up idle notions of what to do which have no connection with the Head. The word rendered here as dis qualify is "to decide against by bad umpiring." This had become a source of frustration. They were to present their conduct to higher authority, much in the same way appeals today are made to the Commissioner of Baseball in similar situations. If the call does not conform to the rules, it will be overturned. Thus God overturns decisions which are not according to scriptural stipulations. They were to set their hearts on things above (3: 1). As for Paul himself, he states, "But one thing I do. Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." Near the end of the course of his life he also could solidly affirm: "I have fought the good right, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." (114:7). For this the Lord, who was a righteous judge, would award him the crown of righteousness in that day. (v. 8).

In summary, the Christian is called as an athlete in prime condition to a race. This is in the best of the Greek tradition. In his participation, he must abide by the rules of the game in order not to be disqualified. He must guard against persons cutting in on him while on the race course, causing him to fall or lose his stride. He must be alert, guarding against bad umpires calling poor decisions, not letting such matters frustrate him, but trusting his appeal to the Lord, the Righteous Judge. His goal lies ever ahead while in the body, seeking the prize of the upward calling in Christ Jesus. This one obtains the crown.


1Seymour, pp. 144-147. 

2Hammond, p. 97. 

3Sandys, p. xxix - xxxi. 

4Sandys, transtation.

5Hawthorne, pp. 118-120.

6Burton, p. 282.


Burton, Ernest DeWitt, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1921).

Hammond, N.G. L. A History of Greece to 322 BC (Oxford: A History of Greece to 322 BC (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967).

Hawthorne, Gerald F. (ed) Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), pp. 115-127-Chapter-"Paul's 'Cutting' Remarks about a Race" by Carl DeVries, pp. 118-120.

Sandys, Sir John (tr.), The Odes of Pindar (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914).

Seymour, Thomas Day, Life in the Homeric Age (New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965-reprint 1905).

New Testament Quotations-New International Version (NIV)

The Greek New Testament-United Bible Societies (3rd ed), 1975.