Monday, January 27, 2014

1 Timothy 4:11-16 – A Good Servant of Jesus Christ, Part 2

It is important to note that when Paul encourages Timothy to be a “good minister of Jesus Christ,” he uses the word diakonos, which is the word for deacon and which has the more general meaning of “servant.” By following Paul's instructions, Timothy will be a good servant of Christ. Though Timothy's service involved carrying out Paul's program for the church at Ephesus as his apostolic representative, every believer ought to have a holy ambition to be a good servant of Christ. And though Paul's instructions were intended to help Timothy in his role as apostolic representative, his words speak to us as well, regardless of whether we are in the ministry in an official capacity or not.

In other words, I think it is easy for believers to read a passage like this and think, “Oh, these verses are for teaching elders in the church,” and to skip over them rather quickly. While it is true that pastors ought to pay careful attention to these words, I believe that God is speaking to every believer through them today. We are in the same position with regard to these verses as the Sadducees were with regard to God's words to Moses: “But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:31-32). When God spoke these words, he was speaking to Moses (Exodus 3:6). But Jesus claims that, fifteen hundred years later, God was still speaking in these words to those who read them, even though they were in a completely different situation than Moses was when these words were originally spoken to him. In the same way, God is still speaking through Scripture today. Our burning bush is the Bible – Old and New Testament, and we ought to pay careful attention to what God is saying to all of us in these words.

These verses are a continuation of the theme begun in verse 6. Last time, we noted that to be a good minister of Jesus Christ, we need to be godly. We showed what it meant to be godly, that it involves immersion in the personal study and application of God's word, a commitment to spiritual discipline, and keeping our eyes on the living God who is the Savior of all men, especially of those that believe. Though Paul exhorts Timothy to “put the brethren in remembrance of these things,” the emphasis of verses 6-10 is on the necessity of Timothy's own personal walk with the Lord. In the verses before us (11-16), the emphasis shifts to Timothy's role in leading others in their walk with the Lord, even as Timothy is encouraged to take heed unto himself.
These words are applicable to all believers, not just pastors. This is because at some level we are all involved in leading others. And what Paul would want you to do is to lead others in a way that saves them (verse 16). Pastors lead, it is true, but so do fathers and mothers, and businessmen and women, and politicians, and many others who are in positions of leadership. If you are in any position of leadership, the question is, how will you lead? Will you lead in a way that encourages others in the ways of the Lord, or will you lead in a way that discourages them?

However, I especially want to apply the words before us this morning to parents. This is because, of all human institutions, the family is most like the church. In fact, the church is likened to a family in many places (cf 1 Tim. 3:15). The New England pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards said, “Every Christian family ought to be as it were a little church, consecrated to Christ, and wholly influenced and governed by his rules.”1 And a father and mother in many ways mimic the role of a pastor to their children. In fact, if a pastor of a church is not first a pastor to his family, he is not qualified for the ministry (1 Tim. 3:4-5). A man is not qualified to lead in a public role as pastor if he is not first a pastor in his private role before his family. So these verses are in many ways especially fitted to give advice to fathers and mothers on what they need to be doing to fulfill their roles as such toward their children.

If then you find yourself in a position of leadership, one that includes the spiritual shepherding of others, the question is, how can I fulfill this role in a way that pleases God? How can I be a good servant of Jesus Christ? What kinds of things do I need to pay attention to in order to honor the Lord in this role? This passage will answer these questions. And it therefore not only informs pastors but everyone who is in a role of spiritual leadership under Christ.

1. Win the respect of those you lead by being an example (verses 11-12).

As we've noted, though Paul is continuing his exhortation to Timothy to “be a good minister of Jesus Christ,” he changes emphasis at verse 11: “These things command and teach.” Timothy is not only to “refuse profane and old wives' fables, and exercise himself rather unto godliness” (verse 7), he is to teach others to do so as well. However, in order for his teaching to be effective, it needs to be authoritative. For this teaching is not just the communication of facts requiring understanding but the communication of God's word requiring both understanding and obedience. Thus Paul combines “teach” with “command.”

This is the first reason Timothy must command: he is communicating not the words of Paul or himself merely, but the words of Christ through Paul. A pastor/preacher's authority must come from God's word. In itself, this ought to be enough to commend obedience. But there is another reason Timothy must insist upon obedience: it is because the things about which he is dealing are eternally serious things. It might be okay to disagree about a lot of things, like what flavor of ice cream is best or whether wide screen or full screen is optimal, but it's not okay to disagree with God's word, especially when it comes to matters of the soul.

When a soldier is in combat, he has to take the commands of his officers deadly serious. Not following orders could be the difference between life and death – not only of himself but also of his fellow soldiers. In his memoir Beyond Band of Brothers, Major Dick Winters tells a story of Lt. Ronald C. Speirs, who served with him in the 506th Parachute Regiment. During combat operations in the days following D-Day, Speirs gave an order to one of his sergeants who then just ignored the order. Speirs repeated the order and the sergeant again refused to obey. Winters writes, “Speirs then shot the sergeant between the eyes. In doing so, Speirs probably saved the lives of the rest of the squad.”2 I'm not justifying what Speirs did there. Yet, one thing is clear: the sergeant didn't really understand the seriousness of the following orders, and he was putting the lives of his squad in danger. In a similar sense, Paul wanted Timothy to impress upon those who were following him the seriousness of following his leadership.

It's important that pastors – and fathers and mothers who are tending not only the physical needs of their children but their spiritual good as well – help their people to understand the seriousness and weightiness of eternal realities. If we make light of the things of God, our people and our children are likely to do so as well. If we live in a way that speaks of the weightlessness of God upon us (to borrow a phrase from David Wells), or if we talk of them as if they are no different from the news items of the day, then we will never be able to speak authoritatively to them. We may teach but we will never be able to command.

Perhaps another to say this is that we need to impress upon those we lead the glory of God. The Hebrew word for “glory” in the Old Testament basically refers to something that is weighty, heavy. We need to help others see that God is the only being in the universe that is really glorious – and therefore his words are the only words that need to be taken seriously in the most ultimate sense.

