THE ANCIENT GREEK RACECOURSE AND THE SPIRITUAL WARFARE (as compared in the New Testament)
"Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? Even so run, that ye may attain! " (I Cor. 9: 24.)
"Not that I have already obtained: but 1 press on.... Forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal! " (Phil 3:12-14.)
PEOPLES are organisms with soul and body. They are more than a mere sum total of individuals. They live a common corporate life through generations. Therefore each, according to its natural character, had definite ideals and goals.
I. GREEK AND ROMAN SPORT LIFE IN GENERAL
Freedom, beauty, and wisdom were the three chief ideals of the Greeks. They were therefore the goal of all Greek education. According to the ideal Greek conception a properly sound spirit can dwell only in a sound body. The Greek could scarcely think of a beautiful spirit in an ugly body. "Mens sana in corpore sano." (Lat.) Therefore to true education belonged not only the exercise of mental characteristics, such as courage, activity, prudence, knowledge, art, but likewise the strengthening of the body through regular physical exercise. This should develop strength, dexterity, physical beauty, and, in conjunction with the higher spiritual training, conduce to the highest human excellence.
I. The Greek ideal for soul and body. For the Greek, beauty and virtue were inseparable. They saw the ideal man in the conjunction of a noble soul with a beautiful body. In his language the word for "beautiful" (Gk. kalos) meant also "good." Everything beautiful must be also good. Indeed, for this duality he coined a special double word, which comes in no other human language, kalokagathia. This is a union of the words: kalos beautiful, kai and agathos good; meaning thus equally "the beauty of goodness," or reversed, "the goodness beauty." This word expressed his highest goal of ideal manhood, and was therefore of great significance in the Greek language. It indicated the harmonious and full cultivation of man in body and spirit.
The whole Greek life of sport served this goal. Both beauty of mind and strength and dexterity of body should be developed and directed to this harmonious ideal. Therefore the Greeks esteemed the cultivation of the body as not less important than that of the soul, and as early as the time of the poet Homer (about 900 B.C.) not to be experienced in gymnastics was considered a disgrace. Later the cultivation of gymnastics was made a State institution and was regulated by strict laws. These exercises, with graded degrees of difficulty, were carried on from the seventh year of life, until manhood was reached. They look place, if possible, every day. They were connected with bathing and swimming in cold river-water, and with a simple natural manner of life. This was all well-qualified to produce that beauty of body at which we still wonder in the old Grecian statues. In Sparta, where the gymnastic exercises were ordered more with a view to hardening for military service, the girls also were developed by running, spear throwing, and wrestling, so as to become the healthy mothers of a race of soldiers.
At all times gymnastics flourished among the Greeks, and were nurtured and celebrated. Only later did a manifold degeneration set in, so that by the practical Romans the whole system was not regarded with favour.
Into that Greek-Roman Mediterranean world the apostles carried the gospel of Jesus Christ. "Jesus is Saviour" was their message. It is He who frees from the guilt and the power of sin. Faith in Him creates new life, solves all problems, gives joy and strength, grants a victorious life, a living hope, and an eternal glorious goal. Therefore Christ is the revelation of the saving power of God. Where He reveals himself the powers of darkness are conquered. The gospel is the "power of God" (Rom. 1:16).
But this power is not mechanical. Only by continuous union with Christ, as Himself the fount of power, will it be revealed in this world in the life of the redeemed. But the efficient working of the Holy Spirit, Who is the imparter of this power, is bound up with the personal devotion and earnest striving of the believer. It will call forth in us a holy zeal, a stretching forth of oneself after holiness and victory.
"Right" and "power" were the two special and chief ideals of the Roman people, who at that time ruled the Mediterranean world. "Right" and "power" were likewise two prominent verities and possessions of Christian truth. Especially in Paul's teaching were they central. For the gospel is the fulfilment of all human longing. What Greeks and Romans strove after, what in general slumbered in the soul of each man as the goal of his innermost desire, became in Christ a living effective spiritual reality. But at the same time this gift of God surpasses all conception of men in general, even as heaven is higher than earth, as God's mercy is greater than our need, as His strength is more glorious than all we could wish or hope for, even our greatest and highest.
To proclaim this salvation of God to men, and to help them to understand these mighty truths out of eternity, the apostles and evangelists of the Lord constantly used pictures and comparisons drawn from the civil, social, and cultural life of their time. And because discipleship to Christ is at the same time a holy war they often took their comparisons from the life of a soldier or an athlete. Each hearer of their message, each reader of their letters should be made to perceive clearly that faith in Christ implied entrance into a conflict. Now it is for us, in the power of God, to press towards the heavenly goal. Now must we concentrate every power which God grants upon a divine aim. Now must we fight and wrestle, not indeed in our own strength, but by the faith that makes use of the power of grace. Only so can complete victory be secured.
Therefore it is important to be acquainted with the chief features of athletic practice of that period, so as to understand the numerous references to it in the New Testament.
2. The Greek" Gymnasium." The "Palaestra. The "Academy" at Athens. At first Greek gymnastics consisted of only a few exercises of the simplest type. Thanks to the sunny climate of Greece these were practised in the open air and naked, on which latter account they were styled "gymnastics" (Gk. gumnos, naked). Consequently the place of exercise was called a "gymnasium." The gymnasia were airy and shady places with arrangements for games, races, and wrestling. In the middle there was an open space (Gk. ephebeion) surrounded by colonnades (Gk. peristylon). At great cost the gymnasia were adorned with statues and other works of art.
Later, special covered wrestling places were erected. These were termed Palaestr, which word is derived from the Greek word pale, wrestling contest. This word (from pallo, to sway, swing, whirl) pictures the wrestlers locked in each other's arms and swaying to and fro, each straining to throw the other. It is employed by Paul in his description of the armour of the Christian: "Our wrestling (pale) is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness" (Eph. 6: 12).
In Athens the palaestrae were nearer to the city than were the gymnasia.
Racecourses were introduced (Gk. stadion). A stadium was about 200 yards in length. In the golden age of Greece, before the Peloponnesian war (431-404 B.C.), there arose many large and well-appointed gymnasia and palaestrae which, in addition to the ordinary arrangements, had special rooms for oiling and dusting the bodies of the wrestlers, baths, sweating chambers, and cloakrooms. Near Athens there were three, and later five, such gymnasia, which were surrounded with gardens and adorned with images of gods.
According to their ideal of kalokagathia, the beauty of goodness, however, exercise of the body and training of the spirit were inseparably connected. This is the reason why just in these gymnasia there developed a powerful intellectual life. They were furnished with special rooms (Gk. exedra) for learned intercourse, in which philosophers, rhetoricians, and other scholars gathered for discussion, and which were provided with stone benches round the wall. The activity of Socrates, as described by Plato and Xenophon, gives a lively view of the mental life which developed in these schools, in addition to gymnastics.
One of the most celebrated of these schools was a gymnasium dedicated to the legendary hero Akademos and therefore called "Academy." This Akademos is mentioned in a by no means insignificant passage of the legend of king Theseus of Athens and the Dioscuri (the twin sons of Jupiter, Castor and Pollux. See Acts z8: II). The king had stolen Helen, the sister of the Twins, but Akademos had revealed to the two brothers the spot where she was kept, so that they could recover her. Later, on account of this legend, the Lacedaemonians, who especially revered the Dioscuri, whenever they invaded Attica, always spared this school dedicated to Akademos. It stood in the midst of pleasant gardens planted with plane and olive trees. In it was an altar sacred to the Muses, the goddesses of song. There was also a shrine of the goddess Athene. In the rooms of this Academy the philosopher Plato had taught. Aristotle taught in another school near Athens, called the Lykeion. Because Plato, and his pupils after him, taught in the Academy, his philosophical system was called the School of the Academicians. Even by enemies the Academy was spared. Sulla, the great opponent of Pompey, was the first to use the trees to make his war machines.
Because the schools of sport, the gymnasia, were devoted to the mental training of youth, and not to the bodily training alone, the Humanists of centuries fifteen and sixteen applied the term Gymnasium to their schools, since these were devoted in the first place to the cultivation of the ancient languages. This became the general title of high schools, especially in Germany. From the name of the Athenian palaestra Lykeion where Aristotle taught, the word "lyceum" is derived. Thus behind this usage stands the Greek conjunction of bodily and mental training in the sense of the chief ideal of the ancient Greeks, the kalokagathia.
The significance of the gymnasia and palaestra was heightened by the national games, for they were a field in which the dexterity gained in the palaestra could be displayed before all Greece and be duly honoured.
3. The Olympian and Isthmian Games. Because gymnastic exercises by their very nature were often competitive, every opportunity was used for arranging contests, especially at military triumphs, harvest festivals, and the dedication of temples. These contests were at first quite simple in style, but in the course of time they developed in sundry places into great, popular, national festivals. These were visited not only by the Greeks of the motherland, but also by the Hellenes of the Islands, and the Greeks dwelling on the western coast of Asia Minor, in south Italy, and in Egypt. The earliest centre of these festivals was Olympia.
