Could you explain 1 Timothy 4:8?


1 Timothy 4:8 is rendered, as follows, in the New King James Bible:

“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.”

The Authorized Version says: “For bodily exercise profiteth little.”

Commentaries are divided as to the exact meaning of this verse, as is also reflected in the way it is being translated. For example, the Greek states, as explained by some: “… profiteth to (but) a small extent.”

The New American Standard Bible states: “for bodily training is just slightly beneficial.” Weymouth New Testament reads: “Train yourself in godliness. Exercise for the body is not useless, but godliness is useful in every respect.”

The German Luther Bible says: “…does not help much” or “is of little use.” The Menge Bible reads: “… brings only little benefit.”

Barnes Notes on the Bible states: “The apostle does not mean to say that bodily exercise is in itself improper, or that no advantage can be derived from it in the preservation of health.” He also stated that an alternate reading would be: “For bodily exercise profits for a little while,” explaining:

“The Greek will admit of either interpretation [“profits a little” or “for a little while”], and what is here affirmed is true in either sense.”

In comparison to the development of godliness in our lives, physical exercise of any kind only profits a little and only for a little while, while godliness lasts forever and is of so much greater importance.

Some commentaries, such as Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, even claim that Paul has a particular type of bodily exercise in mind, “not the exercise of the body in the Olympic games, as by running, wrestling, etc., which profited but little, for the obtaining of a corruptible crown at most; though since a word is used here, and in the preceding verse, borrowed from thence, there may be an allusion to it: much less exercise of the body for health or recreation, as riding, walking, playing at any innocent diversion; which profits but for a little time, as the Syriac and Arabic versions read; and the latter renders the phrase ‘bodily recreation’: nor is the exercise of the body in the proper employment of trade and business, to which a man is called, and which profits for the support of life for a little while, intended… but rather mere formal external worship, as opposed to godliness, or spiritual worship.

“‘There ought to be an exercise of the body, or a presenting of that in religious worship before God; there should be an outward attendance on the word and ordinances; but then, without internal godliness, this will be of little advantage: it is indeed showing an outward regard to public worship, and may be a means of keeping persons out of bad company, and from doing evil things; but if this is trusted to, and depended on, it will be of no avail to everlasting life.”

Whatever the case, it is correct to say that in comparison with the acquisition and development of godliness in this life, physical exercise profits just a little, and only for a little while; that is, it must never become more important than the Kingdom of God and His righteousness which we must seek first and foremost.

This also means that physical exercise, and sports in general, must never be intentionally engaged in if they would be harmful for others. This is not to say, however, that competitive sports or exercise must be wrong; it is a question of motivation and intent.

We say this in our Q&A

“In 1 Corinthians 9:24-26, Paul draws a spiritual analogy to competition in sports. This passage does not seem to allow for the conclusion that such competition is necessarily wrong. Paul says: ‘Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty…’ David draws another analogy in the book of Psalms, comparing the sun with ‘a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, And rejoices like a strong man to run its race’ (Psalm 19:5)…

“But God does not want us to have an attitude of harming or injuring an opponent, or of wishing that he be injured so that ‘our’ team will get an advantage. When ‘competition’ reaches that destructive level, it is wrong. But to want ‘our’ team to win in a game is not wrong. And ‘our’ team had better make every right effort to win, so that it is deserving of ‘our’ support (Ecclesiastes 9:10). But once a game is finished, we are to go on with life and our responsibilities… Some get so involved in the support of their team that they get all upset and can’t sleep at night if their team has lost. They might even get drunk to ‘forget their pain.’ That, of course, is not indicative of a healthy and Christian attitude.

“Sports can be good entertainment. They can contribute to our health and relaxation. They can be exciting. But they must never take first place in our lives… And even though watching sporting events can be good and clean fun, that should be all. In this world, ‘the race is not to the swift, Nor the battle to the strong… Nor favor to men of skill; But time and chance happen to them all’ (Ecclesiastes 9:11)…”

In addition, we also said this in our Q&A :

“Another sport which is mentioned in the Bible and which was engaged in by godly people is wrestling. We read that Jacob wrestled with God—the second Member of the God Family, Jesus Christ  (Genesis 32:24; Hosea 12:2). After wrestling for a long time, God struck the socket of his hip which became out of joint, causing Jacob to limp for a while. One might conclude that it is therefore appropriate to injure an opponent in sports, but this would be a wrong assessment. In this case it was God—not a man—who acted in such a way in order to teach Jacob a particular lesson.