But good leaders don't simply demand obedience, they earn it. Pastors and parents ought to lead by example. Thus, Paul goes on to say, “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (verse 12). It's hard to obey someone who you don't respect. So what Paul is telling Timothy here is to earn the respect of those he leads. And how was he to do this? By setting an example. He was to be the antithesis of the Pharisees, of whom Jesus said, “They bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Matt. 23:4). A pastor and a parent are not to tell those whom they lead what to do without exemplifying it themselves first in their own lives.

For Timothy this was especially difficult because he was relatively young in an age that honored the aged. The authorities point out that Timothy was probably in his thirties when this was written (it had been about 10 years since Paul had first met Timothy, and “youth” extended from the very young to those who were forty), so he had the added disadvantage of lacking the gravitas of age. But Paul says that this could be overcome by his example.

When John Gill became the pastor of the Baptist church in Southwark, in London, he was in his early twenties, and it is said that some in the church left because they felt he was too young to be a pastor (the irony in this story is that this group of people eventually started their own church with an even younger pastor at the helm). This has been the experience of many pastors through the ages. A young pastor can feel that he lacks the wisdom to lead the people over whom he has responsibility. A young parent may feel the same. Paul's advice to them would be the same as it was to Timothy: “Be thou an example.”

In what was Timothy to be an example? Paul specifies five categories in which he was to show the way: “in word, in conversation, in charity, . . . , in faith, in purity.”3 First, Timothy was to be an example in his speech. After all, the things we talk about are a window into our soul, and when people hear what we like to talk about, they can infer what we value fairly accurately. People who like sports talk about sports a lot. I'll never forget going to preach at a church in Birmingham, Alabama, years ago. I never realized how serious they were about football there until that trip. The church sent a man to meet me at the airport, and almost the first thing out of his mouth was, “Do you like football?” Even so, if we want those whom we lead to value spiritual things, our speech ought to show it. Spiritual leaders should thus let their speech always be seasoned with grace. What Paul said to the Ephesian church is relevant here: “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good do the use of edifying, that it may minister grace to the hearers” (4:29). A few verses later, he continues on the theme of the importance of proper speech: “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, or foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks” (5:3-4).

The next thing Paul mentions is “conversation” which was the Old English word for “conduct.” Paul is saying that our lives ought to follow our speech in showing that the things of God are precious to us. Unfortunately, some people know how to talk a good talk when it comes to the things of God, but they do not practice what they preach. One man has said that it would be better for some preachers if they never came down from the pulpit. Certainly, telling those whom you lead one thing, and then doing another, is the quickest way to lose their respect and the ability to command obedience.

Timothy was also to be an example in love and faith. His conduct was to mirror the emphasis on these twin graces. He was to live in such a way as to show that he loved God first and people as himself, and that he was relying on the living God. Finally, he was to be an example in purity. The Greek word here for “purity” has sexual overtones. Thus, the man of God is to keep himself sexually pure, in his heart, in his thoughts, and in his conduct. He must take heed to what he looks at, what he thinks about, and what he touches. He must take heed to the words of the Proverb: “Let not thine heart decline to her ways, go not astray in her paths. For she hath cast down many wounded: yea, many strong men have been slain by her. Her house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death” (Prov. 7:25-27).

However, the example that we give is meaningless if the path we have charted is based merely upon our own opinions and thoughts about what is best. How do we decide how to lead in the five areas above? With what compass do we chart the course of our conduct. The next verse gives us the answer: we are to lead with the Word of God.

2. Don't give them your opinion, give them the Bible (verse 13).

Paul writes, “Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.” When Paul tells Timothy to “give attendance to reading,” he is not advising him to keep a well-stocked library, nor is he referring to keeping up with the literature of the day. He is not really even advising him about his private reading habits. For the word “reading” (anagnosis) means “the public reading of Scripture.” In other words, Paul is telling Timothy to make Scripture the centerpiece of the gathering of the church – it is to be publicly read, expounded, and applied. If you want an early church liturgy, here it is.

Nor was this something Paul or the early church made up; it was inherited from the practice of the synagogue. One thinks of Jesus going into the synagogue in Nazareth and reading from the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:16,ff), or Paul in the synagogue in Antioch: “And after the reading of the law and the prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent unto them, saying, Ye men and brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on” (Acts 13:15). What's significant about this passage is that the same Greek words for “reading” and “exhortation” occur in both in Acts 13:15 and in 1 Tim. 4:13. In other words, Acts 13 gives us a window into what the application of 1 Tim. 4:13 would have looked like in the early church.

And this practice was in fact continued by the early church. Justin Martyr, who lived in the second century, described the worship of the early church: “On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.”4

The reading of Scripture would have been especially important because most people in that time didn't have access to a copy of the Bible in their homes. Church was the only place they would have been able to hear the Bible read. So Paul wants to make sure that people don't just get a lot of good advice from a preacher; he wants them to hear the very words of God. I think it was Spurgeon who once said that it was not his words that saved anyone, it was the Word of God. So people need to hear God's word.

It's important as parents that our “little churches” have God's word read aloud as well. It is a good practice to make the reading of Scripture part of the daily routine of the house, whether it is read at the supper table, or before bed, or at the beginning of the day. Let your children hear the word of God. Another suggestion I've heard is to play Scripture CDs to your children as they are going to sleep. However you do it, let those whom you lead hear God's word.

But it is also important to see that Paul does not simply stop at the public reading of Scripture. He says that the reading of Scripture is to be joined with “exhortation” and “doctrine.” The word “exhortation” is the Greek word paraklesis, and has a wide range of meaning, including “encouragement, appeal, comfort, consolation” and “preaching.” The spiritual leader is to do all these things with God's word. He is to preach it to his church, to his family. He is to seek to apply God's word to their lives.

The next word Paul uses is “doctrine.” He is to instruct the people with God's word. He is to teach them, he is to make them understand it, to explain the meaning. A lot of the Puritans would divide up their sermons into doctrine and application. I think they had a lot of Biblical warrant from this text for doing exactly that. If every minister explained the doctrine of the text and then applied it to the congregation, they would be doing 1 Tim. 4:13. Therefore, don't give people your advice and then sprinkle it with some Bible verses. That is not what Paul is telling Timothy to do here. He is to base all his teaching and exhortation on God's word. The people need to see that what is coming out of the preacher's mouth is coming from the text. Which, by the way, is the reason I think expository preaching is the best kind of preaching, and the most Biblical.