Olympia was situated in the region of Elis, only a few hours from the coast of the Aegean Sea, against the island Zakynthos (Zante). Since the eighth century B.C. there had been arranged here every four years, at the summer solstice, five days of contests in honour of Zeus (Jupiter). The four years interval between the Olympian games formed an Olympiad.
Throughout Greece the victors were honoured and celebrated by songs and statues. Thus the Olympian games were at once the flower and the chief impetus of Greek gymnastics. Greeks by thousands streamed together to the Olympian games from all Greek territories and distant colonies, indeed, from the farthest removed regions to which Grecian culture had penetrated. Special dignity was conferred on the festival by embassies from the individual States, in which they sent their most distinguished men. Thus Olympia became the most definite expression of the national unity of the various Greek tribes, and was consequently the centre not only of the Peloponnesus but of the whole of Hellas.
Around these contests there developed also great fairs, with exchange of various wares. At the same time these festivals were used for all kinds of advertising. Especially after the 80th Olympiad (456 B.C.) poets, orators and artists sought to make their productions known before so select an audience. Even the renowned Greek historian Herodotus is reported to have read here in public a portion of his history of the Persian wars.
In addition to the Olympian games there were three other great national contests, but these never gained the same importance as the Olympian.
The Isthmian games were a festival of Ionians, and stood at first under the oversight of Athens and then of Corinth. The word "isthmus" signifies a narrow neck of land. It denoted here the narrow strip near Corinth which joins the mainland of Greece and the peninsula of Peloponnesus. In I Cor. 9:20-27, Paul refers to these Isthmian games. The apostle was ever concerned to present his message to men in such form as they could most easily understand, and therefore his many symbolical references to the features of the current civilization. He would become all things to all men so as to win some to Christ (I Cor. 9: 19-23). So he became to the Jews as a Jew, to the Greeks as a Greek; to the Athenians as an Athenian, when, for instance, in his speech on Areopagus he referred to their altar (Acts 17: 23). And thus would he be to the Corinthians also a Corinthian, making detail use, in his letter to the Christians of that city, of the boxing and racing of the Isthmian games in their neighbourhood: "Know ye not that they who run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? Even so run, that ye may attain. And every man that striveth in the games is temperate in all things. Now they do it to receive a corruptible crown [lit. wreath]; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, as not uncertainly, so fight I, as not beating the air: But I buffet my body and bring it into bondage [lit, enslave it]: lest by any means, after that I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected" (I Cor. 9:24-27).
The Isthmian games were held in honour of Poseidon the god of the sea. Their site was a spruce grove dedicated to him.
The Pythian games were held near Delphi, in the region of Phocis, near the foot of Mount Parnassus. Delphi was the chief oracle of the sun god Apollo. They were held in his honour. It was a "Pythonic" spirit, a medium of the heathen god, that Paul, by special appeal to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, cast out of the fortune-teller at Philippi (Acts 16: 16-18).
The Pythian games commenced in the year 586 B.C. At first they were musical competitions, and were songs accompanied by playing the cithara, lute, and lyre (a form of the guitar), and later the flute. Afterward gymnastic contests were added, such as chariot and horse races. As the laurel was sacred to the sun god Apollo, the victor's garland at Delphi was twisted out of laurel, the branches of which had been carried in advance in solemn procession out of the hallowed laurel grove. Besides that the victor received a branch of palm, as was often the case at the Olmpyian games.
The fourth chief Grecian games were held at Nemea in the district of Argolis. They were celebrated in honour of Zeus, but did not attain any widespread importance.
In Paul's time athletic games were held in most Roman provinces. Almost every city had its regularly recurring contests, the organization of which belonged to the most important duties of the local authorities. Ephesus, which for Paul, and later for John, was one of the most important centres of evangelistic work, was the capital of the Roman province of Asia, in west Asia Minor. The President of the highest Council of the Province was both high priest and also umpire of the games. He was one of the "Asiarchs."**(Some of these Asiarchs had friendly relations with Paul (Acts 19:31).) As senior officials these were presidents of the public festivals, which had a religious character.
Such sporting festivals were held in almost all the cities to which the seven letters in the book of Revelation were addressed, example, Ephesus, Smyrna, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea (Rev 2 and 3) Thus these customs and practices were known in the whole world surrounding the early Christians, so that it is easily understood why the writers of the New Testament so often refer to them as pictures and comparisons to make their message clear and comprehensible to their Christian readers.
4. Olympia as central Greek National Shrine. In ancient times Olympia was a sacred place, with beautiful plantations, numerous buildings, and adorned with thousands of statues. The flourishing province of Olympia and Elis was granted permanent freedom from war. No armed force dared to cross its boundary. While the Olympian games were being celebrated, there had to be cessation of hostilities all over Greece. It was thus ordained as early as the time of the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus, about 850 B.C. It was proclaimed by the heralds, and during the whole period of the festival applied to all contending parties in Greece.
The festival fell in the time of the new moon after the summer solstice, about the beginning of July. When to the simple races other contests were added, the duration of the games was gradually extended from one day to five.
In the year 776 B.C. a certain Koroibos won the race. Thenceforward the name of the victor was registered. This year was also the beginning of the reckoning of the Olympiads. An Olympiad was the four-year interval from festival to festival. But this reckoning did not apply to the common civil life.
The most flourishing period of the Olympian games was in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., until the Peloponnesian war (431-404). But in spite of all the conflicts between the Grecian tribes they continued, and even under the Roman rule. Indeed, Roman Emperors, as Nero, sought to gain the honour of the Olympian Victor's wreath.
Right at the entrance to the central sacred circle stood the holy wild olive tree (Gk. elaia kallistephanos) from which were taken the twigs for the victor's wreath. Close by was the vast temple of the Olympian Zeus. Floors, columns, and statues were found in place and are now in the Museum of Olympia. In the temple was the greatest and finest example of Hellenistic sculpture, the statue of Olympian Zeus. According to the description of Herodotus it was the handiwork of Phidias, of gold and ivory.
The Olympian games continued in changed form until the fourth century after Christ, when they were forbidden by the emperor Theodosius, as a relic of heathendom. This was in A.D. 394, that is, after the 293rd Olympiad. Temple and pillared halls were destroyed by earthquakes. The river Altheios overflowed and choked the racecourse and arenas. Especially after the downfall of the Roman empire all that remained of the splendid buildings was destroyed by devastation and plunder, so that scarcely a trace was left. Thus natural catastrophes and the neglect of centuries turned into an unwholesome wild plain, covered with low bushes, this most splendid place, formerly covered with lovely groves, numerous buildings, and thousands of statues, a place of daily religious sacrifice. Only in the nineteenth century did it again, by careful toil, become fruitful, and now fields of maize and barley, vineyards and olive trees cover the once sacred district of Elis.
An Englishman, Chandler (1776), first directed attention to Olympia. The actual excavations were carried out by German scholars, namely, Professor Curtius, tutor of the Emperor Frederick III, and his fellow-worker, Professor Adler (1875-1881). The sculptures, bronzes and architectural specimens found are preserved in the great Museum at Olympia, built by order of the King of Greece after the plans of Adler. The writer of this book possesses an original watercolour painting by Adler of Olympia and the Museum. Through the excavations of Curtius and Adler an exact survey of the sacred buildings and monuments has become possible.
5. Amphitheatres and circuses of the Romans: Circus Maximus and Colosseum at Rome. The games and contests of the Romans bore another stamp. With them the amphitheatre and the circus were the characteristic places.
The Roman amphitheatre was an oval or circular building, without roof, with surrounding rows of seats forming ascending steps. The interior space was separated by a wall from the area of seats. It was strewn with sand and was the scene of the contests. It was therefore called the arena (Lat., arena, sand). It was surrounded by cages for the beasts and rooms for the combatants. The lowest row of seats was for the umpires of the games. The place of honour was the Podium. Here sat the Institutor of the games, and likewise the vestals, the priestesses of the State and of the goddess Vesta. Next above were the seats of the senators, the knights, and the people. For protection from the sun and rain large awnings (Lat. velaria) could be drawn over the heads of the onlookers. The author has seen 'in the amphitheatre at Pompeii the iron rings which held the hooks for these great awnings.
Vast crowds gathered to these games in the amphitheatre. Even the night before the games the people streamed there to secure seats: for though the space was so vast it was nevertheless difficult to find room. The Flavium Amphitheatrum, built by the Emperors Vespasian and Titus, the so-called Colosseum, in Rome, had over 50,000 seats. That of Scaurus held 80,000 persons. From literature or from ruins a total of some 270 Roman amphitheatres are known. They were found all over the Roman Empire. Near Brugg, in north Switzerland, the writer visited a small amphitheatre of the Roman period for about 6,000 persons. At Pompeii near Naples, where there was an amphitheatre for 5,000 people, we sat on an ancient spectator's bench.
