Sermon Manuscript . . .
The Determination of a Winning Athlete
Compete by the rules–2 Timothy 2:5
Running has become an American addiction. Everywhere I go, they are pounding the pavement. Frankly, while most people find jogging appealing, I find it repelling. In fact, every time I get the urge to run, I lie down and it goes away. The truth is, I love to run–especially on the beach, but don’t get the opportunity regularly.
There is one form of running I am magnetically drawn to, and that’s the marathon. The reason is not that I plan to take it up, but I believe it’s one of the best analogies of what it really means to be a Christian. The Christian life is often compared to a race. In Galatians 5:7, Paul tells the Galatians they were running well and wonders how they got off track. In Philippians 2:16, Paul says he did not run nor toil in vain with the Philippians.
The Bible clearly uses athletic events as metaphors for your Christian life–teaching you that following Jesus is not passive, easy, comfortable, or a complacent road, but an aggressive, diligent and sacrificial journey. Many see the Christian life as a game, crutch, or a religion, when actually it’s a marathon race. And in a soft culture, we are tempted to view the Christian life as fun instead of a fight, comfortable instead of a commitment, as a dream instead of a discipline, as a game instead of a grueling athletic event.
In our culture, we’re tempted to embrace the idiocy that living for Christ is a piece of cake instead of an agonizing marathon. Ladies and gentlemen, the Christian life is not a 100-yard dash, it’s a long distance race–26 miles, 385 yards. Success in this race is not merely determined by how you begin, but by how you finish–not simply your entrance in the race, but your endurance in the race. That’s why Paul could say at the end of his life and ministry in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”
One of the better-known marathon races was run in 1954, when a runner named Jim Peters entered the stadium at the end of the marathon literally miles ahead of the other competitors. This is the same competition where the 4-minute mile barrier was broken for the first time—twice in one weekend.
Peter’s pace had taken a terrible toll. It was an extremely hot day It took 15 painful minutes for him to travel the 200 yards from the entrance of the stadium to the finish line. Twelve different times he collapsed to the track, but eleven times he determinedly arose and staggered on, until he finally collapsed into the arms of his trainer unconscious, just yards from the finish line.
What had happened to him? He had hit the wall. Anyone who runs long distance knows what it is to hit the wall. At some point in the race, you are convinced you can’t go on–that means you’ve hit it. Physically, all the blood sugar in your body has been used up. Your body is dehydrated, you experience dizziness, fainting, muscle paralysis and sometimes even complete collapse.
The Apostle Paul had hit the wall many times in his race and in 2 Timothy Paul tells Timothy to run beyond the wall–give it all you’ve got, making certain Timothy always obeys the rules of this biblical contest of life and ministry. Turn in your Bibles to 2 Timothy 2:5 and follow along in your outline.
Timothy is in trouble–in chapter one, Paul told Timothy to fire up his race by using his spiritual gifts and relying on God’s resources in verses 6 to 7. Don’t be intimidated by the pressure of Rome threatening to kill Paul, even though it may mean if you, Timothy, support Paul and the true Gospel, you also might be killed. Paul says, “Don’t be ashamed of the Gospel, nor of me His prisoner,” in verses 9 to 11.
Timothy must stand firm on the truth of sound doctrine and relying on the Holy Spirit to uphold only Apostolic teaching in verses 12 to 14, following the courageous example of Onesiphorus and not the cowardly example of other leaders who deserted the truth, in verses 15 to 18. Timothy was struggling–battles over doctrine inside the church and fear of lethal persecution outside the church were wearing him out.
Tim had hit the wall. He is fading in the stretch. Timothy is intimidated by the other competitors. So Paul challenges Timothy in chapter 2 to rely on God’s grace to train men who will be able to train others. Next, Paul challenges Timothy to be a soldier who is focused and ready to suffer in spiritual warfare. And today in verse 5, Paul challenges Timothy to be an athlete who never stops competing for Christ while obeying the rules of the contest.
Read verse 5 aloud with me–ready? “Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules.” The single verse breaks down into three phrases centered on the three verbs found in this verse. Remarkably, each point begins with the letter C.
#1 The CONTEST of Spiritual Athletes Verse 5a
“Also if anyone competes as an athlete.” There are some who disdain competition and mock athletic endeavor–but friends, the New Testament writers did not. Not so you and I would idolize sports or miss Sunday worship, but so we’d embrace that our relationship with Christ requires aggressive effort.
Do you remember that time you swung a bat a thousand times a day, or dribbled until you were starting to drool, or ran the same play so much you thot your coach was insane. I remember a smaller athletic goal in my senior year of high school–to bench the entire machine. I was set to do it on the last day of PE, when the coach decided we’d play, not work out. I was so determined, I begged him to unlock the weight room for me so I could reach my goal. He did and I did, because I was determined.
