It has been quite a struggle for many of our athletes in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. It has to be disappointing, having put in years of diligent, self-sacrificing training, and then to fail to make the podium and receive a medal. Just the privilege of qualifying to compete in the Olympics, of course, is a great honor, but then to do poorly against the world-class competition must be quite a let-down. Our cross-country ski team, for example, put in months of rigorous training, and yet failed (again) to medal. It is amazing the sacrifices young people make to spend years of disciplined training just to have a chance to compete. For those who do medal, especially to achieve gold, it must be such an exhilarating feeling to stand atop the podium, have the medal placed around their neck and hear the Star Spangled Banner played as Old Glory is raised.
But, there is something far more valuable, far more precious than receiving a gold medal at the Olympic Games. The Apostle Paul, using the Isthmian games as an illustration when writing to the believers at Corinth (Greece), said in reference to the athletic competitors: “And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (I Cor. 9:25). Whatever our earthly rewards, they are only temporal. The winners of the Isthmian games received a perishable pine wreath. Today, the top three finishers receive medals of gold, silver and bronze. A gold medal weighs about 180 grams, of which only 6 grams is actually 24-karat gold, the rest is silver and copper. At today’s prices, a gold medal is worth about $400. (If it were pure gold, it would weigh about 3.35 pounds and be worth about $76,000!). But, no matter its value, it is temporal and, along with all other trophies, awards, and possessions, must one day be left behind, when our brief stay on earth is over. Job, who suffered the loss of his family and possessions, said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there” (Job 1:21). King Solomon, who was the wealthiest person of his time, wrote: “As he had come naked from his mother’s womb, so will he return as he came. He will take nothing from the fruit of his labor that he can carry in his hand” (Eccl. 5:15). You will never see a U-haul behind a hearse!
Far more precious than gold or any other earthly treasure or achievement, is to have eternal and abundant life which is available through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and to serve Him faithfully and one day hear “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt. 25:21). The judge of the original Olympic Games in Greece sat on a seat called the bema (bay’-ma) and rewarded the winners of the competitions. Paul tells that “We (all who have received Christ as Savior) must all appear before the judgment seat (bema) of Christ, that each may be recompensed (rewarded) for his deeds…” (II Cor. 5:10). The Apostle Paul was looking forward to that time. As he spent his last days in a Roman prison before being executed, he wrote a final letter to his beloved friend and coworker, Timothy, saying; “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing” (II Tim. 4:7,8).
The United States was allowed only a single pairs figure skating team—the fewest since the first winter games in 1924 in Chamonix, France. Earning that spot was a married couple, Alexa Scimeca Knerim and Chris Knerim, who won the nationals title in 2015 and 2018. But, the years in between were tough for them. Alexa suffered from a debilitating stomach illness. They battled to work their way back to qualify for this winter’s Olympics in Pyeongchang. Since they were our only pairs entry, they also competed in the team event in which the U.S. received a bronze medal. But, they struggled in the pairs event and failed to come close to medaling. Chris, especially had a difficult time. But, the Knierms are followers of Jesus Christ and were skating, not just to receive a medal, but for the glory of God. They are secure in their identity in Christ, which was not dependent on the outcome of their competition. Their love for the Lord and for each other was obvious as the camera zeroed in on their expressions and as they were being interviewed. Even though Alex struggled much more than his wife in the competition, she never blamed him or showed any anger toward him, an obvious demonstration of the unconditional love which they share because of their personal relationships with Jesus Christ.
I’m reminded too of another Olympic athlete, Eric Liddell who was born in China to Scottish missionaries. Because of his convictions as a Christian, Eric refused to compete in the heats for the 100 meters—his specialty— at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris because they were held on Sunday. Instead, he spoke at a local church from Isaiah 40, emphasizing the need for us to stop striving for the world’s empty promises and to rest in the LORD. Later in the week, Eric ran in the 400 meters—not his specialty—and won a gold medal! His life is chronicled in the 1981 “Best Picture” movie, Chariots of Fire. After the Olympics, Eric returned to serve with his family in China and ended up in an internment camp when the Japanese invaded in 1943. He had an opportunity to leave in a prisoner exchange made by Winston Churchill, but let a pregnant woman go in his place. He died a year later of a brain tumor. I’m sure he, like the Apostle Paul, heard, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and will receive many imperishable rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
What’s more precious than gold and silver and bronze? Peter tells us: “Knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold…but with precious blood as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (I Pet. 1:18). Have you trusted in the precious blood of Christ shed to pay for your sins. “Jesus paid it all. All to him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain. He washed it white as snow.”