10 Key Bible Verses on Spiritual Discipline

This article is part of the Key Bible Verses series.

A Focused Life

Godly character is developed over time—honed by the practice of spiritual disciplines and commitment to living honorably before men and God. Habits of devotion like prayer, fasting, and Bible reading are the means by which we are transformed by the Spirit. Be encouraged to cultivate a life of discipline by these passages and commentary from the ESV Study Bible.

1 Timothy 4:7–8

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.

These verses instruct Timothy how he should be shaped by the gospel. Both paragraphs in this section (1 Tim. 4:6–10 and 1 Tim. 4:11–16) open with a call for Timothy to speak certain truths to the congregation. The focus is on how Timothy, by his teaching and lifestyle, can help the church persevere in the face of the false teaching.

Matthew 6:16–18

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Various kinds of fasts were commonly practiced in Old Testament times, though the law required only one fast a year, on the Day of Atonement (though fasting is probably implied by the command to “afflict yourselves”; Lev. 16:29–34; Lev. 23:26–32). In addition to abstaining from food, people were to humble themselves by praying, mourning, and wearing sackcloth. As with giving (Matt. 6:2–4) and praying (Matt. 6:5–15), fasting is to be a matter of the heart between the Christian and God. when you fast. Jesus assumes that his disciples will fast. “Disfigure” indicates leaving one’s face unwashed and sprinkled with ashes, with the intention of publicizing the physical hardships of fasting. their reward. Anointing and washing (Matt. 6:17) signify preparations to enjoy life (cf. Eccles. 9:7–8).

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2 Timothy 3:16–17

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

“All Scripture” would refer first to the Old Testament but by implication also to at least some New Testament writings, which by this time were already being considered as Scripture (see 1 Tim. 5:18; 2 Pet. 3:15–16). “Breathed out by God” translates a Greek word (theopneustos) that does not occur in any other Greek text (biblical or otherwise) prior to this letter. Some therefore suggest that Paul coined this term from words meaning “God” and “breathed,” which is certainly possible. The term stresses the divine origin and thus the authority of Scripture. Paul does not point to the human authors of Scripture as inspired people but says that the writings themselves (“Scripture,” Gk. graphē, “writing,” which in the New Testament always refers to biblical writings) are the words spoken (“breathed out”) by God. Whereas it seems that Paul and Timothy’s opponents stressed certain aspects or portions of Scripture (e.g., genealogies, 1 Tim. 1:4; cf. Titus 3:9), Paul stresses the authoritativeness of all of Scripture. The divine origin of Scripture is the reason for its power to convert (2 Tim. 3:15) and its usefulness in training (2 Tim.3:17). Because Scripture comes from God himself, “all” of it is profitable in a range of ways, ultimately leading to righteousness.

Joshua 1:8

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

Joshua will need strength and courage to accept his task (you shall cause this people to inherit the land; Josh. 1:6); to obey the Torah (Book of the Law [Joh. 1:8]; most likely this would have included at least the book of Deuteronomy or portions thereof [see Deut. 31:26, “this law”]); and to resist being terrified (do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed; Josh. 1:9). Most difficult of all will be the middle responsibility—namely, to make the Lord’s instructions (Hb. Torah) integral to who he is and what he does (v. 8a), meditating on them constantly so as to do them (v. 8b).

Psalm 1:1–2

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

“Meditates” describes an active pondering, perhaps even muttering to oneself in pursuit of insight. Some suppose day and night speaks of the work of professional scholars who spend all their time pondering the words of the law, but in view of the similar instruction in Joshua 1:8, readers should see this as setting the ideal of facing every situation, be it ever so mundane, with a view to pleasing the Lord by knowing and following his Word.

1 Thessalonians 5:16–18

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Joy in Paul’s letters is a basic mark of the Christian (Rom. 14:17) and a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). It is often associated with the firm hope of the Christian (e.g., Rom. 5:2–5; 12:12). “Pray without ceasing” suggests a mental attitude of prayerfulness, continual personal fellowship with God, and consciousness of being in his presence throughout each day. Christians are to be marked by thanksgiving (Eph. 5:4, 20; Col. 2:7; 3:15, 17; 4:2). This probably refers to all of 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18.

Matthew 6:5–6

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Prayer was a pillar of Jewish piety. Public prayer, said aloud in the morning, afternoon, and evening, was common. At the set time of prayer, pious Jews would stop what they were doing and pray, some discreetly, but others with pretentious display. Jesus did not condemn all public prayer, as indicated by his own prayers in public (e.g., Matt. 6:14:19; 15:36). One’s internal motivation is the central concern. shut the door. Though public prayer has value, prayer completely away from public view allows a person (or group) to focus more exclusively on God.

Psalm 105:1–2

Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name;
make known his deeds among the peoples!
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
tell of all his wondrous works!

The opening section of Psalm 105 invites the congregation to celebrate what the Lord has done, setting a tone of gladness with terms such as give thanks, sing, sing praises, tell, glory, and rejoice. The foundation of gratitude is remembering the wondrous works that the Lord has done, particularly those on behalf of his people, the offspring of Abraham (cf. Gen. 15:5, 13, 18; 17:7). To “call upon his name” is an expression for seeking the Lord in public worship (cf. Gen. 4:26; 12:8).

Colossians 3:16

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

The “word of Christ” probably refers to the teaching about Christ as well as the words of Christ himself, which were part of the oral traditions passed on to believers in the early years after Christ ascended to heaven, before the Gospels had been written. Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs is one means of teaching and admonishing. Corporate worship has a teaching function through the lyrics of its songs. This was particularly important in the oral culture of Paul’s day.

1 Chronicles 16:29

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
bring an offering and come before him!
Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness.

The summons to seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually (1 Chron. 16:11) is especially appropriate before the ark, and a characteristic thought for the writer (see 1 Chron. 22:19a). Worship for the Chronicler means transformative engagement with God. The repeated instruction to Israel to remember God’s miracles in the past, and his promises of the land and protection to Abraham and Israel (1 Chron.16:18–22), would resonate with the small and vulnerable postexilic community, whose hold on the land could seem tenuous and under threat (see Nehemiah 4; 6).

The celebration in worship of God’s kingship over all the earth is fitting before his ark-throne (1 Chron.13:6) and should evoke a similar faith and hope in Israel. The psalm declares that the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, whereas Israel’s God reigns and comes to judge the earth.

All commentary sections adapted from the ESV Study Bible.

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