by John Wohlgemuth
Lead Teaching Pastor, Henderson Hills Baptist Church (Edmond, OK)
As a former athlete, I am drawn to the passages in Scripture that refer to a sports motif. Maybe it is my internal bias, but due to the number of times the apostle Paul mentions athletics, I tend to think the apostle Paul was either a pretty good athlete when he was younger, or he was a sports fan at some point in his life. (Or he may simply be very good at finding illustrations inspired by the Holy Spirit!)
The passage under consideration today is 1 Timothy 4:6–10, which in the ESV translation reads, “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. 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. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”
Notice first that Paul had “trained” Timothy in the good doctrine of our faith. The Greek word Paul uses there connotes the idea of feeding someone, of nourishing them on the inside. And it was because of that sustenance that Paul then shifts to calling Timothy to avoid the old wives’ tales of their day—the humanist superstitions made up by uniformed people. Instead, Paul writes, Timothy must discipline himself for the purpose of godliness, similar to how Paul had Trained Timothy earlier. Like an athlete training at the gymnasium (which is the Greek word used in v.8 for “train”), Timothy should focus his energy, time, and effort primarily on his spiritual life.
Paul writes here of our focus, where we spend the resources of our lives. Unfortunately, many people today immerse into godless ideas and unhelpful opinions (see cable news networks, talk radio, and social media feeds, for example). Rather, we should focus our energy and time on growing in godliness. I thought of this passage as I watched the 2020 Summer Olympics get postponed for a year. I felt for those Olympians who had planned their entire training regimens around this August. Their discipline got interrupted and they were forced to adapt. According to God’s Word here, though, a similar kind of focus should sustain our spiritual training even more.
But shouldn’t we want the kind of godliness that results from the spiritual discipline Paul describes here? Of course. We should want our lives to look more like Jesus’s did. And that desire should be enough to compel us to train spiritually. But in v.8 Paul adds a further reason: because it actually does improve our lives here, plus it lasts into the next life.
Now, this reality of pursuing eternal benefit does not mean we simply write off our bodies like the Gnostics did. I love that even God’s Word says here we should work out and not “Elsa” our bodies (“let it go…”). However, we must not allow physical training to become our primary focus. Because no matter how many times I do CrossFit, or eat less sugar, or bike, or whatever…I am still dying! So I should prioritize my spiritual training, with benefits that will last into eternity. I must grow in godly obedience first and foremost. That pursuit is how I store up treasures in heaven and how I point others to Jesus as they see my good works and glorify my Father in heaven.
One further reason that Paul gives for this spiritual training is due to his final trustworthy and acceptable saying—that our hope is on the living God who is our Savior. That truth is why we “toil and strive,” v.10 says, because we place our trust in the risen Jesus who is good on His promise.
Those two words in v.10, though, remind us that this pursuit remains practically difficult. We pursue the mission of God and the spiritual training in our own lives by working hard and continuing to struggle (agonizo is the Greek word here). I remember from my physical training in football that discipline and hard work are difficult, and I often wanted to give up. Spiritual training is possibly even harder, though, because the enemy’s headwinds stand against us. So, we must continue to strive and give every effort, knowing that like physical training, spiritual training takes a long time to build the muscles needed to sustain the long haul, to “run with endurance the [long] race that is set before us.” We get that strength, though, by “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1–2).
May God strengthen us to pursue Him with our hearts, promote Him with our lives, and proclaim Him with our lips.