A Disciple’s Spiritual Fitness Course, Pt. 5
Study Guide, March 12, 2023
Pastor Clay Olsen
You’ve got to love all the various ‘identities’ that God has given His children. We are His children, we are His temple, we are His kingdom citizens, we are His branches, we are His chosen ones, we are His soldiers, we are His farmers, and we are His….well, let’s let the Apostle Paul reveal this one to us. In 2 Tim 2:3 and 4 Paul reveals this identity: “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier.” So there is our ‘soldier’ identity. Then in verses 6 and 7 he says: “The hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops. Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” And there is our ‘farmer’ identity. But right in between, in verse 5, he reveals this: “Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules.” NASU And so now we are also identified as ‘athletes’… we are ‘athletes for God’!
How about that? How does that make you feel? You are an athlete on God’s Team! Which makes ‘Discipleship’ your ‘Sport’! Our ‘life-long sport’ is ‘Discipleship’! And even though it’s not a game, it does involve similar training and discipline, like a sport would require, because training and discipline are what ‘athletes’ do! Which leads us back to our theme passage about our spiritual fitness. 1 Tim 4:8-9- “Spend your time and energy in training yourself for spiritual fitness. Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is much more important, for it promises a reward in both this life and the next. This is true, and everyone should accept it.” NLT
And we are also reviewing the Five Disciplines in each of our studies as well. And they are:
The Discipline of Bible study training.
The Discipline of Intercessory prayer.
The Discipline of Body life and service.
The Discipline of Sowing the seed of the Gospel.
The Discipline of Giving: Tithes and Offerings.
And regardless of our physical conditioning, we can and should stay in good spiritual shape. And to help with that, as we saw and handed out in our last study, God has given us those ‘59 One Another’ exercises to help us in doing just that. And as we continue today with this Discipline of Body life and service, our emphasis is on this additional identity as ‘Athletes on God’s Kingdom Team’. Athletes for God! The Apostle Paul reminds us that we are all spiritual athletes. And as we unpack this concept, we see a fascinating picture develop in how we each fit into God’s Kingdom Team. For example: When Jesus said that He was going to build His church and the gates of Hades would not prevail against it, He was talking about His world-wide church, or His universal church. Using our ‘spiritual athletes’ analogy, we could say that Jesus is building His entire ‘Kingdom Team’, or His universal team. In our Discipleship manual that we use for our Church membership classes a very interesting statement is made about Christ’s universal church. Again, the universal church refers to all of God’s ‘Born-Again’ children, regardless of their denomination or location. They are each and all members of God’s Kingdom Church. And we rejoice with our fellow Brothers and Sisters all around our communities and all around the world, and we love and pray for them, and even support them as we are able. But the thing is, the New Testament refers to the church in this ‘universal’ sense only four times. Almost every time you see the word ‘church’ in the Bible it is used to refer to a specific group of believers that were meeting together for the purpose of corporate worship and service and in the practice and training in carrying out those ‘one another’ exercises.1
Let’s put it another way. Paul instructed Titus and other church leaders to go about doing this: “…appoint elders in every city as I directed you.” (Titus 1:5 NASU) And then to the church in Ephesus he wrote this: “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” Eph 4:11-14 NASU
In essence, Paul was enlisting ‘Coaches’ for each of these ‘local teams’ and giving them a ‘game plan’ for their spiritual training and fitness for serving together as ‘team members’ in each of these local ‘church teams’! Since these children of God were also ‘athletes for God’ we can very well think of these churches as ‘Team Ephesus’ or ‘Team Philippi’ or ‘Team Colossae’. Even the Seven Churches of Revelation were examples of real churches in real locations where believers were connected as participating members of that local team – as in, ‘Team Smyrna’, ‘Team Pergamum’, ‘Team Sardis’, and so on. And as such, we could think of our own Chapel family as ‘Team Chapel By The Sea’, along with other ‘church teams’ in the towns around us. That has a good ring to it, doesn’t it? ‘Team Chapel’ or ‘Team CBTS’!
But you see where we are going with this…God’s game plan is to build His universal Kingdom Team by building up and working through His local Kingdom Teams. Yes, each of God’s athletes are part of His global team, but they are also to play for and be a part of one of His local teams, just like we see with each of the New Testament churches, or these New Testament ‘church teams’. And certainly, there are times when God’s athletes are injured or times in life when a Christian athlete is physically unable to practice and train with the team…and that is both understandable and, of course, that is taken into account by God. So, no worries about that. Some things are beyond an athlete’s choice about their participation.
But for every athlete that can and has the opportunity, well, if you are an athlete for God, then you are to practice with a church team and play for a church team, because that’s a central part of what God’s athletes do. Hebrews 10:24-25 puts it this way: “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of His return is drawing near.” NLT
You see, a major part of our spiritual fitness depends upon practicing and training, worshipping and serving as a ‘team member’ of a local church team. And this discipline is to become even more and more central in our lives because the day of Christ’s return is drawing nearer and nearer. Christianity is a team sport, where Christians are to be working out and training with a local team in order for God to use them to compete against, not each other, but against the opponents of the world, the flesh, and the devil. And make very careful note of that, because the stakes are far higher than trophies or individual or group accolades…the stakes are souls and victories over the works of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Again, though God’s teams are not competing against each other, they are to work as a team, serve as a team, and fight the good fight of faith as a team, and in support of God’s other ‘church teams’. And remember what they say… “Teamwork makes the dream work!”