3. Never stop growing spiritually (verses 14-16).

Perhaps one of the easiest things to do when leading others is to become so focused on where you want others to be that you forget about yourself. Thus, Paul ends this section with an exhortation to Timothy to never neglect his own spiritual growth. There are three things that Paul says to Timothy in this regard.

First, he tells him to “Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophesy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery” (verse 14). I think really what Paul is saying here is that Timothy should not let discouragement get the better of him. It is easy sometimes when leading get really hard to think that we're not qualified, and that we should just give up and go home. There is a lot of discouragement among those in the pastorate. One evangelical leader laments, “Half of pastors would leave the ministry tomorrow if they could. Seventy percent are fighting depression and 90 percent can't cope with the challenge of ministry.”5 This is not only true for pastors, it is also true for parents. A lot of parents get overwhelmed with the challenges of parenthood.

How do you fight discouragement? One way is to remember that if God has called into the role of leadership, he will equip you for the job, and he is not going to quit on you. If you are a parent, you can be sure that God had called you into that role, no matter how you feel about it. Paul wanted Timothy to remember that God has gifted him, a gift which was confirmed by prophesy and affirmed by the laying on of the hand of the presbytery. Timothy was not to neglect this gift. This was not a role he had put himself into, this was something that God had gifted him for. And he was not going to leave him behind. Later, Paul would write Timothy, “Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands. For God hath not given us the spirit of fear: but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:6-7). Timothy had all the resources in God that he needed to lead others. And if you are in a position of leading others, and God has called you to that, then you can be sure that God has equipped you with everything you need to be his good servant in that role.

The next thing Paul tells Timothy is to “Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear unto all” (verse 15). The word for “meditate” could mean that, but it also carries the meaning of “to practice.” Thus, some versions opt for the translation, “Practice these things.” Whether Paul meant for Timothy to think about what he was saying or whether is meant for Timothy to put them into practice, the second thing he says makes it very clear what his goal was: “give thyself wholly to them.” The Greek here literally says, “Be in them.” Paul is saying, “Timothy, immerse yourself in your work.” In other words, the second thing Paul wants Timothy to do in order to keep growing spiritually is to never get satisfied with where he is at. Keep working as hard as you can to be godly.

Teachers who get satisfied with where they are stop trying to better their lessons. They just teach the same thing over and over again. And as a result, their teaching begins to worsen. I've heard a story about a famous piano player who practiced hours and hours every day. Someone asked him why he had to keep practicing since he was already so good. His response was that if he stopped practicing, after a couple of days, he would be able to hear the difference. After a couple of weeks, he fellow musicians would be able to hear the difference. After a couple of months, the audience to whom he was playing would be able to tell. So he kept practicing. In the same way, we have to keep immersing ourselves in the practice of godliness if we want to grow. And that is precisely what Paul says will happen if we do this: “that thy profiting may appear to all.”

I love that last phrase. It is saying that if we work hard at godliness and spiritual leadership, we will advance. There will be growth. And it will eventually be noticeable even to those around us. Don't be discouraged, give yourself to these things!

Finally, Paul writes, “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (verse 16). There is a lot in this verse, but I think the gist of it is that Timothy is to understand the dangers that imperil his own spiritual condition and of those whom he leads. The first two words of this verse frame everything that follows: “Take heed.” The ESV translates, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.” Why is Timothy to do this? Why should he be on the lookout? It is because his own salvation and the salvation of those he leads is at stake: “for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee.” The very opposite of this was the Pharisees: “Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch” (Matt. 15:14).

Now I think it's important to understand that Paul is not saying that Timothy by his own merit or power can save either himself or those whom he leads. It is not Timothy himself who saves, it is the word of God that he teaches that is able to save. If he teaches God's word faithfully, this word will save both himself and those to whom he is teaching this word, through the power of the Holy Spirit who applies the word of Christ to his people. Thus is it imperative that Timothy remain faithful to God's word, that he take heed unto himself and unto the doctrine – the teaching which has as its content the truth of the gospel.

If you are responsible for the spiritual well-being of others, you need to understand that you are not leading them down a primrose path. We are on a road that is beset with dangers, with enemies who want to destroy you and those whom you lead. Peter warned, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith” (1 Pet. 5:8-9a). You need to take steps to guard against the dangers against your own soul and the souls of those whom you lead.

But once we are aware of the danger, the best way to fight them is to take heed unto ourselves and unto the doctrine. To never stop growing in the spiritual disciplines, to never stop guarding ourselves against evil, to never stop growing in the word of God. And if we do this, we are promised success: we will save ourselves and those that hear and follow our instruction.


John Bunyan has given us probably one of the best pictures of the type of person that Paul is exhorting Timothy (and us) to be. In his allegory The Pilgrim's Progress, when Christian comes to the Interpreter's house, he shows him a picture of “a very grave person hang up against the wall; and this was the fashion of it: he had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth was written upon his lips, the world was behind his back; he stood as if he pleaded with men, and a crown of gold did hang over his head.” When Christian asks the Interpreter what his picture meant, he explains, “The man whose picture this is, is one of a thousand; he can beget children, travail in birth with children, and nurse them himself when they are born. And whereas thou seest him with his eyes lift up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, and the law of truth writ upon his lips: it is to show thee, that his work is to know and unfold dark things to sinners; even as also thou seest him stand as if he pleaded with men: and whereas thou seest the world as cast behind him, and that a crown hangs over his head; that is to show thee, that slighting and despising the things that are present for the love that he hath to his Master's service, he is sure in the world that comes next, to have glory for his reward.” May God make us like this man, may he make us into “good servants of Jesus Christ.”