That’s what Paul says to Timothy in verse 5 of 2 Timothy 2. The Greek word “competes as an athlete” is continual, ongoing, never-ending competition. Athleo is where we get our English word, athletic. In general, this verb means to compete for something or to engage in a contest. And this specific verb form literally means you actively might wrestle.
Competes describes the determination to do your best. It’s the motivation to win. Competes as an athlete is talking about the internal striving for winning and fighting for excellence. Competes is to never stop engaging in competition.
Do you remember His example? He is preaching, teaching, healing, ministering to the multitudes, and it is so late at night, but He continues serving, helping, healing, and teaching. Why? Because Christ is the ultimate example of an athlete. He is determined. If Christ is the only true God, the one Creator, the Lord of lords and all others are false.
If Christ is the only way of salvation, the only way to be made right with God, the only way to be forgiven and Heaven bound–then there ought to be in our lives a determination like His own, to make His Gospel message known, along with a striving to be obedient to His Word with a heart of excellence. To put athletic effort into following Christ.
What does that athletic endeavor in your faith look like? Turn over to Hebrews 12:1 to 3. The writer of Hebrews describes certain aspects of an athletic approach to your walk/race with Christ. Hebrews 12:1 to 3, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
Here the author of Hebrews describes the Christian life like a race involving four elements . . .
First The Christian life as an athletic contest begins with INSPIRATION
The cloud of witnesses refers to Hebrews chapter 11 and all the examples who have gone before. Some say the cloud of witnesses is those in Hebrews 11 who are looking down from Heaven on us here on Earth–that is inaccurate. The correct interpretation is, those who have run their race by faith give us an example to follow. They are the forerunners to demonstrate how you are to run and compete.
Now that God has saved you and changed your life, you have models to follow and be inspired by–Christ and His saints. So when you become fainthearted or want to quit, or are struggling like Timothy, you can get inspired by the examples of those in the past. As you view the gallery of faith in Hebrews 11 and elsewhere, looking at those who’ve lived their lives by faith–it should inspire you to live by faith as well.
For you, it could be a parent, or friend, pastor or spiritual leader. It could be Spurgeon, or Luther or an Early Church Father. It could be David, Daniel, Isaiah or Paul, or the heroes of Hebrews 11–but they are there to inspire us to keep running. To become determined in our faith like an athlete means to be determined to win. To grow determined, you can be inspired by spiritual heroes–by others. Relationships are seldom neutral—our relationships are either a help or a hindrance. And you–your relationship to others is either a help or hindrance. What kind of inspiration are you being to others–to your friends, to your fellow students, to your children. Am I inspiring them for Christ? What would those who know you best put on your tombstone if they were to write it today?
What have you done for Christ now that would inspire others later. Would you be like the lawyer whose last name was Odd? His name plagued him his entire life. They called him Odd ball and Odd job–so in his will he put specific instructions that his name must not appear on his tombstone. But what must be written on it was this–“Here lies an honest lawyer.” Sadly, what happened was people would walk through the graveyard and when they saw his tombstone they’d say, “That’s ODD.”
You must recognize, you have a short slice of life to make an impact for Christ and the time it takes to get from 20 to 60 is fast. I suppose tomorrow I’ll be 75. But what you’re becoming today will dictate the kind of impact you’ll have tomorrow. Look around at the gallery of Hebrews 11, Church history, and your life for those who inspired you, so you might inspire others to determinedly strive for Christ.
Second The Christian life as an athletic contest involves PREPARATION
Hebrews 12:1b, “Let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us.” Inspiration on its own is insufficient. You can get really inspired, but nothing happens. You can go to a camp or conference, get really inspired, then come home and do nothing. You were inspired to grow, repent or mature. You were inspired to become more like Christ but you didn’t, because you didn’t prepare.
Inspiration devoid of preparation equals stagnation. Inspirational messages are only good if they are followed by empowered action. James 1 is an illustration of the man who looks at himself, then forgets–inspired but no actions. What is the preparation? “Lay aside every weight.” In the Greek, weight is excessive, bulky, useless, weight. Runners would train with weights–then when they ran their race, they ran without them.
Understand, the writer of Hebrews was bringing the people from a legalistic, useless ritualism to genuine dependent faith in Christ–leading them from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. Anything that bogs you down in running the race needs to be thrown away. The writer is not talking about sinful things here, but things that slow you down.
Is there anything in your life that is a hindrance? Someone you’re dating–they could be lovely, but if they’re a hindrance, should you be? The question is not, “Can I do this?”—but, “Should I do this?” Sports, entertainment, movies, reading, shopping, food, drink, family demands, credit cards, pleasure or comfort. The question is, “As a Christian, will this slow me down in my race?” The Scripture says here, if it is weighing you down in your pursuit of Christ, throw it off.
