I usually write these on the Sunday before the Wednesday before the Sunday we teach and time it to post on that Wednesday — giving me two or three to catch my mistakes (doesn’t work, but that’s the theory), so I’m WAY late on this. Which is ironic, given the topic. But I’ve been fighting a bug or something and haven’t felt decent until today (at last!) So with apologies for my tardiness —
The lesson is taught at the Greek city of Aphrodisias (not made up)(really). The city was famous for its quarry of fine marble and worship of Aphrodite, goddess of love. But Vander Laan’s purpose is to take us to the arena — essentially a 40,000-seat stadium for athletic contests.
He begins by reminding us of his earlier lesson on Elijah at Mount Carmel. Elijah ran up and down the mountain twice, defeated the prophets of Baal, and then outran a chariot over a 20-mile distance. By the First Century, Elijah had become the prototype for rabbis — rabbis were expected to have the same zeal for God as Elijah. And so, if we want to be just like the rabbi — so should we.
So how, RVL asks, did Jesus’ disciples communicate this lesson to a Grecian world that had never heard of Elijah?
He explains that in the Greek world, athletic competitions were contested to bring honor to the city’s god or goddess (think of football players who kneel in prayer after a touchdown).
The athletes would enter from one of two openings, and the crowd would stand and cheer in anticipation of the honor to be given their god. Sitting at what we’d call the 50-yard line, would be the emperor, governor, or other high official. If it was the emperor, then the athletes would be competing to bring glory to him, the son of a god.
RVL then points to the many scriptures in the New Testament referencing athletic competition —
(1 Cor 9:24-27) 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. 25 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. 26 Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
(Gal 2:2) I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain.
(Phil 2:14-16) Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe 16 as you hold out the word of life–in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing.
Paul replaces the metaphor of Elijah with the metaphor of running a race or boxing. Let’s take a closer look.
In 1 Cor 9, Paul argues for “strict training” and enslavement of his body — that is, strict physical discipline — to win the prize. He sees it as a competition, not against other Christians or churches, but against the world. We have to strive to win!
In Galatians, Paul suggests that even he has to be careful so that he doesn’t run in vain. Only the true gospel will win the prize.
In Philippians, Paul says his race will not be in vain if his converts will reject complaining and arguing, will become pure, and hold out the word of life — that is, teach others about Jesus. You see, for Paul’s missionary work to truly be effective — to last — his disciples must emulate him by also making disciples. Each generation must create a new generation with enough zeal to continue the church, to keep the race going. (It’s a relay race!!)
Finally, RVL quotes —
(Heb 12:1) Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Think of a marathoner. He wears the lightest clothes and shoes. He certainly doesn’t wear a backpack! If you want to run a long way, you need to travel light. And any runner knows the importance of perseverance. The first part of the race is not that hard. It’s that last leg that’s the killer. You have to finish!
RVL asks us to imagine ourselves in a stadium running to honor God. We are surrounded by a vast crowd. The Hebrews writer says a “cloud of witnesses,” speaking of the Honor Roll of the Faithful in chapter 11, the great heroes of the Bible. He says imagine Abraham and Paul and David sitting in the stands watching us running and shouting: “Come on! You can make it! It’s not much longer! It’s worth it! I know!!”
And now imagine that sitting among them are your grandparents, or a niece or nephew who died too young, or your favorite elder from when you were a child. They’re there, too — shouting: “Make it to the end! I’ll be at the finish line to greet you; you can fall into my arms. Just keep on going!”
In the video, he then asks them to actually run the length of the stadium imagining those very shouts.
QUESTIONS AND FURTHER OBSERVATIONS:
Jesus says we’ll have treasures in heaven, but he never says what they are. I think that at least some of them will be the most precious things in heaven and earth — souls that we influenced to help make it into heaven. You see, when we get there, we won’t just see those who went on before, we’ll see those who followed us.
Some will look us up to say, “I’m here because of you. You may not remember me, but you said something that changed my life.” Or maybe one of your students from kindergarten class will have become a great missionary and he’ll be there with thousands of converts — and tens of thousands of their children, grandchildren, and on and on — all thanking you for teaching him about Jesus for the very first time.
A few of us may have entire nations thanking us for something we did or said, even if we’re not missionaries ourselves. You see, everything we do in the Kingdom ripples through time all the way to the End of time, changing the world for the better. And those we help — and the generations that follow — will be there to thank us. They’ll be our treasures in heaven.
Okay. If we knew someone who did this — who was truly running the race for all he was worth, running not just to finish, but to win, what would we see? How would this person be special? — and I don’t mean the ideal. I’m not asking about Jesus. I’m asking about your heroes of the faith. Real, flesh and blood people.
[Fruit of the Spirit, discipline, training, endurance]
One characteristic that we usually overlook is service. Everytime the New Testament writers tell us to emulate the example of Jesus, their point is either service or suffering. And we just don’t think in those terms. But the greatest runner will be the greatest servant, most willing to pay the price.
Now, what’s the obvious modern analogy here in Tuscaloosa? [football]
in the 1970s, Bear Bryant made the team begin the fourth quarter holding up four fingers to the crowd. The crowd would shout Bryant’s slogan: “The fourth quarter’s ours!!” over and over: tens of thousands in unison cheering on the team: “The fourth quarter’s ours!! The fourth quarter’s ours!!”
[Because the key to victory is how you finish. All teams play hard in the first quarter. Champions play hard in the fourth.]
What does Nick Saban say is the key to victory?
[The process. Finish strong.]
That’s it. It would be a shame to be a faithful Christian and lose your love for Jesus at the end. And it’s about “the process,” that is, you don’t win the fourth quarter by thinking about the fourth quarter. You win by what you do in the spring and summer. It’s about constant discipline. You can’t be a slob in summer practice and hope to finish strong in December or January. It’s too late. You had to have the discipline earlier.
What do these disciplines look like in a modern Christian?
[Resisting habitual sins, Bible study, prayer, being closely tied to the community of Christians (not mere attendance — but being a stone built into the building — not sitting over on the side watching the building being built!]
When you retire from work, what are your plans for the Kingdom? To retire from church, too?
I’m getting close, and it’s my view that secular retirement is a chance to finally — FINALLY — be in fulltime service to Jesus. It’s an opportunity, not to rest, but to serve. Rest comes later. We have eternity to rest.
Until then — so long as our health permits — we are servants of Jesus, doing what we enjoy the most: serving in the Kingdom.
But we won’t win the fourth quarter unless we train for long before. If we don’t enjoy Kingdom business now, we won’t enjoy it just because Social Security is sending us a check! If we don’t have the skills now — to do whatever God has gifted us to do — we’d better get started mastering them.
Winners win by being ahead at the end.