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Paul and the Greek Games

Julian Spriggs M.A.

The Greek Games

In his letters, Paul makes a number of references to the Greek games, mostly using them as a metaphor for the Christian life.

The games were very important in Greek culture, particularly because the Greeks exalted the human body and athletic prowess. The majority of the Jews did not approve of the games, partly because they were held in honour of pagan gods, but also because the athletes participated naked.

The Olympic Games are well known, but the second most important were the Isthmian Games held near Corinth every two years. We know from history that these games were held in the spring of AD 51, around the time Paul was in Corinth. Many thousands of people from around Greece and further afield attended the games, so for Paul it was a good opportunity to preach the Gospel.

The Isthmian Games were held in honour of the god Poseidon (Neptune), the god of the sea. At the centre of the site of the games was a temple to Poseidon, together with a stadium for the foot-races, a theatre and a hippodrome for chariot races. Inside the temple was a small building called the Palaimon where athletes took an oath, swearing to obey the rules of the games and not to cheat, otherwise they would face disqualification. Athletes competed in foot races, wrestling, boxing, throwing the discus and javelin, the long jump and chariot racing. For each competition, there was only one winner, who received a crown of celery leaves. There was no award for second place.

No permanent accommodation was provided, so athletes and spectators stayed in tents set up in surrounding fields. This would be a good business opportunity for Paul, together with Aquila, who arrived in Corinth at the same time as Paul, to work together as tent-makers (Acts 18:3). They could make or repair tents for the spectators and preach the Gospel at the same time.

The Roman historian, Suetonius, gives quite an amusing description of the Emperor Nero competing in the games. He insisted that singing and poetry reading should be added to the games. Nero did not have a good singing voice, which was described by Suetonius as feeble and husky. No one was allowed to leave the arena during Nero’s presentation, and everyone was expected to applause enthusiastically. His performance lasted such a long time that women gave birth in the arena, and others pretended to be dead so they could be carried out. Of course Nero always won. He bribed the officials by giving them Roman citizenship, and bribed or threatened other competitors to withdraw. In other words, Nero certainly deserved to be disqualified from the games. (Suetonius: Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Nero 20-24)

These are some of the passages where Paul refers to the games in his letters:

1 Cor 9:24-27

“Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”

This passage comes in the first letter Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, near where the Isthmian games were held every two years. It contains many Greek words associated with the games, and some of these words are familiar in English too. Paul focusses on analogies with two sports: running and boxing. The word for 'race' (v24) is 'stadia', which is the word for a race-track, as well as a unit of measure. The length of a stadium was one furlong, which is an eighth of a mile (about 200 metres). In the games, there was only one winner, and no second prize. The lesson in the Christian life is that we are also in a race, so we have to run to win with determination and perseverance.

The word for 'exercise' (v25) is 'agonizomos' from which we get the English word 'agony'. To win at the games, the athletes needed to commit to an agonising regime of exercise and training lasting for ten months, forsaking other pleasures in the determination to win. They did this to win a perishable wreath of celery leaves, which would quickly wither. The word for 'wreath' (v25) is 'stephanos', which is a crown of victory. This word is frequently used in the Book of Revelation to describe the victory of Jesus and of the believers. The lesson here is that if the Greek athletes suffer a regime of self-denial and training to win a perishable crown of celery leaves, how much more should the follower of Jesus exercise self-denial to win the imperishable crown of victory, leading to eternal life.

Paul says he does not run aimlessly (v26). The picture is of an athlete wandering around the track and not keeping to his running lane. The athlete has to have the finishing line in sight, and have the determination to get there first, and not to wander off course. The lesson for the believer is that we also have a finishing line, and also need determination to keep on course and reach the finish without wandering off or being distracted.

He now changes the analogy to boxing, when he says does not box as beating the air (v26). The word for box is 'pukteuo', from which the English word 'pugnacious' is derived from. Roman boxing was brutal and vicious. The boxer’s knuckles were wrapped with leather straps, or even with pieces of lead or iron spikes, which would do serious injury to his opponent. The fight would continue for up to four hours or until the opponent was knocked out or left dead. Boxing the air, or shadow boxing, is sufficient for practice, but not for a real fight. The aim was to hit the opponent with an effective blow. The lesson is that the Christian life is also a fight, a spiritual battle, which is why we need the armour of God (Eph 6).

Paul says that he punishes the body (v27), so he will not be disqualified, as Nero should have been. In the boxing analogy this would at least mean getting a black eye. The Christian life needs self-denial and commitment to the fight, so we do now lose out on the rewards. This is not suggesting that we would lose our salvation, but could miss out on God’s rewards for faithful service (2 Cor 5:10).

We have to remember that the author here is Paul, the apostle of grace. He is not contradicting his message of being saved by grace and not by works, as laid out clearly in Romans and Galatians, but he urges the believer to press on and run the race, and fight the fight because we have been forgiven by grace.

