Paul is being downright dismissive of bodily exercise when compared to something that is far more important to God.
- AFA Exec. VP Ed Vitagliano
Maybe you plan on making a few New Year’s resolutions on the last day of the year, or perhaps you will simply use the flipping of the calendar from 2016 to 2017 as motivation to renew the commitments you made last year. Either way, I’m here to take the pressure off.
First, there’s nothing wrong with planning to alter bad habits or getting healthy or fixing that dilapidated old fence in front of the house. However, we must remember that changes in the temporal life – that is, our earth-bound and temporary existence – are of limited value.
Paul expressly teaches this in 1 Timothy 4:8, when he explains that “bodily discipline is only of little profit.”* To what kind of “bodily discipline” does Paul refer? From other translations – “bodily exercise” (KJV), “physical training” (NIV), “bodily training” (ESV) – it’s clear that Paul is addressing precisely the effort many of us commit to as each New Year dawns. As in, “I want to look good in a bathing suit this summer.”
Let me reiterate, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to see the blood pressure or cholesterol numbers drop a few points, or to start eating healthier in 2017. After all, Paul says there is some profit in these things – roughly speaking, a “little.”
Nevertheless, in the context of this passage, one cannot escape the feeling that Paul is being downright dismissive of bodily exercise when compared to something that is far more important to God.
Here is the above quotation in its context: “On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (vv.7-8).
It is interesting that he says “godliness is profitable for all things,” since he just finished talking about what little profit there is in bodily exercise. It appears, therefore, that godliness even profits the body. How so? I think Paul is saying that, if there’s sin beneath lousy cholesterol numbers – say, gluttony – or if there’s sin underneath my high blood pressure – maybe sloth – then the pursuit of godliness will actually bring health because it will eradicate the real problem.
Paul outlines the trajectory of the Christian life – it is always toward Christlikeness and the things that make us fit for eternity. The New Testament is replete with this theme, from Jesus exhorting us to lay up for ourselves treasure in heaven (Matt. 6:19-20), to Peter urging us to live as aliens and strangers in this life (2 Peter 2:11).
“Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth,” Paul admonishes us in Colossians 3:2.
Of course, this is not simply swapping a laundry list of earthly concerns for a spiritual “to do” list. The Christian life is not really about mere resolutions, at New Year’s or otherwise.
The power of the Christian life – and the godliness of which Paul speaks in 1 Timothy 4:7-8 – is in our focus on Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews tells us we should ensure that we are “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (Heb. 12:2).
Relationship with Christ is the only way in which the Christian can change anything in his or her spiritual life. That this is true is made abundantly clear from the chapter that precedes Hebrews 12. Sometimes called the “Hall of Faith” chapter, Hebrews 11 is a breathtaking overview of Old Testament heroes. Talk about men and women who changed things!
So chapter 12 opens with a critical word, “therefore,” and proceeds to exhort Christians to stop sinning and get busy winning “the race that is set before us.” But how?
Keep your eyes on Jesus, the One who began your faith-walk by extending His grace to you and who will ensure that you finish your race.
How many Christians do you know who make New Year’s resolutions related to godliness? Maybe it’s time we all did.
*Unless otherwise specified, this blog uses the New American Standard Bible.