Many years ago a pastor called me on the phone, asking me to consider joining his multi-level marketing team. A multi-level company is one in which a pyramid is built, with everyone you get to join coming under you, and everyone they get to join them under them, and so on. Each person gets a commission from those beneath him, with the guy at the top of the pyramid getting the largest commission because a portion of all sales under him go to him.
I was a pastor in a small town at the time, as was he. We might have 60 adults on a Sunday morning, so would he. But he was making today's equivalent adjusting for inflation, of $225,000. We were living day to day. He was involved in a company that sold personal care products like soaps and shampoos, and he talked of how he got nearly all his congregation involved, so that they too were making good money.
As a result, they had paid off the church mortgage, had money in the bank, and life was good. I was living offering to offering, had next to nothing in the bank, and was thankful we lived in a farming community because several church members blessed us with fresh milk, meat, and vegetables to supplement my pay.
I turned him down, horrified at what he told me, telling him his gain was short lived because he was not honoring the call on his life, using his position to influence people for other than growing in Christ. If he was in business to be a business his actions would be fine, but one does not use a spiritual position to manipulate people for personal gain. (His church dissolved, as did his income months later)
Play by the rules doesn't mean what you think...
After Paul told Timothy to endure hardship the way a soldier does, he said this single line in II Timothy 2:5: "And if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not get the victor's crown unless he competes according to the rules."
On first glance it would appear Paul is giving Timothy instructions to be morally upright, to 'play by the rules', to not use or manipulate people, they way athletic events are conducted with rules. While that is true, there is a deeper meaning.
Competing according to the rules also includes the training rules and regime. Consider our day when athletes are tested for performance enhancing drugs taken in their training, for they must compete according to the rules of training as well as in the competition in order to be considered worthy to compete. It is all one package in our day and in Paul's: The training and competing rules are one, and an athlete must train and compete according to strictly enforced rules.
Our lives in Christ must be more than what people see on the outside, the rules also apply to our private lives. We cannot put on our 'church face' being sweet as honey, then go home and live like the devil. The rules apply to our whole lives.
What rules did the athlete have in Paul's day? How did they train?
Paul is using the athlete as he did the soldier, as a parable to make a spiritual point, and he told Timothy to consider his words and the Lord would give him understanding, so let us consider and understand.
Athletes trained and competed in the nude in Paul's day. The man would come to the gymnasium area from his home, and take off all his clothes. This is symbolic that in Christ we bring nothing of value to Him, and nothing of our own efforts and doing can be used in Him. We are stripped to who we are, completely open and naked, as Hebrews 4:12-13 says after speaking how the Word pierces our soul and spirit, "...and all things are open and naked before Him with whom we have to do." In other words, the Living Word sees our heart and soul and nothing is hidden from Him. We are naked before the Lord at all times, 24/7, clothed only by His robes of righteousness.
And so the naked athlete is then given an olive oil rub down, a massage from a trainer from head to toe. Our Trainer, the Lord Jesus, applies the oil of the Holy Spirit all over us, which coats our nakedness, loosens up our spiritual muscles, and prepares us for what comes next. We are at ease in His presence, coated with the Father's Spirit covering our nakedness.
After the first coast of oil is applied the athlete then goes to a sauna. The heat for our parable represents hardship in life, but we are not naked as we suppose, we are coated and clothed with the Holy Spirit, yoked with Him together in the heat as He walks with us through the process. We must stay in the sauna until the heat has accomplished its work in us. Let the oil work in the heat, let your spiritual muscles loosen up and absorb the oil of the Spirit. To leave the heat before the work is done only means you'll have to go right back there one day until you do allow the Spirit to soak into your spiritual pores.
Then the athlete comes out of the heat and once again gets a massage and rub down with more oil. After our own hardship the Holy Spirit comes afresh to us, renewing us, encouraging us, and giving us time to recover from the heat of the sauna.
Depending on the athlete and their needs, there might be another trip to the heat of the sauna followed by another massage and coat of oil - it varied in Paul's day as spiritually speaking, it does for us as well. But after the 2nd or 3rd cycle, the athlete stood up and the Trainer now coated him head to foot with thick oil. Other ingredients were added to make the oil less liquid and more paste-like.
It made the athlete hard to hold onto, slippery, for after this the athlete stepped into the arena to face his opponent. Spiritually, this is the extra anointing of the Spirit that empowers us for spiritual battle. It is the anointing that comes on us for intercessory prayer. it is the grace that carries us through difficult circumstances. This coating makes us slippery to the enemy; he cannot grasp us for we have a 'thick' coat of the Holy Spirit's presence on us. The enemy tries to hold onto us, but just gets a handful of the Spirit - on top of our regular oil coating, this one is for battle, for getting us through tough times, for striving for the victory over every circumstance against us.
And when the competition was over, the athlete returned to his Trainer as we do to our Lord, and that thick oil used just for the competition is scraped off, cleaned, and prepared for use again in another competition. Similarly, we can feel that extra anointing lift that carried us through, but we know He will be there for us just as thick in a future battle.
Yes Timothy, we win by living according to the rules. We must be willing to strip off our street clothes to become naked before the Lord, coated only with the Holy Spirit. We must endure the heat of the sauna and be recoated each time. We must allow our Trainer to massage us, deeply working in our being which seems at the time both relaxing and a bit painful, but He is preparing us for that thick coating of the Spirit required for the upcoming event - and when we are done, our Trainer will be right there for waiting for us, consoling us, massaging us again, ministering to us as only He can.
Yes Timothy, be like the athlete, but train and compete according to the rules...submit to your Trainer, and win! Next week, the farmer...until then, blessings,
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