Summary: I ran track and played basketball and baseball as a youngster. Many of you did similarly. Lessons we learned in our athletic activities have profound — and far more important — results in our spiritual lives. Our life on earth could be called the “believer’s spiritual gymnasium.”
In the words “exercise yourself toward godliness,” the verb exercise is from the Greek word gumnazo: to exercise, to train the body or mind (Vine’s). In the phrase “bodily exercise” the underlying Greek word is the source of our English word gymnasium. The sense is clear. Paul is speaking of effort, of training, not simply in the natural but also in the spiritual sense.
The apostle is making a contrast between physical workouts (bodily exercise) and spiritual workouts and training (exercising ourselves to grow in godliness). He says, correctly, that physical workouts do have some benefits — they “profit a little.” But spiritual exercise and training have greater, broad-based, everlasting benefits.
My wife and I try to get to the fitness center twice a week to lift weights and do other strength-building exercises. We also try each day, weather permitting, to take a two-mile walk. But far more important is our daily spiritual exercise, highlighted by our very enjoyable Bible study together. Let’s now take a look at some of the Bible’s interesting uses of athletic imagery to teach profound spiritual truths of great benefit to us.
Every day each one of us is faced with choices — to do the right or the wrong, the moral or the immoral, the honest or the deceptive, and more. The Bible in this verse is encouraging us to develop a lifelong habit of right choices. It promises us that “by constant use” — by consistently, day by day, choosing the good — we can train [gumnazo] ourselves to distinguish good from evil. And from that discernment developed by “constant use,” we are increasingly well equipped to make choices that please the Lord.
Every time you face a decision that offers good and evil options, “exercise” yourself with the tools God has made available to you. Look to His Word the Bible to guide you, and listen for His Holy Spirit’s direction onto the right path, the godly choice.
In several places the Bible likens our earthly lifetime to a race we are running. Here Paul, in a spiritual context, exhorts us to run to win! I ran track in high school (the 1/2 mile and the mile). We didn’t run just to be out on the track on a nice, sunny day. No, we ran to win.
It’s the same in the spiritual. My “run” for the Lord began in 1969 when, as a young adult, I embraced Jesus personally into my life (by repentance and faith in Him) as my Lord and Savior. As I write this, that race is now 51 years old, and I desire to be still running victoriously for the Lord into my late senior years. The lessons I learned in my youthful track and field years I still try to apply today. Train hard, persevere, have a goal (the finish line) that ends in victory.
My race for the Lord is 51 years old. Some of you have done that and even more. Many of you are early in your run for Him. My encouragement to all is: You can do it! Think of the finish line, eternal life in the Lord’s presence. And live, train, and run (spiritually speaking) to win the race. You and millions of others will cross the finish line thanking the Lord from the depths of your hearts.
Most Christians freely admit: a consistent prayer life for them is not easy. But it is important as part of our spiritual exercise unto the Lord. The four Gospels show us a remarkable example of much prayer by our Lord Jesus. He was even described as having prayed all night before selecting His twelve apostles (Luke 6:12-13). Our Lord’s words to us were not “if you pray,” but “when you pray” (Matthew 6:5-7; Luke 11:2).
Paul’s friend Epaphras was a great example to us of spiritual exercise in prayer. He was “always wrestling in prayer” on behalf of others. The “always” suggests that he had a regular, consistent prayer life. And the “wrestling in prayer” speaks of intensity of commitment and effort in his prayers, in this case his intercessory prayers on behalf of others.
Several of my grandsons were high school wrestlers. To succeed, they had to be dedicated to it, to train hard and regularly, and to offer their bodies up to the combat. It’s the same in prayer. To pattern our prayer lives after that of Jesus, we need commitment, dedication to God’s work, and sacrifice of ourselves and our time.
My wife and I lift weights at the gym. We do it to stay fit, and also to keep our bones strong in these senior years. They call weight lifting “resistance training.”
Resistance is something we need very much in the spiritual too. Our enemy the devil is like a roaring lion, prowling around and seeking to devour us, said the apostle (1 Peter 5:8). In resistance training at the fitness center, we push against the opposing force of the weights. It’s the same in the spiritual. The devil is always, 24/7, pushing against us, seeking to rob, kill, and destroy our walk with the Lord (John 10:10).
