The Greek Athletic Festivals and Their Lessons
1 Corinthians 9:24
Know you not that they which run in a race run all, but one receives the prize? So run, that you may obtain.

1. Of these the most famous was that held every fifth year at Olympia in the west of Peloponnese. Very famous and ancient also was the Isthmian festival held every two years at the Isthmus, about eight miles from, and in full view of, the city of Corinth. Similar festivals were held at Nemea and Delphi. But in these the athletic element was less conspicuous. All these were instituted before the dawn of history. Other festivals, in imitation of them, were held in Paul's day in many cities of Asia, e.g., at Tarsus, and notably at Antioch in Syria.

2. All athletes, i.e., competitors for prizes, had ten months' training, under the direction of appointed teachers and under various restrictions of diet. At the beginning of the festival they were required to prove to the judges that they were of pure Greek blood, had not forfeited by misconduct the right of citizenship, and had undergone the necessary training. Then began the various contests, in an appointed order. Of these, the oldest and most famous was the footrace. Others were wrestling, boxing, chariot and horse racing. The prize was a wreath (or crown) of olive at Olympia, and of pine leaves (at one time of olive) at the Isthmus. The giving of the prizes was followed by processions and sacrifices, and by a public banquet to the conquerors. The whole festival at Olympia lasted five days.

3. The importance of these athletic festivals in the eyes of the ancient Greeks it is difficult to appreciate now. They were the great family gatherings of the nation, held under the auspices, and under the shadow of the temples, of their gods. The laws regulating them were held as binding by the various independent states of Greece. The month in which they were held was called the sacred month, and was solemnly announced. And all war between Greek states ceased, under pain of the displeasure of their gods, while the festival lasted. The festivals were attended by immense crowds from all the Greek states, and from even the most distant colonies. The various states sent embassies, and vied with each other in the splendour of them and of the gifts they brought. The greatest cities thought themselves honoured by the victory of a citizen. The victor was received home with a triumphal procession, entered the city by a new opening broken for him through the walls, was taken in a chariot to the temple of its guardian deity, and welcomed with songs. In some cases a reward in money was given, and release from taxation. In honour of the successful athlete poems were written; of which we have specimens in the poems of Pindar. A statue of the victor was permitted to be placed, and in many cases was placed, by townsmen or friends, in the sacred grove of the presiding deity. An avenue of these statues, shadowed by an avenue of pine-trees, leading up to the temple of Poseidon, which stood within two hundred yards of the racecourse at the Isthmus of Corinth, is mentioned by Pausanias (bk. 2:1, 7). Close by this temple with its avenue of statues Paul probably passed on his way from Athens to Corinth. The Olympic festival, which survived the longest, was abolished in A.D. 394, four years after the public suppression of paganism in the Roman Empire. The Greek athletic festivals must be carefully distinguished from the bloody Roman gladiatorial combats. That these athletic festivals permeated and moulded the thought both of classic writers and of the apostle to the Gentiles, we have abundant proof. Eternal life is to be obtained only by contest and victory (Philippians 3:14; 1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 2:5; 2 Timothy 4:7f; cf. Luke 13:24; Hebrews 12:1; James 1:12; 1 Peter 5:4; Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:11. The Christian life is both a preparation for conflict (ver. 25; 2 Timothy 2:5), a race (ver. 24; Philippians 3:12; Acts 20:24; 2 Timothy 4:7); a boxing (ver. 27); and a wrestling (Ephesians 6:12), Paul's converts will be his crown in the great day (1 Thessalonians 2:19; Philippians 4:1). And, just as the athlete, victorious but not yet crowned, lay down to rest on the evening after conflict, waiting for the glories of the morrow, so Paul (2 Timothy 4:7f). This metaphor —

I. PRESENTS A NEEDFUL COMPLEMENT OF PAUL'S DOCTRINE OF JUSTIFICATION BY GRACE AND THROUGH FAITH. Though eternal life is altogether a free gift of God, it is given only to those who strive for it with all their powers. Therefore we must ever ask, not only whether an action open to us is lawful, but whether it will increase or lessen our spiritual strength. Just so, an athlete would forego many things otherwise harmless, and some not even forbidden by the laws for athletes, simply because he was striving for a prize.

II. RECEIVES IN TURN ITS NEEDFUL COMPLEMENT IN THE DOCTRINE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. Had we to contend for life in our own strength, we might be doubtful of the result, as was many a resolute athlete on the morning of the contest. But in us is the might of God, crushing (Romans 16:20; 1 John 4:4) our adversary under our feet, and carrying us (1 Kings 18:46) forward to the goal. Therefore, day by day we go down into the arena, to fight with foes infinitely stronger than we, knowing that "we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us." Conclusion: That the crowded Isthmian festival was held each alternate year at the very gates of Corinth and almost under the shadow of its Acropolis, must have given to the metaphor of ver. 24 special force in the minds of the Corinthians. And, possibly, Paul was himself present at a festival during (Acts 18:11) his eighteen months' sojourn at Corinth, using perhaps the opportunity to summon the assembled strangers to a nobler contest.

(Prof. Beet.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.

WEB: Don't you know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run like that, that you may win.

The Great Race
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