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The Healthy Believer

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. I Timothy 4:8

In America, where many people don't get proper exercise, this verse is often quoted by Christians to excuse their poor physical condition.

This is one of those few passages that the translators misunderstood. I can picture them in my mind spending most of their time sitting at a desk doing "that which is profitable" - studying and writing. For them, physical exercise was for uneducated peasants and common laborers.

Well-educated pastors and theology professors invest many years and much money in preparation for their careers. During that time, peasants and common laborers are working productively, so any comparison at this point would give them a higher grade.

Paul IS making a comparison of importance here, namely that exercising godliness is more valuable than exercising our bodies, but he is NOT claiming that physical fitness has little benefit! By neglecting to get physical exercise, those well-educated theologians cheat God out of years of fruitful service. They will likely be sick more often and die at an earlier age. Common laborers and farmers may also cheat God by not studying the Word, which is worse than neglecting their health.

In no way would Paul have diminished the importance of physical exercise or consider it to be of little value. Consider the strenuous life that Paul led (II Corinthians 11:16-33). He "beat his body into subjection" (I Corinthians 9:27). He compared the Christian life with that of Olympic athletes and soldiers.

We find a good example of this in Acts 20:7-16. Paul preached until after midnight. A youth was overcome with sleep while sitting on a window sill and fell to his death. Paul brought him back to life and continued his discourses with the brethren until daybreak. He and his companions departed that same day for Assos. Verse 16 indicates that he was in a hurry, yet Paul insisted on walking while his co-workers took a ship!

Early on, Saul of Tarsus gave himself to religious study. He learned the trade of tent making, but was first and foremost a dedicated student, aspiring to become a great spiritual leader of the Jews, "a Pharisee of the Pharisees" as he described himself. He sought and obtained the best education available in the school of Rabbi Gamaliel, the most recognized teacher of his time.

God had to literally knock him down and strike him blind, however, before he began to "exercise godliness" (v.7).

Get the Whole Picture!
If you work on an assembly line at Ford Motor Company and someone asks what you do for a living, you don't tell him, "I fasten part X123456 to part Z987654." That may be exactly what you do all day, but you would more likely tell the person that you help to assemble vehicles at FMC.

I graduated from a Christian college as a ministerial student and my Bible teachers stressed the importance of considering the context of a passage in order to get the whole picture. Unfortunately, many graduates of seminary, even those with a Doctor of Divinity, sometimes fail to follow this rule.

First off, it should catch our attention that I Timothy 4:8 begins with the conjunction "for." Bible students are taught, "When you see 'therefore' at the beginning of a sentence, always ask yourself what it is there for." The same is true for any word that refers back to preceding statements. So what does that little word "for" refer to?

The opening verses of chapter four speak of an impending departure from the faith and infusion of false teachings. Paul mentions doctrines of devils, lies and hypocrisy. In other words, be very careful what you believe! Don't get tricked into believing falsehood. Paul admonishes readers to heed the faith and good doctrine, but to beware of and reject "old wives tales."

Paul writes to Timothy about exercise in verses seven and eight. The two verses are a single statement, so they should be read together as a single thought: But refuse profane and old wives' fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness, 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.

Paul uses physical exercise as an illustration to emphasize a greater truth. He is saying that exercising godliness is much more important and of greater benefit than getting proper physical exercise.

The Greek word translated "exercise" is gmnasia, from which we get "gymnasium" and "gymnastics." Now I want to bring your attention to two other Greek terms in this statement.

The first is the Greek word oligos, translated "little." Both oligos and the English equivalent "little" demand an object. There are of course situations in which the object can be assumed. When a doctor asks if it hurts, we say, "a little" and he knows what we are talking about. Another situation is when two or more adjectives refer to the same object: "He found a rare and valuable Roman coin while tilling the garden." That is obviously the case in this passage.

The Greek oligos could refer to a small size, quantity, quality or a short time. Thus far, we only know that he is speaking of something small. The translators failed to consider the entire statement and decided to relate "little" to "profit".