“The Benson Commentary writes: ‘This was to humble him, and make him sensible of his own weakness, that he might ascribe his victory, not to his own power, but to the grace of God, and might be encouraged to depend on that grace for the deliverance [from Esau] he was so much concerned to obtain. It is probable Jacob felt little or no pain from this hurt, for he did not so much as halt till the struggle was over… If so, it evidenced itself to be a divine touch indeed, wounding and healing at the same time.’

“The Matthew Poole Commentary agrees, stating that this ‘was done that Jacob might see that it was not his own strength, but only God’s grace, which got him this victory, and could give him the deliverance which he hoped for.’

“Another distinction needs to be drawn between those sports and activities which one may be engaged in for the purpose of bodily exercise (including in workout programs) and those which one might want to do for the purpose of learning how…  to fight [in the sense of injuring or even killing] another person.”

If we engage in physical exercise so we can learn how to injure and even kill another human being, then that would be clearly wrong. It would violate God’s law of love even for our enemies. As we said, it is all a matter of motivation and intent. To engage in physical exercise for the purpose of “cherishing” our own bodies, rather than abusing them (Ephesians 5:29), knowing that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us (1 Corinthians 6:19; 3:16-17), is quite different from training our bodies for the purpose of becoming fighting machines to hurt, injure and destroy others.

It is also important to realize that we are not to hate our own bodies (compare again Ephesians 5:29), which would include not purposefully harming it by self-mutilation, smoking, eating unclean meat, taking destructive drugs, and so on.

We say this in our Q&A

“Sickness and disease occur only when nature’s laws are broken… either by the sick person him- or herself or by conditions caused by men leading to a person getting sick… God designed certain foods for good health. Some things that grow are not designed for food. Some are poison… people [need to be educated] in sanitation, hygiene, required amounts of sleep, pure water, fresh air, sunshine, exercise.”

But we need proper balance. Sometimes, “natural laws” of hygiene, sanitation or enough sleep will have to be broken to accomplish the higher purpose of seeking the Kingdom of God. We read, for instance, that Christ sacrificed sleep to stay up all night in prayer with the Father (Luke 6:12-13). We also read that Jesus and the apostles were beaten for doing the Work of God. They were not so concerned about their physical health and well-being and loved their physical bodies so much that they refused to do the Work.

A striking example for the required proper balance and the right priorities can be found in Philippians 2:25-30, where Paul utters these words of recommendation about his fellow servant Epaphroditus:

“Yet I considered it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier, but your messenger and the one who ministered to my need; since he was longing for you all, and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. For indeed he was sick almost unto death; but God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I sent him the more eagerly, that when you see him again you may rejoice, and I may be less sorrowful. Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness, and hold such men in esteem; because for the work of Christ he came close to death, not regarding his life, to supply what was lacking in your service toward me.”

Even though Epaphroditus “violated” in some way “natural laws” governing his health, he did so for the overriding purpose of doing the Work of God. Paul did not criticize or condemn him for this; just to the contrary, he said to hold such men in esteem or high regard. Some commentaries tell us that he “hazarded his life”; “the preservation of which with respect to the work he was about, he did not consult…  but made little account of it, yea, did even despise it in the service of Christ, as the original word doth import” (Matthew Poole’s Commentary). He was willing to live and die for Christ (Luke 12:25).

This attitude of service and obedience towards God’s spiritual law of love toward God and man can also be found in 1 Thessalonians 5:12:

“And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you…”

The German Schlachter Bible says: “… they labor to the extent of exhaustion.”

Matthew Poole’s Commentary states that the word “labor” implies, “diligent labour, causing weariness.” Their disregard for their body in those circumstances, including their lack of physical exercise, was not something which had to be regretted or condemned. Rather, Paul recommends those servants of God, who toiled and worked hard, adding in verse 13: “… esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.”

In our booklet, “Sickness and Healing–What the Bible Tells Us,” we state that “the reasons for sickness and disease are manifold, and they might have nothing to do at all with any ungodly conduct of the sick person.” They may even include proper and godly conduct by a person which, while neglecting physical exercise, which normally profits a little, leads to or even causes his or her physical sickness.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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