When a church goes bad, 1 Timothy 4

The opening words of this chapter serve to show a sharp contrast to the closing verses of chapter 3.

Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:  He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.  (3:16)

The “mystery of true godliness” is an affirmation of the Gospel in the way we collectively as the church and as individuals as members of the church live our lives.  The quality of our lives bears witness to the truth of God’s Word.  The recovery of this clear witness by the Church of Christ is, without a doubt, the most urgent need of our troubled times.  Lancelot Andrews, English clergyman and scholar, the man who oversaw the translation of the King James Version once said something that ought to be the goal of every single congregation in America today:

The restoration of the things that are wanting; the strengthening of the things that remain.

With chapter 4, then, Paul turns from the topic of church organization and administration to deal with some of the false teachings that were likely plaguing the church at Ephesus.  To introduce this concern, Paul described what happens when a church abandons its commitment the faith as expressed in God’s Word:

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.

When a church ceases to be led by the Holy Spirit, it will be led by something.  According to Paul, a church that falls away from the truth will succumb to the false teachings of “deceiving spirits” and “things taught by demons.”   The “deceiving spirits” are also “wandering” or “roving” spirits.  This describes the activity of Satan perfectly; he roams the earth; he and his minions, seducing hapless believers who easily fall prey to his lies.

In fact, Christians need to be constant guard against these evil entities:

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.  (1 John 4:1)

In these “later times,” the false teachings are all-too clear to Paul, and so he enumerates them in the following verses.

1.  False and meaningless teaching, 1:2—5

Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.  They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.  For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

Paul used very strong language to describe these teachers of false doctrines.  Just as Satan used a serpent to deceive Eve, so he uses men who, though they may speak piously, speak nothing by hollow lies.  “Hypocritical liars” is how these despicable men are described; the phrase suggests that though they speak freely things that are completely false, they know better.  These are preachers who have forsaken the truth.  They are so evil, thinks Paul, that their consciences had been branded by a red-hot poker.

In Ephesus during this time, there were apparently two popular false teachings threatening Timothy’s church.  The modern church may be waist-deep in false teachings, but things were no better in the first century!  These two strange teachings were a form of asceticism, taught mainly by Gnostics.  According to these men, all matter was evil, therefore all material pleasures needed to be avoided.  Only the spirit was good, and therefore only spiritual pursuits were worthwhile.  This teaching so closely resembled holiness, a genuine Biblical doctrine, that it gained a foothold in the early church.  This is the insidious nature of all false teaching; it mimics orthodox teaching so closely that believers who are ignorant of their own faith and teachings of the Scripture are attracted to it.

However, these errorists, while preaching against sinful pleasures and praising things like fasting and restraint, were in reality diametrically opposed to God’s holy ordinances and His blessings.  They prohibited marriage and condemned eating certain types of food; neither of these practices is in any way taught in any Scripture.  Marriage was ordained of God!  God established marriage the normal thing in human society.  Celibacy should never be encouraged and is the exception.

The idea that certain foods needed to be avoided would have been appealing to Jewish converts, as Judaism taught that certain foods were either clean or unclean.  However, the coming of Christ changed all that!  Peter learned this lesson in his life-changing vision:

Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”  “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”  The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”  (Acts 10:13—15)

Christ has set the Jews (and anybody else mired in legalism) free from the Law.  God created marriage, and He also created food, and the ability to enjoy food is surely a blessing in and of itself.  To abstain from certain food for reasons of faith (allegedly), is to literally snub one’s nose in the face of God’s blessings.  Note what Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.  (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Everything God created is good, wrote Paul.  Of course, God said it first back in the book of Genesis.  A believer should reject nothing God has declared to be good.  In fact, a believer should receive with thanksgiving what God has so graciously supplied.

2.  The minister’s response, 4:6—16

So, what is the good minister supposed to do in the face of such teachings and teachers?

(a)  Confront it, verse 6

If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed.

Paul knew full well that it was not enough to just denounce error, it had to be confronted and refuted by the proclamation of the truth.  It was Timothy’s responsibility to “point out” false teachings to his people, and by doing so, he was being faithful to how he himself was taught.  He was taught the truth, and so he in turn was responsible to teach that truth to others.  This would make him a “good minister.”

(b)  Avoid it, verses 7, 8

Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself 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.

