1 Timothy‬ ‭4‬:‭8‬ ‭ESV‬‬

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.‭‭

Does “bodily training” refer to exercise or Jewish legalism such as excessive fasting or other legalisms. If it refers to exercise does this suggest that physical fitness shouldn’t be a priority in the Christian life?


4 Answers 4



"bodily training" refers to physical exercise. However, in this passage Paul does NOT suggest that physical fitness should be ignored. Rather, Paul implicitly affirms the value of physical fitness and uses physical training as an analogy and comparison with training in godliness. Both are good, but the benefit of godliness is more lasting (eternal) and contains promise for a more abundant (although strenuous) life. "bodily training" may mean ascetism (rejected by Mounce), but at any rate, Jewish legalism is definitely NOT in view here.

Detailed exegesis with the help of WBC Commentary (William Mounce)

From the immediate context of the passage (1 Tim 4:6-16, which is Paul's advice to Timothy after warning of some heresies in 1 Tim 4:1-5), the meaning of "bodily training" is quite clear and uncontroversial: physical exercise, in contrast to "spiritual exercise" (i.e. training in godliness). The preceding verses 6-7 should provide the crucial clue (I'm using CSB translation):

6If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished by the words of the faith and the good teaching that you have followed. 7But have nothing to do with pointless and silly myths. Rather, train yourself in godliness. 8For the training of the body has limited benefit, but godliness is beneficial in every way, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. 9This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance. 10For this reason we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

11Command and teach these things. 12Don’t let anyone despise your youth, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity. 13Until I come, give your attention to public reading, exhortation, and teaching. 14Don’t neglect the gift that is in you; it was given to you through prophecy, with the laying on of hands by the council of elders. 15Practice these things; be committed to them, so that your progress may be evident to all. 16Pay close attention to your life and your teaching; persevere in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.

The following is a quote from William D. Mounce's WBC Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (2000) on the Form/Structure/Setting of 1 Tim 4:6-16 to interpret what Paul meant by "this saying" in v. 9 because it might refer to v. 8, which Mounce denies:


Stylistically, there are three other devices worth noting. (1) The imperatives are all linear in aspect, as is the participle in v 6, giving a sense of urgency to Paul’s instructions. (2) Paul employs athletic imagery in the first several verses. Timothy is to exercise toward the goal of godliness because although physical exercise has some value for a while, godliness has value in all ways. Paul himself has toiled and struggled (the latter word continuing the imagery) in his ministry. L. T. Johnson points out that in fact much of the terminology employs “commonplace images for the moral life” (166). (3) Paul cites the third of the five faithful sayings. For a discussion of the faithful sayings in general, see Form/Structure/Setting on 1 Tim 1:12–17 and the Bibliography there. The formula of introduction in v 9 gives an indication that there is a quotation, but it is difficult to determine what the quotation actually is. The quotation is given in support of Paul’s admonition that Timothy should avoid the heresy and train himself for godliness (v 7). The possibilities for identifying the quotation are v 8 (Ellicott, Lock, Barrett, Knight), v 8a (Towner), v 8b (NASB, Chrysostom, Bernard, Kelly, Fee, L. T. Johnson), v 10 (NEB, Roloff), or v 10b (NIV). Oberlinner believes it extends to the entire paragraph, v 8 and v 10, as a comment on εὐσέβεια, “godliness” (196). Hanson says the phrase simply “gives solemnity to the text as a whole when it seems to be growing too pedestrian” ([1983] 91) and identifies the saying with vv 11b–13. But the passage is not pedestrian, and the poetic structure of both v 8 and v 10 makes a quotation likely.

It is difficult to reach a decision on the issue of identifying the quotation because the criteria are subjective and because both v 8 and v 10 fit the criteria. (1) Neither verse has better parallel structure, but more important, only a portion of the saying may be given, and its parallelism may therefore not be apparent. (2) Both verses contain themes appropriate to a faithful saying. (3) Both verses fit the context of godliness (v 7). (4) Is v 10 a reflection and application of v 8, or is v 8 a preparatory statement for v 10 ? (5) Are the faithful sayings consistent among themselves, and if so, which of these verses best fits with the other sayings? Except for 1 Tim 3:1 all the other faithful sayings deal with the issue of salvation, which favors v 10b. Added to this is the fact that v 10b is similar to the faithful saying in 1 Tim 1:15. (6) Do either of these verses contain language foreign to the PE? (7) Perhaps Paul quotes the saying because the language is similar to what he has just said. For example, toil (v 10) may continue the athletic imagery of v 8 because v 10 is a reflection on the faithful saying in v 8, or Paul’s use of the metaphor in v 8 may suggest the language of v 10a that leads to the faithful saying. (8) εἰς τοῦτο, “for this reason,” can point forward or backward (see Comment), so it does not provide a clue. (9) V 8 is introduced by γάρ, “for,” as is the faithful saying in 2 Tim 2:11, but v 10b is introduced with ὅτι as is the saying in 1 Tim 1:15.

