Football – A Matter of Life and Death?

Bill Shankly was one of the most successful football managers of the 20th century.  He took charge of Liverpool when they were in the Second Division, rebuilding the team into a major force in English and European football. He was known for his charismatic personality and wit. “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death,” he famously once said. “I am very disappointed with that attitude.  I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

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In reality, Shankly said this half-jokingly during a television interview when expressing regret about how his family had suffered as a result of his all-consuming dedication to football. However, Shankly’s words are still remembered and repeated.

Football is many things to many people. For some it is a past-time to be enjoyed through spectating or playing. For others it is a business providing an income. The projected revenue for English Premier league clubs in 2018/19 is a mouth-watering £5,000M. These figures are used to create huge salaries for the players and income for thousands of support staff in the clubs, along with the associated supply chain. The revenue is largely provided by the general public, who pay for match tickets, replica shirts, and satellite television subscriptions.

On any given match-day, whether in a football stadium or around a screen, people will gather together for one cause. They will be clapping, singing, and worshiping. They will have spent their hard-earned money and their time, knowing they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Satisfaction on the day and joy in the week ahead are bound up with the result of a football match. For some, football is certainly a very important business.

But what about life and death?

Although Shankly was not entirely serious when he made his oft-repeated quotation, it is worth careful consideration.

To say something is ‘a matter of life and death’ is to affirm that the subject is of such importance that the outcome of an event will determine whether a person lives or dies. The honest person will acknowledge that Shankly’s quotation was not intended to be taken literally. As noted above, the television interview in which he made the iconic statement demonstrated that, dedicated as he was to football, he did not regard it as more important than life or death. Rather, he regretted prioritising football over family.

However, Shankly’s phrase does make us think about life and death. When we consider the brevity of life our priorities are often realigned in the light of how we want to be remembered, and what is really important. Regrets come when we realise we have had wrong priorities. Like many other sports, football can be enjoyed for a variety of purposes. For some it is a means of keeping fit, or socialising with friends, or even a form of employment. But there is a great danger: when we get our priorities wrong we are allowing other things to usurp God’s rightful place. God's character is revealed in the Ten Commandments. The very first shows the place He demands: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:3).  God rightly demands that He alone must be our priority. It makes sense: every good gift we enjoy, including the air we breathe, comes from Him.  

"The Lord Jesus addressed people who needed to know that wrong priorities have eternal consequences."

In Luke chapter 16, the Lord Jesus addressed people who needed to know that wrong priorities have eternal consequences. The original audience were lovers of money, but they stand in a long line of people who regard anything as more important and ultimately more satisfying than God.

That object might be self, money, football, family or anything else that has become our god. Instead of worshipping the one true God, the giver of all blessings, we worship His gifts.

This is natural, sinful human behaviour, so the words of Jesus should resonate with all of us. The Lord Jesus spoke about a rich man who had his priorities wrong, because he loved money above God. The result was that after death he was tormented in hades (v 23), finding neither comfort (v 25) nor escape (v 26). He wanted his family to be alerted to the great danger they faced, hoping they would repent (vv 28,30), turn to God and be saved from eternal punishment. He was informed that his family already had God’s word, sufficient to warn them of their peril and instruct them in how to escape it (v 31).

Today God’s word, the Bible, freely available to billions, is being used worldwide to bring all sorts of people to faith in Jesus Christ. To those who realise they have ignored God, prioritising other things, there is news of love and hope. The wonderful message of the gospel is that we do not need to face the awful consequences of our sins. We can be forgiven and reconciled to God, not through anything we might resolve to do but through faith in Jesus Christ, for ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). 

Jesus Christ lived a perfectly sinless life, obedient to God in every detail. There was no failure – no wrong priorities, motives, words or actions – for which He would face the just punishment of a holy God. Yet the Bible records that ‘For our sake he [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).

A close look at this statement is time well spent. It tells us that something has been done ‘for our sake’; that is, an action has taken place for our benefit. The action is then described: ‘he [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin’. The one who knew no sin, Jesus Christ, was treated as though He were the sinner. This may sound unjust. However, the Lord Jesus went to the cross according to the ‘definite plan and foreknowledge of God’ (Acts 2:23), a plan He came voluntarily to fulfil.

Such was God’s love that Jesus took the punishment sinners rightfully deserve. God ‘made him to be sin’ in order that all who trust Him for salvation are treated as if they had never sinned at all. This amazing exchange is part of God’s plan of salvation. It would be unjust for a holy God to turn ‘a blind eye’ to sin. Indeed, left to ourselves, we are entirely helpless – so Jesus came to live the righteous life we could never live, and on the cross take the punishment we deserve. He paid the penalty so that all who repent of their sin and trust in Him will never be punished; rather, they will be treated by God as perfectly righteous. 

"The gospel is far more important than any other message because it literally is a matter of eternal life or eternal death."

The gospel is far more important than any other message because it literally is a matter of eternal life or eternal death. Eternal life is not simply endless existence but an eternal intimate personal relationship with God. Eternal punishment, on the other hand, is eternal separation from God, experiencing His wrath in the lake of fire.

Therefore, the question is, where will you spend eternity? While the opportunity is available you must heed the message and take appropriate action. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).