How can I as an athlete justify my sporting endeavors when I Timothy 4.8 reads: “exercise is of little value?”
Yes, I Timothy 4.8 is often translated to say physical exercise (and by implication, sports and athletics) is of little value and sadly this verse is often used to deter people from engaging in physical activity such as sports and athletics. Yet to use this verse to condemn or even criticize athletics demonstrates a lack of understanding of how to interpret the Bible (hermeneutics), including a classical error of basing one's interpretation on a poor translation. All good Biblical interpretation begins with a translation faithful to the orthodox traditions of hermeneutics. To that end, the following discussion begins with establishing the best possible translation of this verse. It continues with an exegesis of the verse and its context, including the requisite implications and applications the passage suggests. The result provides a reasonable assessment for athletes in regards to their involvement in athletics and whether or not their “physical exercise profiteth little.” Taken in its entirety, the following discussion helps to substantiate the third principle for establishing a Biblical defense for sport and athletics. It begins with an overview of the context in which verse eight is found.
Paul wrote two letters to his protégé, Timothy, who he had assigned as the leader (bishop) of the Ephesian church. The first epistle written to Timothy outlined directives for how the Ephesian church was to be organized, how leaders were to be chosen and developed, as well as how individual church members were to attain “godliness.” In this specific passage, found in chapter 4 of the first letter to Timothy, Paul is outlining obstacles to the spiritual growth necessary for attaining godliness. Verses seven and eight were given as a model to help overcome such obstacles. The specific model the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to articulate was an athletic one! The significance of this must not be overlooked or undervalued. Paul was inspired to urge first century Ephesian Christians to pursue godliness as an athlete pursued physical prowess. By extension, the model proposed to those in the early church is applicable for believers in all subsequent generations.
B. Which Translation
The athletic model of 1Timothy 4.7 and 8 is easier to comprehend in the original Greek than how it is often translated into English, such as the King James Version’s (KJV): “physical exercise profiteth little.” Verses seven and eight are rooted by three Greek words, each used twice. The first, gymnasia is translated “exercise,” and is found in both verses. It comes from the root word: gymnazo (gymnasium) which means to exercise or train as would an athlete. In verse seven this word is in the imperative, directing the Ephesians to engage in rigorous exercise and be diligent in their pursuit of godliness. In verse eight, the same word for exercise is used when comparing athletic endeavors to seeking to attain godliness.
The second word, also found in both verses, is eusebeian - translated devoutness or godliness. The implication of verse seven is the Ephesian believers were to train (gymnazo) for this godliness (eusebeian) with the same dedication as athletes who trained for the arena.
The third Greek word ophelimos – translated beneficial – is found only in verse eight but used twice to bring clarity to the overall message of the passage. It states the purpose of all exercising and training: a “beneficial” end. Training for the physical (somatike – bodily) is beneficial for a few things (oligon) but training for godliness is beneficial for all things (panta).
So, how have the various renditions of these verses been translated in regards to the value of physical exercise? The following examples are representatives of the three categories of traditional renderings:
Little value (profiteth little – KJV)
Less value (limited – Philips)
Some value (NIV)
There is an obvious disparity between these three. The first translation makes a negative evaluation: physical activity should not be engaged in because it has little intrinsic value. This suggests bodily exercise and athletics are negative or even sinful. At the very least, they are held in low regard. The second view, while a step in the right direction, does not hold physical activity with the same high esteem generally affirmed throughout the Bible, nor does it fit with the basic context and message of this passage. The first translation assumes physical exercise is evil and the second translation errs by not fully appreciating the intrinsic value of physical endeavors. Both should be rejected in favor of the third option.
The third translation does the best job of comprehending the immediate context while also affirming the entire Biblical perspective on sport. It appropriately renders a textual option affirming physical activity and its intrinsic value. Yet, it does so without erring in ascribing physical exercise a higher value than is Biblically prescribed. The first two options are antithetical to the context but the third is congruent with it. So, the proper translation should be “of some value,” not of “little” or “limited value.” It could be argued there is only a slight difference between “limited value” and “some value” but the latter is preferred because it states an affirmative whereas the former emphasizes the negative.
The significance of this point is made even more poignant when one realizes that while the Apostle Paul was the human writer of the epistles to his “son in the faith,” the true author of the Epistle was the Holy Spirit who intended the letter and its lessons to be a model for all future generations. He inspired Paul to specifically use an athletic term within an athletic motif and context to communicate both the implicit lesson: physical activity is beneficial for some things along with the explicit lesson: godliness is beneficial for all things.
Therefore, when context is considered, this verse cannot be interpreted to indicate the realm of sports and athletics are to be avoided, thought poorly of, or even more disturbing, devoid of virtue. The true message of this passage is a direct command to be actively, regularly and sincerely working hard to develop godliness, emulating athletes who work to better themselves physically. If verse seven was eliminated, verse eight would be translated quite differently. The problem of removing verse eight from its context, especially verse seven, becomes apparent. A completely antithetical interpretation is made when the verse is lifted from its context. It becomes even more apparent when isolated from the rest of the Bible.
So, a proper translation as found in the NIV and ESV ensures a proper hermeneutic (Biblical interpretation) and provides a solid foundation from which to base the following exegesis. Properly understood and rendered the verse should read: "bodily training is of some value" (ESV); "training your body helps you in some ways" (New Century Bible) or "workouts in the gymnasium are useful" (The Message).
