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Author:Rev. Ted Gray
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Congregation:First United Reformed Church
 Oak Lawn, Illinois
 www.oaklawnurc.org/
 
Title:Spiritual Exercise in God's Gymnasium
Text:1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 1 Timothy 4:7 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Running the race
 
Preached:2020
Added:2020-01-07
Updated:2020-01-07
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


 
 
“Spiritual Exercise in God’s Gymnasium”
1 Timothy 4:7b-8; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
 
If you were to take a survey of New Year's resolutions, I'm sure you would find near the top of the list a resolution to get into shape. Health and fitness gymnasiums offer special deals to get people in.  After the treats and delicious meals celebrating the holidays, many people resolve to have a healthier diet and to become physically fit. But the Bible, in the two Scriptures we have read, as well as in many other passages, likens our physical exercise to spiritual exercise. And, in doing so, the Bible often compares living the Christian life to a runner running a race.
 
We see that clearly in the passage we read from 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. That passage uses the example of the Isthmian games which were held in Corinth every other year, and were similar to our Olympics. We also see the analogy to physical exercise in our text from 1 Timothy 4:7-8, which focuses on the Greek gymnasium. Just as an athlete trains in the gym for strength and speed, so the Christian is to train in “God's gymnasium” to build godliness and to grow spiritually.
 
That is a reoccurring theme in Scripture: Philippians 3:12-14 and the opening verses of Hebrews 12 also speak of the Christian life as running a race. Galatians 2:2 describes how Paul went up to Jerusalem, in his words, “in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain.” And, in Paul's second letter to Timothy, in 2 Timothy 4:7 he writes, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
 
I was once on the track team, but I was never a track star. But I do remember that in preparing for the track meets there were a number of things that our eighth grade coach stressed. First, he stressed the importance of training. He pointed out that you cannot succeed in a race, or any other test of strength and perseverance, without training. In 1 Timothy 4:7b the Holy Spirit teaches us the same principle. The Holy Spirit inspired the apostle Paul to write a direct command, when he wrote, “Train yourself to be godly.”                                 
    
The terminology behind training yourself to be godly is the terminology of a gymnasium. The word that Paul uses for “train” is from the same root word for gymnasium. Literally he is saying to young Timothy “Gymnazise yourself to be godly.”
 
In this training, there is, of course, the establishment of goals. When I was on the eighth grade track team, it did not take me long to figure out that I wasn’t the fastest kid in school. Consequently, the coach pulled me aside and said, “Maybe you should set your goal on the 440 run, and the other longer races.”
 
And it is no different in spiritual training. Goals have to be set. In 1 Corinthians 9:25 we read how the apostle set goals: “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.”
 
The context of 1 Corinthians 9 is evangelistic. In the previous verses, verse 19-23, the apostle described how he made it his goal to reach every type of person possible, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free. His great desire – his goal – was to bring others, by the Holy Spirit's power, to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. In verse 22 and 23 he writes, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
 
But as he set the goal to be used by the Lord, in order to reach many people with the gospel, he also had the goal of personal holiness. In Philippians 3:12, after describing how he considered everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ and receiving his righteousness, Paul writes: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
 
And those two goals go hand-in-hand. All of us should have that same goal to be all things to all people so that by all possible means we, by God’s grace and Spirit’s power, might save some. But if our life isn’t marked by obedience to the word of God, showing every effort to live out our faith as a letter from Christ, then our verbal witness will have no positive impact. Instead of encouraging others to “ask us for the reason for the hope that is within us” (1 Peter 3:15) we will drive others away as they see our hypocrisy.
    
Just as an athlete sets goals for them self, we who run the Christian race must set goals as to how often we will read the Bible, pray, be faithful in church attendance, and we need to set goals of showing Christ to others by how we live and by what we speak day by day.
 
In order to meet that goal, we need self-discipline. The best athletes are usually those who are the most self-disciplined. It's no different in the Christian life. You can make all sorts of goals to run the race, and yet if you don't exercise self-discipline you will never get off the starting line. Most people who make New Year's resolutions have excellent goals. Many have goals of getting into better shape, others to be more punctual for appointments and work, many professing Christians set goals of being more faithful in attending all the services of the church so that they can grow stronger spiritually.
 
Those are all good goals, but in order to meet the goals we need self-discipline. The apostle Paul certainly understood that, and put it quite bluntly in 1 Corinthians 9:26-27, “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.”
 
When I was in seminary we had a number of Korean students. They were well known for two separate activities. They were certainly well known for making kimchi. The smell of kimchi permeated the dormitory and we knew that the Koreans were going to be well fed and thinking fondly of home.
 
The second thing they were well known for, especially for any who were light sleepers, is that they loved to sing praises to God. They began the day at four in the morning by meeting together for prayer, the study of the word, and singing. Some of the students in the dorm could sleep through the prayer and the reading and study of the word. The Korean voices were subdued compared to when they sang with great joy their songs of praise. I wandered down to be a part of that service on several occasions. It was a sight to behold. Mr. Cho would be playing the piano, singing his heart out along with the other brothers from Korea.
 
