As we begin a New Year together, I’d like us all to take this opportunity to reset and recalibrate and reprioritise our lives, doing so by listening to the voice of God. He comes to us today with a straightforward command: ‘Train yourself to be godly.’ Perhaps you didn’t come to church to think about spiritual training. That sounds like a lot of hard work, and my life is busy and stressful enough already. Do I really need a minister to make me feel more guilty about the things I’m not doing? I hope that’s not what I will be doing! However, whether you a young, middle-aged or older Christian you need to listen to what God is saying to you about the life-long need we all have for spiritual training.
Paul reminds us here that physical training is of some value (verse 8). That is so true. I’ve found physical training to be far from easy, but extremely rewarding. Quite often, the truth is that I can’t be bothered going to the gym. It’s far easier to stay at home. But there is an incentive for me. I feel much better both physically and mentally, and just have more energy to get on with my church work when I’m feeling fit. It is an investment. And it’s an ongoing investment, because even after doing this for several years now, I know I need to continue to say, ‘No’ to junk food and ‘Yes’ to hard work.
In January, the gym memberships will shoot up, as new people seek to join or re-join. We’ve all had more than our fair share of calorific Christmas goodies, and are beginning to see the results. Once we get a few weeks into January, many of these new faces won’t be seen again around the gym. Good intentions and New Year’s resolutions aren’t enough in themselves. Training and discipline are needed. We know this is true in all areas of life. If you want to learn a new language it takes months of training, learning the vocabulary and grammar. If we want to play a new instrument, the scales and chords must be learned and practised. Think of the effort it takes to build up a business, or to pass exams, or to get your garden into shape. Deep down, we know that the most valuable things in life take a fair bit of effort. The Christian life is no different. It takes ongoing training if we are to be those with a godly character. It takes discipline.
Here in 1 Timothy chapter 4, Paul is making a contrast between physical training and spiritual training. Paul says, in effect. ‘Yes, physical exercise is a valuable thing, its value is limited. It only helps our bodies, and not our souls. And it only adds value to our lives in this life in the here-and-now, which is relatively short, but has no value whatsoever in the life to come in Heaven.’ Paul isn’t asking us to choose between physical training and spiritual training. We need both. However, if we are to have a main focus in 2023, or in any year, we ought to be those majoring on spiritual training. Why? Paul tells us plainly. Spiritual training is an investment which will reap rewards both in this life and in the life to come. In other words, there is a massive incentive for us to train to be godly, because the benefits are absolutely enormous, with the fruit of our work rippling on into eternity.
Paul wants each of us to wake up and take spiritual training seriously. He doesn’t want us to be half-hearted about it. Verse 7 says, ‘Train yourself to be godly.’ In other words, you are ultimately responsible for our own spiritual development. Have we taken responsibility? God isn’t suggesting we do a bit of training once in a while. He is rather commanding us to live lives of ongoing training. He says that if physical health is important and takes training, how much more training must be needed to keep in shape spiritually. Spiritual training is so crucial and so valuable that Paul underlines its importance in verse 9 by saying: ‘The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance.’ When the Bible calls a saying ‘trustworthy’ like this it is God’s way of saying, ‘You must not ignore this teaching.’
Each one of us must take steps to ensure that we are training in ‘godliness’. What is godliness? It is to have a love for God and a reverence for God. It’s to have a God-fearing attitude that leads to a God-centred life.
In the past, we used to think the planets circled planet earth. That was wrong. Now we know they orbit the sun. That was quite a shift in how we viewed the universe, from a geocentric universe to a heliocentric one, thanks to the discovery of Nicolaus Copernicus.
John Stott: ‘Godly people are God-fearing people. They have experienced the Copernican revolution of Christian conversion from self-centredness to God-centredness.’
Let’s be blunt, if you want to live a life which revolves around God and his glory, it is going to take considerable and ongoing training.
The word for ‘train’ yourself in Greek is the word ‘gymnazo’, from which we get gymnasium. The whole picture Paul is painting is one of individual Christians taking their spiritual fitness very seriously. Verse 10 talks about ‘toiling’ and ‘striving’. Other parts of the New Testament speak about putting sin to death, fighting the good fight, and running the race. Expect this to be hard work.
Let’s enter our spiritual gymnasium just now and walk around the different pieces of equipment and consider why they are so good for us. Our spiritual gymnasium doesn’t have a treadmill or rowing machine or cross-trainer. There is no training bench or dumbbell set. In fact, we don’t really any expensive equipment at all.
1. Train yourself to be godly by weekly public worship in church
You’d expect me to say that. But why is it so important to take the weekly opportunities for morning and evening worship? One reason is this, Jesus has promised to presence himself here in a special way. ‘For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’ (Matthew 18:20) So, each time a Sunday service comes around we need to ask ourselves, do I want to be where Jesus is, or am I happy to miss out on his blessed presence?
What are the normal channels through which Christ’s grace flows into our lives? We sometimes call these channels the means of grace. These are the vehicles God uses to bring his grace to us. The three primary channels of God’s grace are the Bible, prayer and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In other words, we don’t become more godly by just sitting with our feet up waiting for God to zap us from Heaven. God has given us certain tools and expects us to use those tools in order to become more godly.
