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Run And Wrestle

In athletics there are sprinters, middle and long distance runners and those who participate in field events. The Christian life is more like a long distance race than a sprint. The sprinter needs energy for a short burst of speed; long distance runners must be able to maintain their effort for a long time, they need patience and stamina. We should never forget that Satan is always putting obstacles in the way; he is trying to hinder us from running well. Paul had to ask the Galatians a searching question, 'You ran well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?' (5:7).

Athletes dress for the task, leaving off anything that might hinder them. The writer to the Hebrews had this in mind when he wrote, 'let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us and run with endurance' (Heb.12:1). In the Greek games the victor was crowned with a garland of green leaves, striving hard for this great honour. As Paul said, 'Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown' (1 Cor.9:25). Those who run well in their Christian lives will receive an eternal reward.

Passing on the baton

The relay race, being a team event, requires commitment not only to individual effort, but also to the overall strategy of the team. The passing of the baton from one runner to another should be smoothly and efficiently done, with as little loss of momentum as possible. To pass the baton efficiently, anticipation and mutual consideration are necessary. Brilliant individualists, who cannot discipline themselves to the necessary mental and physical adjustment, would ruin the effectiveness of a relay team.

Paul knew that the progress of the gospel, and the continuation of the churches of God he was instrumental in planting, depended upon the transfer from one generation to the next of a full commitment to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). Paul laboured with brothers and sisters of all ages, but he often chose younger men to be his fellow-workers on his arduous missionary journeys. For example, Paul and Timothy laboured together to carry out the terms of the 'great commission'. Because Paul and Timothy were of one mind in their desire, showing mutual consideration, the 'generation gap' was no hindrance to a close working partnership. Paul exhorted Timothy, 'the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also' (2 Tim.2:2). Paul's vision took in three or four generations; he was looking for continuity. Sadly, there was unfaithfulness and departure from the faith. Some failed to pass on the sound teaching. Eventually the churches of God planted as a result of apostolic labours ceased. In the language of the relay race, there was failure to pass on the baton.

The struggle for spiritual victory

Personal combat is a close form of conflict in which opponents meet face to face, without any no man's land between the contestants. Wrestling is an example. It is said that much of modern wrestling is a fake, purely for entertainment. By contrast, wrestling was a feature of the Greek Olympic Games in which young men contested keenly to demonstrate their physical prowess. It is intensely close because the contestants can hear one another's heartbeats, and can feel the opponent's breath on the face. Any relaxation of effort, any loosening of grip, any sign of weakness or tiredness immediately becomes apparent to an opponent who increases his effort to take advantage.

Wrestling is used in Scripture to illustrate the spiritual warfare in which the Christian is engaged. There are aspects of spiritual warfare in which believers may stand together to witness, defend the honour of the Lord, and contend for the faith. But there is also conflict at a personal level when the believer stands alone. There are battles one must fight for oneself. 'For,' says Paul, 'we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places' (Eph.6:12). The believer's eternal welfare is secure; but he or she is locked in an intense struggle for spiritual victory in the present life. Like those who run well, those who overcome in spiritual conflict will have their eternal reward.