When the doctor delivered the news, I was stunned. There was a 99 percent blockage in my left anterior descending (LAD) artery—the “widow-maker,” he called it. Immediate surgery and life-long changes were required. If I wanted to beat heart disease and live a long and healthy life, I would need to do two things, according to my doctor: eat right and exercise. Sounded simple enough.
Simple in this context, however, didn’t mean easy but rather “uncomplicated” and “straightforward.” Improving my physical fitness has been anything but easy. And neither has it happened by chance; discipline is required. With hard work and healthy habits, I’m in the best shape of my adult life.
In 1 Timothy 4:8, Paul made the comparison between physical discipline and godliness. Godliness, like physical conditioning, is developed in two ways: healthy nourishment and disciplined spiritual training.
1. Eat healthy food.
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul advised his young protégé on how to deal with the false teaching that threatened the health of the church in Ephesus (1:3-11; 4:1-5; 6:3-5). In describing the false teachings and their outcome, he used terms like “empty” (1:4), “fruitless” (1:6), “pointless and silly” (1 Tim. 4:7), and “unhealthy” (6:4).
The apostle prescribed “sound teaching” as the healthy alternative to the spiritual junk food being offered by certain teachers. Five times in the Pastoral Letters he used this term “sound teaching” (1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; Titus 1:9; 2:1). The word translated sound carries the meaning of “healthy.” It’s from the same word Jesus used in Luke 5:31, “It is not those who are healthy who need a doctor, but those who are sick.”
Paul’s concern was not only that Timothy teach “these things” to the church (1 Tim. 4:6), his concern was for Timothy’s health: be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished by the words of the faith and the good teaching that you have had followed” (v. 6). Although Paul didn’t define the content of this “good teaching,” in 2 Timothy 3 he urged Timothy: “continue in what you have learned” (2 Tim. 3:14), which was the “sacred Scriptures” (v. 15) that are “inspired by God” and “profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (vv. 16-17).
Paul’s emphasis on teaching and preaching Scripture runs throughout 1 Timothy, but what he had in mind in 1 Timothy 4:6 was Timothy’s own spiritual nourishment. This should serve as a reminder for all of us who engage in teaching the Word that the Bible is God’s Word to the teacher before it is lesson material for the next meeting.
John Stott wrote concerning these verses: “Behind the ministry of public teaching there lies the discipline of private study. All the best teachers have themselves remained students. They teach well because they learn well. So before we can effectively instruct others in the truth we must have really digested it ourselves.” (The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus)
Healthy spiritual nourishment for any Christian comes by feeding on the Word of God. Jerry Bridges put it this way: “Every Christian who makes progress in holiness spends regular time in the Bible. There is simply no other way.”
2. Be disciplined in exercise.
No one ever gets in shape physically or loses unwanted weight by good intentions alone. The gym I go to is crowded in January because making resolutions is easy. As weeks pass, the gym becomes less and less crowded with people because good intentions are easy; discipline is hard.
Paul said, “train yourself in godliness” (v. 7). We could paraphrase train yourself as “exercise yourself.” The word train is the Greek verb gymnazo, from which we get the word gymnasium. Training yourself in godliness involves discipline, sacrifice, and hard work. (See 1 Cor. 9:24-27, especially v. 27: “I discipline my body.”)
How then are we to “exercise ourselves in godliness”? Paul doesn’t say specifically, but in the content of 1 Timothy 4 there’s a clear parallel between nourishment (v. 6) and exercise (vv. 7-8). We exercise ourselves in the same way that we nourish ourselves—in Scripture—by logging hours in the “gymnasium” of Bible study.
It’s pretty simple. Consistent and disciplined Bible study leads to greater spiritual health.
Mike Livingstone works at Lifeway Christian Resources as content editor for Explore the Bible materials.