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Christian faith and the Olympic games

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Christian faith and the Olympic games

Steven Thompson

Steven Thompson, PhD, semi-retired, is a former senior lecturer and currently supervisor of higher degrees by research (part-time), Avondale College of Higher Education, Cooranbong, Australia.

 

Olympic Game years provide pastoral opportunities to highlight aspects of Christian living, which are illustrated in the lives and efforts of Olympic contestants. Canada’s governor-general, the Right Honorable David Johnston, pointed the way when he declared that Canada’s Olympic team members “personify excellence, fair play and sportsmanship . . . [and] remarkable determination.”1

What follows illustrates how Olympic Games, ancient and modern, can enrich pastoral explanations of what is, really, the most basic Christian question: “What do I have to do in order to be saved?”

This question first appeared on the lips of an alarmed jailer in the city of Philippi, who asked the apostles Paul and Silas, “What do I have to do in order to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).2

Their answer, condensed in the briefest possible manner, sums up the Christian message: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (v. 31).

You will find in what follows a summary of how one early Christian leader, Peter, unpacked that terse directive. In his second New Testament epistle, he answered the “what must I do” question in practical terms that drew on his readers’ common knowledge of the ancient Olympic Games.3

The Gift of Faith

“Simeon Peter, servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those receiving a faith as precious as ours through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:1).

Here Peter noted that believers receive faith from God, the source of genuine faith. Peter then assured readers that their belief is “as precious as ours,” using the Greek isotimos. Their faith is of equal validity to that of the apostles. Believers who have never encountered Jesus in the flesh do not receive a second-class faith. Peter ended this verse by taking a clear stand for the New-Testament doctrine of righteousness by faith, when he declared that his readers’ faith came through the righteousness of their “God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Thus from the epistle’s opening verse, Peter established the central importance of faith. “Grace to you and peace! May both keep increasing in response to the saving knowledge of God and of Jesus, Lord of us all,” (v. 2)

The expression grace to you immediately declares this epistle to be Christian. Early Christians modified the standard Greek epistolary introduction, changing Greek chairein “greetings” into what was to become a key “Christian” word, charis, “grace.” Jesus, Lord of us all, also clearly marks the epistle as Christian. Sandwiched between these, we find epignōsis,  translated here as “saving knowledge.” It appears three additional times in this epistle (2 Pet. 1:3, 8; 2:20) to name that sense of certainty that Christians served the only real, true, and living God, “whose divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the saving knowledge of the One who called us by his own glory and excellence” (2 Pet. 1:3).

Divine power (Greek theia dunamis) was an established Greek expression for the power of God, or the gods, which entered into and empowered humans. The philosopher Plato (427–347 b.c.) used theia dunamis in describing the legendary strong man and founder of the Spartan nation, Lacedaemon, “a man whose human nature had become joined to divine power” (Plato, Laws 691E). Elsewhere he illustrates the working of divine power by comparing it to the ability of a magnet to transmit its magnetism to and even through a piece of iron: “the god who . . . draws the souls of people wherever he pleases” (Plato, Ion 536E). According to the Jewish author Philo, a contemporary of the apostles, it was divine power, not a wind, that dried the waters of Noah’s Flood (Philo, Questions in Genesis 3.28) and that enables barren women to give birth (Philo, Questions in Genesis 3.18). The church historian Eusebius, writing about 300 a.d., declared that this same divine power entered Christians threatened with martyrdom, enabling them to declare their belief in the presence of hostile Roman judges (Church History 8.9).

Aretē excellence and the Olympic games

The final Greek word of 2 Peter 1:3, aretē, refers to God’s excellence, while in verse 5 it refers to human excellence. This word becomes important to the argument of this epistle, where it occurs three times. The best window into the meaning of aretē is provided by the ancient Olympic Games, where aretē expressed the crucial quality of excellence—first as a quality of the patron god of the games; then as a quality that the patron god extended to the winning competitors. From the opening sacrifices and religious rituals, through the displays of the contestants’ dedication, determination, skill, and single-mindedness, to the closing ceremony, the ancient Olympic Games foregrounded and backgrounded a single, overarching quality—aretē! For Greeks aretē “includes the concepts of excellence, goodness, manliness, valor, nobility, and virtue.”4

According to the next verse, God’s aretē backed up His calling of believers in the same way that pagan Greeks believed Zeus backed up his calling of Olympic contestants to victory with his aretē. “Through these things [God’s glory and aretē], we have received God’s great and valuable promises” (v. 4a).

