The Olympics were a treat to watch but I felt a little discomfort and even some sadness when in both the opening and closing ceremonies the speaker declared the hope that sports might bring unity to the world. I suppose the Olympic organizers feel the need to attribute some sort of transcendent meaning to the games as they involve nearly all the world’s nations and draw the attention of much of the world’s population. To say something noble and grand only seems fitting for such an occasion.
But to declare that the games show that we can achieve unity through sport strikes me as a piece of wishful thinking of Olympian proportions. Sure there is a kind of superficial harmony when athletes from hostile nations stand arm in arm on the podium. But a cursory survey of world history since the advent of the modern Olympics in 1894 offers little empirical evidence that international sporting events have made much of a dent in man’s proclivity for division, strife, and war.
What’s sad about the Olympic hope of unity through sports is that it betrays a real hopelessness. It says that the hatred and conflict endemic to our world has left us so utterly bereft of real hope that we will grasp at anything, even sporting events, that promises peace. I wonder if anyone really believed the speaker’s words, including himself? But again, he had to attach some greater meaning to the games than it’s just the world’s biggest sports competition.
This past Sunday I preached on Galatians 3:23-29 and as I think about those verses, the contrast couldn’t be clearer between the world’s desperate hope for something – anything! – to bring unity versus the true hope God gives us in the Scripture. That hope is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is, the genuine gospel.
Paul wrote to Christians in Galatia who were listening to, and being led astray by, false teachers proclaiming a false gospel. They demanded that the Gentiles in Galatia (who, not being Jewish, had never followed the law of Moses) become circumcised and keep the Jewish dietary laws if they wanted to be right with God. In other words, their “gospel” was: keep the law of Moses and you’ll be saved.
The result was the Jewish Christians separated themselves from the Gentiles in the church. They brought division and disharmony through their teaching. Paul’s response was to declare with all the forcefulness he could muster that we are saved only by believing in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. We are justified by faith alone, apart from works (Galatians 2:15, 16). The true gospel is that Christ died for sinners and whoever – Jew or Gentile – believes in him is justified and saved.
And Paul declares that this gospel is the way to true unity among people, even people as different from one another as Jew and Greek, or slave and free, or male and female. He wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This doesn’t mean all outward distinctions or different roles among people are abolished. But what this verse means is that all who hope in Jesus Christ are united in a profound way – united to Christ and united to one another as the Body of Christ. This unity is the work of God’s Spirit (Ephesians 4:3) and is grounded not in human commonalities or interests, or even in a shared commitment to peace. But the unity is grounded upon a shared redemption and a common worship of the one true God and his Son Jesus Christ.
This is not to say that all who belong to Christ by faith are at peace with one another. Nor is it to deny that some have committed crimes against humanity as they professed to be Christians, or have even done evil in the name of Christ. But insofar as these things are true, they don’t reveal any fault in the gospel. Rather they reveal the depth of human sin.
The truth is, only the gospel of Jesus Christ offers genuine hope for sinful man to obtain unity and peace in this world. Only Christ can take away the self-centered heart of man that lies at the root of all conflict. Only Christ can replace hate with love. Only Christ can unite people. Sports cannot, education cannot, goodwill cannot. But Jesus can. We may not see in this life a world enjoying this unity in Christ. But we can hold onto, and hold forth, the gospel as the one and only hope the world has for finding it.
Soli Deo Gloria!