In the first three chapters of I Timothy, Paul has provided information and instruction dealing with the structure of leadership and the qualifications of those who will shepherd and serve the church.
He has also provided a summary of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith which the church should defend and promote:
- The deity and resurrection of Jesus.
- The content and preaching of the gospel message.
These are the teachings and ministry the church has been appointed to preserve and share with the world. This is the church's unique mission.
In chapter 4, Paul will explain why it is so important that the church be on guard for its mission, and remind Timothy about the nature of his ministry.
Apostasy Predicted and Identified — 4:1-6
In this chapter Paul warns the church that there will be apostasy and that they need to prepare and guard for it. Apostasy: an abandonment of former loyalty; falling away from a position.
1But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron,
- I Timothy 4:1-2
First, Paul declares that the apostasy will be a sure thing. It will happen. This has been clearly revealed to him by the Holy Spirit. Here the Apostle is prophesying about a future event much as the prophets of old had warned Israel about future calamities and dangers.
The "later times" or "last times" is the Christian age, from Pentecost to the return of Christ. The falling away or apostasy will come at different times and in different ways during this period. Paul also defines the apostasy as the falling away from the "faith."
- When it is "the" faith, it refers to the teachings of Jesus rather than belief or trust.
- Some will leave the teachings of Jesus for other teachings.
- Apostasy also occurs when one abandons Christianity for something else.
- Another type of apostasy is when one changes the teachings of Christ or of the Apostles.
Falling away from the teaching causes one to fall away from the teacher.
If you abide in my word, then you are truly disciples of mine.
- John 8:31
Conversely, if you do not fall away then you are not in apostasy.
Paul goes on to note various causes of this apostasy:
A. Deceitful Spirits - I John 4:1-3
These are not ghosts, but false teachers in the church and what they teach. In John's epistle, the false teachers denied the incarnation claiming that Jesus was only a spirit, not really a man. Paul will explain later what some of the false ideas being promoted by the false teachers are that he is dealing with here. He refers to these as "doctrines of demons," meaning, teachings not coming from God but from Satan.
B. Men with Seared Consciences
Another way of referring to false teachers. Men who have no qualms about promoting what they know is false. They know they are lying but do not care because they are motivated not by the truth but by greed, by desire for power and attention. Their consciences are, Paul says, "seared" or "scarred/no effect."
29I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.
- Acts 20:29-30
Some are mistaken or deluded and teach false things; others teach false things knowingly to promote an agenda. The results are the same however: people are moved to fall away from the truth, from the teachings of Christ.
men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth.
- I Timothy 4:3
Paul gives a few details from the teaching of those who were causing the falling away of some during his time. From generation to generation the type of false doctrine changes but it always causes the same result: apostasy.
In this case, the false teaching promoted ascetic practices to become more "spiritual." (For example, no meat, no marriage and other restrictions that would somehow increase one's level of spirituality.)
The "doctrine" behind these practices was called dualism, a form of Gnostic teaching.
- Basically it taught that man had dual natures: spirit (from God) and flesh (or matter).
- Spirit was good, flesh was evil.
- The goal was to unite the human spirit with God's Spirit.
- There were two ways this could be done:
- Very strict restrictions (certain foods, marriage) on the flesh (evil) so that the spirit could be released.
- or -
- Indulge the flesh completely since it is not connected to the spirit. When you die, the spirit will go to God anyways.
- Very strict restrictions (certain foods, marriage) on the flesh (evil) so that the spirit could be released.
The debates and teachings argued for one or the other of these positions.
It seems that few were persuaded to accept the idea of complete liberation of the flesh since this was so against Christian teaching and morality as well as Jewish teaching and custom. However, the idea of punishing the flesh and restricting one's body resonated with Christians who were trying to live pure and moral lives.
Gnostic teaching was wrong in many ways:
- Both the spirit and the flesh in man were given by God and created good (Genesis 1:31).
- Sin, which is disobedience of God's commands and will, is what is evil, not the flesh (I John 3:4).
- What a person does with his flesh (his body) affects his spirit (Romans 6:23).
- Restricting ourselves from food or lawful sexual activity does not increase our spirituality. Increasing our love for God by abstaining from sin and loving others, this increases our spirituality (John 13:35).
Paul emphasizes the fact that it was God Himself who provided all kinds of food, as well as the union of marriage in order to be blessings, not causes for sin.
Those who know the truth and believe it know these things and are able to eat and marry with a clear and grateful conscience.
4For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; 5for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.
- I Timothy 4:4-5
Paul goes on to qualify a Christian's attitude and approach to not only food and marriage, but all things created by God. If God created it, it was essentially good.
