2 Timothy 2:5
An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.
Despite his own trials, Paul continued writing to encourage young Timothy, helping him to cope with and prepare for a difficult life of ministry. Though hardships were inevitable, Paul implored his protege to cling to his instruction and the teachings of his mother and grandmother (1:5–6; 3:14–15), pressing forward in ministry with endurance, boldness, and faithfulness.
To emphasize his point of endurance, Paul gives three illustrations of perseverance in the midst of tribulation: A soldier (2:3b–4), an athlete (2:5), and a farmer (2:6).
In this instance, the athlete is a metaphor used by Paul to illustrate characteristics of a healthy spiritual life. As with many of the other instances when Paul utilizes athletic metaphor, here there is a sense of a struggle involved. “Athlete” refers to someone who competes in a contest and implies high levels of effort, preparation, and intentionality for the purpose of prevailing victorious.
It is not always the most gifted athlete that prevails victorious, but the one that disciplines himself in training. Emil Zátopek, a long-distance runner from the Czech Republic, while known for winning three gold medals at the 1952 summer Olympics was equally well-known for his inefficient, laboured running gait. While not the most naturally gifted athlete, Zatopek’s work ethic, grit, and determination catapulted him to great athletic success.
Oftentimes today, when many athletes are striving to make their living playing sport at the top levels, the skill level and natural talent can be deadlocked at the top of the heap. What usually sets one athlete over another is dedication, sacrifice, hard work, and the ability and willingness to endure beyond hardship and pain.
So it is with believers. While success is not as exclusive as it is in athletic arenas, Christians are called to suffer and persevere nonetheless (see Philippians 1:29; 1 Peter 2:21).
Even Zatopek, with all his determination and hard work, would not have experienced any athletic success should he not have run according to the rules. Likely, Paul here is referring to the three qualifications the athletes of the ancient Games had to meet in order to be eligible to win the prize: nationality, preparation, and competition. The competitors had to be Greek-born. The competitors had to endure a minimum ten-month training period before being allowed to compete in the Olympiad or Isthmian games. The competitors, finally, had to adhere to the rules of their specific athletic event. The failure to comply with any of the above qualifications meant ineligibility.
Similar to the first century athlete, believers must be born again (John 3:3), prepare and train for godliness (1 Corinthians 9:24–27), and live according to Christ’s divine standards of discipleship. As believers, we have met the first qualification. However, the remaining two require discipline, self-control, intentionality, and reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 15:8–11; Romans 8:26; 1 Corinthians 2:6–14).
Believers endure the hardships of the Christian life by living in a way that mirrors how a qualified athlete competes—within the bounds of the rules.
It seems today that athletes are often looking to skirt the line between legal and illegal, searching for the slightest advantage over fellow competitors. Sometimes they get away with it, but sometimes they do not. The rules must be adhered to in order to compete, let alone win.
As Christians, we can endure the hardships that come along with living a Christian life if we pay attention to the rules of the game that Jesus modeled. Abiding by the rules, remaining qualified competitors, gives us hope in the eternal reward that awaits us at the end of the race. Such hope empowers Christians to continue to endure.