Well, with the exception of the few obligatory scandals, the Rio Olympics are over. But, on a cheerier note, tonight is Oak Park High School’s Varsity Football home opener! For those who long for an athletic fix, you have options: the NFL season is mere days away as I write this. MLB is entering the home stretch for pennant races (Go Orioles!). And there is a gym down the street…
As a sports fan and long-time lacrosse coach, that word, “gym” or, more properly, “gymnasium,” has always intrigued me. In English, “gymnasium” is a loanword of sorts from the Greek language. I say “of sorts” because the Greek word gumnasia did not refer to a place or a building but rather to “physical exercise.” And, perhaps shockingly to some of us, the word in its earliest uses simply meant “naked.”
You may have heard that the ancient Greek athletes competed naked in the original Olympic games. But did you know that their word for athletic exercise, or physical training was itself based on that word? The idea of nakedness was closely associated with the concept of training and exercise in the Greek mind – the similarity of the two words is not mere coincidence. But why? What does nakedness have to do with athletics? And does that connection have any bearing of the New Testament’s use of this word for “training” when we encounter it in 1 Timothy 4:7, 2 Peter 2:14, Hebrews 5:14, and 12:11?
One scriptural reference to athletics helps us understand the relationship between the ideas of training and the divestment involved in the idea of nakedness. In Hebrews 12:1 we read:
“Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
The ancient athlete did not compete naked for the spectacle of it; nakedness was commonly on display at the public baths. The ancient athlete competed naked in order to be free from all entanglement. While the physical athlete is hindered by Greek and Roman fashion, the spiritual trainee is hindered by sin. Progress in attaining one’s personal best in either category involves divestment – an intentional, baring act of ridding oneself of distraction and impediments to excellence.
Do we think about “training ourselves to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7) as a commitment to remove attitudes and habits, preferences and pastimes; in short, to remove all that hinders? In Ephesians 4:22-24 we read that Christians have been taught, with regard to our former way of life, “to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” Are we, in our spiritual training regimens, committed to “putting off our old selves?”
Are we discarding the entangling clothes of “bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice?” (Ephesians 4:31). If we are not committed to digging ever deeper in removing these things, the kindness and compassion with which Christ would have us clothed (Col. 3:12) will always be ill-fitting garments at best. And we will continue to trip and fall in our spiritual race.
The Rio Olympics are over; those medals have been won or lost according to the training of those athletes. But you have a daily race that requires constant training (gymnasia). So bare your soul to the living God and, laying hold of his daily renewed mercy (Lam. 3:23), run like its game day. After all, it is.
Your Pastor,
Bob Bjerkaas

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