- We know that some use good things for evil purposes but this is man's fault, not God's.
- God created sex for marriage, not for pornography.
- God created plants for medicine, not for drug abuse.
We can be assured and accept what God has given in good conscience for three reasons:
1. He tells us that what He wants in return for His blessings is gratitude, not denial of His blessings. He is more pleased if we say thank you for the food we eat than if we deny ourselves the food He gives us.
2. We can know for sure what is acceptable to Him or not from His Word.
- Food: Mark 7:18-23; Colossians 2:16. Food cannot make us more or less pleasing to God and those who say so are false teachers.
- Marriage: I Corinthians 9:3-5; I Timothy 3:2; Hebrews 13:4). If the Apostles were married, everyone could be married. The only restriction in marriage is fidelity to your partner.
- The reason people were led away on these issues was that they did not rely on God's word. If God permits and blesses (or sanctifies), then man can receive happily.
3. Prayer purifies. We live in a sinful world. We ourselves are sinners and imperfect (even though we are forgiven). What enables us to use and to eat the things of this world and to live with our spouses (even though we are both sinners) is the purifying power of prayer.
In the chain of people and events that bring me my food from the farm to my plate, who knows what injustices have been committed?
- Maybe the farmer is greedy or cruel.
- The processor of my food is an adulterer.
- The store where I bought it is robbing its employees.
- The person who wrapped my groceries is a blasphemer of God.
- And of course, I myself am a sinner needing grace and forgiveness each day.
If I knew all these things to be true, how could I eat this food with a clear conscience? Paul says that our prayers of thanksgiving and blessing before God sanctify and purify our hands and our food so we can eat it with grateful hearts and clear consciences. If it were not so, we would feel guilty every time we ate because we knew that so many in the world were starving and yet we had enough to eat.
False Teaching or Immaturity?
Before we go on to the next section in I Timothy, I want to say a word about extremes.
Many times we read this passage in I Timothy or the passage in Galatians 1:6-9 about false teachers and assume that we can accuse anyone who disagrees with us on doctrine of being a "false teacher." We need to understand that the apostasy is a reference to those who were falling away from the "gospel" and its message which Paul summarized in verse 16 of chapter 3.
- Jesus is the divine Son of God and He came in the flesh.
- He died on the cross and was resurrected.
- The gospel message is that we are saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ expressed in repentance and baptism.
- He went back to heaven and will return again.
False teaching was any doctrine that attacked or tried to change or deny these basic tenets of the gospel message.
Someone who believes it is acceptable to worship with an instrument may be mistaken biblically or require more teaching to become more mature, but it would be an over-statement to call such a person a "false-teacher."
In the Bible this accusation was reserved for those who taught things that undermined the gospel itself which include the main points I have mentioned here.
In the Bible, people were disciplined or excommunicated for three things:
- False teaching of the gospel (Galatians 1:6-9).
- Divisiveness; causing trouble between members (Romans 16:17).
- Gross public immorality (unrepented public adultery, etc.) (I Corinthians 5:1).
But someone who disagrees or believes something different on issues that are not pertinent to one's salvation; or someone who is just difficult to get along with; or someone who has failed in marriage or is struggling with sexual sins - these are not causes to accuse people of false-teaching or to disfellowship them. These are matters of growth and spiritual maturity where we need to be patient with each other, open to listen and learn, able to put up with the weaknesses of others in order to maintain unity, and forgiving those who struggle with various sins knowing that we are not here to judge our brothers but to love and help them know and do what is right (Ephesians 4:11-13).
Our response to immaturity is maturity!
The Good Minister
After having dealt with the danger of apostasy, Paul gives four exhortations or encouragements to Timothy as a minister. They are just as true for ministers today as they were for Timothy two thousand years ago.
1. Point Out What is True From What is False
In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following.
- I Timothy 4:6
Some Bibles say "putting into remembrance" but the meaning is the same.
Paul refers back to the teaching he has given in the previous verses and tells him to point these teachings out to the church: remind them often of these things. He not only has to remind the church, but he also must keep these things in mind and grow in his knowledge and assurance of these things (the divinity of Christ, His resurrection, the message of the gospel).
Today we would say, "the best defense is offense." Paul tells Timothy that the best way to protect himself and the church from false doctrine is to continually be absorbed in and teaching what is true.
2. Practice and Teach Personal Spiritual Discipline
7But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; 8for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. 9It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance. 10For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers. 11Prescribe and teach these things. 12Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.
- I Timothy 4:7-12
Timothy should avoid arguing and debating the useless doctrines of the false teachers (which he describes as "old wives' tales"). A more productive activity is to discipline or train himself for godliness.
