The Profit of Godly Discipline
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, October 10, 2004
Copyright © 2004, P. G. Mathew
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
As a young man, bicyclist Lance Armstrong suffered from testicular cancer that spread to his brain and threatened to take his life. But through discipline he beat the cancer and went on to win the Tour de France a record-breaking six times. And there are other top athletes who have accomplished great things through strict bodily discipline.
Such a level of discipline is not really appreciated by most modern, affluent people. For example, today we are all well aware that bodily exercise is beneficial. Why, then, do not more people regularly exercise? I myself have a treadmill upstairs in my house. But every morning my body tells me not to go upstairs. If I reject this bodily counsel and get on the machine anyway, my body tells me to get off right away and that if I really wanted to exercise, I could always do it tomorrow. But most days I beat my body and make it my slave; thus, I am beginning to like bodily exercise, at least a little.
We all acknowledge the importance of exercise, both spiritual and physical. Yet we want all the benefits of discipline without any sweat, struggle, or pain. We are surrounded by slogans: "Eat all you want and still lose weight!" "Make more money by working less!" "Get better grades without studying!" "Get fit without exercising!" "Use credit cards and enjoy financial freedom!" "Sin all you want and go to heaven!" But in the back of our minds, we know these are all lies. There is no gain without pain, no crown without the cross.
Spiritual exercise is even more difficult than physical exercise, because there is sin and evil in the world as well as sin dwelling in us. Satan does not want us to engage in any form of discipline, especially spiritual. Just try to pray, and see how long you last. If you are quite determined, you may make it a few minutes. In fact, a study was done with reference to the prayer habits of ministers, which showed they spent an average of two minutes in prayer daily. Prayer is a struggle, because the enemy does not want us to pray.
There are many scriptures that speak about physical as well as spiritual discipline. Let us, then, briefly examine a few.
In his writings, Paul uses the imagery of a footrace several times. In 1 Corinthians 9 he writes, "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way to get the prize" (v. 24). And the key verse is verse 25: "Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training," that is, he disciplines himself.
There were several pan-Hellenic festivals in Paul's time. The Olympic games were held every four years. Additionally, there were the Isthmian games, held near Corinth every two years. It is possible that Paul himself witnessed these games in A.D. 51, when he was at Corinth. Certainly the people of Corinth were quite familiar with them. That is why Paul wrote to them, "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run?"
The Isthmian games included footraces, boxing, and other contests. People came from all over the ancient world to watch them and enjoy the festivities, as well as to compete in them. In order to compete, one had to be under the supervision of trainers for the previous ten months and had to adhere to certain rules. They had to abstain from wine and eat simply and sparingly. They had to deny themselves and not indulge the desires of their bodies. They had to be pure, sober, and persevering. They had to obey orders exactly and give up everything that would impede them.
Before they could compete, these athletes had to take an oath affirming that they had obeyed these rules throughout the previous ten months. If they did not, they were disqualified. Additionally, during the race they had to run naked, without any encumbrances, along the prescribed course. These athletes endured all hardships. They ran with untiring determination and single-mindedness, stretching every nerve. But although all ran, only one would win the prize. So without discipline, no one could compete and no one could win.
What was the reward for all this discipline? Besides recognition and praise from their countrymen, the athletes received wreaths. The winner of the Olympic games received a crown of olive leaves, while the winner of the Isthmian games received a wreath of pine needles. These crowns soon faded, withered, and perished. But we who are Christians run to receive a reward that will last for eternity.
The theme of 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 is discipline. The Greek word for discipline is egkrateu˘; literally, "in strength." Paul is saying that everyone who competes-the word is ag˘nizomai-everyone who agonizes, who strives, who competes, who disciplines himself with respect to eating, drinking, sex, sleeping, obeying rules, and so on, goes into strict training. It is painful and exhausting, but he must persevere.
Paul's argument is that the Christian life is a race, or a contest, and so every Christian, like the Greek athletes, must discipline himself so that he might be successful. Using boxing imagery as well as the imagery of a footrace, Paul says in verse 26, "Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly. I do not fight like a man beating the air." This was Paul's personal testimony concerning his own life. He was running and fighting with his eyes focused on the goal. Every stride is purposeful, every blow counts. Paul understood that his greatest problem came when his bodily desires wanted to go counter to the desires of his mind and spirit, as well as to the desires of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures.
