In athletic events, those who engage in them spend a great deal of time preparing for them. They train and exert self control over many facets of their life. You would not expect to see a marathon runner eating unhealthy foods prior to the race or during the preparation for it. Athletes follow the rules and don’t expect to win unless they do. (2 Tim 2:5) Paul, as he about to depart from this world, writes to Timothy and says that he has finished the race. (2 Tim 4:7)
Each of those illustrations relate to our spiritual goal of getting to heaven. Athletes exercise self control but do so to win a perishable crown and we do so for an imperishable. (I cor 9: 24-25) Paul finished the race and knew that there was a crown of life waiting for him.(2 tim 4:8) Even Jesus, asked “why do you call me Lord and do not do the things I tell you” (e.g. follow the rules) (Luke 6:46)
Paul uses the illustration of exercise but he does so primarily to make the bigger point. He says that bodily exercise does profit but only a little, whereas godliness profits in this life and in the life to come.
To his first point, that bodily exercise profits little, we should recognize that even if we were able to extend our life span up to double the normal span and reach 150 to 200 years of age, there is nothing that physical exercise can do beyond death. We might live a better, more healthy life and we might stretch those years out but we are all going to die eventually. Knowing this, we recognize that even those victories which we win, those wreaths that perish, are short lived.
When compared with eternity, our mere 70 to 80 years of life in this world is nothing. But even more “nothing” than that is the 2-4 hours that a marathon runner has trained so hard for. You see, they exercise such control, practice so hard, endure so much and all so that their body will endure the time that they spend during the race: 2 hours if you are fast, 5 hours if you are slow. We on the other hand exercise self control, exercise for godliness, and endure so much so that we might live in eternity.
Godliness, on the other hand, is profitable in both this life and the one to come. We understand the benefit of the next life but even here in this one, being a godly person is profitable. Daniel found that out as he determined not to defile himself with the King’s food. (Dan 1:8,17). Many times in our life, we will find that being godly is something that people will respond to in a positive way but it also is a way that we keep our lives on track; you might even say it is a way by which we can sleep at night.
The fact that Timothy was told to exercise himself to godliness should serve as an admonition to us and encouragement. Timothy, who had been trained with Paul was so highly thought of by Paul:
But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, that I also may be encouraged when I know your state. For I have no one like-minded, who will sincerely care for your state. (Php 2:19-20)
If this young man was needing to be encouraged to train himself for godliness, then we also should take such an exhortation to heart as well.