The apostles Peter and James, in the verses above, give us the solution: spiritual resistance. We are told to come near to God … to be submitted to God … to be alert and sober-minded … and to stand firm in the faith. As you do that, you are well equipped to “resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
Discipline! The apostle says that “all athletes are disciplined in their training.” My older brother ran 21 marathons over the years, including Boston and New York. But that didn’t happen without effort. No! At his peak of training, he would run 400 miles a month(!) in practice for those marathons.
Paul mentioned the athlete’s discipline in a spiritual context. He said the prize they seek is temporary, it will fade away. But we spiritual “athletes” exercise ourselves “for an eternal prize” (vs. 25). To get there, he said, we are exhorted to “run with purpose” and to discipline our bodies like an athlete, “training it to do what it should.” I am reminded of the great old poem: Only one life, ’twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last. That should motivate us to run with purpose, discipline, and self-control, knowing that at the finish line we will receive “an eternal prize.”
I enjoyed playing high school basketball. We were decent athletes, with a great coach whose training and coaching enabled us to achieve some good wins (probably beyond our own abilities). We learned early on that sports contests have rules — don’t travel with the ball, don’t double dribble, don’t foul, watch for the out-of-bounds line, and many more. And there were other rules that were not enforceable, but which definitely made us more effective — for example, move your feet on defense, box out on rebounds, etc. To win the game, we learned to play by the rules, both the rule-book ones enforced by the referees and the effective strategy ones taught us by the coach. Follow those rules faithfully, and those athletes will win far more games than the undisciplined teams will.
It’s the same in the spiritual realm. For example, as has been well said, God didn’t give the Ten Suggestions, but rather the Ten Commandments. God’s Word the Bible is filled from cover to cover with His declarations of how to live a godly life that is pleasing to Him. I read and study His Word to learn more about Him, yes. But I’m also looking for His revelation of what He expects of me as His submitted follower.
In our modern world — sadly, even too often in our modern Church world — you’ll hear excuse-making people say, “I don’t want a church with a bunch of rules.” Well, I thank God that our faithful pastor in every church service brings to us a sermon from the Bible, so that we may know and obey God’s set of rules. In fact, Bible experts have said that the Scriptures of the Bible contain more than 600 commandments from the Lord. And Jesus in His Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20a) said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” God expects us, His spiritual athletes, to compete in life’s race “according to the rules” — His rules for His Church and His people.
The "weight" of unrepented sin is a terrible hindrance to a victorious walk with God. In the natural realm, I experienced this dramatically in my time running track in high school. As a junior my best time running the mile was 4:47. Then — very stupidly for a track athlete! — I began smoking cigarettes. In my senior year, by that time a regular smoker, I don’t recall doing better than 5:30 in the mile! My wrong choice to smoke added well over a half minute to my mile time. I went from winning some races as a junior to being an also-ran as a senior.
The writer to the Hebrews exhorts us believers (here seen as spiritual track athletes) to “strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin…” The Holy Spirit is exceptionally good at convicting us of sin in our lives (John 16:8). Call upon Him to speak to you about those sins and weights that may be slowing down your run for the Lord. Listen to Him, repent as needed, and watch the speed and effectiveness of your spiritual race improve dramatically. And keep your eyes on Jesus from the starting gun to the finish line.
I’m 76 as I write this. I may have many years left, or just one more breath. In any case, the Lord’s command to me (and to you) is this: press on, fight the good fight, finish the race to its end. There is waiting for us at the finish line a crown of righteousness which the Lord Himself will award to you on that day when you enter His presence. As the old song goes, “It will be worth it all when we see His face.”
To God’s spiritual athletes He says: Keep pressing … exercise yourself unto godliness … train yourself to discern between good and evil … wrestle in prayer … run to win, not just to run … resist the devil and your flesh … be disciplined … run with purpose … follow God’s rules … throw off any weights and sins that slow you down … run with endurance … keep your eyes on Jesus ... fight the good fight … and finish your race.
At the end, after you draw your last breath on this earth, you’ll hear from the Lord those blessed words: “Well done, good and faithful servant! … Come and share your Master’s happiness” (Matthew 25:21).
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©2020, James H. Feeney.
Pentecostal Sermons &
Bible Studies by
Pastor Jim Feeney, Ph.D.