But aretē was not simply handed down to athletes as they waited passively for this. Only by personal effort would aretē enter them and empower their efforts. This is clear from one of the oldest and best-known Greek descriptions of aretē, by the eighth-century b.c. author Hesiod: “in front of aretē the immortal gods have set sweat, and the path to her is long and steep, and rough at first.”5

Even the natural scientist Aristotle (384–322 b.c.) expressed awe in the presence of the spiritual quality of aretē, when he wrote “aretē, for human beings hardest-earned, most coveted prize of a life-time’s hunt . . . for your sake [O aretē] . . . even dying is considered in Greece a desirable fate, and also putting up with crushing, endless tasks.”6

Even a struggle to the death could provide evidence that one had received aretē. One ancient Greek athlete who died in a demonstration of aretē was the wrestling contestant Arrhachion, whom the judges declared winner even though he died during the contest. They decided that “he won . . . partly because of his own aretē.”In the next verse Peter, like an Olympic trainer, urged his “trainee” Christians on to spiritual victory, empowered by God’s gift of aretē. Wrote Peter “This is why, by really exerting yourselves, you must support your faith with aretē!” (v. 5a)

However, aretē on its own is inadequate to fully support faith, so Peter added a second support: “to your aretē add gnōsis practical wisdom” (v. 5b).

Faith’s second support is gnōsis, best translated here “practical wisdom,” that differed from the epignōsis, “saving knowledge,” of verse 2. Practical wisdom supports the faith of believers by helping them negotiate practical challenges of daily living, and it accumulates through life. We see it, for example, in the strategies put in place by Nehemiah when he left employment as cupbearer to the Persian king Artaxerxes and returned to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls. He approached this delicate task using diplomacy, tact, and persuasion. But, when necessary, he could employ direct confrontation (Neh. 2:6).

Faith’s third support is egkrateia, “self-control,” avoiding self-indulgence while keeping eye and mind on the goal. The word is rare in the New Testament but would have been familiar to every Greek schoolboy because of the maxim egkrateia askei, “Practice self-control!” attributed to one of the legendary Seven Sages of ancient Greece.But egkrateia, even when joined to practical wisdom and excellence, seems inadequate to fully support faith: “to your egkrateia add hupomonē patient endurance” (2 Pet. 1:6b)

Faith’s fourth support, midpoint in Peter’s list of seven, is hupomonē, “patient endurance.” It evokes that determination that sustains contestants on the long stretch to the finish line. Every Christian is called to support faith with hupomonē. Its importance for end-time believers is highlighted in  the book of Revelation, where it occurs seven times, the final one at the conclusion of the three angels’ messages: “Here is the hupomonē of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 14:12). Peter wrote: “to your hupomonē add eusebeia proper conduct” (2 Pet. 1:6c).

What entered the mind of Greeks when they heard the word eusebeia?

First, it was the standard word calling for appropriate conduct in their relationship to their gods, covering behavior during worship, proper performance of religious rituals, and bringing correct sacrifices and offerings. In the secular realm, it called for proper behavior in relation to significant persons such as emperors and governors. This was its meaning in a thank-you note the emperor Claudius wrote in 46 a.d. to an athletic club, acknowledging their display of eusebeia toward him when they sent him a golden crown to honor his successful military campaign in Britain.9

Second, Peter’s intention, when including eusebeia among the seven supports of faith, was made more clear in 2 Peter 3:11, where eusebeia occurs alongside anastrophē, which means “conduct expressed according to certain principles.”10 Most New Testament occurrences of eusebeia are in epistles addressed to the pastors Timothy and Titus, encouraging them to conduct themselves according to principle rather than impulse, so as not to bring reproach on themselves, on fellow believers, or on the gospel.

From individual to community: Faith’s supports six and seven

Peter’s first five faith supports focus on individual, internal qualities: excellence, practical wisdom, self-control, patient endurance, and proper conduct. These supports could, at least in theory, be practiced by persons isolated from community. But supports six and seven focus directly on how individuals live their faith within community or what, in the spirit of the Olympics might be labeled “teamwork.” He wrote: “to your eusebeia add philadelphia family loyalty” (2 Pet. 1:7a).