- In other words, do those things, activities, disciplines, that will develop a godly character.
- Physical exercise is good, disciplining the body is good, but training the spirit is better because the body dies but the spirit lives on.
- Preparing for heaven is better than preparing for life here on earth.
This was another "saying" of Christians at that time (verse 8) and Paul says it is a good saying because it points to an important truth. Timothy should practice and teach about spiritual discipline because it is this that serves best the Christian's ultimate hope and goal: living with God in heaven. Like a good coach, Timothy should demonstrate the spiritual discipline that he wishes to impart to the church as he trains them in becoming like God and being with God in heaven.
Those who oppose him (perhaps the false teachers who may have accused him of being too young to be taken seriously in order to undermine his influence) will be stopped, not by arguments and debates over foolish questions, rather they and the entire congregation will be won over, influenced and positively impacted by the way he acts:
- The way he speaks (with wisdom and truth).
- The way he conducts himself (in maturity).
- The way he treats others (in love).
- The way he lives (faithfully and purely).
Ministers are like everyone else, people are impressed more by what they do than by what they say.
3. Preach the Word
13Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching. 14Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery.
- I Timothy 4:13-14
For some reason or other, Timothy may have stopped or restricted his public preaching. Perhaps the pressure from the false teachers was making him doubt his ability and effectiveness. People who criticize or second-guess you may lead you to lose confidence in yourself and in your abilities.
In verse 14, Paul reminds him of the way he was called into ministry (prophetic utterance - Acts 16:2) and ordained into service by the church leadership (laying on of hands by the elders). He is, therefore, a legitimate minister and as a true minister, he must focus on his work:
- Reading the Word to the Church – The Bible was not collected and distributed at this time, only the Old Testament and some letters of the Apostles. Reading these to the church was a main way of familiarizing themselves with God's word.
- Exhortation – Encouragement to do or avoid doing certain things according to God's word. An appeal to act and think as God would have us do so. They needed encouragement to believe the truth and practice spiritual discipline.
- Teaching – The plain teaching of the truths contained in the Word. Instruction on the true gospel and on the person of Christ. Teachings on church organization and leadership that Paul provided in the first three chapters.
There is a lot to learn about in the Christian faith and part of the preacher's job is to teach the church about the faith, the Lord and Christian living. Note that Paul says, "until I come." He plans to do some exhorting and teaching himself when he comes but tells Timothy not to abandon these things in the meantime.
4. Persevere in Ministry - verses 15-16
Preachers/ministers are ordinary men who have been called and trained to serve in God's church. Like ordinary people, they become tired and discouraged for a variety of reasons:
- Lack of Response or Success – The church members who do not grow spiritually, who refuse to mature, or who fall away from Christ or are always at the same point. Ministry is like gardening , if you weed and feed and care for the garden but it does not produce fruit, you become discouraged.
- Lack of Encouragement – Unlike business enterprises where you get raises, promotions and rewards in response to your efforts, ministers are rewarded when their members grow in Christ. Some become tired of serving without any feedback or reward from the congregation for their work.
- Criticism – Timothy was beginning to feel the effects of opposition and criticism, he was not preaching or teaching like he should have been. He was "gun-shy," (nervous and apprehensive). A steady diet of criticism and complaining without any encouragement or reward often drives ministers to quit and do something else that is less stressful. Sensing that Timothy was feeling tired and discouraged, Paul gives him an "exhortation" to persevere in his ministry.
Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all.
- I Timothy 4:15
"Take pains" means to focus on or be absorbed by the things Paul has just spoken of: pointing out true and false doctrine, practicing spiritual discipline, preaching the Word.
The idea is that Timothy, although a young man, had been with Paul for a long time. He was not a novice. He was a true minister. As he focused on his ministry, the church would recognize his maturity and the fact that Paul's trust in him to lead the church was well founded. Those who thought he was "too young" would have a different opinion when they saw him absorbed in his ministry.
Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.
- I Timothy 4:16
Pay attention to what you are doing and what is being taught, and what you have been taught (the true gospel, by a true Apostle, to a true minister).
If he perseveres (continues), he will insure (guarantee) that he will maintain his own salvation (by believing and teaching the true gospel and living by it) and do the same for those who listen to his teaching and follow his example.
In the end, Paul tells all ministers to preach the gospel to the lost so that they will be saved.
- They teach God's word to the church so that the saved will mature in Christ.
- They persevere in their ministry as an example so that all will remain faithful until the Lord comes for us either in death or glory.
In our next chapter, we will begin a long section containing specific teachings on various issues and questions that concerned the church at that time.