Preparation must also entail laying aside “the sin which so easily entangles us.” God knows and you know, and maybe no one else knows what you’re dealing with. You may be enslaved to a habit, but if anybody found out, you’d be dreadfully ashamed. But if you don’t “lay aside the sin which entangles” you, then you’ll not make progress in spiritual fitness.
These sins don’t necessarily have to be big stuff, they can be little things. What does it take to trip up a runner? Just a small, untied shoelace. Are there untied shoe laces in your spiritual life that you need to deal with today? The preparation is clear, but it must be connected with . . .
Third The Christian life as an athletic contest involves RESOLUTION
Hebrews 12:1c, “and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Endurance means to remain under, like the James 1 trials–you remain under until the Lord releases you. There’ll be moments in your Christian life which will be painful and bring you to a point where you will consider quitting. You may even try to quit. Some stop going to church, can’t find the right church, have been burned by a church.
Others start attending an entertaining church or one without any biblical expectations. Those who remain in continual, intentional, unrepentant sin, like never going to church, eventually manifest they were never really saved in the first place.
Jesus confirms this in the parable of the soils in Matthew 13:20 and 21, “The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away.” They were never saved in the first place.
Those whom God has saved, He will keep and protect and get you back in the race. John 6:39, “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.” Along with His promise to keep you and lose nothing, comes our resolute endurance. Even when it’s difficult, you’re to endure, exercise patience, and remain steadfast. And to make certain we don’t lose heart . . .
Fourth The Christian life as an athletic contest involves intimate MOTIVATION
When you think this Christian race is too hard, too unjust, or too unfair . . . when you are burned by evil people, or worse, hurt by godly people, Hebrews says in verses 2 and 3, “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
The writer of Hebrews just shut down all whiners. Whenever you’re tempted to say, “Following Christ and obeying the Bible, is just too tough,” you’re looking at yourself and not fixing your eyes on Christ. Remember what our Lord did for you and you’ll be motivated to keep on running–you’ll not grow weary or lose heart. Christ endured the cross, massive shame and abuse by sinners in order to rescue you.
So what if sinners are cruel to you–you keep running and enduring. You are in a spiritual athletic contest. Turn back to 2 Timothy 2:5, where Paul says, “Also if anyone competes as an athlete.” In the New Testament, whenever athletics is used for the Christian life, you are never being asked to compete against others. Comparison to others is not the goal here.
We do it in sports all the time–compare one player against another. But not in Christ. There are two problems when you compare. One, you’ll always find somebody who is doing a better job than you and get discouraged. Or two, you’ll always find somebody you’re doing a better job than, and you’ll get proud. Either way, you’re dead in the water–discouragement or pride will both kill you.
Don’t compare yourself to others. Each of you here are so different, it’s like comparing tangerines to submarines. God has given you your own race to run, your own competition to pursue. You’re a spiritual snowflake. No one was created like you, saved like you, gifted like you, or given a heart desire like you. You are not in competition with other believers–your goal is to become like Christ, not others.
But Paul does make it clear that you are continually in the game. The tense of the Greek verb, “competes as an athlete,” is present, continual, ongoing athletic endeavor. You don’t stop this contest until you go home to Heaven–then there is a prize.
#2 The CROWN for Winning the Competition Verse 5b
“He does not win the prize.” Later in this final letter before Heaven, Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:8, “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.” There are crowns coming to those who serve Christ. The word crown means wreath, garland, diadem–the victor’s wreath.
It seems that those actual crowns will be cast at the feet of Christ, since He is the one who made it possible for us to do anything worthy of eternal reward. That idea comes from the elders of the Church, who seem to be representative of those in the church in Revelation 4:10. “The twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne.” This could be a literal event, or possibly a symbolic event describing a greater capacity to worship Christ for all eternity.
Paul makes it clear back in 2 Timothy 2:5 that you don’t grab your prize, but the prize is given to you. Paul uses the passive voice, meaning this reward is given by another. Second Corinthians 5:10 explains what the believer’s judgement, the bema, the time of reward for believers will be like. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” Must . . . each one . . . recompensed . . . deeds in the body . . . according to what you do . . . useful or useless.
On the heels of a fire that just devastated Corinth, destroying the wooden buildings but leaving the marble buildings in tack, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:10 to 15, “According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. 11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13 each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”
Those works, deeds, ministries or actions which are offered to Christ in the power of the Spirit for the glory of God, are gold, silver precious stones–remained and will be rewarded. Those actions or ministries accomplished in our own strength or for our own glory are wood, hay and straw, which will burn and not be rewarded.