An undisciplined person is governed by his body, not his mind. His body tells him what to do, and his mind complies. He has no power over his desires. He gets an urge to smoke, and he smokes. He gets an urge for various fleshly desires, and he quickly fulfills them, as a slave. His body is the master, and his mind is the slave.
But here Paul says, "No, I beat my body and make it my slave." He forced his body to do what his mind willed in obedience to God and the Scriptures. Although Paul rejected the Greek view that the body is evil, he knew that sin still dwells in the body and that the body can be used either to sin or to serve God (see Romans 6). Paul was also aware of David's sin with Bathsheba. So he counseled Timothy, "Flee youthful lusts."
Paul exercised discipline over his body. This does not mean he was literally beating his body; he was speaking metaphorically. But Paul refused to be led by the desires of his body. So I am sure that in the morning, when his body said, "Keep on sleeping," he would say, "No!" and would get up and pray. Paul made his body obey his mind. That is what we are to do also. In fact, that is the difference between men and animals. We have minds, and we are supposed to rule our bodies with them. Paul ordered his body to obey his mind, his spirit, and the Holy Spirit, who dwelt in him.
In 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 Paul says, "Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body." Brothers and sisters, we have no right to be slaves to our bodily passions and desires. Therefore, flee! Do not be controlled by your body.
In the ancient Greek games, only one runner received the prize. But every Christian who disciplines himself wins the race of the Christian life. Every Christian will receive a crown-a crown of righteousness, a crown of life, an incorruptible and everlasting crown-from the Lord himself.
In 2 Timothy 4:6-7 Paul writes of his impending death: "For I am already being poured out like a drink offering and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." Every Christian who disciplines himself spiritually will also finish the race of life successfully. Paul continues in verse 8: "Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness"-not a leafy, fading, corruptible, perishing crown-"which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day." And then he says, "And not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing."
Anyone who encourages Christians to live lawless, undisciplined, self-indulgent lives is speaking against Paul's teaching. In fact, such a person is speaking against the teaching of Jesus Christ himself, for Jesus demands that we deny ourselves, take up the cross daily, and follow him; and he promises that if we do so, we will receive praise from him when he comes again. Therefore, let me ask you: Are you serving your body as a slave, or is your body obeying you? If you are a slave to the desires of your body, you shall not be successful either in this life or in the life to come.
Discipline, then, is a good and godly thing. It is also called self-control, egkrateia. It is essential to the Christian life. Paul preached to Felix about righteousness, self-control, and judgment (Acts 24:25); Peter tells us that we must add self-control to knowledge (2 Peter 1:6); and we are told in Galatians 5:23 the last fruit of the Spirit is self-control. So self-control is self-mastery. It is being under the control of the Holy Spirit. It is possessing the ability to say "No" to sin and "Yes" to Jesus Christ and all that he demands of us. If we love God, we will exercise this fruit of the Spirit called self-control.
Obeying the Rules
In 2 Timothy 2:3-5 Paul writes, "Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs-he wants to please his commanding officer. Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor's crown unless he competes according to the rules." Modern man hates rules. He wants absolute freedom, libertinism, and antinomianism. He doesn't want anything to do with rules.
But a Christian should be like a good soldier who endures the hardship of war, even to the point of sacrificing his life. He does all things for one purpose: to please his commanding officer, and our commanding officer is the Lord Jesus Christ. Additionally, like an athlete, a Christian must compete according to the rules if he wants to win.
Many modern Christians do not like rules, especially the rules of the Bible. Of course, they understand that they have to obey worldly rules, such as paying taxes and mortgages and such. Those are rules they accept. But when they come to the Bible, they say, "We can dispense with all these rules." They think salvation is salvation from rules. But a Christian must live by rules. Like an athlete, he cannot be an antinomian. He must welcome the rulebook and subject himself to it so that he might receive the victor's crown. He will be careful to compete according to the rules, for he knows that otherwise he will be disqualified.
