Exodus 1 Timothy 4
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By Stephen Green. (First Published in Christian Voice January 2008)
1 Tim. 4:7 But refuse profane and old wives' fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness.
8 For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.
Last year I decided to get fit again. As part of my homespun training regime, I started jogging around the block for five minutes, and then for ten. Thus it went for most of last year. Then in August I just happened to find out about the new
time trials, on www.parkrun.com. These are free-to-enter five kilometre races run on a Saturday morning. So finding myself in
, I struggled around my first one, and gradually improved to the point where I felt confident enough to enter a ten-mile cross-country race last month. I actually finished that race, within the 90 minutes I had hoped for, and it is odd to think that is the furthest - up till then - that I had ever run in my whole life.
OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
Now although it must be good to look after what Scripture tells us is the temple of the Holy Spirit, so as not to cut short the ministry the Lord has been pleased to use me in, I was still challenged by the scripture quoted above that says, in the King James version at least, 'bodily exercise profiteth little'. Should I give up? Equally, I had the feeling that the Apostle Paul, being a man well used to bodily exercise, could not be telling us all to be couch potatoes, even with Bibles in hand.
Going back to the Greek, the word translated 'little' is 'oligos' which can mean puny or little, but can also mean 'somewhat' or 'for a little while'. Taken in this way, Scripture seems to be saying that bodily exercise is of use, as long as we are on this earth, but exercise for godliness is of greater, indeed of eternal, value. Curiously, the verses with the same numbers in 2nd Timothy say this:
2 Tim. 4:7 I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith:
8 Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.
Here the word for 'fought' (Strong's Gr75) means 'struggle', 'compete', 'contend' or 'endeavour' and the word translated 'fight' (Strong's Gr73) means any contest in the Greek games, a fight, or a wrestling match, or a race. I suppose in the context of 'a course' verse 7 could equally have been translated 'I have run a good race, I have finished my course'. But who am I to quarrel with Bishop Andrewes, the editor in chief of the King James Bible translators? Whichever is the case, the Apostle, inspired as he is by the Holy Spirit, is happy to use a sporting metaphor to describe his Christian pilgrimage.
THE ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE LORD JESUS
In contrast, the Lord Jesus never once used a sporting allusion. His illustrations were overwhelmingly from the worlds of building, agriculture, fishing and everyday life. He speaks of building a house on a rock, of a sower sowing seed, a man building a barn, a shepherd seeking the lost sheep, of reaping and netting converts, of a woman sweeping a house, a merchant buying a field, of lilies and sparrows, of family life, of masters and servants, of a man robbed on a highway, of a nobleman bringing his servants to account.
When the Lord talks of perseverance in the face of adversity, He is direct: 'He that endureth to the end shall be saved' (Matt 10:22, 24:13; Mark 13:13) using a word carrying simple meanings of fortitude and bearing up under the strain.
When the Apostle Paul, on the other hand, writes of endurance, it is regularly in the context of events in the Greek games. Even though the Romans had conquered the ancient world, Greek culture remained a strong force, and Greek was still a language of common currency.
So Paul writes to the church in
'Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.' (1 Cor. 9:24)
Whoever wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews, there is a similar reference: 'Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,' (Heb. 12:1)
ATHLETICS IS AS OLD AS MANKIND
The Corinthian reference to 'run' and 'race' in the Greek are not the same words as in 2 Timothy. They mean a race in the context of a certain distance while the Hebrews reference means a contest, but all these words refer to athletics events of some sort. And athletics, where men compete against each other to see who is fastest over a specific distance, must be as old as mankind. Running and racing would also have been the mainstay of army training, then as now. Back in the Old Testament we have two references to running in a sporting context:
Ps. 19:4 Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun,
5 Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.
Eccl. 9:11 I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Curiously, runners in Britain today speak of feeling 'strong' rather than 'fit' or 'ready' for a race, in an echo of Psalm 19:5. And Eccl 9:11 is horribly true in athletics. The swifter runner can be undone by a fall, a life tragedy or by a better race strategy from an opponent who appears weaker on paper.