So again, you are an athlete on God’s universal Kingdom Team. But you are also an athlete that is to play for, to practice, and to train with one of God’s local teams. And that team needs you, needs your gifts, your talents, and your abilities. And you need that team in the development of your gifts, talents, and abilities, because the Christian life is a ‘team effort’, a ‘team service, and a ‘team ministry’.
Now then, this gets really fascinating when we consider that the Apostle Paul lived in the Roman world. And yes, they also had the Greek games that had gone on for hundreds of years already, but in the Roman world there was one particular emphasis on one particular kind of athlete: the Gladiator. Oh yes, Gladiators were also viewed as ‘athletes’. And although there were Gladiators that fought individually, Gladiators also oftentimes fought in teams…both men and women. In Paul’s discussion of the Resurrection with the Corinthians he makes reference to him and other brethren fighting against wild beasts in Ephesus. No doubt, he used that as an allusion to fighting against false teachings and false teachers, but also in this sense it was like a team of Gladiators fighting against wild beasts.
So here’s the deal: We are athletes for God. But we live not on a playing field…no, we live on a battlefield. And thus, we are not athletes only, but we are soldier athletes. Often Gladiators were used in the training of Roman soldiers and served as soldiers themselves. As such we are to become battle hardened, like a Soldier Gladiator, one who has trained for battle, one who has trained with fellow brother and sister Gladiators, and one who has especially trained in the use of ‘the sword’. And all of this gives even more force to what we find in Eph 6:11-17- “Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” NLT
That’s another reason we are to daily train in the study of the Word of God and to also train together in the learning and application of the Word of God, and then share the Word of God in all the ways we can with others. “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Heb 4:12-13 NASU The sword of the Word both pierces through falsehoods of those who reject it and also brings peace to those souls who receive it. The goal of a soldier athlete was to become as proficient as possible in the use of ‘the sword’. The goal of the Christian soldier athlete is to also become as proficient as possible in the use of ‘the sword of the Word of God’!
And in this we also see then that Christians who are spiritually untrained or neglectful of their spiritual fitness are ill equipped to do the kind of battle against the evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against the mighty powers in this dark world, against the evil spirits in the heavenly places which wage war against our souls and the souls of those we love. Like a Gladiator soldier that trained individually and with his fellow Gladiators, we, too, are to train individually and together with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
And in a very real sense, we, too, live our lives in an arena, in a colosseum of not only a watching world around us, but also a watching world above us. What do we mean? Notice Heb 12:1-2- “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” NASU
Remarkable, right? And here we have an example of a primary interpretation, but also of secondary applications. We had just been told of a great cloud or crowd of witness in chapter 11 about the heroes of the faith, so certainly we are to find inspiration in these examples of the lives of the faithful works of these brothers and sisters in the faith. But as renown Pastor and Bible Teacher, Dr. Harry A. Ironside pointed out, the apostle clearly seems to indicate to us that there is a sense in which we are surrounded even now by a great crowd of spectators in Heaven who apparently are looking down upon us, while themselves witnessing to the grandeur of a life of faith. 2
How about that? And although that is not precisely stated, still we clearly know that our lives are clearly being observed by the Angels of God, the Angelic Watchers. And Luke records that Abraham certainly knew what was going on, on Earth, in the account of Lazarus and the unsaved rich man and his family. Oh yes, it would be very consistent, if not all the time, but at times if God’s children already Home would be cheering for God’s children not yet home…cheering for God’s children still on Earth as they stand firm against the strategies of the devil…as they fight against the evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, as they do battle against the mighty powers and evil spirits of this dark world, as they put on the belt of truth and wear the armor of God’s righteousness, as they put on the shoes of peace and share the good news of the Gospel of Christ…and as they use their shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil, all the while rejoicing under the helmet of their salvation and training with and daily using the sword of the spirit, the Word of God!
Brothers and Sisters, Earth is a Colosseum, and we are being watched and cheered on by God’s Angels for sure, and no doubt, at times by those believers who have gone before us and are cheering for you and for me as we individually train in the disciplines of discipleship and train together with our church teams in the service of discipleship. How great of motivation is that? Perhaps we need to be praying for ‘the hearing of the cheering’ by the great crowd of witnesses who are watching us in this Colosseum of Earth, this Arena of Earth! For both in our public times and even in our quiet times, our God, His Angels, and His children already Home, are cheering for us children who are still away from Home yet fighting the good fight of faith in a foreign land in front of a watching world.
Brothers and Sisters, if you haven’t heard the cheering for you, you haven’t been listening for it. We are to not only set our eyes on the things above, but our ears as well. The Heavenly cheering will motivate you for your earthly training in spiritual fitness and in godly living more than you can even think or imagine. So add ‘listening to the hearing of the cheering’ to your daily spiritual fitness program and watch what it does to your progress and your PR’s…your personal records and spiritual growth!
- Gleaned from Membership Classes material of the Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, CA
- Ironside Commentaries, PC Study Bible formatted electronic database Copyright © 2012 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.