What is the rulebook by which Christians are to live? The Bible, and we are not exempt from its rules. Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). To those who hate the rules he will say plainly on that day, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!" So we must compete according to God's rules in order to receive the crown of life.
Completing the Task
Paul also uses the imagery of a race in Acts 20:22-24: "And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I might finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me-the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace."
Paul knew that troubles, trials, persecutions, and even death lay ahead of him. Yet he had only one ambition in this world-to complete the task the Lord, his commanding officer, had given him. What was that task? To bear witness to Jesus Christ. Christians are not to live to please themselves; we are to please the Lord Jesus Christ in all things. To run the Christian race is to live for the glory of God so that in all things Jesus Christ might have preeminence. The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. We are to seek first the kingdom of God.
What, then, ought to be our life's ambition? To adorn the gospel, to live the gospel, and to proclaim the gospel. In 1 Corinthians 9:22 Paul says, "To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some." Winning the race means to save some people through the proclamation of the gospel. As Christians, our purpose in this life is not to make more money, to acquire power, or to become famous in this world. That is not God's purpose for our lives. He certainly gives us all we need, and we praise him for it. But the purpose of our lives is to be the light of the world and to proclaim the gospel so that somehow we may save some.
Paul continues, "I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessing" (v. 23). Our interest is to share in the blessing of the gospel both here and hereafter. That and that alone will bring us great excitement, joy, and satisfaction. I hope each of us will share the gospel, and save some in our family, in our neighborhood, in our workplace, and even in the church. But how can we save anyone if we are giving ourselves over to bodily desires and are being pulled down by them? Therefore, let us be disciplined and self-controlled! Then we can say confidently, "Follow me, as I follow Christ."
Winning the Prize
Paul uses footrace imagery again in Philippians 3:12-14: "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do. . . ." Jesus said only one thing is needful, and Paul does that one thing: "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."
Forgetting what is behind, and forging ahead without distraction or deflection, Paul is running the race of the Christian life. He has not arrived at the finish line of perfection of the full knowledge of Christ, so he finds himself straining, striving, and pursuing. He is focused and undistracted by the glories of this world. Like the pilgrim in Pilgrim's Progress, he is moving on to the Celestial City to be with God, all the while refusing to let himself be choked by life's worries, riches, fame, and pleasures. (PGM) Elsewhere Paul says, "We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:18). He is running the race, seeing the eternal by the eye of faith in the word of God.
In Philippians 3:7-8 Paul says, "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish." Forgetting what is behind means forgetting our old life-the glory, fame, and power of this world, as well as our failures of the past. That is the negative aspect. But, positively, we strain toward what is ahead, pressing on toward the goal to win the prize. And what is this prize? The beatific vision-full fellowship with God forever in glory.
What Is Godliness?
In 1 Timothy 4:7-8 Paul speaks again about Christian discipline: "Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives' tales; rather, train yourself to be godly." This command is a present imperative, gumnaze, from which we have gymnasium and gymnastics. It is speaking about an athlete struggling, training, and exercising. A Christian is to exercise himself to godliness. Then Paul explains why we should do this: "For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and in the life to come."
Godliness has everlasting profit. But what is godliness? First, it is the exact opposite of ungodliness. The root of ungodliness is rejection of God. The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God," and the fruits of ungodliness are the wicked deeds this philosophy gives rise to. So when you see a man engaging in wickedness, you can deduce that he does not believe in God. The essence of this philosophy is this: There is no God; therefore, one may do whatever one wants to do. There are no rules.
But godliness, at its root, is the knowledge that God is. The Bible says that he who comes to God must believe that God exists. It is knowing that God is holy, infinite, personal, almighty, ever-present, transcendent, and immanent. At the same time, he is interested in history, and he has chosen and saved us. God is in us; he is involved in our lives and has given us a rule book to live by. The root of godliness is the knowledge that God is, and the fruit of godliness is obedience to him.
So godliness is the fear of God and love for God. A godly child not only fears his parents, but he also loves them; thus, he obeys them. So when you see a child who eagerly obeys his parents, you can call that child godly. It is very simple. In Psalm 16:8 we see the heart of godliness: "I have set the Lord always before me." The psalmist is saying, "I am governed by the presence of God. I think of him and do what pleases him."
