READ : 1 Timothy 4:9-10
It sounds incredible but the gospel truth is that the living God, the God of heaven and earth, the Creator and ruler of the whole universe, the Holy One who lives in a blaze of glory too overwhelming for sight, this God is our Savior.
Conservative New Testament scholars accept the books of First and Second Timothy as what they claim to be, namely, genuine letters from the Apostle Paul to his young friend and colleague Timothy. No one developed a closer personal relationship with Paul than did young Timothy, and no one served more often as Paul’s partner in the work of the gospel. Timothy is mentioned by name in five of Paul’s letters (2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians), meaning he had either worked in these places with him, or had been sent there by Paul at some time, and that’s in addition to the letters that bear Timothy’s name.
Paul wrote 1 Timothy and sent it to his younger colleague, probably in Ephesus, where he had left Timothy in charge of the church while he himself moved on to northern Greece. Most likely this took place during the period after the time covered by the book of Acts when according to reliable Christian tradition Paul was released from prison and traveled for two more years of missionary work. Paul was concerned in writing this letter to offer general instructions for Timothy’s leadership of the Ephesian church and also to encourage Timothy himself in his ministry (see 1 Timothy 3:14).
That is the background to the personal counsel that the apostle offers Timothy in 1 Timothy chapter four, where we find another of the trustworthy sayings.
Train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
1 Timothy 4:7-10
Actually, it’s a bit difficult to determine exactly what the trustworthy saying is here. The formula we have been following throughout the pastoral epistles occurs right in the middle of this passage: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance.”
But Bible scholars are divided on the question of whether Paul’s reference is to the preceding statement or to the following one. In other words, is the trustworthy saying, “Train yourself for godliness, for godliness is of value in every way”? Or is it, “We have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all, especially those who believe”?
Training for Godliness
Maybe we don’t have to choose; let’s look at them both. Paul sounds more than a little like a coach in this passage, urging his young disciple Timothy to maximum effort. Athletic competitions were a very important part of life in the classical Greek world, and athletes themselves were highly honored. In fact, the word “athlete” is Greek, and it originally meant “one who strives for a prize.” It seems from his epistles that Paul may have been something of a sports fan; at least we know he was quite fond of using athletic images and metaphors. Here he’s urging Timothy to get into spiritual training. “Train for godliness,” the apostle urges.
The Greek world was almost as obsessed with sports as ours is. I say almost. And Paul’s athletic metaphor suggests an obvious application that is as clear for us as it must have been for Timothy. Kids always like to imitate star athletes. The trouble is, they often imitate the wrong things. They like to imitate the way superstars dress, how they talk, the way they play on the court or in the field.
But that’s really missing the point. What they should imitate is the way these elite athletes practice, their training regimen. Everyone stands in awe of the grace and power of a Michael Jordan when he flies to the basket or a Tiger Woods when he launches another rocket off the tee. But what we don’t see is the hours and years of hard work endlessly repeated drills, countless shots, unrelenting sessions of tough conditioning. We don’t see the discipline, the drive, and determination, the refusal to quit or to settle for less than being the very best.
That’s the training, and that’s exactly the approach that Paul tells us to take to our spiritual lives. The spiritual disciplines aren’t complicated nor are they particularly glamorous: prayer, Bible study, communal worship, sacrificial giving, simplicity of life, service to others, obedience to God in all things at all times. Yet these are the exercises we must continually pursue, day in and day out through countless repetitions until we achieve the goal of spiritual fitness, that is to say, of godliness.
And here’s the reason why, says the apostle. Physical exercise has some value; it’s obviously good for you. (And if you don’t believe Paul, just go ask your doctor.) But the benefits of bodily training are limited because the body itself is only temporary. It doesn’t last. In the end we all weaken, wrinkle, wear out, die and decay. That’s what makes training in godliness so much more valuable. It is valuable in every way, says Paul.
Godliness is not just good for you in this life, it does make us happier, wiser. It gives us peace and a purpose for living. It keeps us in the center of God’s will, but it also has value in the life to come. It carries over. Training in godliness let’s call it spiritual conditioning has benefits that are literally out of this world. That’s the first part of the trustworthy saying, “Train yourself for godliness for godliness is of value in every way.”
Hope in God
Now let’s consider the other part: “We have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all.” That has a majestic ring to it. It’s an awesome truth, worthy to be included as a trustworthy saying, isn’t it? At its heart this is a confession of faith in God, specifically, faith in the living God. When Paul talks about the living God, he means the real God as opposed to all other pretenders to the title of deity. There is a rich biblical tradition, especially in the Old Testament of directing sarcasm against the counterfeit gods of this world and their worshipers. Here’s the psalmist, for example, writing in Psalm 115:
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.
The people of Israel were constantly tempted to turn away from the invisible God of their fathers and embrace the more obvious nature gods of their neighbors. These idols demanded so much less and promised so much more but in fact could do nothing. It’s just the same today. Spirituality is big in our culture. The god of popular imagination is non-discriminatory, non-judgmental, all-embracing. Today’s god is a feel-good kind of guy who is everybody’s friend. His chief concern seems to be to make sure that everyone is happy and has everything they need. This is the god of unconditional affirmation, automatic wealth, and universal salvation.
There’s just one problem with this god: he isn’t real. This isn’t the living God, the God of the Bible, the God whose nearness caused the seraphim to shield their faces from the Presence. He is the one of whom the Bible says, “Our God is a consuming fire.”
This God, the living God, is the Savior, and we have set our hope on him. It sounds incredible but the gospel truth is that the living God, the God of heaven and earth, the Creator and ruler of the whole universe, the Holy One who lives in a blaze of glory too overwhelming for sight, this God is our Savior. He became a man. He entered our world in the person of Jesus Christ. He, the sinless One, took up the burden of our sins and their guilt, and he carried it away. He offers forgiveness and eternal life to all. “He is the Savior of all people,” says the apostle. You can count on it. That’s a trustworthy saying.
But there is just this one other thing. He is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. What does that mean? It’s a bit puzzling, isn’t it? Does God save everyone, every last person on earth? If he does, then nobody needs to worry, nobody has to do anything. But then why are we commanded to pursue godliness so seriously? Why does Paul qualify his statement by adding, “Especially of those who believe?” Is everybody saved, but believers are more saved than others? That doesn’t make any sense.
What does make sense is this. God is a universal Savior. The one true and living God saves everyone by the same, identical way the Way who is also the Truth and the Life, and whose name is Jesus. This way is open to everyone, to every last person on earth, no matter who or what they are. Potentially anyone can be saved. But in fact, only those who accept the gospel and believe in Jesus Christ actually do receive salvation. And to this end, to the end that people everywhere will accept this trustworthy saying that is so deserving of full acceptance, Paul, and many others like him, toil and strive with everything they are and everything they have.
So, may I ask you: have you accepted this trustworthy saying? Have you put your hope in the living God?