What Does 1 Timothy 4:8 Mean?

Neal Pollard

“The Battle of the Bulge.” It was not just a crucial conflict in a world war. It has come to describe America’s battle with its expanding waistline. Obesity is a national problem. Weight gain often seems inevitable.  “Dunlap’s Disease” is many man’s (and woman’s) problem.  Solomon is rebuking many of us when writes, “Put a knife to your throat if you are a man given to appetite (Prov. 23:2)! A Christian’s body belongs to the Lord and must be properly maintained (cf. 1 Cor. 4:2; 6:19). One’s body can be harmed by overeating and being overweight as it can with alcohol and tobacco.

One tried and true way to prevent disease and bodily harm stemming from being overweight is exercise. Doctors say that no diet is complete without it! Proper exercise aids in the prevention and management of heart problems, diabetes, cancer, and several other serious conditions.

Many times, perhaps defending their own inactivity, well-meaning people cite 1 Timothy 4:8: ” For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come.” Their basic position seems to be that, since exercise “profiteth little” (KJV), they are justified to live out a couch potato’s life. Let us consider Paul’s statement.

THE VERSE IS SPEAKING COMPARATIVELY. The “little” in the first part of the verse is contrasted with the “all things” in the second part of the verse. Compared to godliness (i.e., God-likeness), which impacts one’s earthly and eternal existence, bodily exercise pales in importance. The same can be said of retirement efforts (Matt. 6:19-21), recreation (1 Tim. 5:6), household chores (Luke 10:41-42) and even work (John 6:27).  Yet, all of these are legitimate, even necessary, pursuits. So it is with bodily exercise.

THE VERSE REVEALS THAT EXERCISE DOES PROFIT. What does it do a “little”? It profits. It benefits. It gives advantage. The healthful benefits of exercise are well-documented. Some would contradict Paul and say it does no good at all.

THE VERSE WARNS AGAINST EXTREMISM.  The fitness craze can become fanaticism. Some seem to have made bodily exercise their god! They are obsessed. The Greco-Roman culture, to which both Paul and Timothy were regularly exposed, were extremists on this point. The Greek Games were the original Olympics. The gymnasiums and other venues showed it to be a constant obsession. Paul says such extreme devotion is ludicrous. So it is today!

THE VERSE WARNS AGAINST POOR PRIORITIZING. Anything put before service to the Lord is in the wrong place. It is possible for exercise (and gluttony, TV, video games, etc.) to come between one and putting God first. To this extent, any activity or pursuit is sinful (Matt. 6:33). If you spend several hours per week exercise and only a few minutes studying the Bible, visiting the sick and needy, praying to God, evangelizing, and doing Christian service, your priorities are wrong! If some gave as much devotion to godliness as they did bodily exercise, our churches would be much stronger!

But let us avoid abusing this–and any–passage! Paul is not denouncing exercise. To the contrary, exercise will improve us physically and mentally. It can improve our attitude and performance as a Christian. It must, however, be kept in its proper place. If we are going to be fanatical about anything, let it be our service to God as Christians (Rom. 12:1-2). That is the key to making everything, well, “work out”!

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