We shouldn’t be surprised then, that public worship is so important in keeping Christians strong and healthy and growing in godliness, because it is in church where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are administered. If we come to church with a humble and prayerful heart we can expect to grow in godliness over time.
‘How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God… Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.’ (Psalm 84:1-2 and 10)
Wow! The Psalmist knows God’s presence is known and felt in a special way in public worship. This isn’t about coming to church each week out of legalism. It’s about coming to church each week because nothing beats fellowship with God and the people of God. Would I rather be on the golf course? Would I prefer a long lie in bed? You have over 100 opportunities for public worship this year, two each Sunday. Will you make the most of them? If you have to work a necessary job in the morning, will you come to church in the evening?
What about just sitting at home joining something online. Is that the best use of your Sunday? I don’t think so. ‘And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together…’ (Hebrews 10:24-25) In public worship, we are supposed to spur one another on to love and good deeds, as we discuss Jesus together and pray together. If you are watching something from home, then by choosing to do that you are unable to spur others on in your church family. And you are missing out on the blessings others can bring to your life, because you are not here. You are diluting the amount of time you have with your church family.
2. Train yourself to be godly by using the Lord’s Day wisely
Are we committed to Sundays being a holy day- different to the other days of the week? Is Sunday the same as other days except we go to church? We need the Lord’s Day. We are designed to have rest and spend more time with God.
3. Train yourself to be godly by daily Bible reading and meditation
It’s no use just relying on the spiritual exercise we do together in church corporately. Private exercise is also crucial. An athlete will be very strict about what he eats, avoiding unhealthy junk food, and ensuring his diet is a nutritious one. If we are going to train to be godly in 2023, then our diet must be the Word of God. And we mustn’t waste too much time thinking about modern philosophies and life advice which is not based on truth.
‘If you point these things out to the brothers you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.’ (1 Timothy 4:6-7)
Geoff sent out an excellent post to encourage us to think deeply about how we can best meditate on God’s Word. This is our training for godliness. This will bring blessing into our lives both now and eternally. It should be a joy to us to open our Bibles and enjoy listening to our heavenly Father. It should be the best time of the day. If it’s not, don’t panic. You will need to learn how to savour your time spent with God.
‘Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.’ (John 17:17)
Much of our training is about habit. What do I mean? Well, I’d never make it to the gym unless I went at the same times on the same days. It just wouldn’t happen. The same is true with for reading the Bible. It needs to become a habit. In an article on life-changing habits, Trevin Wax writes about the importance of ‘Scripture before phone’. How many of us wake up and start the day, not with God, but with messages, work emails, news, or just all kinds of trivia, and before we know it God is squeezed out. Wax writes: ‘Our technology has only freed us up… to live like slaves.’
Justin Whitmel Earley: ‘If we are going to live lives shaped by the love of God and neighbour, we need to think about our habits. The vast majority of our lives are governed by habit. We are not formed simply by our deepest beliefs and greatest aspirations, but also the most ordinary of habits that guide our everyday lives. We usually don’t think about these habits, and that’s why they matter so much.’
Start off small, and find a consistent time to spend with God each day.
4. Train yourself to be godly through regular times of prayer
It was Jesus’ habit to attend synagogue every week. It was Jesus’ habit to learn the Scriptures and meditate on them. And it was Jesus’ habit to spend much time in prayer with his heavenly Father, even though he was so busy.
‘Devote yourselves to prayer.’ (Colossians 4:2)
One of the main reasons we lack godliness is because of our prayerlessness. Of course, praying and mediating on the Bible go hand in hand. And again, if you don’t plan to pray, then you probably won’t pray much at all.
Donald S Whitney: ‘We can be prayer pessimists and see the expectation to pray merely as obligation, or we can be optimists who view the command to pray as an opportunity to receive the mercy and grace of God. Prayer is a royal invitation.’
‘Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.’ (Hebrews 4:16)
5. Train yourself to be godly by deliberately developing relationships with unbelievers
It takes discipline to make time for others who don’t know Jesus them and to make the lost a priority.
Pray for specific individuals all through the year. Pray each day that the Lord would give you opportunities to share his love. The same Holy Spirit power that changed your life for Christ, is the power for you to witness to Christ. Will you be disciplined in carrying our church invitation cards? Will you be disciplined to pray for unbelievers? Will you use your home to invite neighbours and friends in to share your life with you?
All this training! Perhaps you are exhausted even thinking about it. But God says it has value in this life and in the life to come.
Value in this life. ‘Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.’ (John 17:3) In this life, do you want to enjoy experiencing the love of God, and the peace of God? Do you want to experience real relationship with your Creator? Do you want the support and encouragement of the church family, making a real difference in the lives of others? Then train yourself for godliness!
In the life to come; do you want to meet people in Heaven that you shared the gospel with on earth? Do you want to store up treasure for Heaven, which will never run out? ‘Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, ‘No-one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’ (Luke 18:29-30)
‘Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.’
Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’
Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’ (John 6:27-29)