Philadelphia, a word frequent in Jewish Greek documents but surprisingly rare in pagan Greek literature, it expressed loyalty within one’s family of origin. The Jewish historian Josephus (37–c. 100 a.d.) used philadelphia to describe how Joseph, as viceroy of Egypt, treated his brothers and their families. The best-known pagan Greek model for philadelphia was the legend of Castor and Pollux, human sons of the god Zeus. As Castor lay dying after an attack, Zeus offered immortality to his brother Pollux who, out of deep philadelphia, refused to abandon his dying brother in order to accept the offer. Zeus then modified his offer into an arrangement by which the brothers could take turns being alive and dead. While one spent a day alive in the company of the gods on Mount Olympus, the other would spend that day dead and buried. They would switch roles the next day. Pollux accepted the offer, sharing alternating daily life and death with Castor through eternity. This exemplary display of philadelphia served as a pagan Greek template for family loyalty.

Philadelphia extended beyond biological families to govern members of organizations and societies. Plutarch (c. 50–120 a.d.), in a widely known essay titled “Peri Philadelphias” (“On Brotherly Love”), urged “We should next pattern ourselves after the Pythagoreans who, though related not at all by birth, yet sharing a common discipline, if ever they were led by anger into recrimination, never let the sun go down before they joined right hands, embraced each other, and were reconciled” (“On Brotherly Love,” 488C).11 How would our faith family be strengthened if, at the close of every board meeting, we parted with an embrace of genuine philadelphia! 12

Peter continues: “to your philadelphia add agapē love” (v. 7b).

Peter used agapē, probably the best-known Greek word among contemporary Christians, to name faith’s seventh and final support. Agapē is that love for others that moves believers to make others’ well-being a priority. We find the word rare in pagan literature but frequent in Jewish documents, from where it transitioned into the New Testament. How does agapē differ from philadelphia? In a word, agapē has a much longer reach, extending well beyond family, church, and local community. That longer reach began with God, who “loved the world so much” (John 3:16) that He gave His Son, thus bridging the greatest “distance” in the universe—that which separated a holy God and this unholy and rebellious world. Peter, on the mount of transfiguration, had firsthand evidence that Jesus was God’s ultimate demonstration of agapē. He recalled hearing God’s voice on that mountain declare, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am fully pleased” (2 Pet. 1:17). God’s agapē for His Son, and for this world, will ignite in believers an agapē motivating them to share, in word and deed, the good news of God’s saving love.

Conclusion: “Getting real” with faith’s seven supports

Wrote Peter, “So, if you take possession of these [seven supports of faith] and develop them, you will never be ineffective or unproductive in your relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8). According to Peter, Christian faith becomes “real” only when grounded upon these seven supports. Ellen White declared “These words are full of instruction, and strike the keynote of victory.”13 Every time Peter wrote you in these verses, he used the Greek plural form—“all of you!” Only in community can faith rest on all seven supports, as believers strive to live as Christian “Olympians” in their homes, congregations, local communities, and the wider world.

This is Peter’s answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” Fellow pastors, we can strengthen our own proclamation of the gospel and point the way to victory in Christian living as we draw more widely from the full range of New Testament imagery, and link it with current events such as the Olympic Games.14

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1 “Rio 2016 Olympic Games,” The Governor General of Canada, August 2, 2016, www.gg.ca/document.aspx?id=16515&lan=eng.

2 All New Testament quotations are the author’s own translations.

3 This study does not enter the debate about authorship of the epistles but adopts ancient Christian attributions of authorship.

4 Stephen Miller, Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991), 209.

5 Hesiod, “Works and Days,” lines 289–291, Hesiod, vol. 1, trans. Glenn W. Most, Loeb Classical Library 57 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 111.

6 Aristotle’s “Hymn to Aretē,” trans. William D. Furley and Jan Maarten Bremer, Greek Hymns: Selected Cult Songs from the Archaic to the Hellenistic Period, vol. 1 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001), 262, 263.

7 Pausanias, Guide to Greece 8.40.2, in Miller, Arete: Greek Sports, 36.

8 Greek text from F. W. A. Mullach, Fragmenta philosophorum Graecorum, vol. 1 (Paris: Didot, 1860), 215, 216, quoted in Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, “Septem Sapientes,”“Sententiae.”

9 P. Lond 1178, quoted in J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (1930; reprinted Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), s.v. “eusebeia.”

10 Walter Bauer and Frederick William Danker, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), s.v. “eusebeia.”

11 Plutarch, Moralia, trans. W. C. Helmbold, Loeb Classical Library 337 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1939), 303.

12 Paul’s appeal “do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph. 4:26) comes immediately to mind and will be developed in the next installment of this study.

13 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 530.

14 For suggestions on applying Olympic games imagery to Christian living, see S. E. Gregg, The Christian Olympics: Going for the Gold Crowns (Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2006) and Richard A. Holder, The Olympic Christian (London, UK: Richard A. Holder, 2012).

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