Bolt 7; Phelps 28; Nero 1,808

Olympics LogoFor the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. — Heb 12.11

What do Bolt, Phelps and Nero have in common — and how are they different? Let’s begin with a quick review of Olympics history. According Greek mythology, Olympic races first took place in Olympia, Greece, to entertain the newborn god, Zeus — who later became chief god of the Greek pantheon residing on Mt. Olympus. Zeus’s 42 foot ivory-and-gold statue — one of the seven wonders of the ancient world — wafted in incense in a Doric temple at Olympia, and in his honor 100 oxen were sacrificed at each of the Games.

The first Olympic Games held in 776 BC consisted of competitors from various Greek city-states with runners announcing the games to participating cities every olympiad (every four-year period of time). To participate, you had to be a freeborn Greek male youth who had not committed murder, and swear before the statue of Zeus that you had trained for ten months.

Originally the Games took place on one day featuring a single 200 meter sprint the length of a stadium (said to be the length of Hercules’s feet). Later, the Games grew to five days and included 5K races, running in armor, wrestling, jumping, boxing, discus, javelin and chariot racing. Up to 50,000 spectators attended. Winners were awarded an olive branch, money, front row theater seats, tax exemptions, vats of olive oil, and free meals for life. (Take that, Vikings!) Sculptors crafted statues of Olympic victors, and poets sang their praises.

Controversy is not new to the games: Emperor Nero, competing in the Games at Olympia in 67 A.D., fell off his ten-horse chariot (which he had entered for a four-horse chariot event), but was declared the winner by bribed judges on the premise that he would have won if he’d finished the race. Nero made judges agree to his poetry and music being added to the Olympics and various other sporting events from which he accumulated 1,808 first place prizes — making the Bolt’s and Phelps’s 7 and 28 medal accomplishments rather modest indeed.

At least Bolt and Phelps have been honest and decent. On the other hand, Nero was responsible for the death of his mother and two wives, his mentor and possibly his step-brother; he castrated and married a teenage boy; fiddled while Rome burned, and beheaded, crucified or set aflame Christians for an imperial festival.

Later, after the rapid spread of Christianity, Roman emperors adopted Christianity, one of whom, Theodosius, abolished the Olympics as a pagan practice around 391 A.D. After a long hiatus, the Olympic idea re-emerged in a renaissance of interest in all things ancient. Delegates from nine countries approved French baron Pierre de Coubertin as International Olympic Committee president, and the reconstituted Games first took place in 1896 in Athens, Greece.

But I digress.

The writer of Hebrews may well have had the ancient Games in mind when he wrote in chapter 12 of the importance of discipline in the Christian life.

[S]ince we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and sin…and run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…[Do] not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord.…For the Lord disciplines the one he loves… It is for discipline that you have to endure … [The Father] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

Bolt and Phelps would surely agree that becoming fit is inconceivable without consistent focus, rigorous discipline, and a great coach. You can’t win without discipline. You need spine. Character. Fire in the belly. Persistence. Blood and sweat. There are no Nero-style short cuts to true victory. One key difference of course: we’re not pursuing medals, but something of eternal value which we share with others — the inestimable life of Christ.

At Village Schools of the Bible, we come alongside those who are eager to put themselves on a disciplined, character-forming collision course with God’s Word, so that we can be as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Tim 2.15).

Do you have what it takes?

See what our students say here.


Bolt 7; Phelps 28; Nero 1,808

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