The story of David and Jonathan seems to show that archery practice was not out of the ordinary, although Health and Safety could have had something to say about shooting an arrow while someone is in front of you, however good a shot you are: 'And he said unto his lad, Run, find out now the arrows which I shoot. And as the lad ran, he shot an arrow beyond him.' (1 Sam. 20:36)
SPORTING REFERENCES ABOUND
2 Samuel 18:19-27 speaks of the runner as a messenger, causing us to remember the reason for the first-ever marathon, while Jer. 51:31 talks of messengers linking up in a relay or post system. The passing on of the baton in a relay today reminds us of the reason relay racing began.
We concentrate on rising up as eagles when we think of Isa. 40:31, but the verse also contains a reference to endurance, an essential quality of distance runners: 'they shall run, and not be weary'. Joel's army 'shall run like mighty men; they shall climb the wall like men of war' (Joel 2:7) in another reference to the military origins of sport. Such skills as climbing need to be practised.
Nevertheless, it is in the letters of the Apostle Paul where sporting reference abound. He tells the Galations:
Gal. 2:2 And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain.
And as he thinks of people getting in the way of others in a race, he chides them: 'Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?' (Gal. 5:7)
The idea of running for nothing, taking part in an event without winning the prize is held up by Paul in Philippians as a warning against a wasted Christian life: 'Holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain.' (Phil. 2:16) Going further, the whole point of athletics, of the hardness of training, the exertion of the actual race, is the prize at the end. That for Paul becomes a picture of Jesus Christ, who is both the way, and the reward: 'I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.' (Phil. 3:14)
Anyone who has ever run a race at any level will know the discipline of running right through the finish. It never ceases to amaze me how many runners slow down over the last ten paces of a 5k time trial. After 3 and a bit miles, you cannot manage to keep going over the last fifteen yards? That concept of pressing towards the finish becomes for Paul a metaphor of the Christian life; never think you have made it! Keep going!
Some elite runners even slow down so they can find the button on their personal stop-watch in order to time themselves just as they pass the line. That leads to another metaphor of our Christian race. While you are busy checking your own time you are missing out on a better time on the only clock that matters. In the same way, the only result that matters from our whole life is the one clocked by the Lord in heaven. If we get too carried away by our own estimation of how well we are doing we may miss the mark completely.
WINNING THE CROWN
Unarmed physical combat was a feature of the Greek games which is also mentioned by Paul in the same context. 1 Corinthians has a specific reference to training and to the self-denial in lifestyle and diet which is necessary during it if one wants to win the prize in any sporting event. The athletes of the ancient world were actually crowned with laurel leaves:
1 Cor. 9:25 And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.
26 I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air:
27 But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.
There is a famous reference to fighting in Ephesians: 'For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.' (Eph. 6:12) But this is not metaphorical, even though it is spiritual. Real fighting is involved here, because, as many of us know, those who rule in wickedness do not give up easily.
EXERCISE UNTO GODLINESS
But I think I have found enough to show that the Apostle Paul knew a fair bit about sport, that he was a follower of athletics and possibly he was even an athlete at some level himself. He would not have used all the metaphors about athletics he did if he had not had more than a passing interest in the subject. He had of course travelled widely, and his conduct in
shows him to be a man who was interested in what was going on around him. He must also, as one who would happily walk all the way to
and back, have been extremely fit. So bodily exercise profits little? No, for a little while. It keeps us fit for the Lord's work, it teaches us about the perseverance necessary for the Christian life, and it reminds us that there is a prize at the end worth more than anything on this earth.
So I am happy now with running. It is the most ancient and simple of sports, it profits for my time on this earth, but if I can 'exercise myself, to have always a conscience void to offence toward God, and toward men' (Acts 24:16) and exercise myself unto godliness, that is even more worth doing.