Such an amphitheatre must have been a splendid sight. Every seat would be occupied. Beneath, the nobility, senators, senior officers, ladies in richest apparel sparkling with gold and jewels. The Vestal priestesses of the State in priestly attire. Far above sat the common people, the peasantry, the soldiers-even slaves had free access. High over the arena an awning was spread; coloured carpets decorated the balustrades; flags flew on their staffs; garlands of roses climbed from pillar to pillar. Between were shining statues of the gods, before which stood bowls of incense. Often figs, dates, nuts, and cakes were thrown among the people, as well as roasted fowls and pheasants. Lotteries were distributed, by which could be won garments, furniture, gold, silver, even houses and estates. In one day a lucky man could become rich. Everything breathed of pleasure and happiness. They laughed and joked, spun love-stories, and made bets for or against each contestant: yet what a horrid spectacle it was that the crowd awaited!
The other place of the Roman games was the circus. The name comes from the Latin word circus = circle; but its form was not a circle, but a wide far-stretching racecourse. There was racing, boxing, and wrestling at the great Circensian Games (Lat. Ludi Circenses), which were known everywhere in the Mediterranean world. It is these contests which Paul not seldom uses as pictures of the conflicts of the spiritual life.
The largest circus was the Circus Maximus in Rome. According to tradition it was built by king Tarquin Priscus about 500 B.C. in the valley between the Palatine and the Aventine hills. Caesar completed the arena, which was some 700 yards in length and 140 in breadth. It was enclosed by three tiers of arcades. Within there were the rows of seats for the spectators. Here also the lower rows were for the senators and the higher classes. The royal box was beneath. In the time of Caesar the number of seats is reported to have run to 150,000. In the time of Titus, the conqueror of Jerusalem, they were given as 250,000. In century four this had risen to 3 8 5,000. Even if there may have been certain exaggerations in the Greek and Roman reports, it is manifest that the numbers must have been tremendously great. The circus was unroofed, but as in the amphitheatre, spectators could be protected from the sun by outspread awnings.
Among the Romans, besides foot racing, wrestling, and boxing, horse and chariot races played an important part, and to a large extent also fights of wild beasts. They were more prominent than foot racing. Indescribably ferocious and lustful spectacles took place in both the circus and the amphitheatre of the Roman world in the time of the Emperors.
In the great Hellenistic cities, the manner of life of the masses, who did little or no work, became more and more degenerate. Panem et circenses-Bread and games!-these they demanded from their rulers. By day they stood about idle: in the evening they went to the amphitheatre, this disgusting invention of Roman brutality. In addition to this there came a senseless exaggeration of sport. The mad emperor Caligula could without risk think of nominating his favourite horse Incicatus to be Consul, and thus the chief officer of State. The emperor Nero himself appeared as charioteer, singer, musician, and poet, and toured the provinces with a senseless display of splendour as an actor and stage performer.
In the amphitheatre, before thousands upon thousands of spectators, the gladiators (Lat. gladius, sword) fought for life or death. If one spared himself he was driven on with red-hot rods. Great was the enthusiasm when one picturesquely fell in the battle, while thousands applauded. Caesar caused not only that man should fight with man but that bands should encounter bands; 300 horsemen against 300 horsemen, 500 footmen against 500 footmen, 20 elephants against 20 elephants. After the completion of the amphitheatres, especially after the time of Caesar, the wild beast conflicts were more often performed there, rather than in the circuses.
Water was let into special basins, and the spectators were treated to regular sea-fights. Whole flotillas contended. The emperor Claudius (mentioned in Acts 11:28; 18:2) gave on the Fucin lake a spectacular sea-fight between galleys with three banks of rowers and those with four, seating altogether 19,000 men. Domitian, the contemporary of the apostle John, caused a new and still greater lake to be dug, on which fought fleets in full war array. All this was not mimic war, but real fighting in which thousands fell or were drowned.
If these displays might in some sense have given a certain impression of magnificence, the execution of criminals, which also took place among the shows in the amphitheatre, could offer only the exhibition of the horrible and vulgar. Bound to stakes, the condemned were completely defenceless against starving wild beasts. Sometimes they were allowed weapons, but only to the prolonging of their torment. Robbers, hanging on crosses, were torn limb from limb by bears. Often these executions were given a theatrical, mythological and dramatic form, wherein the condemned played the part of some dying hero of heathen legend or stories of the gods. One saw Mucius Scaevola hold his hand over a bowl of burning coal or Hercules mount the pyre and burn.
Later, very possibly in the time of Nero, and so of Paul, this dramatic, mythological form of execution was applied also to Christians. The crowd delighted when the martyrs were made to play the part of Hercules, who was burnt, or of Ixion, who was broken on the wheel, or of Marsyas, whose skin was stripped from his living body. Women must appear as Dirce, who according to tradition was tied by the hair to a bull and dragged to death. Such suffering is reported of the renowned martyr Perpetua near Carthage (A.D. 202). Others had to represent the Danaids who must ceaselessly pour water into leaky vessels, driven on by the lash until they collapsed and died.
Usually the bloody spectacle began with a parade of gladiators in full armour. Before the Emperor and his suite they laid down their weapons and cried, "Ave, Caesar; morituri to salutant! " "Hail, 0 Caesar; those about to die greet thee!"
First came a mimic battle. Then the trumpets gave the signal, and the fight with sharp weapons began. Gladiators stepped forward, singly or in bands, with sword, dagger, or net. Horsemen with long lances charged one another. Others fought from chariots.
If one fell alive into the hand of his opponent, the spectators decided for life or death. If they waved their kerchiefs or held their thumbs upward, then life was granted. But if they turned their thumbs downward that was the order for the death-stroke. Even light-minded and frivolous women and girls gave the sign that sent a man to death.
In all parts of the world wild beasts were hunted to provide for the amphitheatre. From Egypt they brought the hippopotamus, from Germania the wild boar, from Africa the lion, from India the elephant. Hundreds of beasts reached the arena. Six hundred bears and 500 lions are mentioned at one festival. At the games with which the emperor Trajan (shortly after the time of the apostle John) celebrated his victory over the Dacians in A.D. 106, there fought in all 11,000 wild beasts. In the 120 days of the games at the dedication of the Colosseum at Rome 12,000 beasts and 10,000 gladiators lost their lives.
When the first blood flowed there rose the roar of the crowd and their cries of approval. There was downright thirst for blood. Even before the defeated had time to appeal for mercy the cry for blood resounded and the stroke followed that ended life. Slaves, in the garb of the god of the underworld, dragged the still convulsing bodies into the room of the dead. This was done by hooks thrust into the breast. The victors received palm branches, gifts of money, and costly foods. They were "satiated," made "rich," and treated as the "kings" of the day (cf. I Cor. 4:8).
In the intervals the bloodsoaked sand was shovelled from the arena. Negroes scattered fresh sand, scented water was sprinkled. Then the blood shedding began afresh.
To keep up the nervous excitement by ever keener stimulus, the items of the programme became ever sharper and bloodier. The "last" conflicts were the most terrible and exciting.
All this must one keep in mind to understand certain expressions of the picture language as it is employed in the letters of Paul, especially in his first epistle to the Corinthians when he warns them against self-security and self-exaltation.
6. The Roman Amphitheatre and Paul's figurative language. "For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last of all, as men doomed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world and angels and men. We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong: ye have glory but have dishonour.... Already ye are filled (satiated), already are become rich, ye have reigned without us" (I Cor. 4: 9,10, 8).
Observe the words " spectacle" (Gk. theatron), "filled" (satiated), "rich," "reigning as kings" (feeling as if one were a king), set forth as the "last." In this particular bringing together of the terms may there not lie a special viewpoint of the apostle? Indeed, in these remarks of Paul, in which, by use of holy irony, he contends against the pride of the Corinthians, it appears that he has in mind the proceedings in the games in the arena. He compares the Corinthians and himself with those who step out into the circus or amphitheatre. At the start came the lighter and less dangerous combats. The last items on the programme became the fiercest contests when it was a matter of life and death. Also the execution of criminals condemned to die took place, as we saw, in the arena in broad theatrical publicity.
Paul compares the Corinthian Christians to those who entered the arena at the beginning, who had the easier battles, and thus, of course, had usually finished their contests first. They apparently had already won their victory, while he had still to fight. So in holy irony he says: You have already received your gifts, even as the victorious combatants in the arena were richly rewarded by coins flung down by the lookers on: "you are rich." You have already had your feast, even as the fighters in the arena who conquered had a great meal: "you are filled" (satiated). You have been already honoured and feel yourselves to be kings: "ye have reigned as kings."
But all this did not alter the fact that these so haughty, self-conceited Corinthians had faced only the easier battles. Therefore their wrestlings and apparent victories were only like the first, the easier part of the programme of the spectacle (theatron) in the arena. But Paul and his fellow-workers had to maintain the harder battle. Theirs was like the last items of the programme. They were epithanatioi, that is, gladiators, whose contest ended in life or death, or those who were adjudged to die, and so to experience the worst. Their battle was more serious than that of those who suppose all is so simple, so matter of course, so secure. His devotion was more definite; he did not shirk the hardest fight. Therefore he goes on to say: "Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling-place; and we toil, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat; we are made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things, even until now. I write not these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children" (I Cor. 4:11-14).