1Qtd. in
2 Beyond Band of Brothers, p 186.
3The phrase “in spirit” does not occur in the best Greek manuscripts. It is deleted in modern versions.
4Qtd. in Ryken, I Timothy (REC), p. 186.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Good Servant of Jesus Christ, 1 Timothy 4:6-10

Philip Ryken, in his commentary on this passage, tells the story of the funeral of the nineteenth century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge. A champion of the Reformed faith, he was a very gifted man and he used his gifts to teach and defend the gospel. His Systematic Theology is still read to this day. Another famous theologian, John Murray, read Hodge's theology until its pages were well worn. But Hodge was more than a brilliant academic. More importantly, he was a good and godly man. On the day of his funeral, all the shops in Princeton were closed in recognition of his life. One of his former students, William Paxton, gave this tribute to Hodge: “When due allowance is made for his intellect and his learning, after all his chief power was in his goodness. Christ enshrined in his heart was the centre of his theology and his life. The world will write upon his monument GREAT; but we, his students, will write upon it GOOD.”1

On the other hand, it is said that Napoleon claimed he would do anything, as long as there was a medal or honor attached to it. Some men live for greatness. But that is not what Paul encourages Timothy to strive for. Instead, he says, “If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ.” In other words, it is goodness, not greatness, for which Timothy is to aim. One is reminded of the words God spoke to Baruch, the prophet Jeremiah's scribe: “And seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not” (Jer. 45:5).

In the end, goodness is the only thing that counts. God is not looking for great men and women, he is looking for good men and women. In the parable of the talents, the lord says to the servants who did their master's bidding, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21, 23). Clearly, in the parable, God is the lord and we are in the place of the servants. So what we should want to hear from God, above all things, are the words “good and faithful servant.”

The fact that Paul exhorts Timothy to be a good servant of Christ implies that not all who claim to be his servants are good. Some, despite the fact that they claim to be his servants, “seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ's” (Phil. 2:21). So that begs the question: what does it mean to be a good servant of Jesus Christ?

Goodness requires Godliness

Probably the best way to fill up the meaning of “good” is to use the word “godliness,” for that is the very thing that Paul emphasizes in this text. In the next verse, Paul goes on to exhort Timothy to train himself for godliness because godliness has the promise “of the life that now is and of that which is to come.” In fact, of the fifteen times the word “godliness” (eusebeia) is used in the New Testament, ten of those are in the Pastoral epistles, eight in Paul's first letter to Timothy. Clearly, if Timothy was to be a good servant of Jesus Christ, he must be a godly man first and foremost.

Godliness means “being totally consecrated to God, to his worship, and to the fulfillment of his will”2 and is roughly equivalent with the Old Testament summary of true religion in the phrase “the fear of God.” A godly person is one who lives before God, and whose reverence of him finds its way into every aspect of life, in belief and behavior.

In fact, godliness is so important that Paul ascribes a saying about it to one of the several “faithful sayings” in this epistle: “godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation” (8-9). What does Paul mean by this? Paul is contrasting the benefits of godliness with bodily exercise, which “profits little” or “profits for a little time.” On the other hand, “godliness is profitable unto all things.” Physical exercise has benefits only for the present, but godliness is beneficial not only for the present life but also for the age to come.

Paul is not teaching that godliness gives us the best of both worlds. He is not saying that if you're godly, you can expect “the good life now” and when you die, eternal life. In Paul, God's promise has little to do with the blessings of the present age: rather, God's promise is salvific and comes through Christ: “All the promises of God in him [Christ] are yea, and in him amen, unto the glory of God by us” (2 Cor. 1:20). We are children of the promise (Gal. 4:28), a promise that does not exempt one from persecution (Gal. 4:29).

Nor is Paul teaching that godliness gains eternal life. Again, that would contradict the word “promise” which Paul uses to sum up the benefits of godliness: in Paul's writings, “promise” is used of God's gracious promise to save in contrast with the law. For example, in Galatians 3:18, he tells us that “if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise” (cf Rom 4:13-16).

To get at Paul's meaning here, note that Paul is not referring to “life” in two different senses in this verse, as if he were saying, “This present temporal existence and the eternal enjoyment of the presence of God forever.” Rather, it is the promise of life – a life which is experienced by the believer now and in the age to come. The only other place in the New Testament where this phrase occurs “the promise of life” is in 2 Tim. 1:1, where Paul appends to it the following words “which is in Christ Jesus.” In other words, the life under consideration is the life that comes to us through Jesus Christ. It is a reference to all the saving benefits of his atoning death and resurrection.

Note that Paul says that godliness is beneficial in every way because it has the promise of life that now is and of that which is to come. What Paul is saying is that those who are godly have the blessings of God's saving benefits in Christ both now and in the age to come. It is not that godliness merits them, but it is inseparable from them. A saved man is a godly man. A woman who lives under the saving blessings of God is a woman who fears the Lord. In other words, what Paul is saying is that a godly person is a person who is saved, and the benefits of salvation extend beyond the present life into the age to come. William Hendrikson summarizes the teaching of this passage well, when he says that “this life which God bestows, and which surpasses all other blessings in value, is both for the present and for the future, for the age that now is and for the coming age.”3

There are some who place such emphasis upon the fact that we are saved by grace that they minimize the place and especially the importance of good works. It is not that they completely ignore good works. But such people place such a distance between salvation and works that one gets the impression that godliness is unnecessary for the enjoyment of eternal life. In fact, some even teach that. There are some hyper-calvinists who teach that many of the elect will in this life never know or follow Christ, will reject him and his gospel and yet in the end be saved, because they are elect. On the other hand, there are some on the other end of the theological spectrum who teach that as long as you make a profession of faith in Christ – if you have said “the prayer” – then you will be saved, even if you do not follow and obey Christ. Both these positions, in magnifying one aspect of the doctrine of salvation, the fact that it is by grace apart from works, end up denying another aspect, the fact that we are saved unto good works.

What Paul says here stands in direct contradiction to such false emphases. For his point here is that godliness is is the indispensable evidence for God's saving work in the heart. Paul will say something very similar in his next letter to Timothy. After lamenting the fact that the false teachers had led many astray, he triumphs in the fact that the devil's work will never in the end undo God's work: “Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” The clear implication of this text is that those who are known by the Lord (entirely of his grace) are precisely those who depart from iniquity.

