As the Tokyo Games draw to a close on Sunday, attention will turn to one of the most anticipated events of the Summer Olympics: the marathon.
Traditionally the capstone competition every four years, the men’s 26.2 mile race dates back to 1896 and the first modern games in Athens, Greece. Although a woman technically ran that first year, the women’s version wasn’t officially added until 1984 in Los Angeles.
This year’s Olympics has navigated its share of challenge and controversy, from issues related to gender to masking to ideological protests. But exceptions aside, the very event is a grand global undertaking – and one I believe provides us with a small hint of the eternal life to come.
First, the Olympic Games are a vast, multi-cultural event.
This year’s gathering in Tokyo featured 11,656 athletes from 206 different countries, peacefully and productively living and working together.
John’s description of Heaven in Revelation suggests a vaguely similar though far grander scene and one even beyond our imagination:
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (7:9).
Second, the Olympic Games feature athletes at the very top of their respective events. Youthful, trained up and in the best shape of their lives, they may not be invincible, but they’re the very best of the best.
Again, John writes in Revelation that Heaven will be the best of the best, but far better, free from the challenges that ensnare us here on earth:
“‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’” (21:4-5).
Finally, the journey to Heaven has long been framed as a race to eternal life. The writer of Hebrews once wrote, “Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (12:1).
Although Scripture doesn’t indicate whether the apostle Paul was an athlete himself, he regularly invoked racing metaphors in his letters and teachings.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” Paul wrote to his friend Timothy (2 Timothy 4:7).
Sunday’s marathon will break with a long-standing tradition and not finish in the Olympic stadium. The change was made in anticipation of expected high heat in Tokyo. Instead, runners will begin and end in the city of Sapporo, located 500 miles to the north.
Traditionally, the race follows a course on city streets and even through quiet neighborhoods – culminating with a dramatic entrance into the stadium and a final lap around the track as spectators excitedly cheer on the runners.
At its essence, long-distance running is a solitary endeavor. The many miles of a marathon can get pretty lonely, so stepping into a track hosting a capacity crowd is a welcome high point. Athletes have reported being reduced to tears, especially as the long-awaited finish line comes into view.
On a personal level, the teachings of the apostle Paul ministered very intimately to our family.
As my father lay dying in his hospital bed in our family’s sunroom several years ago, we talked about his 86-year journey. It was clear my once robust dad had entered the stadium and was approaching the final lap of his marathon.
We talked about the “cloud of witnesses” and the “communion of saints” who were standing and urging him on from the stands. It seemed to comfort him, especially as he envisioned my mother and his wife of 57 years, along with his parents, siblings and previously departed friends, waving him home.
My dad had encountered his share of “problems and trials” (Romans 5:3) in the form of physical ailments, but he was nevertheless running towards the prize, epitomizing the words of Isaiah:
“He gives power to those who are tired and worn out; he offers strength to the weak. Even youths will become exhausted, and young men will fall and give up. But those who wait on the Lord will find new strength. They will fly high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:29-31).
Congratulations to all the athletes in Tokyo. And whatever trial you may be currently encountering in your race, don’t lose heart. Keep running – keep moving towards the finish line.
Photo from Shutterstock.