There is another reference to the spectacles in the arena of circus and amphitheatre in this word of the apostle in the same letter: "If after the manner of men I fought with beasts at Ephesus, what doth it profit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (I Cor. 15:32).
Doubtless Paul had not literally had to fight with wild beasts in the amphitheatre at Ephesus. There are two reasons for this, Paul was a Roman citizen, and according to Roman law no one who possessed this citizenship could be condemned to fight with beasts. Moreover Paul would not have failed to mention this when enumerating his sufferings in the second letter to Corinth (11:23-28), for just this would have been the strongest testimony of all hardships which in this respect had befallen the apostle.
So that the expression can only be figurative. In Ephesus Paul had encountered rough and dangerous men, who had acted towards him like wild beasts. In his letter to the Romans, Ignatius of Antioch similarly described the heathen crew of the ship on which he was taken from Syria to Rome there to be tried and then executed in the Colosseum (about A.D.112). He wrote: "From Syria to Rome by land and sea I fought with wild beasts, day and night, chained to ten leopards. These were the soldiers who with every kindness shown to them became only the more malicious."
Furthermore, by his remark, "I have fought with wild beasts in Ephesus," Paul cannot have meant the uproar of the silversmith Demetrius and the stupid, unbridled raging of the thoughtless, excited mob in the theatre (Acts 19:23-34). For Paul had indeed written the first letter to Corinth in Ephesus (I Cor. 16:8); but this was a few weeks before Pentecost in a situation in which quite apparently no special outward disturbances affected his work. But according to the account in Acts (20:1), immediately after that tumult he left Ephesus, so that there was no time to compose so long and weighty a letter as the first epistle to Corinth.
Therefore that letter must have been written earlier, and his reference to fighting with wild beasts must refer to previous experiences. The passage can only be understood either that Paul had in mind some special single attack in Ephesus of which we do not know, or that he desired to indicate in general that everywhere raging enemies had surrounded him, so that he himself had always afresh risked his life for Christ's sake. But all this he had been enabled to do and suffer only in view of the resurrection and perfecting, the triumph of the work of Christ and the glory of the world to come. Therefore only faith in the resurrection gave him the strength to devote himself so fully and wholly to his Lord and Redeemer.
Without the amphitheatre that world of the apostle is simply not to be imagined. Also as regards the names of the twenty-five brethren and sisters of the church in Rome found in the salutations of the apostle at the close of his epistle to the Romans, we shall certainly not be mistaken if we say that not a few of those greeted ended their earthly life in the arena. The persecution of the Christians by Nero (A.D. 64) broke out only a very few years after the letter to the Romans was written. Now it is always the faithful who are the first to be persecuted, so that it may be taken for granted that not a few became martyrs for Christ whom Paul described here as "fellow-workers in Christ Jesus ... beloved in the Lord ... fellow-prisoners ... approved in Christ ... who laboured much in the Lord" (Rom. 16:3,5,7,8,9,10,12). Over Romans 16 flames the awful glare of the burning of Rome and the terrifying brightness of human torches in the nightly illumination of the Emperor's palace gardens and the Circus of Nero.
But let us never forget that the witnesses of the martyr church of the first centuries would not have been vigorous enough to offer up their lives in full devotion to Christ even unto death unless they had previously lived a life of consecration and testimony. They would never have been able to die and conquer in the arena of the amphitheatres had they not proved steadfast and true in the arena of faith.
Only he who proves faithful in the practical tests of daily life can stand fast in the great tests and trials of special situations. Only he who conquers in the ordinary will be able to conquer in the extraordinary. Only he who is faithful in the small things can be faithful in the great (Luke 16:10). But such an one will then also have the blessed experience "as thy days, so thy strength" (Deut. 33:25). To the faithful the Lord will grant special accessions of His strength in special circumstances. But faithfulness and devotion are prerequisites for all Divine gifts and blessings.
Therefore despise not the commonplace. Do not underestimate the need of being victorious in the small burdens and tests. Mere admiration and enthusiasm for those heroic martyrs in the time of the ancient Roman emperors does not help us today. We should not only look on and admire but be practical followers of their faithfulness and devotion to Christ. Faith in final victory involves responsibility to live victoriously today. The heroism of Christ's witnesses in the arena of circus and amphitheatre should be to us an unforgettable spur to self-denial, endurance, and steadfast striving towards the goal, in the arena of faith. This is the reason why in our present exposition we have given so detailed a description of the circus and amphitheatre. We obtain insight into the surroundings of the early Christians. We understand certain New Testament allusions and references to those conditions. But we are thereby also impressively called to unreserved devotion of our own life to Christ. Thus shall we be runners in the race, followers of Christ's witnesses of former times, and shall together with them become partakers of the coming final glorious victory. "Therefore seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses ... let us run with patience the race that is set before us" (Heb. 12:1). Let us consecrate our life to Christ! Let us press on in the arena of faith (Heb. 6:1).
7. The Cross in the Colosseum. Years ago we were in the Colosseum. It is the site where formerly the Golden House (Lat. Domus Aurea) of Nero stood, a vast palace with many villas and gardens, fountains and lakes, and halls adorned with gold, marble, and ivory. It was the scene of Nero's persecution of Christians, where shortly after Paul's time they were killed in the most horrible ways. Fifteen years after Nero the emperors Vespasian and Titus, of the Flavian house, built the vast Flavian amphitheatre, the greatest example of Roman construction. The name Colosseum was given only later in the Middle Ages because of the nearness of a colossal statue of Nero (Lat. Colossus Neronis). By night the mighty ruins rear against the sky like a spectre. The most important walls, rows of seats, boxes, and doors can still be plainly recognized. We entered the former Imperial box and gained an impressive view. We saw the box where sat the Vestal priestesses in white robes, the priestesses of the State, who had the chief decision for life or death of the defeated gladiators. We saw the great chambers with the railed cages where some 2,000 wild beasts were kept, lions, bears, elephants, giraffes, tigers, and other beasts of prey from Africa and Asia. On the left was the great arch of the Door of the Living (Lat. Porta Sanavivaria, door of health and life), through which passed the gladiators and martyrs to reach the arena. "Hail to thee, 0 Caesar; those about to die greet thee." A thousand times this had rung out before the Emperor's box. Opposite to it was the Door of Libertina, the door of the goddess of corpses, through which the fallen warriors or the dead martyrs were dragged with hooks. What a bloodthirsty ecstasy of the masses! What streams of martyr blood had flowed on this very spot in the two centuries from the time of the apostles. How helpless and feeble the small band of Christians then seemed. How did they appear to be doomed to utter destruction without deliverance. How small one feels, especially in such a place, when remembering all these heroes, without whom we of today would not possess the treasure of the gospel.
But what did we see in the arena, in the very centre, directly in front of the ruins of the royal box? A CROSS! A plain high cross! About the year 1300 a cross was erected here in memory of the martyrs. In the course of time it was lost. In the year 1927 it was again erected by order of the Italian Government, with this most significant inscription on its base: "Ave crux spes unica," that is " Hail to thee, 0 Cross, the only hope! "
A cross in the Colosseum! Exactly where formerly believers on account of their testimony to the Crucified suffered a bloody death, exactly there a cross stands erect today, bearing this so simple but mighty inscription. The seats of the heathen mockers, the walls of the Colosseum itself, lie in ruins. On the place where God's witnesses died, in the middle of the arena, stands, like a 'sign of triumph, a victorious and lofty cross.
Three times I have been in the Colosseum: three times have I stood long and thoughtfully before this cross and its inscription.
Immediately before we had been in the Forum Romanum, the splendid market place of ancient Rome. We had seen temples of the gods, noble halls, and triumphal arches-all in ruins! We had walked over the Via Sacra, the holy street of processions and triumphs-but around were only ruins. Indeed, so completely was this centre of world empire later forgotten that, overgrown with rushes and bushes, it was used by the peasants to rest their oxen, and late in the Middle Ages was called "Cow pasture" (Italian Campo Vaccino, cf. Lat. vacca, cow).
But the band of the persecuted remain victors. Their faith in Christ was stronger than all the hate of their enemies. The cross, on account of which they suffered, became the symbol of triumph.
The temples of the heathen, and the palaces of their rulers, have sunk in dust; but the temple of the church remains. How is this?
It is because Christ, the Crucified, is also the Risen One: because in this His temple, the temple of the church, the true God dwells: because this house, though outwardly plain, is the royal house of the Eternal!
Thus history testifies: thus will at last eternity testify: and thus we also join in the testimony of the Colosseum cross, crying:
Hail to the, 0 Cross, the only hope!
From this confidence of victory we can draw fresh incentive to hasten joyfully forward to the heavenly goal. Because Christ has triumphed we also can conquer. His cross is at once the sign of victory, of duty, and of promise for all who believe on Him. Therefore faith in Him is both hope and assurance, and looking unto Him we can run with steadfastness the race of faith.