They put all of us to shame, and while we would kid them from time to time about the smell of the kimchi, we could never kid them about their sincere and wonderful devotion to the Lord. They had a personal desire for spiritual growth, to grow in grace and knowledge of the Lord. And they had the desire to be all things to all people so that God might be pleased to use them to expand his kingdom. That is why they came to the United States. They came because they wanted to establish a Christian witness; they said that our culture was so wicked that it needed the witness of many more Christians. And that was in 1981, when our culture was not nearly as godless as it is today.
 
Value for This Life and the Life to Come
 
Just as a runner trains for a race, these passages tell us that we must train for godliness. Just as physical training has value, so also spiritual training has value. But the spiritual training has far greater value than physical training, “for physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”
 
We are commanded to train for godliness because godliness holds promise for this life and the life to come through the gracious offer of salvation through faith in Christ. The gift of salvation is the greatest gift that any person could ever receive. The debt of our sin is fully paid by Jesus Christ. He became our substitute, taking the curse of our sin upon himself on the cross. But not only does he cover – propitiate – our sin. He also lived a life of perfect obedience which is credited – imputed – to every person who believes in him with saving faith. The result is that we are not only forgiven, but we are also presented to the Father spotless and without blame, clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
 
From that greatest gift flow innumerable other blessings. One of the many blessings is that God gives his redeemed people strength for all the hurdles of life that come our way. Whenever I watch Olympic runners doing the hurdles I am truly impressed. I tried the hurdles once, and it was not a pretty sight. On the track team, we had the choice of doing hurdles or going into several other types of races. But in life, have you ever noticed how the hurdles come, even though we haven't asked for them?
 
And when the hurdles of life come, how do those who don't know the Lord with saving faith handle the hurdles? How often have we wondered how someone who hasn’t made the Lord their refuge and strength cope? By contrast, how often have we seen the strength of God in a believer's life in the various hurdles of the race?
 
In any type of crisis ministry, whether it is at the scene of a tragic accident, in the emergency room at the hospital, in the funeral home or at the gravesite – in those types of crises we see a vast difference between those who have the peace that surpasses all understanding, and those who have rejected the Lord and are without God and without hope in this sad world.
 
But as Christians we are still prone to weakness, anxiety and doubt. How then do we cope in those situations?  Hebrews 12:1-3 is a pointed passage on how we are to find strength in the hurdles of life. We don't look to ourselves for the strength to persevere, but instead we find our strength by focusing on Christ:
 
   …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, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he 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 sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
 
It is only through Christ that we persevere. In the challenges of running the race, of living out our faith in a world that is both hostile and seductive, how crucial it is to focus our eyes and our heart – our whole being – on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.
 
However, training in godliness holds promise not only for the hurdles of this life but it also holds promise for the life to come. As Paul told Timothy, “Train yourselves to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”
 
At this point it is important for us to remember that it's not the running of the race that brings salvation. It is not as though the Lord will say, “You ran the race of life in such a remarkable manner that I will give you the crown of salvation.”  Not at all. Our salvation is entirely of the Lord's grace and of his initiative as he graciously gives us new life from above by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
 
Yet, when the Lord saves us from our sin, he also sanctifies us. Although we never reach perfection in this life, and although the Lord uses the indwelling sin that we all struggle with to show us our weakness and our great need of Christ, he yet also gives us his word and Spirit, so that we live by the word and grow in grace, knowledge and obedience.
 
And yet even though our salvation is all of the Lord's doing, and even though he is the one who sets us on the right course, convicts us with his Holy Spirit when we stray, gives us the stamina and the strength to persevere – not in our power but by his – he nevertheless gives us the crown. Did you notice in 1 Corinthians 9:25 how when the apostle described training for the Isthmian games he wrote: “They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”? You see, spiritual training really does hold promise, not only for this life but for all eternity!
 
Training for Godliness
 
We begin to see, then, the importance of spiritual training. But how do we go about that training? What does it mean when the Holy Spirit commands us, “Train yourselves to be godly.”? What exactly do we find in “God’s Gymnasium”?
 
The centerpiece is the Bible, the word of God. There is no other book that will give us better spiritual training than the word of God. In God's word we see our sinful failures revealed to us, and as we do, we are driven to the only Savior, Jesus Christ, also revealed in the word of God.
 
That is why the study of God's word is central to our worship services. Our worship is centered around the word of God, but the study of his word is also to be done individually. How exactly do we study the word, individually and as families? The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives some practical guidelines as it asks in Q&A 90, “How then should the word of God be read and heard in order to produce the blessing of salvation?”
 
The answer: “That the word may become effectual for salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer, receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts and practice it in our lives.”
 
We are to read the word with diligence. That means that we read it regularly and carefully. And to do so we are to read the word of God with preparation. It is important to have a plan for reading the Bible. There are many good plans, including chronological Bibles that cover the entire Bible in one year and present Scripture in its chronological order. There are also devotional guides that give us specific passages to read each day from the Old Testament and New Testament for our spiritual growth. But again, those plans, and others like them, are only effective when they are put into practice.
 
