The Rio 2016 Olympics was a golden success, especially for the United States. A total of 207 nations, consisting of 11,303 athletes, competed in 28 Summer sports, in which 306 sets of medals, 918 in all, were awarded. Olympic history was made by several, including Maryland swimmer Michael Phelps and runner Usain Bolt of Jamaica.
But two outstanding Olympians did not get one of those 918 medals. Instead, American runner, Abbey D’Agnostino, was awarded the prestigious Pierre de Coubertin Medal. A New Zealand runner, Nikki Hamblin, was also awarded this medal. It has only been awarded 17 times in all previous Olympic Games. It is awarded to those who display an extraordinary act of sportsmanship.
The women were running in the 5000 meters race and only had 2000 meters to go when Nikki clipped Abbey, and both runners went down. Abbey got up right away and turned to help Nikki get up. The women were too far behind to have a chance at any Olympic medals, but Abbey convinced Nikki to keep running: “Get up! We have to finish this!”
Nikki lay on the ground crying, but Abbey crouched down and put her hand on Nikki’s shoulder and then under her arm and helped her up. Then Abbey realized that her own ankle was hurt, but she refused to give up. Grimacing in pain, she struggled to run. Now on her feet, Nikki helped her at first, but then ran on thinking Abbey would have to stop. But she didn’t!
At the finish line, Nikki turned around and was amazed to see Abbey was still running! She waited till Abbey crossed the finish line, and they both hugged in tears. Nikki later said:
“I’m never going to forget that moment! When someone asks me what happened in Rio 20 years from now, that’s my story—that girl shaking my shoulder, saying, ‘Come on—get up!’”
Today, I say to you who may have been knocked down by unpredictable events: sickness, divorce, job loss, financial woes, betrayal, and more: “Come on, Get up! We have to finish this race!” And if I stumble or get knocked down by some unpredictable event, I hope someone in my circle of Christian friends will come along and lift me up and say: “Come on, Sharon, get up and let’s finish this race!”
Because our race is not given to the fastest — but to the finisher!
The Wiseman said: “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
The fastest runner does not always win the race, because unpredictable events can happen to slow him down and even knock him down. He can stumble, pull a muscle, get elbowed or clipped by a passing runner and fall. He cannot make up the time to overtake those who passed him and will not get the gold medal as the fastest runner.
But the Wiseman said that when it comes to the race for eternal life, it doesn’t matter if you come in first. It doesn’t matter if you win the gold medal as the fastest—what matters is that you finish the race!
It’s About Endurance
Jesus said that in these last days, “Because iniquity (a flagrant disregard for God’s laws) shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that endures to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 24:12-13). Some Christians today are more in love with the world than the Word! But in order to endure till the end, we must keep in love with the truth. Apostle Jude exhorted us: “But you, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith praying in the Holy Ghost, keep yourselves in the love of God” (vv.20-21).
We all will face seasons of discouragement, and we all will be tempted by the adversary. Many Bible greats we esteem as champions of the faith stumbled or fell on their journeys: Abraham, Moses, David, John Mark, Peter—But when they messed up — they got up! They kept running, and they won the race set before them. We each must run “the race set before us” (Heb.12:1-2), and unexpected things will happen; maybe knock the wind out of us—even knock us down— but not out!
It’s not how fast a runner you are, but are you a finisher? Do you have the spiritual stamina to endure to the end, or will you faint, or even be disqualified? The prophet Jeremiah gave this proverb:
“If you have run with the footmen, and they have wearied you, then how can you contend with horses? And if in the land of peace wherein you trusted, they wearied you, then how will you do in the swelling of Jordan?” (Jer.12:5).
The message is: If the smallest of troubles and evils you have faced have caused you to become weary and faint, how will you endure when you face much greater troubles and more powerful enemies? If you have fallen under small difficulties, how will you stay in the race when you face greater problems? If you can’t run with the foot soldiers, how will you run with the calvary?
When the Jordan River overflowed, lions and other beasts of prey were driven out of their dens and bushes along the banks into the land, spreading throughout the country, killing cattle and slaying people. The prophet was saying: If ordinary trials which are common to us all, tax your patience and weary your heart, how will you endure extraordinary trials of faith like Job endured, and fiery trials of faith like Peter described? How will you endure the 40 day-wilderness temptations that Jesus endured? And the ultimate sacrifice Stephen and Paul and all the apostles faced? How will you stay on your feet when the land is filled with violence and terrorism?
Don’t Be Disqualified!
Apostle Paul admonished the Galatian believers: “You did run well, who did hinder you that you should not obey the truth?” (5:7). It is astounding today how many Christians who were born again and raised in the truth are turning aside to false doctrine that excuses sin and perverts the Gospel. I am telling you by the Holy Spirit: When the floods of demonic predators overflow the land, and the forces of darkness are unleashed against the Church of Jesus Christ, they will not stand! The true Church will stand, but they will be caught up in the tide of Satan’s lies and fall by the wayside.