In the latter part of this same sentence, there is another adjective that demands an object. The Greek pros pas means "until all…" and the most common usage has to do with time. Paul gives us the object for both oligos and pros pas clearly at the end of his sentence. He writes, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. The entire statement has to do with the value of exercise in relation to time. The words pros pas would thus mean "up until now and forever." or "until the present and end of time". We now know that "little" (oligos) also relates to time! Following is my attempt at interpreting I Timothy 4:7-8.

But refuse profane and old wives' fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness, for bodily exercise profiteth [for a little while] but [exercising] godliness is [eternally] profitable, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. I Timothy 4:8

The translators connected oligos to "profit" and connected pros pas to "things" which are not mentioned in the text, causing confusion and distorting the intent of Paul.

Paul is stating a fact which we should already know, that physical exercise only helps us for a little while – a short duration. If we want to stay fit, we need to exercise frequently and regularly, but exercising godliness has eternal value.

I want to mention a matter that seems to have had an influence on the translation of this passage.

The Sin of Arrogance
God's Word tells us that we are all created in the image of God and are equally valuable in his eyes. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Jesus gave his life for every single person on this earth.

It is clear that all people are different. Men and women are different, and young and old are different. Being different is not wrong, but you can't convince the "progressives" that this is true. They would like to eliminate differences in nationality, race, sex and other areas even if it means changing history and ignoring science.

Throughout history, men have compared themselves with others. The objective is to elevate themselves, gain recognition, appear important, wealthier, more intelligent, better educated, more capable, stronger, and to gain influence or recognition. Religious leaders and highly educated persons have often fallen prey to the sin of arrogance, feeling that they are more spiritual and superior to other people. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between healthy competition and arrogance, but the latter is always wrong.

Jesus treated all alike. He honored the poor widow who cast her last two pennies into the offering and defended Mary Magdelene when she was criticized for washing his feet with ointment worth a year's salary. The arrogant Jewish leaders criticized Jesus for eating with tax collectors ("which they called "publicans and sinners"). Romans 12:10 says, Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another. We are also to admonish one another without preferential treatment.

This unhealthy striving for recognition and honor seems to affect theologians and the educated classes disproportionately more than others. They tend to view themselves as the elite, privileged class and look down upon common laborers and uneducated peasants who till the soil. Instead of "exercising godliness," the Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, Priests and Rabbis strutted around in their ornate robes, expecting others to give them honor. Jesus said of them, For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. Matthew 23:4-7

Most Jews felt that sickness, disease and blindness were God's judgment for sin. In John 9:2, the disciples asked Jesus, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? We can imagine the indignation of the Pharisees when Jesus told them that their sin made them blind (John 9:39-41)!

The disciples of Jesus were ordinary men, but they also argued with each other about who was greater. And he [Jesus] came to Capernaum: and being in the house he asked them, What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way? But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest. And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all. And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them: and when he had taken him in his arms, he said unto them, Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me. (Mark 9:33-37)

The KJV translators did a great job of translating the Bible, but they were not sinless. They were Anglican men of the cloth who had devoted their lives to what they must have considered "godliness." When pastors, theologians and Bible translators feel that their work is "godlier" and superior to other occupations, they would understandably translate Paul's statement to match that conviction.

The word "godliness" appears nine times alone in I Timothy, and in verse 7, we are instructed to "exercise godliness" (not make a show of it). The translators naturally connected "little" with "profit" when they thought of physical exercise, and many Christian expositors, preachers and teachers today accept that interpretation without hesitation. Christian Pastors, professors and leaders seek high-sounding titles and like to be called "Reverend," yet shy away from hard physical work. In the eyes of Jesus, those who fill the pulpit are no better than the guy who fills your gas tank at the pumps. Men with calluses are just as valuable as those with theological degrees, but exercising godliness has eternal value for those with either or both!

Paul wrote in Philippians 2:2-11: Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I need to add that many other translations give this verse the same meaning as the KJV translators. Once a certain understanding becomes popular, few people bother or dare to question it.