The winter Olympics have come and gone. I enjoyed the few events I was able to see. Having lived in Canada during my teen years I felt a measure of pride over the beauty of British Columbia, the way the games were conducted, and the closing ceremony (won’t tell you who I was cheering for in the final hockey game!). Dedication, sacrifice, determination, and skill resulted in performances demanding our appreciation and admiration. An athlete being recognized as the best in the world at her or his craft is indeed moving.
The inspiration of the games reminded me of what Paul said about athletes. He honored them by offering his readers this illustration–“Remember that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize … All athletes practice strict self-control” (1 Corinthians 9:24, 25). Only a consuming vision of the prize can generate such self-control. One doesn’t win without sacrifice.
But Paul’s lies beyond the thrill of the games. “You also must run in such a way that you will win” (verse 24). He continues with how the games have impacted his life–“I run straight to the toal with purpose in every step … I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should” (verses 26, 27). His motivation and ours is clear. “The athletes do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize” (v. 25).
An ‘eternal prize’ … what is that? Will Jesus award gold, silver, bronze medals? Are these reserved for those who perform best before they get to heaven? And what about the issue of disqualification that worried Paul (v. 27). Was he concerned about missing heaven, or an eternal reward or both or neither?
Earlier in the Book of 1 Corinthians Paul spoke of a judgment day that would be a time of testing of what one had done (in 3:12 he talks about gold and silver, but bronze is substituted by ‘jewels’!). In his second book to the Corinthians he again talks about standing before Christ to be judged in order to receive “whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
Christians disagree on what all this means. Some say Jesus has special rewards for those who did an exceptional job in this life (they point to the parables of talents and the New Testament’s mention of crowns given to those who meet certain qualifications). Others say that all who are arrive in heaven are rewarded equally. Others say none of us will receive rewards of special merit because anything that was done on earth for good was the result of Christ’s work through us. He gets all the crowns (see Revelation 4:10; 19:12).
I used to have a definitive answer to these (and similar) questions. Now things are more mysterious! But of this I am sure–I want to be dedicated to God and to the Divine invitation I have received. I know when I’m not and that bothers me. I know when I have done my best and that humbles me. I know I want to do what I do for Christ, not for crowns. I know I want to be in communion with Him by His Spirit more than I care about any sort of public recognition. I know I want to hear, “Well done, my good and faithful friend” simply because I love Jesus.
And I know that the athletes in the Olympic games have renewed my desire and dedication and devotion to the One who is the eternal Prize for all who love Him.