That is part of the preparation that the Westminster Catechism speaks about. But another part of that preparation is preparing our hearts and minds to receive the word of God and to increasingly live his word out in our lives. That involves prayer. Ask the Lord for the illumination of the Holy Spirit before you read the Bible. Ask him to not only help you to understand the word, but to apply it to your life.
 
We must also read the Bible with faith. Hebrews 4:1-2 describes how Israel was kept out of the promised land because although they heard the message, “The message was of no value to them, because those who heard it did not combine it with faith.”  Trust Scripture to be infallible and inerrant, for, as 2 Peter 1:21 assures us: “…No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
 
The catechism also stresses that the word must be read with love. Consider the joy of the psalmist, in Psalm 119:97, “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.” And in that context, law refers to all of God's word.
 
We are to lay the word of God up in our heart, the catechism says. We do that by memorizing it. Psalm 119:11, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” And once the word of God is memorized, it becomes meditated upon, as we review the truths that we have memorized from the word of God, and find them ever more deeper and wonderful the more we meditate on what we have memorized. Memorizing key verses and meaningful passages from Scripture, so that you can review them, meditating upon them throughout the year is an excellent resolution.
 
And the catechism tells us that the word of God becomes effectual for salvation as we not only lay it up in our hearts but also practice it in our lives. None of us practice the word of God perfectly. We all fall short. The Lord could have sanctified us completely when he saved us, but he keeps us from complete sanctification until we pass from this life into the life to come. He does so in order that we always remember how weak and sinful we are and how much we need Christ. But that does not take away our responsibility to put the word into practice, God enabling us, to the greatest of our ability.  As James 1:22 puts it: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
 
Closely related to the word of God, in God's “Gymnasium” is the table for the sacrament of the Lord's Supper and the water for baptism. Both sacraments are given to us so that by the “sensible signs” – that is, physical signs that appeal to our senses – Christ and all the benefits of believing in him are represented, sealed and applied to believers.
 
The word and the sacraments go hand in hand, which is why we never use the sacraments without the proper preaching of the word of God. But because the sacraments seal to us the promises of the word, we are not to neglect their use during this year or at any other time. Instead, we are to make every effort to partake of the sacraments for our spiritual growth and nurture.
 
Prayer is another vital ingredient to spiritual exercise. Through prayer we are strengthened and sustained; through prayer we are also able to express gratitude for all that God has done. Jesus taught us the Lord's prayer, which is to be a model for our prayers. In that model prayer the Lord teaches us to focus our prayers on his name, on his kingdom, and on his will being done on earth as it is in heaven. Only afterwards do we present our supplications for daily bread, forgiveness of our sins and protection from evil.
 
Training for godliness requires an active prayer life. It is true that at times in the life of every true believer there are spiritual droughts, and times when you cannot pray simply because you feel so overwhelmed. But at those times other believers are praying for you, and above all Christ, who sacrificed himself for you, ever lives to intercede on your behalf and prays for you. And if you find yourself in such a spiritual drought, know that the Lord will bring you through that drought and give you many more reasons to praise him in your prayers!
 
1 Timothy 4:8 reminds us “Physical training is of some value, but godliness has the value for all things.”  1 Corinthians 9:24-27, along with many other passages, emphasizes that same truth.
 
I don’t know what resolutions you may have made. But I do know that most gym memberships aren’t kept up. Often after just a few weeks, the physical exercise is too strenuous, and people go back to being “couch potatoes”. Just as it is easy to put off physical training, so too it is easy to put off spiritual training. And that's why I challenge you, and challenge myself, to be faithful in training in “God’s Gymnasium” – growing and gaining strength spiritually through the study of God's word, the proper use of the sacraments, and prayer that we may truly “grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:15). Amen!
 
 
- bulletin outline -
 
 
“…Train yourselves to be godly.  For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things,
holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” - 1 Timothy 4:7b-8
 
 
                                “Spiritual Exercise in God’s Gymnasium”
                                    1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 1 Timothy 4:7b-8;
 
I.  Living as a Christian is compared to running a race (1 Corinthians 9:24; Philippians 3:12-14;
     Hebrews 12:2). To run a race, and to live as a Christian, involves:
      1) Training (7b; 1 Corinthians 9:24)
 
 
 
      2) The establishment of goals (1 Corinthians 9:25-26)
 
 
 
      3) Self-discipline (1 Corinthians 9:27)
 
 
 
II. We are commanded to train for godliness (1 Timothy 4:7b), because godliness:
       1) Holds promise for this life (8c) giving us salvation from sin and the strength to handle the
           “hurdles” of the racetrack by focusing on Christ (Hebrews 12:2)
 
 
 
        2) Holds promise for the life to come (8d)
 
 
 
III. To train for godliness we need to use “God’s Gymnasium,” which firmly roots and builds us
       up in Christ, and includes:
        1) The daily study of God’s Word (2 Peter 3:18)
 
 
 
        2) The proper use of the sacraments (Matthew 28:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
 
 
 
        3) Prayer that seeks God’s will, not ours (Matthew 6:9-13; 26:39)

 

 




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2020, Rev. Ted Gray

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