Word of the Week
April 24, 2021
Agōn: Beyond the Agony of Defeat
Fight the good fight of faith . . .
1 Timothy 6:12 NASB
Whenever I hear the word agony, I am likely to flash back to ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Starting in 1961, the program opened every week with “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports . . . the thrill of victory . . . and the agony of defeat.” I can still see the ski jumper crashing as the announcer said those words.
We use the word agony to describe intense pain of any kind, physical or emotional, not just athletic disasters. But it actually originates on the playing field.
For the ancient Greeks, a competition like the Olympic games was an agōn. Entering an event like running or boxing was to agōnizomai. That’s the source of our words agony and agonize.
The apostle Paul was obviously familiar with athletic contests, because he used these words to describe the Christian life. We can learn valuable lessons from a closer look at this word.
The noun agōn [ah-GOHN] occurs about 8 times in the New Testament; the verb agōnizomai appears 6 times. The most common translations are “struggle, strive or compete.”
In classical Greece, the agōn was the stadium or race course where the crowds assembled for competitions like the Olympic games. To “agonize” was to compete for the prize in running, wrestling, or one of the other events. Some competitions were grueling forms of combat that could produce life-threatening injuries. In other settings, however, an agōn could be a contest in poetry, drama, or music. You had to check the context to tell what kind of struggle was in view.
The New Testament describes several kinds of agōn:
- Military action – Jesus told Pilate, “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight (agōnizomai) for me (John 18:36).
- Running – Hebrews 12:1 urges readers to “run with endurance the agōn set before you.”
- Boxing – When Paul asserted that “everyone who competes (agōnizomai) exercises self-control,” he added the illustration, “I box in such a way, as not beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:25-26)
Most of us are entered in the competition of life, not the 100-meter dash. And the Bible consistently uses agōn to describe the struggle of living as a growing follower of Jesus.
- Agōn can mean suffering.
For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict (agōn) which you saw in men, and now hear to be in me (Philippians 1:30).
After we had already suffered and been mistreated in Philippi, as you know, we had the boldness in our God to speak to you the gospel of God amid much opposition (agōn) (1 Thessalonians 2:2).
- Agōn requires discipline and self-denial.
And everyone who competes in the games (agōnizomai) exercises self-control in all things (1 Corinthians 9:25)
- Agōn often involves others, not just ourselves.
Paul taught in the hope of presenting each person as complete in Christ. That’s why he labored, striving (agōnizomai) according to God’s power (Colossians 1:29). He wanted the Colossians to know how great a struggle (agōn) he had for them (Colossians 2:1)
Epaphras, a leader from Colosse, was always laboring earnestly (agōnizomai) for the believers in prayer (Colossians 4:12).
- Agōn demands endurance.
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us . . . run with endurance the race (agōn) that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1).
Olympic athletes could choose their event and specialize in it. Christians often find themselves in a struggle that they did not choose – illness, persecution, conflict.
If you are locked in a struggle right now, remember that it is not a random mishap. God has not overlooked you. He has entered you in an event, knowing that it will demand more from you than you want to give. But He also knows that this agony is your opportunity to bring Him glory. You can’t win the victor’s crown if you bail out of the competition!
That’s why Paul tells his younger protégé Timothy, “Fight the good fight – agonize a good agony!” (1 Timothy 6:12. And at the end of his career, the old apostle summed it up: “I have fought the good fight – I have agonized a good agony” (2 Timothy 4:7).
A closely related word, agōnia, appears only once in the New Testament, describing the deep emotional strain that Jesus experienced in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:44) This word was used often in secular Greek to stress the searing emotional anguish that we associate with the English word agony.
Q & A
Q – Can you study Hebrew words in the same way that you study Greek words?
A – Yes, the process is very similar. You will still want to find all the possible meanings of the Hebrew word, then carefully examine your passage to determine which meaning is being used there.
The Hebrew alphabet is an obstacle, of course, but you can still use tools like Strong’s Concordance or electronic resources like the Blue Letter Bible or Bible Hub to bypass that complication.
Next week I am going to be speaking at a family conference in Texas, but not about Greek. I will be sharing with a group of fathers about Proverbs 1-9, Solomon’s agenda for guiding a son toward manhood. Next week’s word study may be abbreviated, but we will take a quick look at the Hebrew word for wisdom.
©Ezra Project 2021