In Paul's lifetime athletic games such as the Olympics, were popular just as they are today. Paul himself seems to have taken an interest in them. As his "time of departure" (his death) drew near, he likened his life to a race that had been run (2Timothy 4:7-8).
"I have fought the good fight,
I have finished my course,
I have kept the faith.
Finally there is laid up for me
a crown of righteousness,
which the Lord, the righteous Judge,
will give to me on that day,
and not to me only but also to all
who have loved his appearing"
The word here translated "fight" is αγων (agon) (2Timothy 4:7). This word is translated "race" in another passage, "Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes upon Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith" (Hebrews 12:1).
Top athletes in many events undergo an agonising struggle when they compete. They are not like occasional joggers who quit running as soon as it starts to hurt. True athletes struggle to win. So do true Christians. Their struggle is against...
The word here translated "course" is (dromos) (2Timothy 4:7). This is the "-drome" on the end of some English words such as "velodrome" a race track for cyclists.
A running track is meticulously laid out for the athletes at sporting events. Likewise, God has laid out a course for the Christian. Our lives are not without direction, and we cannot run down any path we wish.
The word translated "finished" is τελεω (teleo) (2Timothy 4:7). It means to reach a goal or an end purpose. The whole point of a race course is that it has a finishing line.
The course is designed to be completed. Nobody applauds an athlete who fails to finish when finishing was possible. Even the one running last is expected to complete the course.
'I did it' comes after 'I will do it.' Paul was able to look back on his life and say, "I have kept the faith", but how many times, during his Christian life, when his faith was tested, when he felt discouraged and weak, did he have to say, "I must press on toward the goal for the prize...!" (Philippians 3:14).
Once, when I was a lad, there was a sports event in which runners had to complete four laps of the sports oval. Quite a lot of boys competed. As soon as the race began, I took the lead and stayed in the lead for three laps. Then I gave up and dropped out of the race.
The slower boys went on to finish the race. I got no credit for my three laps out in front, because I did not finish the course. In fact everyone thought I'd been rather silly, and they were right. I had not really taken the event seriously.
Another time there was a cross country run, a long and arduous course. I came in among the last, but I finished the course, and the sports master patted me on the shoulder and said, "Well done, well done!" That was because I had given it my best and I had run all the way to the finish.
The word translated "faith" is πιστις (pistis) (2Timothy 4:7). In Paul's day, athletes took a pledge to keep the rules of the race. The gospel is a faith like that.
The gospel may be regarded as the rules of the game laid down by the Lord. We have a choice either to pledge ourselves to abide by those rules or to be disqualified from the race (1Corinthians 9:24-27).
The word translated "crown" is στεφανος (stephanos) (2Timothy 4:8). In Paul's time, a crown of laurel leaves was the prize bestowed on the winner of a race. That crown was worn as proudly as a gold medal is today.
There are of course other crowns, including those worn by kings and queens. The crown of Christ the King of kings is a strong image, because we have the "crown of thorns" (Matthew 27:29) inflicted on Christ at his death, contrasted with his resurrection and ascension when God "crowned him with glory and honour" (Hebrews 2:7,9).
By the way, if your name happens to be a name like Stephanie, Stephen, or Stephanus, it means "crown" so you can always encourage yourself by saying, "I will be true to my name and strive for my crown". If your do not have such a name, never mind, you still have your crown to strive for anyway.
Will those of us who may have a long way yet to run, be able one day to look back with satisfaction at the way we ran? That's the challenge Paul holds out to us. Successful runners are not so by accident. They are successful because they are devoted to running first and sacrifice other things.
They also run with the best runner, and set their pace to that runner's pace. Are we devoted to our race? Are we running with Jesus? He will help us to struggle on to the finish, keeping the faith and looking forward to our crown.