Paul wrote two letters to his protégé, Timothy, who he had assigned as the leader (bishop) of the Ephesian Church. The first epistle 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, chapter four, Paul is outlining obstacles to the spiritual growth necessary for attaining Godliness and verses seven and eight were given as a model to help overcome the obstacles. The specific model the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to articulate was an athletic one! The significance of this must not be overlooked: 1st Century Ephesian Christians were 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.
This athletic model 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, gumnasia is translated “exercise,” and is found in both verses. It comes from the root word: gumnazo (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 (gumnazo) 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 translated the value of physical exercise? There have been three traditional renderings:
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 and should be rejected in favor of the third option.
The third translation does the best job of comprehending the immediate context and affirms 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 awarding physical exercise a higher value than is Biblically prescribed. The first two options are antithetical to the context, 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 and metaphor in such a 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.
Biblical A Priori:
A 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: “physical exercise 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, 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 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 up as great example 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.
A good example of how to establish the meaning of a verse, by recognizing 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.”
After a careful analysis, the true essence of this passage emerges: 1 Timothy 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! A consistent and fervent training program supervised under the watchful eye of a qualified “coach” will greatly advance one’s pursuit of Godliness.
Thus, 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 next installment of frequently asked questions.
 Translators and Interpreters need to be wary of assigning too much significance to a word’s etymological root. Just because the origin of a word was based in sports doesn’t necessarily mean it always connotes or references its sporting root. For example, a Judge who says to a criminal “three strikes and you’re out” is not making a specific reference to baseball. Although the phrase has an athletic origin, its meaning has evolved and acquired a significance beyond sport. That’s what makes translating this particular verse in its context so important. The context assumes the choice of a sporting word is intentionally related to its original sporting meaning. Its sports etymology is key to understanding the spiritual meaning of the teaching. It is used in such a way as to communicate about physical exercise in comparison to spiritual exercise. The significance of this “in context” translation is clear – the sporting meaning is not without purpose or just a meaningless metaphor. It is foundational to translating and interpreting this passage accurately.
 Biblical a Priori’s aid Christians in their attempt to interpret the Scripture by looking at what the entire Bible has to say about a particular subject or ethical dilemma. In this case, the Biblical a Priori overwhelmingly values sport, athletics and physical activities as being Biblically based and Christ honoring.
 2 Timothy 4.6-8
 Consult both Stuart Weir’s “What the Book Says About Sport” and my own writings on the Theology of Competition for further discussion on Biblical support for sport.
 See my writings on the Pauline Theology of the Human Body