If you’re tempted to think, “Oh look, a believer can do nothing and still make it to Heaven,” you need to realize–the believer described here did a lot of things for Christ, they just did it in their own strength or for their own glory, but they were determinedly serving Christ. Be motivated to remain determined in your race with Christ through the promise of reward. What you do in this life matters for all eternity. Stay with it, Timothy. But Timothy, make sure you compete in these spiritual athletics according to . . .
#3 The CRITERION of the Competition Verse 5c
“Unless he competes according to the rules.” Paul says to Timothy, stay within the safety of biblical boundaries. Paul is telling Tim, only do that which is according to apostolic teaching–to God’s Word. John MacArthur writes, “In the Greek games, which continued for centuries under Roman rule and were still being held in Paul’s time, every participant had to meet three qualifications–birth, training, and competition. First, he had to be a true-born Greek. Second, he had to prepare at least ten months for the games and swear to that before a statue of Zeus. Third, he had to compete within the specific rules for a given event. To fail in any of those requirements meant automatic disqualification.”
Compare that to your own spiritual athletic contest. First, you must be born again, transformed by God and empowered by God’s Spirit. Second, you must be committed to the spiritual disciplines of corporate worship, prayer, the study of God’s Word, and the other means of grace, like discipleship, body life, worship and more. Third, God’s Word provides the laws directing your spiritual race and gives you the boundaries. The Bible tells you how to function properly in your family, work, service, pastime, priorities, emotions and relationships.
The Bible also exposes when you violate the rules of any aspect of your spiritual race and everyday living. The path to blessing and fruitfulness is to live within the boundary of the Bible. Are you living within the safety of the Scriptures in your marriage? Parenting? Purchases? Are you parenting according to the Bible? Responding to your spouse biblically? Do you budget His money, your paycheck so it’s spent for God’s glory–not your pleasure? You don’t win the prize unless you live according to God’s rules.
Paul also says in verse 5, he competes–meaning you are in the game generally. Your spiritual athletic life may alter with age and circumstances, but Paul says you’re still in the game. Are you? Verse 5, “Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules.”
TAKE THIS HOME
#1 Are you DETERMINED and disciplined in your spiritual life?
I know most of you put disciplined effort toward your health–that which is not eternal. But Paul asks Timothy and you today, do you put determined effort into your walk with Christ? Listen to Paul’s description of your life.
First Corinthians 9:24 to 27, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. 25 Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; 27 but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
In the context before this passage, Paul says for the sake of the Gospel, “I am willing to be all things to all men so that all might hear the Gospel.” And in the context after these verses, Paul says, “I’m willing to give up anything that might distract or disqualify me from winning my spiritual race.” Are you determined in your walk with Christ? Be honest and answer this question today–what kind of efforts, discipline, and determination is being expended in your relationship with Christ by you?
#2 What is the FOCUS of your spiritual life?
The focus of your life is not your lifestyle, fun, recreation or your friends, fame, service or your family–or even your testimony. The focus is Jesus Christ Himself. You endure, you discipline, you put effort into your walk to be closer to Christ and to be more and more like Him. We empty ourselves of the world, self, extra weights, and sins which trip us up in order to grow closer to Christ–in order to enjoy Him forever when our race is done.
Can you say with Count Zinzendorf, the great Anabaptist reformer and missionary who said, “I have one passion; it is He.”
#3 Is Christ your SATISFACTION?
Is Jesus enough? Not theologically—“yes, that is true.” But practically, “yes, I live it.” If you lost all your things—family, friends, even your church–would Jesus be enough? Is it Christ you are pursuing? Is Christ the one who satisfies you? Is He your finish line?
What do you find yourself pursuing–money, fame, a spouse, kids, or security? You see, if you’re not pursuing Christ, then you are pursuing something else. Because we were made to run, to pursue, to compete in spiritual athletics. And if it is not Christ, loving Christ first, then you’re loving the world.
Look carefully at 1 John 2:15, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, [what?] the love of the Father is not in him.” If you are loving the world, then you are not loving God your Father.
Today, more than ever, we have Christians committed to a Christian lifestyle–so much so, they would defend it. But, that lifestyle does not satisfy them. Though they’d say it’s the most important thing, it leaves them empty, cold, and unsatisfied. So they fill the void with other things–adding weights and tripping over sins, but missing Christ.
I have a painting in my house of a lake and mountains–most people ignore it, but I don’t. Why? Because the man who first discipled me–his wife actually painted it just for me. Therefore, it’s special to me–I know the artist. Christianity is nothing special unless you know the creator of Christianity–the painter.
The Christian lifestyle is a bunch of rules unless you know the creator of the lifestyle. Unbeliever—turn to Christ today. Believer–restore your first love today. Let’s pray.