A Christian is to exercise himself in godliness. How is this done? If you are a child, the simple answer is that you should obey your parents until obedience becomes a habit and delight for you. Keep on obeying. It is a present imperative, meaning to continuously obey God. We should daily engage in such spiritual gymnastics. We should daily obey God until obedience becomes our habit and delight.
The Promise of Life
Bodily exercise does profit us, but it is limited to only a few years in this life. How many athletes have joints so worn that they cannot even walk! So we know right away it doesn't have lasting profit. Nevertheless, it is good to exercise and, in fact, spiritual exercise is enhanced greatly by physical exercise. But spiritual exercise is absolutely and infinitely more profitable than physical exercise, because godliness inheres the promise of eternal life. Godliness means we can enjoy God's life here in this life and we will also enjoy the fullness of it in the age to come.
We find this promise of eternal life in 2 Timothy 1:1: "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus. . ." This is not speaking about mere biological life; it is speaking about the life of God in the soul of man.
You and I enjoy God's life in this life, and we will enjoy the fullness of it when we arrive in the presence of God. Bill Gates is the richest man in the world, with an individual value of $48 billion. The Walton family is the richest family; they have $90 billion. But don't think that these people enjoy a better life than we do. Unless they are Christians, it is much inferior. In 2 Timothy 1:10 we read, "But it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." This is immortal life, eternal life, everlasting life. Jesus said, "I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly" (John 10:10), and, "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish" (John 10:28). In the midst of all the troubles we experience in this world, we can enjoy here and now the life of God. The Bible says about Bill Gates and every other unbeliever, "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?"
Christians, then, are people of God who have been made alive and brought into the kingdom of God. Thus, we enjoy life. Christians who exercise godliness enjoy the best of both worlds, for godliness is profitable for us in this life and in the life to come. Only a fool would refuse to be godly.
Trained by Grace
In Titus 2:11-12 Paul writes: "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men." He is speaking about Jesus Christ, in whom grace came. "It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions." "It" there means grace. How many people use grace as an excuse to sin? They say, "Salvation is by grace, so I can do what I want." But here we are told that grace teaches us and trains us to do the right thing. It is the same word we find in the proverb, "Train up a child in the way he should go." Grace trains us "to deny ungodliness and worldly passions"-that is the negative aspect, and positively, "to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age."
This grace that saved us is also our trainer in godliness. Some people want Jesus as Savior but not as Lord. But he is Lord, and as trainer of our life, he will tell us which way to go, what to believe, what to think, what to say and not say, and how to spend our time and money.
Grace makes good works possible and necessary. We are recreated unto good works, unto godliness. So this grace-trainer instructs us in two lessons daily. One is negative-to say "No" to the philosophy of godlessness, and to deny our worldly passions that manifest themselves in sin and self-indulgence. The other is positive-it teaches us to live a self-controlled life. Paul says, "I beat my body and make it obey me." That is the idea: exercise self-control, discipline, self-mastery. And it teaches us to live an upright or righteous life. That has to do with relational life-your life with your wife, with your children, with your brothers and sisters in Christ. You don't make a promise and then violate it. You don't lie, commit adultery, or steal. All these laws are in relation to other human beings. Jesus gave similar negative and positive commands when he said, "Deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow me."
Grace never trains anyone in libertinism, lawlessness, and fleshly indulgence. Godliness is a necessary condition for living the life of God. You simply cannot live the life of God without denying ungodliness.
Instruction in Spiritual Discipline
Hebrews 12:1-4 says,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
The writer to the Hebrews encourages us to run this spiritual race, and he gives us several spiritual guidelines to ensure that we run as victors:
Throw off everything that hinders. Before we run, we are told to throw off, cast away, reject, every weight that impedes our race. We must lose weight, not just physically, but spiritually. There are other weights that will hamper us: the desire of the flesh, the desire for riches, the desire for the glory of this world. Isn't that true? They will hamper us. So what do we do? We must throw them off if we want to enter this spiritual race.