The fact that godliness has the promise of life means not only that godliness is the primary evidence of possessing the benefits of Christ's redemption, but also that the godly enjoy those benefits in the here and now, and that this extends not only to the forgiveness of sins and justification and adoption, but to all the consequences of those blessings, the fellowship of God. John wrote that the reason he was writing was so that his audience might have fellowship “with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” so that their “joy may be full” (1 John 1:3,4). There is no greater gift than to experience the fellowship of God. In fact, the entire purpose of justification and the forgiveness of sins is so that sinful man can experience this fellowship. Justification alone is not salvation – it is the necessary requirement for our being able to be brought nigh unto God (Eph. 2:13).

John, however, went on to say the following thing, “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (verses 5-6). In other words, fellowship with God must be consistent with who he is. God is holy, and if you would have fellowship with him, you must also be holy. That is what Paul is saying to Timothy. He must exercise himself unto godliness, for only in this way will he experience the incredible blessing of God's fellowship, a blessing which is experienced in the here and now and in the age to come. It is, I think, what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

John Stott has written that he “cannot imagine a nobler ambition than to be a 'good minister' of his [Christ's].”4 It is truly a noble calling. But it contains within itself its own blessing. For to be a good minister of Christ means that one is a godly servant of Christ, and a godly servant of Christ is one is knows something of the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14). This, then, begs the question, how does one get to be godly? What are the steps that need to be taken to get there?

Getting to Godliness

First of all, if you would be godly, and therefore a good minister of Jesus Christ, who must nourish yourself by the word of God. Paul writes, “If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, that shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine, whereunto thou hast attained” (6). “These things” are a reference to Paul's teaching in the previous 5 verses, and indeed, of everything that he had said up to that point. And “the words of the faith” is a reference to the whole of Christian teaching of which our faith is the object. Such words produce “good doctrine,” sound and healthy teaching. Timothy had himself closely followed this teaching up till then, and by continuing in this way he would be a good servant of Christ. Moreover, by putting these things in front of the brethren, he would put them also on the road to being good and faithful servants of Jesus.

That means you have to read God's word, it means you have to think about God's word, it means you have to put it into practice. It also means you have to have an appetite for God's word. There are several reasons why people don't have an appetite for Scripture. One is that they may be spiritually sick. This past week, I have been pretty sick, and as a result I didn't want to eat anything. Not even things that were good for me. Of course, this was part of my illness. Even so, people who are spiritually sick, who through sin have alienated themselves from God, often want nothing to do with the word of God. It is tasteless to them, or even revolting.
When the illness is suspending, an appetite returns. Even so, when the sinner repents, he longs for the word of God. If you are lacking an appetite for the nourishing words of God, search your soul and see if there is sin there that has diseased your spiritual taste buds.

Another reason people don't have an appetite for the Bible is that they have filled themselves up with other things. They have filled up their hearts with the junk food of this world and as a result have no room for the promises of God. Perhaps this is why Paul went on to say, “But refuse profane and old wives' fables” (7a). The false teachers had filled themselves up on silly myths, and Paul wants to make sure that Timothy doesn't follow suit.

It is so easy to become distracted by the things of this world that have no ultimate significance or value. Lewis hit the nail on the head when he said that “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”5 It is because we fail to see that the things we wrap our hearts around – like drink and sex and ambition and worldy ease and human praise and entertainment – are in comparison to God's holy truth and the blessings of godliness nothing but “profane and old wives' fables.”

Your heart only has limited space. It is not infinite. So make sure you don't fill it up with other things so that God's word no longer has any place. And if your heart is already full, then you need to throw some junk out. Make space for the Word of God in your heart! Create an appetite for it; pray that God would give you that appetite.

In the second place, if you would be godly, you must discipline yourself in the practice of godliness: “and exercise thyself rather unto godliness” (7b). The word that Paul uses here is gymnazo, and its literal meaning is to train like an athlete. As in our time, so in the first century, there was an incredible emphasis upon the training of the body, of being physically fit. But Paul says that the priorities of that world and ours is misplaced – it is not that we should stop training, it is that we are training for the wrong thing. You can hear this same concern of Paul's in his word to the Corinthians: “And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible” (1 Cor. 9:25).

In other words, godliness doesn't just happen. We have to strive for it. Another word that Paul uses two verses later is agonizomai, from which we get the word “agonize.” Sometimes, I think that people use a false spirituality to justify a lack of discipline on their part. Such people speak of “waiting on God” or of “letting go and letting God.” And though it is true that ultimately everything good in us is from God, that without Christ we can do nothing – yet that is no reason to sit back and do nothing while waiting for God. Paul put it best: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). Christ must strengthen us, yes – but we must do as well.

And this discipline extends not just to Bible reading, but to prayer and to the cultivation of the spiritual fruits in our lives. You must work hard at them. You must plan for them. You must persevere in them.

Finally, if you would gain godliness, you have to keep your faith and hope in God. Paul writes that the reason he could labor and strive in the pursuit of godliness was “because we hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, specially of those that believe” (10). God is not just the way to the prize; he is the prize. Godliness is not really the end, God is. If you want to be godly so people will admire you, then you have got it all wrong. Or if you want to be godly just to feel superior to others, you have got it all wrong. God must be the end of all that we strive for, and so in striving for godliness, we need to have our eye on God, not ourselves.

But there is something else that Paul is saying here. He has told us that godliness has the promise of life that now is and is to come. God has promised eternal life to the godly, or as Jude put it, to be presented faultless before the presence of God's glory with exceeding and never-ending joy (Jude 24). That is a breath-taking promise. It is something that no one or nothing on earth could ever give. But Paul knew that God delivers on his promises. He believed not only that God is but that he rewards those who diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6). Therefore, he could take the hits, the toil and the hard work. In a similar way, Paul would write to Timothy in his second letter, “For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day” (2 Tim. 1:12). God was not only the end of godliness for Paul, he is the one who keeps us and preserves us unto his heavenly kingdom (2 Tim. 4:18).

Paul knew that a lot of people and dark forces were at work against him in this world. But God was there to save. Some people understand “Savior” in verse 10 in a generic sense, as if Paul were saying that God “helps all men, especially those who believe.” In that case, Paul would be saying that God helps everyone in the sense of common grace (sending rain on the just and unjust) but helps believers in a special way, in the sense that he saves them from sin. The problem with this is that this is parallel to a similar passage in the second chapter (verses 3-6) and in that text God as Savior clearly means that God is the one who saves from sin and all its consequences. So here, Paul is saying that his faith and hope was in the one who could give everlasting life, because he is the one in whom all life resides – he is the “living God.”