II. THE RELIGIOUS CHARACTER OF PAGAN SPORT AND ATHLETICS
The Roman conflicts in amphitheatre and circus, like the earlier Greek sports, were intimately connected with faith in the heathen gods. The gymnastic games of the Greeks, as well as the later brutal and degenerate contests of the Romans, were instituted in the name and to the honour of the pagan godheads.
1. Gymnastics as part of heathen worship in Greek and Roman life. The Olympian games were in honour of Zeus (Jupiter), the Isthmian games near Corinth in honour of the sea god Poseidon, and the Pythian games in honour of the sun god Apollo.
The crowns of the victors corresponded. From the olive, sacred to Zeus, was taken the olive spray which crowned the victor at Olympia. From the laurel, sacred to Apollo, came the crown at Delphi. The victor at the Isthmian games was adorned with a wreath of spruce, the tree sacred to Poseidon.
Religious processions were connected with the contests at Olympia. Sacrifices were offered by the representatives of the State and by individual victors. The whole district of Elis and Olympia was sacred to Zeus. In grove and temple were only objects that belonged to the gods.
The central object in Olympia was the great altar to Zeus. It was erected on a big stone base. It was formed out of the burnt leg-bones of the beasts offered, mixed with water from the river Alpheios and dried. Here sacrifices to Zeus were offered daily. Southwest from the altar rose the Olympieum, the celebrated temple of Olympian Zeus, built about 450 B.C. In its inner court stood the colossal statue of Zeus enthroned, the work of Phidias, the greatest Greek sculptor.
By the Romans also the chief games were held in honour of particular gods, especially of Jupiter, Apollo, Juno, Minerva, Diana, Pluto, and Proserpine, as well as in honour of Flora, the goddess of Spring, and to the Syrian Magna Mater (Great Mother), whose symbol, a stone fallen from heaven (a meteor), was brought in 205 B.C. to Rome and very quickly obtained high honour.
Some days before taking part in the games and contests men prepared themselves by prayers, sacrifices, and adorning the altars.
2. Religious processions before the beginning of the Roman athletic combats. There was often a parade before the games. At the Circensian games in Rome, with the sound of tubes (Lat. tuba, trumpet) and flutes, it went from the Capitol, across the Forum, through the middle of the City to the Circus Maximus. The senior Magistrate led the procession, followed by the statues of the gods on magnificent chariots. Smaller statues of gods were carried on the shoulder. Then came the appointed fighters, horses, chariots, both two- and four-horse, the priests, victims for sacrifice, dancers, flute players and harpists. At the Circus Maximus a sacrifice was offered. Then the actual games began, especially racing, boxing, wrestling, and horse and chariot races. Everything was associated with heathen religious dedication. Even at the close of the Republic, when religion fell more and more into decay, its outward form was maintained at these games, which were celebrated with ever-increasing splendour and glory.
3. Introduction of Hellenistic Games in Jerusalem. Because the Greco-Roman world combined athletics with religion, the conquerors sought, especially from the second century before Christ, to employ them to break the religious strength of Judaism by the forcible introduction of such games in Palestine. Especially since the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.) there had been a party among the Jews who wished to obliterate the sharp frontier between them and the heathen. The high priest Jason, in particular, worked in this direction, not without result. There were priests who forsook the altar, neglected the sacrifices, and hastened to the arena to watch the games (II Macc. 4:9ff.). This aroused the greatest horror in the Jews who were true to Jehovah. There was much strife and controversy concerning these games in Jerusalem, but in spite of all this they advanced considerably, especially under the influence of king Herod. He favoured them, for they belonged to Hellenism. He caused splendid amphitheatres and hippodromes to be built in Caesarea and Jericho, as Josephus narrates. He ordered that every four years a great sport festival should take place with special magnificence in honour of the emperor Augustus. Through all this quite naturally the knowledge of these Greek and Roman games spread among the Jews.
4. The New Testament writers and their detailed knowledge of Greek and Roman sport life and games. In the New Testament it is especially the writings of Paul, John, and the writer of Hebrews, that contain essential allusions and comparisons to the Greek games. On one occasion Paul employs even an expressly technical sporting term hypopiazo, "I hit under the eye with the fist," I smite my opponent (I Cor. 9:27).
But the early Christians did not obtain their knowledge of heathen sporting customs by visiting these institutions, or by personal participation in the games, after their conversion to Christ. For Paul even before his conversion a visit to these festivals was completely excluded. For every orthodox Jew, to which company Paul as an earnest Pharisee belonged, such participation was forbidden in advance. And John belonged to the "remnant" of Israel that waited for the Messiah, for whom also these heathen games must have been an abomination.
The ground for this lay in the religious character of these institutions. The contests were indeed one with heathen religion. During the festival the combatants were regarded as darlings of the gods. Even Philo of Alexandria, the celebrated contemporary of Christ and the apostles, who so much sought to combine Greek thought and faith in Jehovah, mentions that only once in his life did he attend the games.
Therefore the New Testament writers did not gain their knowledge of these customs directly but indirectly, not by personal observation but by general hearing about them, not through participation but through the widespread knowledge and daily talk of their contemporaries. Nevertheless it is evident that scarcely a single essential feature of the whole course of the games has escaped their notice and not been employed in the New Testament figurative speech, especially with Paul. Here again is seen how the writers of the New Testament endeavoured to present their message to their hearers and readers in the most understandable form.
III. THE CHIEF DIFFERENT KINDS OF GAMES
1. The Race (Gk. stadion). Of the different games the New Testament mentions three: racing, boxing, and wrestling. The race is mentioned most frequently.
There were also three other chief games: throwing the discus (Gk. diskobolia); throwing the spear (Gk. akontismos); and jumping (Gk. halma). Often jumping, spear-throwing, quoit-throwing, racing, and wrestling were united and formed the so-called "five-fold contest" (Gk. pentathlon). He who conquered in this was especially honoured.
With the z 5th Olympiad began chariot racing, with two or four horses. Then horse racing was introduced. There was also a race in armour (Gk. hoplites dromos). The stadium was boo feet in length.
In each of the three pictures of athletic life as employed in the New Testament there is prominent a special viewpoint of the spiritual life and effort.
The race looks forward to the heavenly goal, to the " high calling of God in Christ Jesus," to the realm above (Phil. 3:14).
Boxing points to our opposition to the enemy in us. Paul at least so employs it: "so fight (lit. box) I, as not beating the air: but I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage" (I Cor. 9:26,27).
Wrestling refers to our fight with the powers of darkness around and beneath us. Thus Paul says: "Our wrestling (Gk. pale) is against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness" (Eph. 6:12).
Thus these three comparisons, in spite of their great similarity, nevertheless picture three different directions of our Christian warfare.
The most important truths illustrated by the race are:
All can reach the goal. Therefore, according to the will and by the power of God, it is possible for you also.
All must run and hasten with all available strength. Therefore you also.
All must concentrate on the goal. No one must be drawn aside by things passing or external.
All must persevere to the winning post. No one must yield to fatigue on the way. Therefore you must be purposeful and hold out also.
All must press forward without pause. No one must permit himself to be detained.
All must be careful not to stumble in this obstacle race. For Christ can preserve us.
All must be determined to win the noblest and highest, and in no case be content with reaching only lesser aims. Therefore you also.
Thus will be richly supplied to us the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ (II Pet. 1:11). Thus will be apportioned to us the victor's prize, the full glory in the day of our manifestation before the judgment seat of Christ, the great heavenly Umpire (II Tim. 4:8; II Cor. 5:10).
We conceive that the picture of the race is particularly adapted to represent chief essential truths of Christian sanctification and the fight of faith, and therefore in the New Testament it is more used than any other comparison from the life of sport: (I Cor. 9:24; Phil. 3:14; II Tim. 4:7; Acts 20:24; Heb. 12:1,2; perhaps also Gal. 5:7).
The direction of a man's thoughts is always the decisive factor in his personality. His whole outer life will be determined by the inward inclination of his mind. Therefore that spiritual renewing of man which Christ will effect consists in the inner movements of the will, the cogitations of the heart, the thoughts and endeavours of the soul being directed towards things heavenly and divine, to eternity, to Christ Himself.
Whether the heart so directed really strives wholly towards the right goal is shown as a rule when something meets us which would draw us aside, when we are tempted to look away from the goal, either sideways or even backwards. Therefore Paul referring to the racecourse, says that in the fight of faith he ran as who forgot the things behind and stretched forth unto that which was ahead (Phil. 3:13).
And as a threefold brilliantly illuminated motto it shines forth from Philippians 3, this incomparable self-testimony of the apostle in which he applies the picture of the race to his own spiritual life and service, as he does in no other portion of his epistles so extensively and emphatically:
The calling and strength of the racer given entirely by Christ I (vv. 4-7). The ideal and the inward object of the racer living only for Christ! (8-14). The blessed hope of the racer--  to be for ever in glory with Christ (20, 21; comp. 14).
"For our citizenship is in heaven; whence also we wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ" (20). Therefore "I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (14).
