That exercise is profitable, whether for soul or for body, no one will deny. In it, however, there is a relative value, which we do well to take into account. "For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come." Hence the exhortation of Paul to Timothy, "Exercise thyself rather unto godliness" (1 Timothy 4:7-8).
The Greeks were excessively fond of physical exercise. To them it was more a passion than a sport. Every town in Greece of any size had its gymnasium. Ample means was thus afforded to athletes to develop the corporeal frame. Then the public games, which were periodically held, gave them occasion to demonstrate their agility, strength and endurance. Racing, wrestling, and pugilism (boxing) were some of the many tests of physical power. To these, at a later date, was added the inhuman practice of fighting with wild beasts, which, though of foreign origin (it was introduced by the Romans), was hailed with national interest and enthusiasm.
In the gymnasium, candidates submitted themselves to a course of hard training, extending over a period of not less than ten months. Strict dietetic discipline was imposed, and severe exercises and tests performed, to temper the body, and bring it to the maximum of suppleness, energy, and resistance. At the games rigid rules were observed to prevent foul play, and ensure equality of contest. The coveted prize was a crown made of pine or wild olive leaves!
Among those who took part in the games, in an official capacity, were the herald and the judge. The former summoned the candidates to the stadium, and arranged them in their respective competitive order; the latter awarded the prizes to the victors, usually on the last day of the games. The event was celebrated with pomp and festivity; and the victors were the idols of a delirious populace. Such were the famous gatherings at Olympia, Delphi, Nemoea, and Corinth.
Our reference to these celebrations is to bring before the reader an imagery, of which the apostle Paul aptly avails himself, to teach Christians salutary lessons in spiritual warfare. As Christians our exercise is unto godliness; our race is heavenly; our wrestling is with spiritual wickedness; our stadium is the path of faith; our goal is Christ in glory; and our prize is the incorruptible crown. Keeping these facts in mind, let us see what Scripture teaches us of the value of exercise and reward.
Three things are presented to us in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25.
- We are in a race, and must run, with such individual exercise and earnestness, as to obtain the prize. All run; one receives the prize. What others do, or fail to do, is not the subject of thought or comment; all are in the race; one receives the prize. "So run, that ye may obtain."
- Self-control is essential. Self-indulgence, in its multifarious nature, is eliminated. The body, like a highly tested machine, is to give its best, and be under complete control.
- The reward is far above the highest thought of earthly glory. One is "corruptible"; the other, "incorruptible." One is ephemeral; the other eternal.
In the closing verses of the chapter referred to Paul gives us his personal exercise for our example.
- He ran with no uncertainty. Victory to him was a foregone conclusion. He reached out to apprehend that for which he was already "apprehended of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:12). Thus it ever is with faith.
- He fought; but not as one who beats the air-an unskilful combatant might do this at his elusive opponent. With hard and fast grip (here he uses a pugilistic term), he kept the body under control, bringing it into subjection. The body is not viewed here as the temple, in which the Spirit dwells, but as the seat of those desires, which, if gratified, would lead to bondage. The antithesis of heavenly-mindedness is seen in those of whom it is said, their "god is their belly," "who mind earthly things" (Philippians 3:18-19). And a fine specimen of non-combatants, in this warfare, are those who are termed "servants of corruption" (2 Peter 2:19).
- He did not herald to others, and fail to enter the race himself. The allusion is obviously to the herald at the games, who summoned the candidates to the stadium, but took no part in the contest. And the inference is, that there are some who preach to others, when they themselves are not Christians. Such, of course, would be castaways-disapproved and rejected. Paul, on the contrary, was a Christian first; then a preacher. That was why he was a good preacher.
Coming to Philippians 3, we have the race of "the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." Its characteristic is energy. Stripped of everything in which the flesh would glory or confide, Paul enters the course as runner. "Forgetting those things that are behind," he reaches forth (allusion to the body of a runner, which is inclined forwards) and presses towards the Mark. Everything in this race bespeaks spiritual energy. All that man in the flesh could boast of he counts loss, esteems dung, leaves behind, and forgets! Beautiful example of spiritual energy! Can we find a better?
The short-distance race was the greatest high-speed test. In it energy was the deciding factor. One length of the stadium was run, a distance of about one eighth of a Roman mile. A bad start, a look behind, the least possible embarrassment, or weight, would decide the runner’s fate. But how careful he was to be stripped and concentrated! Has this not a voice for us?
No test, however, was so strenuous as the long-distance race. Several lengths of the stadium were run. Needless to say, this trial of sustained effort proved too much for many of the competitors. It is recorded of one, Ladas, by name, who actually won a long-distance test at the Olympic Games, that so exhausted was he that, immediately on being crowned, he expired. And shall we not say endurance is the greatest test in spiritual warfare? Many there are who begin well, run well for a time, then end badly. A glance at Scripture suffices to prove it, to say nothing of our own experience of ourselves and of others. The fable of the hare and the tortoise has its moral lesson for us. If the former has speed, the latter has endurance: we need both of these qualifications for the heavenly race.
Turning to Hebrews 12, how befitting is the exhortation, "Let us run with patience [endurance] the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith." The secret of power to endure is in "looking unto Jesus." By faith we see Him; by faith we look to Him for strength for the way. By faith Moses "endured, as seeing Him who is invisible." The weights are many to hinder; the sin of unbelief, "which doth so easily beset us," is ever near; but if we look away "unto Jesus," we shall run with endurance the race set before us.
The difference between the runner in the stadium and the Christian is this: the former has to draw on his own resource; the latter has everything in Christ. "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint."
But exercise will cease, and reward will be given. Happy prospect! Paul could say, "I am now ready to be offered; and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing" (2 Timothy 4:6-8).