Now that doesn't mean that God saves everyone that has ever lived. Paul was no universalist. When Paul wrote that God is the Savior of all men, he is using the term “all” in the sense of “all sorts of” - both Jew and Gentile. This is seen further in the way that Paul qualifies this text, “especially of them that believe.” It has been noted by many Biblical scholars that “especially” here carries the sense of “to be precise.” In other words, “those who believe” are not a subset of “all men:” - they define what Paul meant by all men. God saves those who believe in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and he saves them forever. Nothing on earth can separate them from his embrace. And therefore Paul was not going to give up his quest for godliness.

Nothing that we do for this world can carry with it such assurances. Though we may have more immediate results, nothing that we do for this age goes beyond it. Godliness is different. It has the promise of life that now is and of that which is to come. And therefore, if you would strive for anything, strive for godliness. For when you strive for godliness through faith in Christ, you are striving for God. And he is the best of all gifts.

Nothing of earth is sure,
Vain hope soon dies;
Things of the Lord endure:
Christ satisfies.”
1Ryken, I Timothy (REC)
2Mounce, Pastoral Epistles (WBC)
3Hendrikson, NTC: Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus.
4Stott, Guard the Truth.
5From The Weight of Glory

Monday, January 6, 2014

Some Shall Depart From the Faith -- 1 Timothy 4:1-5

The Reality of Apostasy

As we come to the end of this year and anticipate a new one, it is common to be looking forward to new commitments and new hopes. However, to successfully advance in the new year with new goals, it is equally important to look for the potential pitfalls which might lie in the way. For the Christian, it is imperative to understand the wiles of the devil and to anticipate the temptations that might lie ahead. One of the greatest of all is the temptation to forsake the Lord for the passing pleasures of this age. The seductive power of worldliness tugs at each of our hearts and whispers in our ear that present comforts are more important than future hopes. It is this danger that I want to address this morning.

In the Lord of the Rings, the “one Ring to rule them all” had to be entrusted to a hobbit named Frodo to be taken to Mount Doom and delivered into its fires to be destroyed. The reason was because the Ring corrupted everyone else who came into contact with it. Elves, men, dwarves – none could be entrusted. But for some reason, the strange resilience of hobbits allowed them to have the ring without being completely corrupted by it.

But as the story goes on, we learn this is not all the truth. We learn of a strange creature, Gollum, who was once a hobbit, and has been deformed through the ring's influence. And as Frodo makes his way to Mount Doom, he feels the Ring tugging at his inner self to gain control. He is constantly lured by the Ring to give himself up to its Master. And at the very end, it almost happens.

In the same way, we all have an evil nature that is tugging at our hearts to give ourselves up to God's archenemy, the Devil. Some are overcome, like Gollum, to its influence; and others struggle on, encouraged by friends, and, ultimately, sustained by God himself. Some persevere to the end, and some don't.

It is this reality – the reality of apostasy – that Paul warns of in our text. For Paul speaks of those who “shall depart from the faith” (verse 1). The word used here is the verbal form of the noun apostasia, the Greek word from which we get “apostasy.” Apostasy is problematic on a number of levels, not least of which because it poses a serious threat to the security of the believer.

One of my favorite books of all time is John Murray's Redemption Accomplished and Applied. In his chapter on the perseverance of believers, he begins by noting that there are some features of the biblical record as well as our own experience that at first glance make it look like some believers may not in fact persevere:

Experience, observation, biblical history, and certain Scriptural passages would appear to provide very strong arguments against the doctrine which has been called “The Perseverance of the Saints.” Is not the biblical record as well as the history of the church strewn with examples of those who have made shipwreck of the faith? And do we not read that it is “impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they fall away, to renew them again unto repentance” (Heb. 6:4-6)? Did not our Lord himself say, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away. . . If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch and is withered” (John 15:1, 2, 6)?1

And yet, Murray argues that all who are truly saved will persevere. He contends that “the saints, those united to Christ by the effectual call of the Father and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, will persevere unto the end.”2

The passage we are looking at this morning falls into the category of texts that raise some question as to the truth of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. The text is very clear that apostasy is a very real possibility, though there is some question as to the structure of verse 1. The phrase “the faith” could be taken either with “some” or with the verb “depart.” That is, it could be translated “some of the faith will depart,” or it could be translated “some shall depart from the faith.” Both are legitimate translations. The end result, however, is the same. Both translations indicate that some who professed to believe the truth will depart from it. They will apostatize.

That much is clear. In fact, Paul says that “the Spirit speaketh expressly [clearly, distinctly] that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith” (v. 1). Paul is probably referring to a previously uttered prophesy, either through him or through others. In fact, the New Testament is filled with such warnings. For example, Jesus prophesied that “many shall be offended [fall away], and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall arise and shall deceive many” (Mt 24:11). Paul himself warned the Ephesian elders, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:28-30). And this had already happened. Paul laments that Hymenaus and Alexander have made shipwreck of their faith (1 Tim. 1:20).

Some might think that because Paul says that this will happen “in the latter times” that he is referring to a state of events that will take place immediately before the Second Coming. But for Paul, the “latter times” began at the inauguration of the era ushered in by the First Coming of Christ. In other words, the latter times stretches between the first and the second advents of our Savior. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul says that he and the believers of his day are those “upon whom the ends of the world are come” (verse 11).

Paul says something similar in his second letter to Timothy. There, he writes that “in the last days perilous times shall come.” He then goes on to describe the kinds of behavior that will characterize the last days, ending with those who have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof (2 Tim. 3:1-5). However, this is not some catalog of sins for an age far off in the future; in fact, Paul tells Timothy that action with respect to these kinds of people are required of him in the present: “from such turn away” (verse 5). With Paul, we are not waiting for the last days, we are living in the last days.