Paul commanded: “Holding forth the word of life that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither labored in vain” (Phil. 2:16). If you’re not running in the truth, you are running in vain. And you will be disqualified.
In Rio, the American men’s 4 x 100 meters relay race ended in their disqualification. They actually thought they had won the bronze medal and were parading with the American flag to the cheers of the crowd. A few minutes later, after the judges reviewed the video, they saw that the baton was passed too soon before the receiving runner was in the correct yellow zone. They were disqualified and not even listed in the standings.
You not only must run—you have to run by the rules! As Christians, we have to run in the true Gospel race. Paul testified to the Ephesian brethren: “That I might finish my course with joy and the ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus to testify of the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). What is “the Gospel of grace”? What does it mean? Anything goes? This is what is being preached in American pulpits, that grace covers all. You can sin, and you don’t need to repent again. You can’t lose your salvation once you’re saved, no matter how sinful your life. According to them, you can go to Heaven from the world.
But Paul made it clear what the Gospel of grace teaches: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11-13).
Grace teaches us:
1. Deny ungodliness and worldly lusts.
2. Live soberly, righteously, and godly in this world.
3. Look for the blessed hope of the rapture.
This addresses two major false doctrines popular today:
1. Grace is become a license to sin. Confusing conviction with condemnation, they boast that there is no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus. This, of course, is true, because condemnation is the passing of sentence upon the lawbreaker. In the case of all sinners, the sentence is death, but Jesus paid the penalty of death on the cross. This is why we are not under condemnation—His death freed us from death row. This does not mean we are free from conviction of the Holy Spirit when we sin. Paul instructed ministers that their preaching should include conviction, reproof, and rebuke for sin (1Tim.5:20, 2Tim.4:1-4, Titus 1:13).
2. There is no imminent rapture of the believers in Christ. This removes the restraint that Jesus could return at any time, giving people the misconception that they can live in sin without the fear of being left behind. Jesus said that if the homeowner knew at what time the thief would break in, he would be ready; he would have the sheriff waiting at the door, so to speak. But he doesn’t know, so he must keep watch. In the same way, He said that His coming will be “as a thief in the night” (Matt.24:23-24, 1Thes. 5:1-9, Rev.3:3).
Run to Obtain!
Paul was fond of using the metaphor of the athletic games of the Greeks and Romans in many of his letters. The Corinthian church had many problems including prominent sexual sin. Paul implored them to run their Christian race like the Olympic runners in the games and said: “Run to obtain!” (1Cor.9:24). The Greek word for run is stadion which we bring into English as stadium, the venue where the races are held. The winners of Olympic Games were awarded both materially and with great honor. Likewise, in today’s Olympics, gold-medal winners receive $25,000. Silver medal winners receive $15,000, and bronze medal winners receive $10,000. But the primary emphasis is not on the money, but on the honor bestowed.
There were thousands of onlookers and spectators watching the games then and now. Paul said “we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb.12:1). So we should remember as we run our Christian race, it is not just a private race of faith. We influence many people’s lives around us. Think how many little kids have sat at home glued to the TV watching Olympic sports and said: “I want to do that! I want to be an Olympian!”
The Greek word for obtain means “to seize something, to grab hold of, pull down, finally making an object your own.” It is to fight for the prize with all your might, just as Abbey and Nikki fought hard to cross the finish line. They were running to obtain! Because they wouldn’t give up and kept on running, encouraging each other, they received a rare award. Of the thousands of Olympians over the decades, they were the 18th and 19th persons to receive this extraordinary honor.
Paul said that such athletes “strive for the mastery, and this they do to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible” (vs.25). This means the athlete not only trained his body for his race, but he abstained from everything that could harm his physical condition. This he did for a crown that perishes (i.e. the laurel leaves of the Greeks). In our race for heavenly rewards, everyone who crosses the finish line will receive a crown of eternal life. Therefore, Paul said that he kept his body under subjection, lest if by any means, after he had preached to others, “I myself should be a castaway” (vs.27). This word in Greek means “to be rejected as unusable—to be disqualified.”
He wrote from his Roman prison cell: “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). Paul was alluding to the home stretch. With eyes fixed on the finish line and bearing down towards the prize—to be called up on high— to Heaven, at the rapture resurrection.
“Let us run with endurance the race set before us; Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God…. For consider him… lest you be wearied and faint in your minds” (Heb. 12:1-2). On the cross, when He knew His death would fulfill the Father’s plan of eternal salvation, Jesus cried out with His last breath: “It is finished!” (Jn.19:30).
C’mon! We are going to finish our race! And when we stand on Heaven’s royal podium to receive the golden crown of eternal life, and the blood-stained banner of the Lamb hanging in the background, they will play the victors’ anthem:
“Amazing grace! …Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come. ‘Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace has led me home.”
Amazing grace for our amazing race!