Paul used sport illustrations to communication spiritual truths on several occasions. In 1 Corinthians 9:26, Paul uses the picture of a boxer who does not simply swing at random shadows, but is focused and intentional with his punches. In Philippians 3:14 he speaks of the discipline necessary to win a race as he explains how he “presses on towards the prize…” In Hebrews 12:1, he exhorts us to run our “race” with endurance. Athletic competition is said to have been as big in Paul’s day as it is in ours. William Barclay writes, “In the Greek world there were the great Isthmian Games at Corinth, the great Pan-Ionian Games at Ephesus, and, greatest of all, the Olympic Games, held every four years.” The competition and discipline associated with athletics seemed to ring in Paul’s heart. Barclay goes talking about Paul, “He knew the contests of the boxers… He knew the foot-race, most famous of all the contests. He had seen the herald summoning the racers to the starting-line… he had seen the runners press along the course to the goal…he had seen the judge awarding the prize at the end of the race…he knew of the victor’s laurel crown and of his exultation …He knew the rigorous discipline of training which the athlete must undertake, and the strict regulations which must be observed…”

His use of sports metaphor is clear, but what is often overlooked when discussing this is that Paul considers the Christian life as a Team Sport. The Greek word athleo, from which we get our word for athletics, is only used twice in the Bible. Both times it’s in 2 Timothy 2:5. It says, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” according to the ESV. The word is used once as a noun (athlete) but then it’s the same word in its verb form that’s translated as “compete.” I would translate this passage as “an athlete cannot win his competition unless he follows the rules of the game.” Another noun which is a cognate of this word shows up also in Hebrews 10:32. I would translate that passage, “you stood your ground in a great contest (athlesis) in the face of suffering.”

But the word forms a compound verb in Philippians 1:27. Greek is great about combining prepositions with its verbs to intensify or enhance the verbal idea. The preposition “syn” or “with” is added to “athleo” to form synathleo, which means to compete together against a common foe. Paul exhorts us in this passage to “…let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel…” The phrase “striving side by side” is the translation of synathleo. Every member of a Christian family has a position to play; husband, father, wife, mother, son or daughter. These positions change as players grow up and as life transitions take place. But the truth remains the same. No one can win personally, or as a team player, unless they play by the rules.