Our text is therefore a concern both for Timothy and ourselves. We are still living in the last days, and though the specifics of this prophesy may not apply to every believer or every church, yet the fact remains that some still depart from the faith. Paul goes on to describe to Timothy the source of the apostasy (verses 1-5) and then how to contend against it (verses 6-16). In some sense, this chapter mirrors the first. In chapter 1, Paul does a similar thing. He describes the false teachers in the first part of the chapter, and the contrasts their teaching with the gospel, and encourages Timothy to remain faithful to it. Our text, therefore, teaches us two things. It tells us first that apostasy is a very real possibility. But Paul is no fatalist. He is not willing to simply let sin do its work; he wants Timothy to do everything he can to stop it in himself and in the church (cf verse 16). Thus, the second thing about our text is that it teaches us that there is something that can be done about falling away, and what we must do about it.

Two Wrong Responses

Before I go on, I want to note that there are two wrong responses to the reality of apostasy. One is to say that this reality shows that a person can get saved and then fall away and lose that salvation. Another wrong response is that perseverance has no bearing on one's salvation. One can be a true believer and then lose their faith but not their salvation. Both of these responses are a denial of the Biblical doctrine of perseverance. This doctrine states that true believers will persevere in the faith to the end. Or, as Wayne Grudem defines it, “The perseverance of the saints means that all those who are truly born again will be kept by God's power and will persevere as Christians until the end of their lives, and that only those who persevere until the end have been truly born again.”3

The first response stems from a failure to recognize a distinction between true and false faith. What the doctrine of perseverance does not say is that everyone who professes faith in Christ will persevere. The text we are considering clearly shows that this is not true. Rather, what it does claim is that everyone who is truly born again will not finally fall away. This is implied in the words of the apostle John: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 John 2:19). In other words, John is saying that the apostasy of some who had claimed to be disciples proved that their profession of faith in Christ was fake. They “were not all of us.”

On the other hand, the Scripture clearly teaches that those whom God calls to himself effectually through the power of his Spirit will be saved. Those who belong to Christ will not be lost. Peter tells us that the power of God keeps us from falling away. Believers, he says, “are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:5). Paul says that he is “confident of this very thing, that he who hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And to the Romans, he says that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:35-39). Of course, all this is just what Jesus himself taught. For in John 10:28, 29, he says, “And I give unto them [his sheep, his people] eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand.”

Therefore, we have Biblical warrant to speak of “true believers” and “false believers.” Those who are true believers, who have been truly born again and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, will persevere to the end and be saved. But false believers are those who, though professing faith in Christ, have never truly been changed. They are like the seed that fell on the stony and thorny ground – they appear at first to have a genuine response to the gospel, but which later turns out to be a hoax (Matt. 13:1-23). Such never lose salvation, for they were never saved to begin with. The faith which justifies is the faith of Abraham (cf. Rom 4:17-23), not a shallow profession that issues from an unchanged heart.

The other wrong response affirms that some who are truly saved can fall away from true faith in this life without losing their eternal salvation. Against this, the Biblical doctrine of perseverance teaches that those who are truly born again will never fall finally away. When Peter said that God keeps believers by his power unto eternal salvation, he said that God does this “through faith.” And the apostle John teaches that whoever “is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn 5:4, 5). True believers overcome the world – they are not overcome by the world (which would clearly be involved in falling away from the faith!).

One passage that is often pointed to as teaching that true believers can fall away is Hebrews 6. How can they not be saved if they are said to be “once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come” (verses 4, 5)? Yet the author of Hebrews claims both the possibility of such people falling away and the impossibility of renewing them to repentance (verse 6). In other words, it seems like he is saying that truly saved people can apostatize.

However, on closer inspection, this passage teaches the very opposite. For a few verses later, the writer tells his audience that “we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak” (verse 9). Of which “things” is the writer speaking? These “things” are said to be “better.” The key question here is, “Better than what?” And the clear answer is, better than the things he had listed in the previous verses (verses 4-6). What the author of Hebrews is convinced of is that the Hebrew believers are characterized by “better things,” which he goes on to explain by the phrase “things that accompany salvation.” In other words, the characteristics of verses 4-6 are not things that accompany salvation; they are not evidences of being truly born again. Thus, Hebrews 6 shows that apostasy is possible, but that those who apostatize do so because they do not have those “things that accompany salvation.”4 In other words, they were never truly saved.

Before moving on, I think it's important to say something about what the doctrine of perseverance does not teach. In saying that the saints persevere to the end, we are not claiming sinless perfection for them at any point before heaven. Nor are we claiming that true believers are immune from terrible sins with all the awful consequences that attend them. A believer can even permanently damage his/her witness or ministry. Rather, what the doctrine of perseverance teaches is that true believers will never ultimately lose their faith in Christ. And such faith inevitably blossoms into repentance whenever the believer has sinned. Such faith unites them to Christ and therefore to his righteousness. It cannot be lost, and “there is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

Why warn true believers of apostasy if they cannot fall away?

Why does the Bible put warnings against apostasy if the true believer cannot finally fall away? I think there are two reasons.

First, the Bible warns against apostasy because even if a true believer cannot completely lose their faith, they can get swept up, at least temporarily, into false doctrine and lies and wrong behavior which can render long-lasting spiritual damage. For example, King David really went off the deep end for a long time. His own heart was hardened in his sin for probably at least a year. However, because David was a man after God's own heart, he did repent when God sent the prophet Nathan to him with the message, “Thou art the man” (2 Sam. 12:7). But this did not save him from the consequences of his sin. The rest of his life was plagued with rebellious sons trying to overthrow him and each other – the direct consequence of his own rebellion against God. Even so, though the true believer in Christ will eventually repent and turn again to the Savior and be fully forgiven, it does not mean that he/she will be free from the attending consequences of their sin.

Another way to put this is that though the person who is truly born again cannot finally fall away, nevertheless he/she can backslide. From our perspective we cannot discern the difference between backsliding and apostasy. Until a person repents, they look the same. Therefore, a warning against apostasy is a warning against backsliding and all its consequences. And that is precisely what Paul is doing in our text. He wants to save the believers at Ephesus (and us) from following the path of Hymenaus and Alexander: “If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ,” (verse 6) Paul exhorts Timothy. The brethren needed to hear these things, and so do we.

Second, the Bible warns against apostasy because such warnings are a means that God uses to keep true believers from falling away. And this is not a disingenuous warning, because the reality is that all who finally fall away will not be saved: “He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Matt. 24:13; cf. Heb. 10:39). Paul says that what's important is not getting into the race, but finishing it (1 Cor. 9:24-27). Those who do so will have the crown of life that fades not away (2 Tim. 4:7-8).

