The opening of the text and the doctrine
At this point, Swinnock begins to lay out his exposition. In addition to what he considers, there are some useful points here about how to develop a persuasive, informative piece. First, he merely notes the parts of the text to be considered. It is not a difficult process, but many sermons go wildly astray by not first performing this simple task:
Timothy is to be considered as a member of Christ, or in his general calling; and so this exhortation belongs to every Christian.
In it we may observe these three parts:
1. The act, exercise.
2. The subject of that act, thyself.
3. The object about which it was to be conversant, unto godliness; ‘Exercise thyself unto godliness.’
At this point, he makes some initial notes on interpreting each element. We will take these in parts.
First the verb: to exercise. There are two parts to how he develops this initial examination. Here he simply considers the meaning:
I shall briefly open the terms in the text, and then lay down the doctrinal truth.
Exercise, γύμναζε.] The word signifieth, strip thyself naked; it is a metaphor from runners or wrestlers, who being to contend for the prize, and resolved to put forth all their strength and power, lay aside their clothes which may hinder them, and then bestir themselves to purpose; as if Paul had said, O Timothy, let godliness be the object of all thy care and cost.
Often preachers tell the congregation what the Greek “really means.” A remarkable number of times, they are wrong. When they are not wrong, the point is often trivial. But here, Swinnock has done something useful. The verb in Greek does mean to strip naked. It was applied to athletes exercise (naked exercising seems uncomfortable, but the Greeks did it). We get the word “gym” from this verb gymnazo. At this point, the information is perhaps interesting but still not important. But Swinnock uses the metaphor to develop his exhortation. He plays on the words of Hebrews 12:1 to lay aside any encumbrance.
He uses the “really means” of the verb to pick up the rather striking metaphor and then use that metaphor to make an exhortation. If he did not begin with the Greek “really means”, his exhortation would be bizarre. “Paul says exercise yourself godliness. You should take off your clothes ….” He uses the original not to show off or to contradict the translation (because exercise is the right English equivalent) but he works out an application.
He then turns that into an exhortation:
Follow thy general calling with the greatest industry; pursue it diligently, do not loiter but labour about it; lay aside what may hinder, lay hold of what may further, and mind it as the main and principal work which thou hast to do in this world.
He now comes to the next point. In this one, he quotes the Greek but does not put it to any advantage. Perhaps it would have been better to lay it aside on this point. What he does do is create a striking series of images built around a single conceit (to warm):
Thyself, σεαυτόν.] A Christian’s first care must be about his own spiritual welfare. Religion commands us to be mindful of and helpful to our neighbours and relations; the sun rayeth out his refreshing beams, and the spring bubbleth up her purling streams for the good of others. Fire in the chimney warmeth the whole room, but it is burning hot on the hearth. Grace in a saint will make him useful to sinners, but chiefly, though not solely, to his own soul. Timothy, be not like a burning-glass, to put others into a flame, whilst thou thyself remainest unfired, but work hard to exalt holiness in thine own heart; exercise thyself.
This exhortation also answers a potential objection someone might have to the text: Isn’t this self centered to be concerned so with yourself? If Spurgeon were making this point, he would say, “Someone here will say, I think this exercising yourself is conceited. Shouldn’t he say show your love? Isn’t Christianity expansive and something which brings in love of others? This sounds like self-centered monks alone in a cell in the desert! No my friends, this is not self-centered. It is not self centered for the one at the hearth to stir the flame and put on the wood to churn up the fire. Yes, ….”
This last point “to godliness” he develops at more length. He could have made use o the word “godliness” here because there are few possible Greek originals for the English, but he does not pick up that strand
Unto godliness, πρὸς εὐσέβειαν.] Godliness is taken in Scripture either strictly or largely.
He lets us know that the concept has some breadth in Scripture:
(1.) Strictly, and then it includeth only the immediate worship of God, or obedience to the first table, and it is distinguished from righteousness, Tit. 2:11, 12; so ungodliness is distinct from unrighteousness, Rom. 1:18.
Text has hyperlinks. Swinnock’s original congregation did not have such, but a Christian of some time in the faith should have hyperlinks in our memory! Now for the broader concept
(2.) Largely, and then it comprehendeth our duty to our neighbour, as well as to God, and obedience to the second as well as the first table; so righteousness is religion, and in our dealings with men we may do our duty to God; it is taken thus 1 Tim. 6:6, and in the text.
Here is one of the delights and values in reading Swinnock: he turns his propositions in to images. Rather than leaving the proposition as an abstraction, he turns it into a movie:
The good husbandman [farmer, caretaker] makes no balks in the field of God’s precepts. Timothy must make it his trade to pay God and men their clue. He must not, like the pharisees, seem as tender of the first table as of the apple of his eye, and trample the second as dirt under his feet; they prayed in God’s house all day, to prey upon the widow’s house at night; nor as some (whom the world call honest men) who will not wrong their neighbours of the least mite, and yet wickedly rob God of many millions; they steal from him both time and love, and trust and bestow them on earthly trifles.