2. Boxing (Gk. pux, pugme). This was one of the hardest contests, in which the combatants struck each other heavily, especially in the face. As early as Homer (about 900 B.C.) the hands were bound with thongs, leaving the fingers free. Later the Caestus was introduced. This, especially among the Romans, was a leather thong set with metal knobs, of lead or iron. This often inflicted terrible, indeed dangerous wounds. On this account the head, particularly the temples, was partly protected by a woollen or leathern cap (Gk. amphotis). The contest was decided when one of the boxers by lifting the hand acknowledged himself defeated. Thereupon the other dared not further attack him. In 684 B.C. boxing was introduced in the Olympian games.
Not seldom boxing and wrestling were united. This was the so-called "all-in (general) battle" (Gk. pankration). In this contest the hands were without thongs, and therefore the wounds were less dangerous than in boxing alone. Later this contest became a specially admired showpiece of the athletes. In Olympia it was introduced rather late (644 B.C.). Neither of these forms of boxing was practised by the Spartans.
The decisive blow was the "fist blow under the eye," for which there was a special technical term (Gk. hup-opiazo, i.e., hupo, under, ops, the eye). In the terminology of stadium and amphitheatre it meant the same as the present term "knock-out." In his use of pictures from the sport life Paul goes so far that in his reference in his first epistle to the Corinthians to the contest, especially to those that took place near Corinth, the Isthmian games, he plainly applies the technical expression, "I buffet my body" (hup-opiazo): "I give it the fist blow under the eye: I beat my body and defeat it." This means that the Christian has to pay no heed to himself. If his own "I," its wishes and longings, its convenience and enjoyment, are a hindrance to winning the victory in his spiritual war, then he must say to them a decided No I He dare not beat the air, so sparing himself, his real opponent. Certainly such boxing will never win the prize. Or as Paul, taking farewell of the elders of Ephesus, applied the figure of the race, saying, "I hold not my life of any account as dear unto myself, so that I may accomplish my (race) course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God" (Acts 20:24).
Obviously Paul is far removed from in any way recommending monasticism or asceticism. Much rather will he say that, as a racer he had to bend all his powers without reserve, including his body and whole outer man, to the one great purpose, to conquer in the battle for holiness and finally to receive in the glory the conqueror's crown from the heavenly Umpire.
3. Wrestling (Gk. pale) consisted in each combatant exerting himself to throw down the other and pin him to the ground. When picturing the armour of the Christian Paul applies this figure to our conflict with the powers of darkness. Here his picture passes from the realms of sport to military life: "Our wrestling (pale) is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness" (Eph. 6:12).
This comparison shows how sober and true to life was the apostle's message. Paul knew that the enemy is not to be ignored. He who does not take the powers of darkness seriously will soon be a prey to fanaticism. But fanaticism is very often a near neighbour to grave defeat. It makes us self-secure, deceives us as to the danger, obscures the vision, and weakens moral determination. The enemy, who narrowly observes all this, will attack quite suddenly, and not seldom very severe defeats, even sins of the flesh, are the open evidence of fanaticism and lack of balance.
Therefore Paul says: You must not lose sight of the foe. You in close contact with him. You have to wrestle with him. He will seek to pin you down. Take seriously his dark reality. Be a wrestler!
But in spite of everything do not despair, for Christ also is present. He is stronger than the foe. Therefore put on the whole armour of God and you will conquer. In this wrestling with the demonic powers the enemy will at last lie on the ground, but you will share the triumph of Christ.
IV. THE RULES OF THE GAMES
1. Qualifications for entry in the Greek ames. Certain definite conditions were attached to taking part in the contests and gaining the victory. No slaves, but only free men were admitted; no foreigners but only citizens; no impious men nor criminals, but only those without reproach. Freedom, citizenship, and civil honour were indispensable. And naturally bodily strength and practice were required.
For directing the games one or more umpires were chosen (Gk. agonothetes, athlothetes). Before these the combatants had to appear to be tested (Gk. dokimasia).
Before the contest each individual underwent an often long and special training, which sometimes lasted ten months. To this training there belonged also a general outward sobriety of life. In addition, only such were admitted to the Greek games who had for a certain time practised in a gymnasium.
Before the games started the combatants cast lots as to the order of place. Then they took an oath before the statue of Zeus binding themselves to fight honourably.
Now the Leader gave the signal to begin. A herald stepped out and read the rules of the contests, and called the contestants to enter the lists. A trumpet sounded and the fight began.
This is all symbolical of the Christian warfare, even if a few of these details are not made use of in the figurative speech of the New Testament. For who may enter the arena of faith? Who may run and wrestle, so as to win the victor's crown? Only such as have become free from the power of sin, such as are citizens of the kingdom of God, and such as set themselves to live in practical righteousness.
In I Corinthians Paul calls to mind the self-control and training of the Grecian competitors. In this he sees a picture of the necessity for Christian self-mastery and self-denial. Obviously he thinks here especially of the Isthmian games, held near his Corinthian readers. "Every man that strives in the games is temperate in all things. Now they do it to receive a corruptible crown (wreath); but we an incorruptible.... I buffet my body and bring it into bondage (subjection)" (I Cor. 9:25,27).
For a victorious Christian life it is a presupposition that we are ready to deny self, to refrain even from lawful things for Christ's sake, to offer spiritual and material sacrifices, to say "No" to self, so as to be able truly to say "Yes" to the Lord. He who is not prepared to sacrifice will not be honoured to gain the crown. He, who has regard to his Ego, will one day, when Christ appears, have a great disappointment. He who holds fast to his own convenience, to an earthly mind, to enjoyment of sin, to pride, renders himself unequal to racing. Only serious training in practical holiness, in self-denial, in true discipleship can strengthen spiritual muscle. Only so shall we run and not be weary. Only so shall we be able in the race of faith to hasten from the starting-post to the winning post. Only so will the heavenly Umpire crown us at last.
At the same time Paul sees a great danger for each preacher of the gospel, even that he may be only a herald, not a racer; one who does indeed read out the rules of the contest, sounds the trumpet, calls others to the conflict, proclaims the start, but does not him self take actual part. Indeed, he reckons with the serious possibility that he himself, the apostle of Christ, may be only a proclaimer but no runner, and therefore also no victor, a caller forth of others but himself not a competitor for the victor's prize.
But in no case and by no means must this be never. Therefore he exercised himself in self-control and self-denial: Therefore will he be a runner and a wrestler, so as at last to receive a crown in the day of Jesus Christ.
Have we this same attitude of heart and mind? Let us grasp the situation quite clearly: He only who loses his life for Jesus' sake will win it (John 12 25; Matt. 16:25). Christ never sought the favour of the masses (Luke 9:57-62). He has declared beyond misunderstanding that discipleship is a serious battle, that only they can follow Him really who count the cost and are ready to pay it (Luke 14:26-33). No battle, no victory; no cross, no crown!
2. The Regulations of the Games: The Racecourse. Each combatant was under strict obligation to keep the rules. As regards races, including the horse and chariot races, the very layout of the construction of the course had been drawn up to make it almost impossible in advance to transgress these laws. It was in particular needful to prevent any racer or runner from gaining an unfair advantage by shortening certain curves. Therefore the track of a circus was skirted for the whole of its length by a wall (Lat. spina, backbone). This was adorned with images of the gods, small altars, statues, and towers. At both ends were three pillars (Lat. metae) which showed the direction in which to run. In the Circus Maximus to mark the finish there was a mighty obelisk.
At each end of the wall were always seven dolphins or seven bowls (Lat. ova, eggs), for the racer, rider or charioteer must cover the course seven times, and as each circuit was made one of the bowls or dolphins was removed, to show the spectators the position of the contest.
At the Circensian games of the Romans, horse and chariot races took a more prominent place than foot racing. The Emperor Augustus added six-horse chariots to the two- and four horse (Lat. biga, quadriga). There were also chariots drawn by stags. Usually there were 25 races in succession. In each race (Lat. missus) there were four teams. The chariots and drivers were distinguished by different colours, white, red, green, and blue. Each had his own supporters among the crowd. Often among these circus parties there came the wildest, fiercest scenes. The Emperor Domitian, the contemporary of the apostle John, added the golden and the purple; but it appears that these lasted only a short time.(At the end of the third century after Christ, of the four circus parties named after the chief colours, the red and the blue merged, and the white with the green. On this account in the late Roman and Byzantine period they were mostly spoken of as the "Blue" and the "Green.")
3. Ancient Egyptian Obelisks of Pharaoh Rameses II in the Circus Maximus and the Circus of Nero. Today the great obelisk of the Circus Maximus stands on one of the most crowded squares in Rome. It is an ancient Egyptian obelisk of Pharaoh Rameses II, of the second millennium B.C. The Emperor Augustus, at vast cost, brought it in a vessel which belonged to him personally, from Heliopolis to Rome (10 B.C.). The vessel was long preserved at Ostia, the port of Rome. In 1688 the obelisk was set up by Pope Sixtus V in the Piazza del Popolo.
There stands today before St. Peter's in Rome the other great obelisk that had stood in the circus of Nero. This ancient Egyptian obelisk, which today forms the centre of the wide square before St. Peter's Cathedral, was formerly the centre of that circus which was renowned as the place where Nero practised his barbarities upon the Christians. The writer has seen both obelisks. What thoughts pass through our mind when we stand before such witnesses to ancient and most significant world and church history!