C. Biblical A Priori:
A second basic underlying principle of Biblical interpretation is to allow Scripture to interpret itself by comparing and using other relevant Scriptures to shed light on the passage in question. As it relates to sport and athletics, the overwhelming Biblical evidence concerning sport is positive and thus would support the translation: “bodily training is of some value.”
What does the Bible state about athletics? First and perhaps foremost, the Scripture never condemns sport, athletics or physical activity. Secondly, every time the Bible mentions or references athletics it does so in a positive light. The most profound example of this is the Holy Spirit inspiring the Apostle Paul to use an athletic metaphor to summarize his life. It is inconceivable to believe God would inspire such a metaphor to describe the life of the most important, the most spiritually influential person, within the entire New Testament outside of Christ Himself or perhaps Barnabas, if the metaphor was intrinsically or inherently evil. Suffice it to say, athletics are treated favorably in Scripture.
Even more profound however, is not so much what this verse is not saying, as what it is saying. It places an intrinsic value upon physical activity by clearly stating it is of some value. This statement is in agreement with the overall Biblical view of sport and its perspective of the human body as found in the Corinthian correspondence and elsewhere.
To summarize then, this brief overview of the Biblical a priori on sport and athletics supports the third option of interpretation: “some value.” The first option of interpretation – “little value” does an injustice to the overall Biblical view (Biblical a priori) of physical activity and sport. The second interpretation “less or limited value” is a step in the right direction but still communicates the negative rather than the positive and thus doesn’t square with the overall message of the Bible. The best interpretation by far, is the third option because it is congruent with the rest of Scripture. The third option emphasizes the positives of physical activity while accurately upholding God’s intent to maintain spiritual activity as the highest, all-encompassing value.
So once again, rather than interpreting this verse as a support for denigrating athletics, this passage is in complete agreement with the rest of Scripture. It actually lifts athletic training and physical exercise up as great examples of a most beneficial model for spiritual growth! Followers of Christ are encouraged to approach their spirituality as would athletes their sporting endeavors: consistently, energetically and under the direction of a knowledgeable trainer. Certainly, Paul places spiritual development as the highest priority in a Christian’s life but any interpretation attempting to use this passage to state athletics as non-valuable, demonstrates a revealing bias and true lack of how to approach and interpret the whole of Scripture.
D. Biblical Comparison
A third aid in interpreting this passage comes from the Biblical technique of comparison. A good example of how to establish the meaning of a verse through the technique of comparison is Luke 14.26. Jesus’ teaching about hating one’s family members, at first blush, seems harsh and even unbiblical. Indeed, at face value, it is. However, when understood through the lens of Biblical comparison, Jesus’ command for His followers to “hate” their parents and siblings make sense. He wasn’t saying His followers were to conjure up passionate negative emotions or engage in hurtful actions towards family members. Rather He was teaching one’s love for God should be so passionate it would seem, by comparison, the person hated his or her family. Furthermore, Jesus demonstratively loved His family and He taught loving one’s family was imperative. Similarly, Paul uses the same teaching technique: comparison. By comparison, Paul wrote Spiritual activity is beneficial for all things, whereas physical activity is beneficial for a few things. This is quite different than saying it is of no value or “profiteth nothing.”
E. Summary of Biblical Interpretation of 1 Timothy 4.8
After a careful analysis, the true essence of this passage emerges: 1Timothy 4.8 affirms physical exercise. However, this passage cannot be used to suggest physical activity should be the highest priority or noblest virtue of a believer. Physical exercise is beneficial for some things but godliness is beneficial for all things. The strongest criticism anyone wishing to denigrate athletic endeavors can offer from this verse would be to use it as a safeguard to keep athletics and sports in check. This appropriate caution would help to maintain a proper perspective about sporting activities by insisting physical activity be kept in its rightful place as being important but never superseding spiritual endeavors. Furthermore, and perhaps even more profoundly, efforts to attain godliness can be enhanced if they emulate athletic training! For example, a consistent and fervent training program supervised under the watchful eye of a qualified “coach” will greatly advance one’s pursuit of godliness.
Thus, once again for emphasis, this passage cannot be used to denigrate sport or to discourage participation in athletics by stating the Bible condemns sporting endeavors. The Biblical perspective is clear: physical activities are of some value, but spiritual activities are to be valued above all others. Of course this then begs the question: can physical activities be separated from spiritual endeavors? Or perhaps more to the point: can people worship God through their physical activities? This frequently asked question will be addressed in the FAQ chapter; chapter eight.__________________________________________
Next week’s blog will discuss the second set of Biblical Obstacles to Sports Outreach
This blog is an excerpt from Dr. Greg Linville's new book "Christmanship: A Theology of Competition & Sport." It is a companion blog of an edited article by Rodger Oswald originally published in “The Sports Minister” Journal – Spring 2000 and the two should be read in tandem.
All rights reserved. For any reproduction right, including copying, computer reproduction, etc. contact: Dr. Greg Linville at CSRM International C/O The World Outreach Center 5350 Broadmoor Circle N. W. Canton, Ohio – USA 44709 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Other blogs and articles on Local Church Sports, sports theology and ethics written by Dr. Greg Linville and Rodger Oswald are archived at: www.csrm.org