Phil 3:12-14

“Not that I have already obtained this (the resurrection from the dead - v11) or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul is using a similar analogy of the athlete participating in the foot-race. The Greek stadium was U-shaped. The race started at the top of one end of the 'U', the athletes ran down one side, rounded the end and then ran to the finishing line at the top of the other end of the 'U'.

Again, Paul uses the metaphor of a race to describe the Christian life. He is very aware that he has not yet reached the goal, but he presses on, as an athlete in a race, to make the goal his own (v12). The word to 'press on' is a word from hunting, meaning to pursue the quarry, which was also used in the games, where it shows the dedication and determination needed to win the race. In verse 13, Paul says that he is forgetting what lies behind and is straining forward, just like an athlete in the foot-race. He is running full-speed with his body bent forward, hand outstretched toward the goal, and eyes fastened on the finishing line. He has just turned around the curve at the bottom of the 'U', and is now in the home stretch, where he can see the goal or finishing line. The athlete would never look back, as that would cause him to slow down, and to wander off track. The lesson for the believer is to have the same level of commitment to the race of Christian life, with our eyes fixed on the finishing line where we will receive the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

1 Tim 4:7-8

"Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life, and the life to come.”

Timothy joined Paul on his original visit to Corinth (Acts 18:5). Now, in his letter to Timothy, Paul urges him to train himself in godliness, as an athlete would train for the games in the gymnasium. He says that physical training as some value, as least for the present life, while training in godliness has value in both this life and the life to come. He urges Timothy, (and the believers) to have the same determination to train for godliness that an athlete has to train for the games.

2 Tim 2:5

“In the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules.”

In the games, no athlete would receive the celery-leaved crown (stephanos) of victory if they cheat instead of obeying the rules. Before participating, each athlete had to swear an oath in the temple to Poseidon to obey the rules, and not to cheat.

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul says this in a series of three examples from the army (v3-4), the games (v5), and farming (v6), where he urges Timothy to be strong in the grace of Jesus, and to pass on the teaching he received from Paul to others. Believers also need to have the dedication and commitment of the athlete to obey the rules, as given in the Word of God, and not to cheat.

2 Tim 4:6-8

"As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy at the end of his life. He was in prison in Rome, knowing that his trial before the Romans had gone against him, and was now awaiting execution. In his final words to Timothy, as he hands over his apostolic ministry to him, he uses the same analogies as he used in 1 Corinthians. He has fought the good fight (as in boxing) and finished the race (as in athletics), and has kept the faith to the end of his earthly life. He is now ready to receive his crown (stephanos) of righteousness.


In Paul’s letters, the Christian life is described as both a race and a fight (as in boxing), with a reward of a crown for victory.

The Christian life is a race. It is not a sprint, but a life-long marathon, with a challenge to persevere to the end, to keep going and not to give up. This life is a life of faith. We need to have the goal in sight and push on with determination to the finishing line, where we will be rewarded with the crown of victory. This victory is eternal life with him, as well as rewards for faithful service.

The Christian life is also a fight. We will face opposition, discouragement and disappointment. We will get a black eye, and get knocked down, but are urged to get up and fight to the end. We need to overcome the strong temptation to give up, always remembering that we have the help and grace of God to continue.

The challenge for us now is to consider whether at the end of our lives on earth we will be able to look back on our lives and repeat the words of Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day” (2 Tim 4:7-8).

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Why These 66 Books?
Books in the Hebrew Scriptures
Quotations in NT From OT
OT Passages Quoted in NT
History of the English Bible
Twelve Books of the Apocrypha
The Pseudepigrapha - False Writings
Lost Books Referenced in OT

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

OT 1: Creation and Patriarchs
OT 2: Exodus and Wilderness
OT 3: Conquest and Monarchy
OT 4: Divided kingdom and Exile
OT 5: Return from Exile
OT 6: 400 Silent Years

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

NT 1: Life and Ministry of Jesus
NT 2: Birth of the Church
NT 3: Paul's Missionary Journeys
NT 4: Paul's Imprisonment
NT 5: John and Later NT

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Genesis Exodus Leviticus
Numbers Deuteronomy

Joshua Judges Ruth
1 & 2 Samuel 1 & 2 Kings Chronicles
Ezra & Nehemiah Esther

Job Psalms Proverbs

Isaiah Jeremiah Lamentations
Ezekiel Daniel

Hosea Joel Amos
Obadiah Jonah Micah
Nahum Habakkuk Zephaniah
Haggai Zechariah Malachi

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Matthew's Gospel Mark's Gospel Luke's Gospel
John's Gospel

Book of Acts

Romans 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians
Galatians Ephesians Philippians
Colossians 1 & 2 Thessalonians 1 Timothy
2 Timothy Titus Philemon

