Wrestling was a common sport in the Greco-Roman world. The early Christians sometimes used the analogy of the wrestler for their great champions of the faith. Men and women who refused to deny Christ and call Caesar Lord. Champions like a second century Gallic Christian martyr who “though small and weak and contemptible, but yet clothed with the mighty and invincible wrestler Christ Jesus” overcame the enemy and testified of Christ as she was killed. The fourth century church historian Eusebius refers to men and women who displayed great courage in the face of hatred and persecution as being aided by, “the divine power of our Saviour [infusing] such courage and confidence into his wrestlers.”
Wrestling was a rough business. Not the sort of theatrical nonsense that we see on TV today. This kind of ‘wrestling entertainment’ is more entertainment that wrestling, however, it is not a new phenomenon. The classical period had their own version of WWE. It was used by Gregory of Nazianzus as an analogy to Christological heresy. He described those who denied the full deity of Jesus as like ‘the promoters of wrestling-bouts in the theatres...the sort which are stage-managed to give the uncritical spectators visual sensations and compel their applause’. All style no substance.
True wrestling was a contest, a fight. The early Church fought not with physical violence but with the testimony of Christ (Eph 6.12-20). Christ himself was described as the supreme wrestler (still undefeated). Athanasius of Alexandria (d. AD 373) called Christ ‘a generous wrestler’. Since Christ was not afraid to meet his opponents on their home turf. Leaving heaven and the privileges entitled to him, for our sake, and to defeat the enemy, he took on a fully human nature and met the ‘strong man’, man to man, not in heaven but on earth, not in his throne room surrounded by angelic choirs, but on the hill of Calvary surrounded by mocking voices. In his famous work De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, Athanasius remarks how even though the enemies of Christ considered the cross of Calvary a victory against Jesus, Christ the greatest wrestler, defeated death!
A marvellous and mighty paradox has thus occurred, for the death which they thought to inflict on Him as dishonour and disgrace has become the glorious monument to death’s defeat.