Whoever after rounding the course seven times crossed the starting line even one step, indeed one foot, ahead of the rest carried off the prize.
In all this, however, keep clearly in mind: He only received the prize who had carried through the full requirements of the contest. No relief was allowed. Not the slightest shortening of the course. Only he who had accepted the whole contest, with all that was involved, could count on the prospect of being crowned as victor.
Therefore dedicate your life unreservedly to the Lord! Shun no difficulty connected with a holy walk and faithful witness. God never compromises with sin. Therefore also you must never do so. Be ready to perfect a full devotion. Practise sobriety and self-control, deny profit and enjoyment, advantage and convenience so far as these can be a hindrance to your course in the race of faith. Christ gave Himself up entirely for you: therefore must your life be dedicated entirely to Him (John 17:19).
"The crown worn by King George V at his father's coronation in 19o2 bears a tuft of feathers of the ferivah, the rarest species of the bird of paradise. The bird had to be caught and plucked alive, for the feathers lose their lustre immediately after death; as it frequents the haunts of tigers its capture involves great danger; and the Prince of Wales' crown took twenty years to collect. It cost the lives of a dozen hunters. What a wonderful parable of the martyrs' crowns!" (D. M. Panton). And what a wonderful parable of the crowns of all those who have not loved their own life but have consecrated themselves wholly to Christ their Lord! "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life" (Rev. 2:10).
"And if also a man contend in the games, he is not crowned, except he have contended lawfully," that is, according to the rules of the contest (II Tim, 2:5). Let us remember "that they who run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize. Even so run that ye may attain" (I Cor. 9:24). Let us "press on unto action" (Heb. 6:1).
V. THE PRIZE
1. The Wreaths and Gifts of honour for the Victors. To be victor in the great games was the height of ambition. A city could scarcely have a greater honour than that one of its citizens should be the victor in the great games.
The victor was permitted to erect to himself a statue in the sacred grove at Olympia and even at Delphi. A number of bases of such statues have been uncovered at Olympia. Banquets were held in the victor's honour. At these feasts songs of celebrated poets were sung. Indeed, such renowned poets as Pindar honoured them in song. Thus an Olympian crown became the pinnacle of human happiness.
At the crowning on the last day the name of the victor was ceremoniously proclaimed by the herald, the name of his father and his country were announced at the same time, and a palm was handed to him.
Great was the honour granted to the victor(olympionikes,cf. nike, victory)when he returned to his native city. He was carried in a chariot with a festive procession. Statues and tablets were erected to him. He was accorded a place of on the City Council, and a seat of honour at games and feasts. The victors were free from all State taxes, and enjoyed other notable privileges. Even in later times the thank-offerings, processions, and banquets instituted in their honour were very brilliant.
The prize that beckoned at Olympia was a wreath of olive leaves, at Delphi a laurel wreath, at the Isthmian games a wreath from the fir tree.
The olive twig at Olympia was taken from the sacred wild olive tree near the temple of Zeus in the holiest area of the city. With a golden knife it had been cut by a boy, both of whose parents were alive, and carried to the Umpire in solemn procession.
The twig of laurel of the victor's wreath at Delphi came from the sacred laurel grove of the sun god Apollo.
2. Lists of Victors' names. The names of the victors were recorded. It is reported that Eusebius, the renowned historian of early Christianity, gave a complete list of the victors at Olympia with their homes. This list covered from the beginning of the Olympiad beckoning (776 B.C.) to the time of the emperor Caracalla (A.D. 211-217), thus embracing nearly a thousand years.
3. The Umpire. The conduct of the games lay in the hands of judges specially appointed fob this (Gk. hellanodikes; cf. Hellas, Greece; dike, the right). They were also the umpires of the contests. They were distinguished by purple garments.
When the race ended and the name of the victor was announced by the herald, he had to appear before the raised seat of the Umpire. From his hand he received the victor's wreath. In this the judge acted in the name of the god in whose honour the festival was held.
4. The famous statue of Zeus in Olympia. At Olympia it was Zeus, the king of the gods, who was the proper judge over all combatants and judges. Therefore at the very start of the games the wreath was displayed by being set at the foot of his splendid image on a magnificent table covered with a beautiful cloth. Fob the combatants it was "the joy lying before them." And thus the letter to the Hebrews, applying the figure of the race to Christ and His people, exhorts us to look unto Jesus, the beginner and perfecter of faith, who despised shame, and "for the joy lying before Him" endured the cross, and now sits at the bight hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12:1,2).
Olympia was the centre of the worship of Zeus, the king of the gods. It was in his name that the victor's wreath was granted. Mighty and imposing was his statue. The greatest Greek sculptor, Phidias, had created this perfect ideal of Zeus. From the description of Herodotus it was made of gold and ivory. Ivory from not less than 30o elephants was used. It was lavishly adorned with jewels and fine colours. Gilded forms of the Olympian gods adorned the pedestal. On this pedestal stood the throne. It likewise was a work of art made of gold, ivory, and precious stones. On the throne sat Zeus. The colossal statue was forty feet in height. The countenance of the god expressed world-ruling power and fatherly mildness.
As a sign of his dignity the left hand held the royal sceptre, with an eagle at the tip. His garment was a golden robe, full of folds, which fell around the foot of the throne. It was adorned with figures of animals and plants, representing the animal and vegetable kingdoms. The kingdom of metals was represented by the golden material of the sceptre, the mineral kingdom by the precious stones. Thus all the kingdoms of nature were shown. For Zeus is the Lord of the world. All things are through Zeus and in Zeus, who fills the whole creation. " We are also his offspring." "In Zeus we live and move and exist." Thus and similarly, praising Zeus, had the Grecian poets expressed themselves, for example, Aratus of Cilicia, and Kleanthes of Assos (Troas), whom Paul quoted in his speech on Areopagus (Acts 17:28) [Aratus: "tou gar kai genos esmen. Kleanthes: "ek sou gar genos esmen."]
In the outstretched right hand of the seated god stood the goddess of victory, Nike (Gk. nike, victory), a daughter of Zeus, her figure likewise made of ivory and gold, her wings and robe also of gold. She waited before the god with the victor's crown. For Zeus was the protector of the games and it was he who granted success; therefore Nike had the victor's wreath in her hand, to be handed to the winner in the name of the god.
5. Five wreaths (crowns) of victory as mentioned in the New Testament. Is not the whole an astonishing, many-sided picture of the race and completion of the spiritual life? The arena of faith, the training, the self-control, the ruthless denial of self, the herald, the entrance to the racecourse, the different kinds of contests, the racing to the goal, the boxing, the wrestling, the rules of the combats, Christ the Umpire, the danger of being disqualified, the appearing of the victor before the exalted throne of the divine Judge on the great coming day of the distribution of prizes! It is out of His hand the victors will receive the wreath and palm. The lists of the victors ("book of life"), the triumphal entry in the homeland, the banquet, the festival, the gifts, the place of honour-in fact, scarcely one essential feature of the whole course of the games has escaped the writers of the New Testament and not been employed in their figurative speech.
In the British Museum in London the writer saw the tablet from the theatre at Ephesus of a combatant of the second century after Christ. The inscription buns: "He fought three fights (Gk. egonisato agonas) and was twice crowned with wreaths (Gk. estephthe; verbum stepho, poetical form of stephanoo)." Doubtless such inscriptions were known to Paul, and at the close of his service, as he reviews his "course" (Gk. dromos), what does he say? "I have fought the good fight (Gk. agona egonismai) ... henceforth there is laid up fob me the wreath (Gk. stephanos) of righteousness" (II Tim. 4:7).(Inscription at Ephesus: egonisato agonas treis estephthe dyo. Paul's word in II Tim. 4. 7 : ton kalon agona egonismai ... loipon apokeitai moi ho tes dikaiosynes stephanos.)
This wreath is unfading and imperishable (I Cor. 9:25). Christ our Lord is the righteous Umpire. Therefore the allotting of the wreaths will be just. Only those, however, who pass the test, will receive the victor's prize (Rev. 2:10).
How manifold are the forms in the pictorial language of the New Testament which describe the glorification of the victors. To be exact one must say "garland (wreath) " rather than "crown" (Gk. stephanos). The faithful will be garlanded:
The Victorious Fighter with the wreath of righteousness (II Tim. 4:8);The Steadfast Runner with the unfading wreath (I Cor. 9:25,26);The One Faithful unto Death with the wreath of life (Rev. 2:10; Jas. 1:12);The Unselfish Labourer with the wreath of honour (I Thess, 2:19; Phil. 4: 1); The Example to the Flockwith the wreath of glory (I Pet. 5:3,4).
