The Bible doesn’t mention baseball, basketball, or football, but God has something explicit to say about the Olympics.
The ancient Games were common knowledge in the first century, just as the modern Olympics are today. For more than a millennium, the Games happened every four years in Greece. Everyone knew about the Olympics. “Everyone who competes in the games,” writes the apostle Paul, “exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9:25, NASB).
God wants Christians to see through the Games to ultimate reality. Paul, explains John Piper, took the well-known Olympics and
taught the Christians to transpose them into a different level, and to see in the Games a reality very different than everyone else is seeing. He said in effect, “The Games are played at this level of reality. They run at this level. They box at this level. They train and practice and deny themselves at this level. They set their sights on the gold at this level.
“Now I want you to see all that at another level. I want you to transpose the temporary struggles and triumphs of the Olympic Games onto a different level of reality — the level of spiritual life and eternity and God. When you see the athletes run, see another kind of running. When you see them boxing, see another kind of boxing. When you see them training and denying themselves, see another kind of training and self-denial. When you see them smiling with a gold medal around their neck, see another kind of prize.”
God means for us to discover truths about him, his world, and his salvation as we watch the Olympics. C.S. Lewis calls it “transposition” — taking God’s created realities, and the culture we humans make under God, and seeing through them to the ultimate reality. God has filled our world with pointers.
Hear the Voice of God
Transposing the Games, then, means taking two weeks that would otherwise be mere entertainment and finding in them an opportunity to hear the voice of God. Piper boils down his counsel for Olympic watching to this:
Every time you turn the television set on, I want you to hear God talking to you through the Games. . . . You will see the path of discipline and pain that athletes are willing to pursue for one gold medal and an hour in the glory of human praise. I urge you as you watch to transpose what you see from Games into ultimate reality.
What, then, will be on display in Rio for those who have eyes to see?
See the Grandeur of God
For one, the Olympiad captivates us with its bigness. It can appear larger than life, with a kind of transcendence that taps into a profound longing in the human soul.
On display are the world’s best athletes, and most impressive humans, from most of the globe’s geopolitical nations. The world’s eye rarely fixes on a single object like this, apart from war and terrible disasters. From our limited vantage, few things seem to bring out humanity’s oneness, and feel as globally significant in such a positive way, as the Olympics.
But as great as the Games are, Christians know we have something infinitely greater — Someone infinitely greater. The grandeur of the Games points us to an even greater grandeur. The taste of transcendence helps us recognize a personal Bigness and Magnitude that doesn’t come and go for a couple weeks every couple years, but remains for our everlasting enjoyment — together with people from every tribe and tongue and nation.
As big as the Olympics feel, as momentous as the gold-medal run may seem at the time, make the effort to pan out with the camera of your mind’s eye to the aerial view. See the smallness of the arena compared to the city of Rio, then dwarfed by all of Brazil and South America, and only a speck compared to the globe. Then consider the smallness of our little terrestrial ball — infinitely tiny — against the massiveness of the universe, and that relativized by the grandeur and value of God.
Fight the Fight of Faith
The Games also have something to teach us about the Christian life. Olympic glory is for the young, but the Christian “race” is for young and old. While the gold in figure skating and cross-country skiing are only for the planet’s fittest, the spiritual fight of faith is for the healthiest and sickliest, for the physically strong and the weak.
So how can an aging or ailing Christian — barely able to walk, much less compete in a race or anything athletic — find the wherewithal to run? Because the Christian “fight of faith” is not against lost health, but lost hope.
Paul says to protégé Timothy, “Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called” (1 Timothy 6:12, NASB), and testifies at the end of his race, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). The Olympics remind us that “while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).
Saving faith, sustained and empowered by the Spirit, perseveres through as many obstacles as any Olympian, and more.