Ministers and church workers should always study and be eager to learn.  However, they must study and learn the right stuff!  “Godless myths and old wives’ tales” is literally translated “profane and old-womanish myths.”  Paul is referring to “tall tales” that get passed around by people with too much time on their hands.  These are things Timothy should avoid.  Instead of dwelling on nonsense that others find so fascinating, the young minister should “train” himself to be godly.  The Greek word Paul used is gymnaze, and keeping fit spiritually is of primary importance.

Some have taken these verses to mean that Paul was against exercising, working out, and eating right.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  If one is expected to preach the Word, one must be fit both physically and spiritually.  What Paul is advising Timothy to do and avoid doing was the exact opposite of how the false teachers acted.  They went overboard.  Timothy, as a faithful minister of Christ, needed to act soberly and practice sound judgment, just as all elders were expected to do.

(c)  Teach the truth, verses 9—11

This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance.  That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.  Command and teach these things.

Exactly what the “trustworthy saying” Paul was referring to is debatable, and there certainly doesn’t seem to be consensus among scholars as to exactly what Paul is referring to.  It seems likely, though, Paul was referring to what he had just pointed out in the preceding verses.  Over against the widely advertised value of healthy living, the Church was to proclaim its faith in the infinitely superior value of spiritual health.  The “trustworthy saying” is that physical training is of some value, but godly living is of benefit in every way, for it lasts into eternity.

The compulsion to preach and teach the truth was what drove Paul.  It was his faith and hope in Christ that kept him focused on his mission.   We are given a rare glimpse into the inner workings of Paul’s heart and mind.  In the Greek, “labor” and “strive” are powerful words meaning “to grow weary” and “to agonize.”  Just as athletes push themselves to the very limits of physical endurance, so Paul pushed himself, and so he expected Timothy to push himself.

The young pastor was further expected to “command” and “teach” the truth.  Both verbs are in the present imperative, meaning that Timothy must keep on preaching and teaching, no matter what.  What was he to “command and teach?”  It seems Paul has in mind things like:

  • Avoid godless and old-womanish myths.
  • Train yourselves for godly living.
  • Apostasy is coming; false teaching has infiltrated the Church.

3.  A day in the life of the pastor, verses 12—16

Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.  Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.  Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.  Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.  Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.

By now, Timothy was in his early to mid 30’s, and considered young.  Here is another glimpse into the first century church; it seems that elders and pastors were generally much older than Timothy.  However, as far as Paul was concerned, Timothy must not permit anybody in his charge to “think down upon” him (literal Greek).  The call to pastor a church is the highest calling one can receive.  The office of “pastor” is the highest office in the land, and as such, it deserves respect, and Timothy needed to be respected.  However, that respect was not to be blind.  Timothy could not act like a fool and expect to be respected.   Timothy was to set an example for his congregation in the way he spoke and in the way he lived his life from day-to-day.

Furthermore, in Paul’s absence, Timothy was to carry on the work of the ministry; the work which Paul himself would be doing had he been there.  Part of that ministry was “the public reading of Scripture.”  This was a common practice in Judaism and it seems that the early church continued it.  Another part of his ministry was to be devoted “to preaching.”  This is not just to preaching a sermon, but includes warning, exhorting, advising, and encouraging those in his care.  Finally, Timothy was to keep on “teaching.”  As Hendriksen points out, what a person believes is important!  It’s not enough to just “have faith,” one must believe correctly.  The facts of doctrine and the truth of morality must be taught so that the lives of the congregation may be built upon a firm foundation.  Only then can anybody distinguish truth from error and be able to stand against false teachers.

Timothy had been gifted for his task.  Some commentators believe Timothy had been given the gift of prophecy.  Regardless of which of the charismatic gifts Timothy had been given, the call of God to those who would serve in the work of the ministry, is the instigated by Holy Spirit, who enables the man to choose his vocation.

At the same time as he is exercising his spiritual gift or gifts, Timothy must never neglect doctrine.  Paul, in fact, links life and doctrine together.  For those of us who take our jobs seriously, this is surely among the most sobering verses in Scripture.   Many a minister has become overly concerned about “success” in his ministry using all the wrong measuring sticks.  The very first thing any Christian worker must do is ensure that his life is built on the firm foundation.   No matter how wonderful a preacher may be or how large his congregation has grown, if there is one flaw in his life, it will bring him to ruin.  It is possible for a minister to be so busy watching over the lives of his members, that he neglects his spiritual condition.    In a very real sense, the best thing a pastor can do for his congregation is to make sure he is right with his God.

(c)  2010 WitzEnd

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