With these problems noted, however, some tentative conclusions can be drawn. V 8b (“because it holds a promise for the present life and for the coming life”) does not sound like a statement that would be transmitted as an independent saying, suggesting that v 8a is the saying and v 8b is Paul’s comment on why the saying is true. V 8a contains two rare words: σωματικός, “bodily” (elsewhere in the NT only in Luke 3:22), and γυμνασία, “exercise” (only here in the NT), suggesting that the clause was not written by Paul, and yet v 8a also contains εὐσέβεια, “godliness,” which is a dominant theme in the PE. It seems doubtful that v 10a is from a hymn or creed. It does not contain the same parallelism as does v 10b, the personal nature of the experience it describes does not lend itself to independent transmission, and εἰς τοῦτο γὰρ ... ὅτι, “for this reason... since,” does not suggest that v 10a and v 10b originally belonged together. V 10b is more in line with the other faithful sayings because all except one (1 Tim 3:1) deal with the issue of salvation. It is similar to the ideas in 1 Tim 2:4–6, which might contain a creedal citation. V 10b gives the ultimate reason that Timothy should pursue godliness—salvation—and as such a hymnic citation would function well in supporting Paul’s argument. Preference should thus be given to v 10a as Paul’s comment on the introductory formula, enforcing the thought of v 9 and v 10b as the actual hymnic fragment. Paul affirms that the saying is trustworthy (v 9), and the saying explains why Paul labors at his missionary endeavors (v 10a), since:

We have placed [our] hope in the living God,

who is the savior of all people,

particularly of those who believe.

ὅτι, “since,” introduces the direct discourse and could be translated simply with quotation marks. μάλιστα πιστῶν, “particularly of those who believe,” could be part of the hymn or it could be Paul’s comment on the saying, making sure that no one misunderstood it to be teaching universal salvation. Both v 8a and v 10b are separated from the introductory formula (v 9), which is not the case with any of the other faithful sayings. The origin of the saying has little importance for the exegesis of these verses.

With the referent for the "saying" squared away (v10b), the following is a quote from the commentary on verse 8 itself, which refutes an interpretation that godliness has more value than physical exercise (or asceticism). Instead, Paul implicitly asserts that both have value. What Paul seems to compare instead is how the benefit of bodily exercise is temporary in contrast with the the benefit of godliness (which is for all time):

ἡ γὰρ σωματικὴ γυμνασία πρὸς ὀλίγον ἐστὶν ὠφέλιμος, ἡ δὲ εὐσέβεια πρὸς πάντα ὠφέλιμός ἐστιν ἐπαγγελίαν ἔχουσα ζωῆς τῆς νῦν καὶ τῆς μελλούσης, “for bodily exercise is of value for a little while, but godliness is of value for all things because it holds a promise for the present life and for the coming life.” To support his statement in v 7a that Timothy should strive for/in godliness, Paul spells out the benefits of godliness and continues the imagery. Physical exercise has some value for this life, but godliness has value for both this life and the life to come. Whereas the opponents’ teaching is ungodly and silly, godliness has value for all things. The two halves of the verse are parallel:

γὰρ σωματικὴ γυμνασία πρὸς ὀλίγον ἐστὶν ὠφέλιμος,
δὲ εὐσέβεια πρὸς πάντα ὠφέλιμός ἐστιν.

They contrast bodily exercise, that which is outward and visible, with godliness, that which is internal but yet eventually will show itself outwardly.

