The Faith of an Athlete

Author: Jacob P. Massine

Paul wrote his letter to the church at Philippi while in prison. Philippians is a genuinely encouraging letter intended to build the faith of the local church by urging sincerity and humility. Paul’s confidence in the direction and ultimate goal of this faith is evident even in his diction.

Paul frames his dreary situation with rejoicing: “Most of the brethren have been made confident in the Lord because of my imprisonment” (Phil 1:14). Roman prisoners were not provided room and board. Locked up, and sometimes chained to a guard for constant supervision, they had to rely on a close-knit network of friends and family to supply their food. Paul’s food would likely have come from other Christians. His faith in Christ and the Christian community was thus grounded in each meal he ate within the prison walls.

Paul tells the Philippians:

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. (Phil 1:27–28)

“Striving side by side” is one word in Greek—sunathlountes (συναθλοντες). Sunathlountes means “to contend along with, to assist.” It is formed by attaching the word sun (συν), meaning “in company with,” or “together,” to athleo (αθλέω), which means “to contend for a prize, to struggle.” Athleo is related to the noun athlon (αθλον), meaning “contest, combat, labor” or “prize.” We derive athlete and athletic from this word.

Athleo is used in classical Greek literature to describe athletic contests. These vibrant contests involved nearly unendurable tasks that required years of personal training. The victor won statues, effigies and laudatory poems written in their honor. For Paul, the prize is full residence in the Kingdom of God, as well as a well-developed spiritual constitution, which is athletic in nature. Confinement in prison is a crucial component in Paul’s spiritual development.

Following this passage, Paul writes, “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil 1:29). The Greek for “suffer” is paskhein (πασχειν), which connotes not only to suffer, but also “to feel emotion.” For Paul, empathy is part of suffering.

We don’t usually consider suffering a gift, but the serious athlete welcomes any opportunity to build his or her self through exertion. Paul, writing from a prison where starvation was a very real possibility, considered his imprisonment one more element of the training he must endure to receive the final “prize” (athlon, αθλον) of the Christian life: “For to me, to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). Given Paul’s complete assurance in those circumstances, we can safely infer that the final athlon was, “The peace of God, which passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7). Attained in a community through shared difficulties, this prize transcends the classical meanings of athlon, by integrating it into a Christian framework.

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 5.