Running and wrestling with St. Paul

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Image by Gordon T Lawson via Flickr

Have you noticed how often St. Paul uses sports analogies, particularly running? I was first made aware of this last year when I read James Michener’s The Source. The character Eliav addresses the different concepts of sportsmanship in the Old Testament and New Testament. It was the Hellenizing influence on Paul, Eliav explains. Paul would have attended the great games at Antioch. “It was from him that Christians gained their idea of the moral life as a struggle against competitors.”

Once you become aware of this, you find sporting terms throughout the Pauline letters.

  • I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14)
  • I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. … You were running a good race. … Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? (Galatians 2:2 and 5:7)
  • He is always wrestling in prayer for you … (Colossians 4:12)

They are especially appropriate in Macedonia and Achaia (Greece). Notes Collegeville Commentary on First Corinthians: “His readers’ familiarity with sports makes Paul’s athletic illustrations appropriate for suggesting the proper motivation to inspire a healthy Christian self-discipline, sacrifice, and renunciation. The Corinthians had a special need for balance …”

Prime example: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

And of course, perhaps the most famous, from Second Timothy:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith;  in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7)

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One response to “Running and wrestling with St. Paul

  1. Cecilia Woodley

    I am enjoying your insights about St. Paul — I think he is a very interesting figure in history as well as our faith. Although I think St. Paul’s famous words that you quote, beginning with the phrase “I have fought the good fight,” are meant to apply to a much larger picture, I sometimes comfort myself with those words after a long day!

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