Many understand the basic argument to be that although physical exercise, or perhaps asceticism, has some value, godliness has more value. The main problem with this interpretation is that the text does not say that godliness has more value; it says that godliness has value forever (v 8b). The issue is not how much value exercise and godliness have, but how long they last. The difficult phrases are πρὸς ὀλίγον, “for a little while,” and πρὸς πάντα, “for all things.” The profit gained by godliness “holds a promise for the present life and for the coming life” (v 8b). This is the primary significance of the passage, and it expresses a temporal concept (cf. Spicq, 1:507). Therefore, while πρὸς ὀλίγον can mean “for (only) a little,” in this context it must also be temporal (“for a little while”). It does not exclude the sense of “for a little” but clarifies that the relative value of bodily exercise is primarily because of its temporal nature. The only other place this phrase occurs is in Jas 4:14, where it also is temporal: “For you are a mist that appears for a little time [ πρὸς ὀλίγον ] and then vanishes.” ὀλίγον, “little,” also occurs with other prepositions where the sense is temporal (ἐν ὀλίγῳ, “in a little while”; Acts 26:28; Eph 3:3; μετ ʼ ὀλίγον, “after a little while,” in nonbiblical Greek; cf. BAGD 564, which has other examples of πρὸς ὀλίγον in secular Greek with a temporal meaning).

The problem with this temporal interpretation is that the phrase πρὸς πάντα, “for all things,” which is in sharp contrast to πρὸς ὀλίγον, does not occur anywhere else in the NT, and πᾶς, “all,” is not used elsewhere with any sense of time. There are, however, several points to be taken into consideration. (1) V 8b indicates that the expression should be understood temporally. This is so clear that it must be determinative. (2) The rarity of the πρὸς πάντα expression may be an evidence that it is being used with an unusual meaning. (3) Paul may use this specific construction (πρὸς πάντα) because he wants to emphasize the extreme difference between bodily exercise and godliness. He could have said “but godliness has value both for this age and the age to come,” which would have paralleled the first half of the verse nicely (except that there would not have been an actual parallel to πρὸς ὀλίγον). But the value of godliness extends far beyond temporal limits, and to make that emphasis explicit Paul says “but godliness has value not only for all time but also for all things.” (The argument that uses v 8b to define πρὸς ὀλίγον is less compelling if v 8a is the faithful saying and v 8b is Paul’s comment on it. This would mean that v 8a was transmitted in isolation and that πρὸς ὀλίγον, in contrast to πρὸς πάντα, would have meant “for a little.” But the juxtaposition of v 8b with v 8a shows that as far as Paul is concerned πρὸς ὀλίγον means “for a little while.”)

Then Mounce discusses what Paul meant by "bodily exercise". What is it? The interpretation is necessarily connected with "life" and "promise", which Mounce argues it means "promise of [abundant] life" rather than "promise for life" although "abundant" should not connotate earthly riches advocated by prosperity gospel preachers.

There are three interpretations of σωματικὴ γυμνασία, “bodily exercise.” (1) Some argue that by physical exercise Paul means asceticism (Calvin; Ellicott; Bernard; A. Oepke, TDNT 1:775–76; Easton; Jeremias; Dibelius-Conzelmann; Pfitzner, Agon Motif, 172–73; Brox; Houlden; Towner, NTS 32 [1986] 433). He would be saying that a little asceticism is good, with the emphasis on “little.” Its goodness would not result from a dualism that sees the material world as evil, and the basic point would be to keep exercise and godliness in proportion. However, it seems unlikely that after condemning in toto the opponents’ asceticism in vv 3–5, he would turn around and commend even a modified form of asceticism. Also, the word does not mean “asceticism”; it means “exercise” (cf. LSJ, 362; MM, 133). If v 8a is the faithful saying and is a rebuttal to excessive asceticism, it seems doubtful that it would have expressed the idea in these words. Looking at v 8a in isolation, there is nothing that suggests that asceticism is the issue.

(2) Others argue that σωματικὴ γυμνασία is a call for some physical exercise (Chrysostom, Lock, Falconer, Spicq, Gealy, Guthrie, Kelly). Reference is made to 1 Tim 5:23, where Paul says that Timothy should drink a little wine for his stomach’s sake, assuming that a weak stomach is the result of a weak body requiring exercise, which is not necessarily a valid assumption. The verse does say exercise has profit, albeit for a short time. However, to say that Paul is commending exercise does not fit the context. There is nothing in this passage to suggest that Paul is concerned with Timothy’s health; he is urging him to avoid the heresy and pursue godliness.