There are a couple of passages in the book of Revelation which show how this works. The first is found in Revelation 13:10, the context of which is about the first beast who causes all the earth to worship him, “whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (verse 8). Note that on the one hand, John places the perseverance of the saints firmly in the fact of their election. But then he goes on to say: “If anyone has an ear, let him hear: If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword he must be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (verse 10, ESV). The last phrase shows that the warning of verse 10 about the consequences of the Great Apostasy are meant to call believers to endure, to persevere. They are meant to take seriously such consequences and be warned against succumbing to the spirit of the age.

The other text is found in the next chapter:

And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. (Revelation 14:9-12, ESV)

Here, the terrible reality of God's final judgment on those who worship the beast and its image is meant to be a serious warning to believers not to apostatize and an encouragement to endure, despite the awful hardships to which they will be exposed on account of their faithfulness. What our Lord is saying is exactly what he said to his apostles in Matthew 10:24-28:

The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household? Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known. What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

The Cause and Nature of the Apostasy

If therefore apostasy is real, and its consequences are terrible, more terrible than anything mortal men can do to us, we need to hear what the apostle has to say in this text. What Paul does for us is to show us the path down which apostates travel in order to keep us from traveling down the same path: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared” (1 Timothy 4:1-2, ESV).

The “grim sequence of events”5 that transforms faithful elders like Alexander and Hymenaus into demonic false-teachers seems to be as follows. First, they stopped listening to their consciences. Paul uses a very colorful expression here and says that their “consciences are seared.” Paul is saying that their consciences have been deadened so that they don't react to sin, just as nerves become dead when they are cauterized and stop warning of pain. Second, because their consciences were now hardened, they had no problem telling lies. When Paul describes their deception as “the insincerity of liars,” he is implying that they knew what they were teaching was lies. But it did not bother them. Their consciences were dead. Finally, they exposed themselves to the operation of the devil himself, for their teaching is described as having its origin from “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” We are reminded of what Paul says of apostates in 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12. Speaking of the antichrist, he warns, “Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”

What should we take away from this? Surely, we need to listen to our consciences! We need to be like Paul, who said, “And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void to offence toward God, and toward men” (Acts 24:16). We need to listen to the voice of the Spirit when he speaks to us through the Word and be quick in our obedience. It is also why Paul places such an emphasis in this letter on keeping a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:5, 19; 3:9; cf. 2 Tim. 1:3).

But that is not all that Paul says. He goes on to describe some of the content of the false-teaching: “Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (verse 3-5). It is sometimes said that a believer needs to only know truth in order to grow. However, that is not quite true. We also need to know the errors of our day, and why they are wrong. That is what Paul is doing here. He is exposing, not only the moral bankruptcy of the false-teachers, but the errors that they were teaching and giving a Biblical response.

We already know from chapter one that the false-teachers were perverting God's good law. One of the ways they were doing this was by taking the food laws which were no longer binding on believer's consciences, and making them a necessary precondition for salvation. John Calvin, in his commentary on this verse, argues that the false-teachers were seeking “to acquire righteousness for themselves by abstaining from those things which God has left free.” In addition to this, they added certain philosophical tendencies of that age that later blossomed into full-blown gnosticism. This philosophy taught that matter and spirit were diametrically opposed, and that anything to do with the body is inherently bad. To be freed of everything material is the ultimate good. Thus, they taught that believers should abstain from marriage (and thus probably from having children).

This ascetic view of life has always had its champions. Ryken explains, “The Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls refused to marry. So did the Manichaeans, who lived in the east from the third to the tenth centuries. Similarly Irenaeus reports that the Encratites of his day 'preached against marriage, thus setting aside the original creation of God, and indirectly blaming him who made them male and female for the propagation of the human race. Some of those reckoned among them have also introduced abstinence from animal food, thus proving themselves ungrateful to God, who formed all things.'”6

How does Paul respond to this? In verse 3-5 he says two things in response, and says each thing three times. First, he says that this ascetic view of life is contrary to the fact that God has blessed the eating of all foods as well as marriage (Paul doesn't focus on marriage here, but he does this elsewhere): “God hath created to be received. . . . For every creature of God is good. . . . it is sanctified by the word of God.” The second thing Paul says is that this ascetic view of life is contrary to the attitude of thanksgiving that every believer ought to have with respect to the good things that God has given us: “to be received with thanksgiving. . . .if it be received with thanksgiving . . . . for it is sanctified by . . . prayer.” Ultimately, however, Paul's argument is one from the Word of God. The bottom line is that the teaching was false because is was contrary to the teaching of Scripture.

Thus, there are two certain habits that we need to cultivate in our lives if we are to avoid the pitfall of apostasy. First, we need to keep a good conscience. We need to keep short accounts with sin. Second, we need to know and believe God's word. Of course, these two things go together. For God's word informs our conscience and our conscience responds to the word of God.

No believer, however, can persevere on their own. The fact of the matter is, we are all too weak. We need real help. That is why we must always remember the overall context, the fact that immediately preceding this text is the affirmation of 1 Timothy 3:16, which is the summary of the truth the Church is to uphold. It is about Christ: his coming, resurrection, proclamation, and glorification. In other words, we need to remember that the doctrine of perseverance in faith can never be separated from the doctrine of Christ and his saving work. The very fact that we are in the Path means that Christ has freely lavished his grace on us through his atonement, and now keeps us by his power. We can do nothing without him (Jn 15:5) but we can do all things though him (Phil. 4:13).

1John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (1955), p. 151.

2Ibid, p. 154.

3Gudem, Systematic Theology, (1994) p. 788

4For a more complete discussion of this passage, I recommend Grudem's take on it in his Syst. Theol., pages 796-800. Also, all the traits mentioned in verses 4-5 can be seen in Judas Iscariot. And yet few would say that he was saved despite his apostasy. Jesus himself calls him “the son of perdition” (Jn 17:12).

5John Stott, Guard the Truth, p. 112.

6Philip Graham Ryken, 1 Timothy (REC), p. 161.

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