Throw off the sin that so easily entangles. We must throw off every sin, especially the secret sins that no one else knows about. I don't have to tell you what it is; you know it. Let me tell you, as long as we indulge in that secret sin, we cannot progress. So what must we do? Throw off every sin.
Fix your eyes on Jesus. The Greek word is aphor˘ntes. It means looking away from all the distractions of this world and looking to Jesus alone. We must be single-minded. A double-minded person is unstable in all his ways. One cannot serve two masters. We must look to the historical Jesus, the very God and very man; the holy, sinless Jesus who died for us on the cross; the Jesus who rose from the dead and ascended into the heavens; the Jesus who is our high priest, who even now intercedes for us; the Jesus who is King of kings and the Lord of lords; the Jesus who is coming again. Look to him, think of him, consider him, and be refreshed, empowered, and invigorated by him as you live in this present evil age.
Run with perseverance. We must run with endurance, overcoming every pain, persecution, trial, and deprivation.
Run the race marked out for you. You cannot choose your race; it is already defined and decreed. You must run the race that is set before you.
Resist sin. We must resist sin even to the point of shedding our blood. That is why some Christians die as martyrs; they refuse to deny the Lord Jesus Christ.
Consider Jesus, who is with us in the race. Yes, Jesus is in heaven, but he is also with us. He said, "Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Consider him and meditate upon him. When you are weary and about to give up, look at the cross and be refreshed to finish the race.
Let me offer you some additional practical guidelines for living a life of godly discipline:##
Engage in physical exercise. Exercise regularly, eat right, and so on. It is profitable in this life and will help you to feel better, think better, and live a couple of days longer.
Rise early. You will be surprised how much you can do when you rise early. Manna had to be gathered early; if one went after nine o'clock, it was gone. Rise early, as Jesus himself did.
Read the word of God. Read the Bible systematically and seriously, not in a silly, superficial way. Study it and meditate on it so you will know what it says. It is the rule book for our lives; we must know what God is saying so we can do it.
Pray thoughtfully, biblically, and believingly. The Bible speaks of wrestling in prayer. I told you that even ministers pray only an average of two minutes a day. But consider this scripture about Jesus which shows how difficult it was for Jesus himself to pray because of evil and Satan: "And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly." At the point of his greatest weakness, Jesus did not stop praying; rather, he strained every nerve and prayed even more vigorously, more earnestly. "And his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground" (Luke 22:44). You see, if you start praying, all of a sudden you will be in anguish. Of course, we will never experience the degree of anguish which the Messiah suffered, but Satan will trouble us because he does not want us to pray.
Fast often. Modern man doesn't like to fast; instead, he super-sizes everything! Do you think McDonald's or Jack-in-the-Box would like it if people got serious about fasting often? But Jesus said his people will fast. We see Paul fasting in Acts 13:3.
Proclaim the gospel. Practice the principle of the scientist Dr. Henry F. Schaefer III. He has a policy that he will try to speak of Jesus to someone each day before going to bed. You see, the purpose of our life is to declare the gospel to others. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you, for Jesus said, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you."
Work hard. "Whatsoever your hand findeth to do, do it with all your might." A wine-producing company in Israel uses the slogan, "We have to please a higher authority." Well, it is true for us-we have to please a higher authority. Whatever your job, it is God's ordination, so work hard to please him.
Do all in God's strength. You cannot live the victorious Christian life in your own strength. "Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power" (Ephesians 6:10). Read also Colossians 1:29 and Ephesians 3:20, verses which speak about the mighty power of God that works in us.
Make no provision for the flesh (Romans 13:14). You see, David made provision for the flesh, and that was his downfall.
Rule your body. Make it obey your mind.
Work out what God is working in you. You don't have to come up with new work; God works in you, speaks to you, and prompts you to do good work. Then you are responsible for doing it by the strength he gives.
Live under authority. Don't chafe against the rules God gives us for living. Appreciate them; he gives them to us for our benefit.
Spiritual, godly discipline will secure for us everlasting benefit. It will enable every one of us to finish the race and win the prize. It will allow us to say one day, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness." Be faithful till death, and the Lord will give you the crown of life. Live in a way so that when you die, you will hear these words: "Well done, thou good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of the Lord."
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Copyright © 2004, P. G. Mathew
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