(3) The third interpretation sees the phrase “for bodily exercise is of value for a little while” merely as a literary foil against which Paul wants to say that “godliness is of value for all things.” It is a poetic creation to balance the real emphasis: godliness. The phrase does assert the value of exercise, but the point of the phrase is not to encourage Timothy to exercise physically; that is foreign to the context.

ζωή, “life,” denotes not mere existence but has a richer, fuller meaning, describing an abundant type of life that is promised to those in Christ (cf. Comment on 1 Tim 1:17). Significant is Knight’s argument (Faithful Sayings, 74–76; id., Pastoral Epistles, 200) that the phrase means not “promise for life” but rather “promise of life,” reading ζωῆς, “of life,” as a qualitative or objective genitive indicating the content of the promise (cf. BAGD 280). He cites the similar use of the genitive elsewhere (2 Tim 1:1; 2 Pet 3:4; Heb 9:15) and other passages with ἐπαγγελία, “promise,” where the content of the promise is clarified (Rom 4:13; Heb 4:1; 1 John 2:25). Timothy is to train for godliness because only in it can one find true eschatological existence, abundant life.

σωματικός “physical, bodily,” occurs elsewhere in the NT only in Luke 3:22. γυμνασία, “exercise,” was evidently a significant part of the Ephesian youth culture (cf. Swete, JTS 18 [1917] 3; Spicq, RB 54 [1947] 229–42), and so this verse speaks directly to the historical situation. ὠφέλιμος, “valuable, advantageous, beneficial,” occurs two other times in the NT, both in the PE:Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching (2 Tim 3:16); applying oneself to good deeds is profitable for people (Titus 3:8). The commendation to physical exercise, although it is not the main point of the passage, may contain an implicit condemnation of the Ephesian heresy, if in fact it has Stoic influences, since Stoicism eschewed exercise (Dibelius-Conzelmann, 68 n. 4). It also contrasts with the extreme emphasis on physical exercise in the Greco-Roman world (cf. Spicq, RB 54 [1947] 229–42). By saying that physical exercise is of some value, there is an implicit limitation; it is only of some good.

ἔχουσα, “because it holds,” is a causal participle explaining why godliness is of more value than exercise. ἐπαγγελία, “promise,” is a common word in the NT; with one exception (Acts 23:21) it refers to the promise of God (cf. 2 Tim 1:1). The theme of God as the author of life is explained in v 10, which describes God as the “living God.” In Paul ἐπαγγελία refers to God’s promise of salvation and all that entails; it often is used in contrast to the law (cf. J. Schniewind and G. Friedrich, TDNT 2:581–84; Gal 3). It therefore is not a reference to earthly riches. The phrase ἐπαγγελία ζωῆς, “promise of life,” also occurs in 2 Tim 1:1.

The twofold promise, that godliness bears benefits both in this age and the age to come, parallels Jesus’ promise that “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29–30; cf. Matt 19:29). It is tempting to view v 8, especially if it is the faithful saying, as a reflection of Jesus’ teaching (Lock, 51; Scott, 49–50; Kelly, 100–101; Knight, Faithful Sayings, 77). Others, assuming its independent existence from this text, see its origin in a philosophical critique of physical exercise (Dibelius-Conzelmann, 68), while yet others suggest the possibility of a Jewish origin (Lock; Gealy; cf. m. Abot 4.2). However, it is distinctly Christian in this context. ζωῆς τῆς νῦν, “present life,” “life of the now,” is a common use of νῦν, “now,” to describe the present age (1 Tim 6:17; 2 Tim 4:10; Titus 2:12; cf. Rom 3:26; 8:18; 11:5; 2 Cor 8:14; Gal 4:25; cf. 2 Pet 3:7). ζωῆς ... τῆς μελλούσης, “the coming life,” “life of what is coming,” is also a common use of μέλλειν, “to be about to,” to describe the age to come (1 Tim 6:19; cf. Eph 1:21; cf. Matt 12:32; Heb 6:5; cf. Matt 3:7; Luke 13:9; Acts 24:25; Rom 5:14; 8:38; 1 Cor 3:22; Col 2:17; Heb 2:5; 13:14).

