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The Greek Games and the New Testament

August 15th, 2004

“An athlete is not crowned
unless he competes according to the rules”

(2 Timothy 2:5)

Paul’s style of speaking and writing often reflected familiar things of the Greek world. One such area, in which Paul alluded on numerous occasions were the Greek games (1 Corinthians 9:24,25; 2 Timothy 2:5; Ephesians 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7). To Paul, these games served to illustrate discipline, rules, personal integrity, and joyous victory. Paul tried to communicate the gospel in terms of this very Greek mentality (1 Corinthians 9:22).

Although the Olympic games are usually associated with Athens, Greece, or the Corinthian Isthmian games, there was a gaming atmosphere fostered even in Palestine by Herod the Great. In a city of Samaria, Sebaste (Acts 6:5), Herod built a stadium out of personal devotion to the Greek games. The New Testament scholar, Merrill F. Unger states that: “Herod supported the Olympic games, and even offered rewards for the 192 Olympiad” (Archaeology and the New Testament, p. 150).

The popular Greek historian, Edith Hamilton, and others, have observed, “The Greeks played, but the Romans watched.” Perhaps, it is this spectator mood versus the participation mode that James had in mind when he wrote: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life…” (James 1:12).

The crown of the games was a simple garland of olive leaves, or pine needles. The crown (stephanos) of Christians is an imperishable wreath from the thorny brow of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 5:4). Herod did not compete by the rules; while the Romans merely watched. Watch the Summer Games of Athens. But, participate in the eternal gospel of heaven.

— Robert M. Housby