1 Timothy 4:7-8
“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
Training yourself in godliness is valuable in every way. Yes and amen.
Training yourself in “bodily-ness” has some value, but not as much value as training yourself in godliness. Yes and amen.
Therefore, instead of focusing on reps, sets, and weight in the gym, you are really better off focusing on your bible verse memorization reps, your quiet time sets, and the weight of your study bible and commentary collection.
Well… not exactly. But for a long time, I fell victim to this type of thinking and consequently misapplied guilt to myself at times when I exercised. After all, bodily training only has some value, while training in godliness has all the value. Why spend your time laboring to earn $10/hour when you have the option to bank $1,000,000/hour?
But the point of this text is best understood when we see the full context of Paul’s letter. In 1 Timothy, Paul writes a series of encouragements and instructions for Timothy while he was engaged in the battle for the health of the Ephesian church. And with an accurate understanding of what Paul is saying here in Chapter 4 to Timothy, we can have a doctrinally sound and helpful compass to use to navigate how we appropriately consider and apply bodily-ness training.
Hold the line, Timothy
After Paul’s customary heading and greeting in his letter, he gives Timothy an imperative: “remain at Ephesus…” (1:3). Timothy was pastoring the Ephesian church, and Paul told him to stay put. Why? There was work to be done. Timothy was to confront all false and speculative doctrines, and he was to steward the truth by preaching it to his flock with the right aim (1:3a-5). He was to stay put, plant his feet, and hold the line.
This charge, to hold the line by teaching and to confronting error, is the heartbeat of 1 Timothy. At the beginning and end of the letter, Paul uses a war analogy as bookmarks. Wage the good warfare, Timothy (1:18). Fight the good fight, Timothy (6:12). In other words, Paul recognizes that for the health of the church, Timothy needs to stay where he is, and engage in the war.
And in between these bookmarks, Timothy is given specific instructions for his church. The church is to pray and to remember the true God (2:1-7). The men especially should pray, in unity (2:8). The women are to devote themselves to modesty, self-control, good works, and submissiveness (2:9-15). The elders of the church are to be qualified in character and skillful teachers (3:1-7). The deacons in the church are also to be qualified in character and servants (3:8-13). All people in the church are to hold to right conduct and confess ‘the mystery of godliness’ (3:14-16). The church is to expect false teaching (4:1-5). Timothy, as the pastor, is to labor for the church by teaching, training, commanding, leading, practicing and watching his doctrine (4:6-16). The church members should treat one another like family members (5:1-2). Widows are to be taken care of (5:3-16). The elders are to be honored (5:17-21). Sin needs to be dealt with in the church (5:22-25). Slaves are to honor their masters (6:1-2). Timothy is to teach the truth and to understand the M.O. of false teachers (6:2-10). Timothy is to go to war for the true faith (6:11-16). The rich are to be rich in good works (6:17-19). And finally, Timothy is to keep his doctrine pure (6:20-21).
Timothy’s mission was to remain in Ephesus and hold the line in the battle for the health of his church.
Train yourself, Timothy
Now, let’s take a look at what Paul is sharing with Timothy about training in godliness and bodily-ness. In Chapter 4, Paul warns Timothy that false teachers will come, which will result in apostatizing (4:1). These people will devote “themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (4:1). Their consciences will be “seared”, i.e., calloused and unfeeling; certainly not malleable or responsive to God’s truth (4:2). They will create strange rules, like forbidding marriage and certain types of food, as they have forgotten Who creates and sanctifies all things (4:3-5).
And what is Timothy’s charge in the midst of this opposition? He is told to put ‘these things’ before the church, which is to apply all that Paul has said previously, and to train himself (4:7-10), command (4:11), lead (4:12-14), and practice and carefully watch over his doctrine (4:15-16). These are the marching orders Timothy should carry with him as he goes to war.
The training in v. 7 is paired with a rejection of silly, irreverent myths. What these myths are we can’t be entirely sure, but we do know how Timothy should treat them and what he should think about them. Timothy should outright shun them, and to see them for what they are: old wives’ tales that are not beneficial for the battle he is engaged in. They are silly and out of place. And they are to be replaced with training in godliness.
The word ‘train’ here is the greek verb gymnazō, which literally means to exercise naked and vigorously. Take everything off so you can move in all ranges of motions most efficiently, and exert your body maximally. This word would have been used to describe the type of training that occurred in the palæstra, which was an ancient Greek wrestling school or gymnasia. The dojo. Or, maybe another way to say it, the MMA cage or boxing ring. This type of training results in strength, stamina, and mental discipline, which are valuable (v.8).
The word ‘godliness’ in v. 7 is actually used 8 times in 1 Timothy, and twice in verses 4:7-8. The word means a life that is marked by reverence towards God. It’s a character quality that Timothy is told to train himself for. Oh, and it’s valuable too (v.8). So valuable in fact, that it is profitable ‘in every way’. All things, in the present life we live on earth, and the future life when we are with Christ.
If you’re still with me, you now have the basic context set in order to understand the meaning of verses 7-8, and it goes something like this. Timothy, as you hold the line in the midst of the war you are engaged in for the health of the church, you must exercise and discipline yourself towards a life of reverence to God with the intensity, seriousness, and commitment of a fighter. This pursuit will benefit you in all things, both the present and the future.
Can you spot me, Timothy?
Paul uses bodily training as a metaphor to describe the type of intensity we should have towards pursuing godliness. Notice that that Paul uses bodily training as a positive metaphor for training in godliness. He does not condemn bodily training, but instead uses it as his standard for intensity.
But are these verses relevant for instruction in bodily training? What is our compass? There are at least three applications from these verses as it relates to our physical fitness.
1. Don’t forget that bodily training has some value.
By Paul’s own admission, gymnazō in the palæstra has value. Exerting yourself physically is profitable, and if neglected there will be ‘some value’ missing from your life. While not explicitly said in these verses, the value of bodily training is self-evident; when we exercise we build strength, stamina, mental discipline, and do our part to prevent our bodies from preventable chronic illnesses. Physiologically our bodies respond well to movement and exertion, and our bodies’ systems were designed for use, and not for the habitually sedentary life our world finds itself in.
2. Bodily training will fade with your body.
This is a sobering reminder for the young who love fitness (myself included). The ability to exercise will fade throughout your life and will ultimately vanish, which might be why Paul contrasts bodily training with training in godliness. Godliness endures and will bless you for eternity while bodily training blesses you only in the here and now. The ability to train bodily will slowly fade as our bodies age, which is the consequence of the curse of sin. Our bodies will meet death at some point, and if we live long enough, we will experience a slow roll into a decaying physical frame.
3. Godliness is valuable for all things, including bodily training.
All things in v. 8 means… wait for it… all things! Why would bodily training be excluded from all things? Training yourself in godliness will bless your training in bodily-ness. Godliness is a safeguard for Christians who exercise amidst an over-sexualized, vain, and shallow fitness culture. We train in reverence towards God, aiming to please him with the use of our bodies. Godliness is our pursuit and our goal, and it’s big and wide enough to add value to our bodily training. God has given us a body to use, to move and to serve with, and the physical exertion of our bodies, if aimed towards godliness, will glorify God.