Hebrews James 1 Peter
2 Peter 1 John 2 & 3 John


Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

Canaanite Religion
Israel's Enemies During the Conquest
Syria / Aram
The Assyrian Empire
Babylon and its History
The Persian Empire
The Greek Empire
The 400 Silent Years
The Ptolemies and Seleucids
Antiochus IV - Epiphanes

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

OT People Confirmed by Archaeology
OT People Search
God the Creator
The Importance of Paradox
The Jewish Calendar
Holy War in the Ancient World
Talent Converter (weights)
Cubit Converter (lengths)
Ephah Converter (volumes)
The Holy Spirit in the OT
Types of Jesus in the OT

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Are chapters 1-11 of Genesis historical?
Chronology of the Flood
Genealogies of the Patriarchs
What is a created kind?
Table of the Nations (Gen 10)
Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9)

Authorship of the Pentateuch
Chronology of the Wilderness Years
Names of God in the OT
Covenants in the OT
The Ten Commandments
The Tabernacle and its Theology
Sacrifices and Offerings
The Jewish Festivals
Balaam and Balak
Highlights from Deuteronomy
Overview of Deuteronomy

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Dates of the Kings of Judah and Israel
King Solomon
The Kings of Israel
King Jeroboam I of Israel
The Syro-Ephraimite War (735 BC)
Sennacherib's Invasion of Judah (701 BC)
King Josiah of Judah
Differences Between Kings and Chronicles
Chronology of the post-exilic period

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

Prophets and the Future
The Call of Jeremiah (Jer 1)
The Fall of Satan? (Is 14, Ezek 28)
Daniel Commentary (10 pages)
Isaiah Commentary (13 pages)
Formation of the Book of Jeremiah

Daniel's Seventy Weeks (Dan 9:24-27)

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

NT People Confirmed by Archaeology
God the Creator
The Kingdom of God / Heaven
Parousia (Coming of Christ)
The Importance of Paradox

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Unique Passages in the Synoptic Gospels
The SynopticProblem
Genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1)
Birth Narratives of Jesus
Understanding the Parables
Peter's Confession and the Transfiguration
Was John the Baptist Elijah?
The Triumphal Entry
The Olivet Discourse (Mark 13)
Important themes in John's Gospel
John's Gospel Prologue (John 1)
Jesus Fulfilling Jewish Festivals
Reclining at Table at the Last Supper
The Holy Spirit as the Paraclete

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey. More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Apostolic Messages in the Book of Acts
Paul and His Apostleship
Collection for the Saints
The Church Described as a Temple
Church as the Body of Christ
Jesus as the Last Adam
Food Offered to Idols
Paul's Teaching on Headcoverings
Who are the Fallen Angels
The Meaning of Redemption
What is the Church?
Paul and the Greek Games

Romans Commentary (7 pages)

1 Corinthians Commentary (7 pages)

Galatians Commentary (3 pages)

Philemon Commentary (1 page)

Hebrews Commentary (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Introduction to the Book of Revelation
Characters Introduced in the Book
Structure of Revelation
List of Allusions to OT
The Description of Jesus as the Lamb
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
The Nero Redivius Myth
The Millennium (1000 years)
The Rapture and the Tribulation
Different Approaches to Revelation
Predicted Dates of the Second Coming

Revelation Commentary (10 pages)

How to do Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

How to Study the Bible Inductively
I. The Inductive Study Method
II. Observation Questions
III. Interpretation Questions
IV. Structure of Books
V. Determining the Historical background
VI. Identifying Figures of Speech
VII. Personal Application
VIII. Text Layout

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

How to Understand OT Narratives
How to Understand OT Law
Hebrew Poetry
OT Wisdom Literature
Understanding the OT Prophets
The Four Gospels
The Parables of Jesus
The Book of Acts
How to Understand the NT Letters
Studying End Times (Eschatology)
The Book of Revelation

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Search for Geographical Locations
Major Archaeological Sites in Israel
Archaeological Sites in Assyria, Babylon and Persia
Virtual Paul's Missionary Journeys
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
Photos of the City of Corinth
Photos of the City of Ephesus

Biblical archaeology in museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also pages of photographs of important artifacts from the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Search Museums for Biblical Archaeology
British Museum Photos
Israel Museum Photos
Paris Louvre Photos

Difficult Theological and Ethical Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

Christian Ethics
Never Heard the Gospel
Is there Ever a Just War?
Why Does God Allow Suffering
Handling Disappointment

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

What is Preaching?
I. Two Approaches to Preaching
II. Study a Passage for Preaching
III. Creating a Message Outline
IV. Making Preaching Relevant
V. Presentation and Public Speaking
VI. Preaching Feedback and Critique
Leading a Small Group Bible Study

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.

Teaching on SBS Book Topics for SBS