Having drawn out the image in terms of the Pharisee, he then gives more homely images:
The bird that would fly well must use both wings; the waterman, if he would have his boat move rightly, must ply both oars; the Christian, if he would make anything of his heavenly trade, must mind both tables.
He repeats what he has covered. I was taught by a fine lawyer while a clerk: Tell them what you are going to say, say it, tell them what you said. It is excellent advice.
The truth that I shall draw from the text is this:
That godliness ought to be minded as every one’s main and principal business. ‘Exercise thyself unto godliness.’
He here ends with a general exhortation:
Religion must be our chief occupation. The great trade that we follow in this world must be the trade of truth.
He then turns this into a more direct exhortation:
It is observable that the more noble and singular a being is, the more it is employed in a suitable working. God, who is the highest in perfections, is not only the holiest, but the most constant and diligent in his operations. ‘Hitherto my Father worketh, and I work,’ John 5:17. His work indeed is without weariness, his labour without the least lassitude, (as they say of heaven, Cœli motus quies,) all God’s working days are Sabbaths, days of rest; but he is a pure act, and he is every moment infinitely active from and for himself.
He is pure act is a reference back to Thomas Aquinas and is a basis for arguing that God is impassible. The book Does God Suffer by Weinandy explains this point very cogently.
Next he proves the point:
Angels are next to God in being, and so are next to him in working. They do God the most service, and they do him the best service; they serve God without sin, and they serve him without ceasing; ‘He makes his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire,’ Heb. 1:7. Spirits are the most active creatures with life, fire is the most active creature without life, a flame is the most operative part of the fire: thus active are angels in working for God. Some by fire understand lightnings, by spirits winds. As winds and lightnings presently pass through the earth, so angels presently fulfil God’s holy will.
He then draws out work:
Now as he hath given man a more excellent being than the rest of the visible world, so hath he called him to follow after and abound in the most excellent work. God hath appointed contemplation or vision to be man’s reward in heaven, to see God as he is, and to know him as he is known of him; but service and action to be his work on earth, to exercise himself to godliness.
Now he develops the concept of “work”
Some read that, Job 5:7, thus, ‘Man is born to work, as the sparks fly upward.’ Indeed it is the decreed lot of all mankind to labour. Adam was called to industry in his state of innocency, Gen. 2:15, and since man’s fall his work, which was before his pleasure, is now his punishment; if he eat not his bread in the sweat of his brow or his brains, he steals it.
He that, like a bodylouse, lives upon others’ sweat, is like Jeremiah’s girdle, good for nothing.
The bodylouse is a marvelous image.
Now he conjoins work and godliness:
But the main work which God commandeth and commendeth to the children of men, is to glorify him upon earth, by exercising themselves to godliness. This is God’s precept, and this hath been the saints’ practice. This is God’s precept, ‘Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,’ Phil. 2:12. In which words we have the Christian’s end—eternal life, salvation; and the means to attain it—diligent labour, work out your salvation; he had need to labour hard that would attain heaven. Godliness must not be πάρεργον, his by-business, but τὸ ἔργον, his main business.
This last point is something which is rarely stressed in any sermon I have heard. Godliness is something that I always think to join to my work, I should be more godly in x or y. But Swinnock is right, it is not an addition but the main point.
Again, he turns his exhortation into something you can see. He gives a picture then makes an application:
The Jews have a proverb, (alluding to manna, which was to be gathered the sixth day for the seventh, because on the seventh none fell from heaven,) He that gathereth not food on the Sabbath eve, shall fast on the Sabbath day. Intimating thereby, that none shall reign in heaven but such as have wrought on earth.
Here is yet another image, this one built around trade:
This hath been the saints’ practice, ‘Our conversation is in heaven,’ Phil. 3:18. Though our habitations be on earth, yet our πολὶτευμα, our negotiation, is in heaven. As a merchant that lives in London drives a great trade in Turkey, or the remotest part of the Indies; so Paul and the saints traded and trafficked afar off in the other world above, even when their abodes were here below. Godliness was their business, Christianity was minded and followed as their principal trade and calling.
He then expands the image: wherever we are in this work, we each do our part:
It is the calling of some to plough, and sow, and reap: the Christian makes and follows it as his calling, to ‘plough up the fallow-ground of his heart; to sow in righteousness, that he may reap in mercy,’ Hosea 10:12. The trade of others is to buy and sell; the godly man is the wise merchant, trading for goodly pearls, that sells all to buy the field where the pearl of great price is, Mat. 13:43.
He now lays out his plan for what follows:
For the explication of this truth, that religion or godliness ought to be every one’s principal business, I shall speak to these three things:
First, What religion or godliness is.
Secondly, What it is for a man to make religion his business, or to exercise himself to godliness.
Thirdly, Why every Christian must mind godliness as his main business.
Swinnocks works are available at Banner of Truth and electronically through Logos. (I get no money from the pitch.)