Finding God's Winning Spirit

The Apostle Paul: The First "Sports Theologist"

September 29, 2014 | Greg Smith | Theology


There have been two or three dozen books written since the 90’s about the connection between religion and sports.  These books range in content from the history of sports in the church to sports becoming a religion of its own. In most cases authors are pointing out the connection and/or the similarities between religion, sports and faith.

My take was a little different. When I wrote Sports Theology: Finding God’s Winning Spirit, I proposed that the two were intentionally linked. I proposed that not only could we learn more about God through sports (applied theology)but that through our relationship with Christ athletic performance could improve (my December 10, 2013 blog "What Is Sports Theology").

In any case, I began to think that my view was innovative, unique and groundbreaking – of course I was mistaken (as I get older the more I realize that those things we feel like we discover God has revealed to us many times before). All this is to say that I have recently realized that the first "sports theologist" was the Apostle Paul. I say this because in my mind three things are true; Paul was a sports fan, he loved Christ and he quite often combined the two.

When I say that Paul was a sports fan I am not trying to be cute or trite here, I believe this to be true. We think that sports are really important in the United States today but this might pale in comparison to Greece in the first century – Greece took athletic competition to a whole other level.

During the turn of the first century (when Paul was in the fullness of his ministry) there were five major athletic competitions in Greece. Every four years there were the Olympic Games in Olympia, the Panatheniac Games in Athens and the Pythian Games in Delphi. Every two years there were the Isthmian Games in Corinth and the Nemean Games in Nemea. This fact does not take into consideration the smaller athletic events that took place all over Greece or the qualifying events for the major games.

These games were a major part of the Greek culture. Athletes were so revered that even during times of war athletes for particular games were given safe passage to compete. Victorious athletes were revered, rewarded and many times immortalized in statues around the stadiums (sound familiar). For most of these games the participants were Greeks and the spectators were Romans. Interestingly enough it was Roman infatuation with these games that gave rise to Roman sport and the games of the Colosseum.

Why do I say that Paul was a sports fan? Simply put, Paul was a Roman citizen and he was there. The last two missionary journeys of Paul put him in and around Greece for a total of eight years. His second missionary journey lasted from AD49-52 where he spent time in both Corinth and Athens. It was during his third missionary journey (AD53-58) that while in Ephesus, Paul wrote two letters (1st and 2nd Corinthians) to the church in Corinth. He would later re-visit Corinth (where he wrote his letter to Rome – Romans). The point being that Paul was very comfortable with, and aware of, the culture and athletic games of Greece. One would be hard pressed to be in Greece, be a Roman citizen, and not appreciate the pursuit of athletic excellence.

My point here is that for someone to be able to use sports and theology to teach and spread the Gospel they need to have a working knowledge of both Sports and Christ. We all know that Paul had the latter I am just saying he also had the former. No matter if Paul was just athletically informed or an avid sports fan, his ability to use sports to unlock the Christian faith was awesome. We will look at just how awesome in Part 2.  

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