At times the comparisons pass from the athletic world to the military. The reasons for this can be easily understood. In Ephesians 6 Paul uses the sport figure from wrestling (pale) in his description of the Christian's armour, and thus in a section which takes its chief comparisons from military life (vv. 10-20): "our wrestling (pale) is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness" (v. 12). Likewise it is quite possible that also in some other places the picture of the victor's wreath taken from the athletic world, refers at the same time to military life. For Roman soldiers as well the decorations consisted for the more part of wreaths (garlands). There were diverse wreaths for different heroic deeds: one sort of wreath for the soldier who saved the life of another; another kind of wreath for him who first stormed into an enemy fort; yet another form of wreath for an act of exceptional bravery which saved the fatherland.
In I Peter the picture of the "wreath of glory" quite apparently comes from country life. There the apostle encourages the elders in the church to self-denying service as shepherds. He names Christ the "Chief Shepherd." When Christ shall appear they will receive the eternal glory as reward for their faithful service as shepherds: "When the chief Shepherd shall be manifested ye shall receive the wreath of glory that fadeth not away" (I Pet. 5:4). Here also in the original the term stephanos denotes garland (wreath), not crown. This is shown not only by the context ("shepherd, flock") which evidently points to simple country life, but also by the addition "that fadeth not away," does not wither. For no metal crown can wither, only a wreath of flowers, leaves, or twigs. The picture the apostle employs is not of a sparkling diadem of gold and jewels, but of a simple wreath, `living, beautiful, remaining in freshness for ever.
6. The White Stone in the letter to Pergamum. Another reference to athletic contests lies at the base of the promise to the overcomers in the church at Pergamum: "To him that overcometh ... will I give a white stone, and upon the stone a new name written, which no one knoweth but he that receiveth it" (Rev. 2:17).
This promise is understood differently. We mention two explanations.
One refers to a custom of voting in ancient legal practice, which must have been used in Pergamurn. A Roman High Court sat in this city. In Greco-Roman antiquity various black or white stones were used for arriving at the final verdict of guilty or not guilty. The judges who wished to acquit the accused placed in an urn a white stone; those who would condemn him placed a black stone. In the light of this custom the promise of the Lord would mean: "Ye Christian witnesses in Pergamum: you have to go through much reproach and contempt. Men blaspheme your faith. They slander your good name. But be confident that though the whole world may enter your name in the black register, may all unitedly give a black stone, I, the chief Judge of the universe, the Lord of all, declare Myself for you: I shall give you a white stone. Therefore be sure of victory; the Supreme Court is on your side!" Or, as Paul testifies, "If God be for us, who can be against us?" (Rom. 8:31).
In this explanation, however, a difficulty remains unsolved. In Roman legal procedure these stones were never inscribed with a name. They were simply smooth stones, black or white, or small clay tablets, dark or clear. But the promise deals with a stone on which a name is written, and the name of a victor. Moreover, this white stone is not placed in an urn, but given to the victor personally, and this on the day of perfecting, the great coming day of glory.
The other explanation, which is certainly right, refers to a custom of the Greek games. The victor's prize at the games was not only garlands of olive, wreaths of laurel, or palm sprays, but also of objects of value and gifts of gold; indeed, at times gifts continued for life. According to Plutarch, as early as the fourth century B.C., Solon, the lawgiver of Athens, had ordered that to the victor in the Isthmian games should be given zoo drachmas, and in the Olympian games 500 (one drachma = one shilling & six pence). This made necessary that the Leader of the games (agonothetes) should give to the home-going victor a certificate of his victory. Corresponding to the festal occasion this took a durable and artistic form. It was a small tablet of white stone in which the name of the victor was inscribed by an expert carver.
The promise to the overcomer attaches to this custom. Here we have in fact the white stone, and on it a name written, the name of the overcomer, and this stone is given to the victor himself, and all this is to take place in the coming day of glory when he enters his eternal home after having conquered in the racecourse.
Thus this picture of the "white stone" with the victor's name declares that the combatant will be acknowledged by the Lord as a conqueror. The despised and persecuted will attain to honour. The sentence of rejection by man will be reversed, and those here hated and expelled will be granted heavenly riches and eternal glory. In the race for the prize faith wins the victory.
And as regards the names of the believers, despised and dishonoured for the sake of their testimony to Christ, let them know that the Lord will give them a new name, holy and noble, a name of honour, which answers to the greatness of the triumph and the brightness of the glory: "And the nations shall see thy righteousness, and all the kings thy glory: and thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name. Thou shalt also be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of thy God ... for the Lord delighteth in thee" (Isa. 62:2-4; 65:15).
At the same time the honouring of the runner will correspond to his individual relationship to Christ. Each will receive a new name which "no one knows save he who receives it." Each has his particular history. God is not only God of the community but also of the individual. There exists a mysterious bond which binds the redeemed soul to Christ, the Redeemer. Each soul has its own "most holy place," to which only the Lord has access. Therefore, in the perfecting, each member of the church will be in a fellowship with Christ which no other will share in the same manner, and which therefore no other will fully perceive. However inward and deep is the union of the members with each other, yet no one of them will receive in the glory his new name through the mediation and channel of another member, but each only directly from the Head; so much so that each has his own portion in Christ, his own gift, his own calling, which belong to him alone. Thus the church of the overcomers will retain its inexhaustible manifoldness, through which it will reveal the riches of the Divine grace.
The great basic law of individuality shall be fully displayed in the glory. Each victor will receive a name which is granted to him alone, which will fully and clearly express his personal characteristics, his special relation to Christ, and his special calling in the service of God. There will be no extinguishing of the personality, no submergence in the mass, no kind of Nirvana in which the individual billow melts away into the ocean flood. No; God intends character 1-an organism of distinguishable personalities; men with a "Thou and I" relationship with Himself, who in the great "We" of the organic kingdom of God possess a transfigured, holy "I." Therefore can each praise Him for the particular relationship of love which He has to him, for the wonderful ways which He has taken with him.
Yet each his own sweet harp will bring,And his own special song will sing. (Gerhard Tersteegen).
7. The peril of being disqualified. But with all this we must not forget that the entrance upon the race does not guarantee the prize. The garland is not given at the beginning but only at the end of the race. It will be bestowed on those only who have contended according to the rules of the contest and have gained the victory.
Without doubt salvation and eternal life are free gifts of the grace of God, granted to faith on the basis of the sacrifice of Golgotha. But the degree of glory, the victor's garland, is according to the faithfulness of the believer. The Scripture everywhere gives solemn warning to this effect: "Hold fast that which thou hast, that no one take thy crown" (wreath: Rev. 3:11): "If a man contend in the games, he is not crowned, except he have contended lawfully" (II Tim. 2:5). Therefore let us take to heart the questions put forward by a man of God of today in view of the five victor's wreaths which the New Testament promises to the overcomer.
The Wreath of Incorruption--"In a race all run, but one receiveth the prize. Now they do it to receive a corruptible wreath; but. we an incorruptible" (I Cor. 9:24,25).
Can the racer be crowned who failed in running?
The Wreath of Rejoicing--"What is our hope or joy, or wreath of glorying? Are not even ye before our Lord Jesus at His coming?" (I Thes. 2:19).
Can he be crowned for turning many to righteousness (Dan. 12:3) who never turned one?
The Wreath of Glory--"The elders therefore among you I exhort.... Tend the flock of God . . . and when the chief shepherd shall be manifested ye shall receive the wreath of glory" (I Pet. 5:1-4).
Can a disciple be rewarded for shepherding the flock of God who never did it?
The Wreath of Righteousness--"I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me the wreath of righteousness ... and not to me only, but also to all them that have loved His appearing" (II Tim. 4:7,8).
Can the wreath of watchfulness be given to him who never watched?
The Wreath of Life--"Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he hath been approved, he shall receive the wreath of life" (Jas. 1:12).
Can he be crowned for resisting temptation who succumbed to it?
"When Roumania became a kingdom in 1881, King Charles, as there was no crown, said: Send to the arsenal and melt an iron crown out of the captured cannon, in token that it was won on the field of battle, and bought and paid for with our lives" (D. M. Panton).
8. The Heavenly Glory. Christ will grant to the victors eternal glory. They will see the king in His beauty. They will reign with Him for ever. They will worship Him as His priests in the heavenly sanctuary. They will radiate brightness as the stars in the kingdom of their Father.
As regards the majesty of God, their portion will be holy worship.As regards the nature of God, His image will be perfectly revealed in them.As regards the life of God, their sonship will be made manifest in glory. As regards the creation of God,they will rule over the universe for ever.
"He that overcometh, I will give to him to sit down with Me in My throne, as I also overcame, and sat down with My Father in His throne" (Rev. 3:21).
This is the full content of the victor's prize. It is the inheritance, incorruptible, undefiled, unfading, which by God's power is reserved in heaven for faith to attain (I Pet. 1:4). As yet we live here below in weakness and imperfection: "It is not yet made manifest what we shall be." But: "We know that, if He shall be manifested, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him even as He is" (I John 3:2). And "when Christ, who is our life, shall be manifested, then shall ye also with Him be manifested in glory" (Col. 3:4). "Having therefore these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (II Cor. 7:1). "And every one that hath this hope set on Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure" (I John 3:3).
|Previous Chapter||Table of Contents||Next Chapter|