  • Mounce is mistaken. Bodily training does not refer to physical exercise here; it refers to the radical application by the Gnostic of disciplines such as fasting and abstinence from sex. This explanation makes the best sense in the context of extreme types of this "training" being associated with deceitful spirits that forbid marriage etc. Oct 29, 2023 at 0:02

The original Greek words for "bodily training" as used in this verse are:

  • sómatikos (Strong's G4984)

    Original Word: σωματικός, ή, όν
    Part of Speech: Adjective
    Transliteration: sómatikos
    Phonetic Spelling: (so-mat-ee-kos')
    Definition: of the body
    Usage: bodily, corporeal.

  • gumnasia (Strong's G1129)

    Original Word: γυμνασία, ας, ἡ
    Part of Speech: Noun, Feminine
    Transliteration: gumnasia
    Phonetic Spelling: (goom-nas-ee'-ah)
    Definition: exercise
    Usage: (physical) exercise, in a wide sense.

The study note in the New World Translation for this verse helps to understand Paul's wording and meaning:

training: Or “exercise.” Paul here continues the athletic metaphor he introduced in the preceding verse, where he used the Greek verb gy·mnaʹzo, literally meaning “to train (as an athlete).” (See study note on 1Ti 4:7.) Here he uses the noun gy·mna·siʹa, which refers to the training of the physical body. In Paul’s day, a place where athletes trained was called a gymnasium (Greek, gy·mnaʹsi·on). Such places were well-known, as they were important centers of community life in various cities of the Roman Empire. In that culture, some placed a high value on physical training. Others, however, viewed this type of training as inappropriate or useless. Under inspiration, Paul provides a balanced viewpoint. He acknowledges that physical training is beneficial for a little​—that is, has some temporary value​—but he stresses that training “with godly devotion as [one’s] aim” brings much greater benefits.​—1Ti 4:7.

So Paul is speaking about physical fitness and how it has value but not to let it rule a Christian's life such as the athletes of the time period.

[All scripture quotations from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (Study Edition)]


The OP asks if the 1 Timothy's warning refers to bodily exercise/training or Jewish legalism. The answer is that we can rule out Jewish legalism, but "bodily exercise" is not what the letter opposes either. The problem had to do with the extreme denial of the physical body by Gnostic ascetics. Consider the context (NABRE translation):

Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the last times some will turn away from the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits... They forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected when received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the invocation of God in prayer... Avoid profane and silly myths. Train yourself for devotion, for, while physical training is of limited value, devotion is valuable in every respect, since it holds a promise of life both for the present and for the future.

Note the reference to deceitful spirits and the forbidding of marriage as well restrictions about food. Although Judaism did forbid certain foods, this is not what the letter refers to. There is nothing in the New Testament that suggests that Judaism came from "deceitful spirits" or that it forbade marriage. Judaism came from God and held marriage holy. Certain Gnostic sects, however, did forbid both eating meat and marriage. They did so on the basis of what the letter calls "silly myths," apparently referring to the Gnostic cosmology. Various elaborate myths taught that the body itself is evil and that marriage should be avoided because it only imprisons more souls in the material world, which is illusion. Training the body through disciplines such as fasting and temporary abstention from sex may have some value, but the complete denial of the body is based on a false and dangerous teaching.

Conclusion: the warning has nothing to do with Jewish legalism, nor is it admonition against physical exercise per se. It intends to warn against the doctrines and practices of those Gnostics who practiced extreme asceticism and forbade marriage.


Let there be no doubt that the NT contains a number of instructions about keeping good health. See appendix below.

Paul appears to confirm this when he says:

1 Tim 4:8 - For physical training is of some value

However, he then continues by saying that godliness has much greater value. That is all! Allow me to illustrate:

If I show someone a $1 bill and $100 bill, I might say that the $1 bill is of some value, but the $100 bill is worth much more. There is no implication that we should discard all $1 bills!

The same is true of what Paul says in 1 Tim 4:8 - physical training is of some value but godliness is far more valuable. That does not mean we should disregard physical health and training but we should not loose our perspective that godliness is much more valuable.

APPENDIX - Health in the NT

The NT contains numerous instructions about staying healthy such as:

  • Acts 15:20, 29, 21:25 – do not eat blood.
  • Rom 12:1 – our bodies are to be a living sacrifice to God.
  • 1 Cor 6:19, 20 – glorify (increase the honor and reputation of) God in your bodies.
  • 3 John 2 – good physical health is as important as spiritual health.
  • Phil 3:19 – those who make a god of their stomach will be destroyed.
  • Gal 6:7, 8, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction”.

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