The following is the text of a talk on I Timothy 4 I gave at church last night as part of a summer series on the Pastoral Epistles. The men of the congregation are taking turns with the passages, so I’ll be up again for the end of I Timothy in a few weeks.
Good evening. We are in I Timothy chapter four tonight, if you would like to turn there and follow along. In this chapter Paul is going to turn his attention to some false teachers and then give some instructions to Timothy directly. I’ll read through the passage to get us started, and I’m going to back up a few verses into chapter three so that we’ll have some context.
I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth. Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.
If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. These are the things you must insist on and teach. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders. Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.
Now, since R. talked about chapter three last week, I won’t go into that section, except to say that perhaps since Paul is about to take on some false teachers, it’s possible that he wants to remind his readers of the truth of the gospel before he goes into the apostates’ false doctrines.
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron.
A quick word about the expression “later times” here. I’m taking that to refer to the “last days” in general, that is, the time between Christ’s ascension and his returning. In other words, Paul is primarily refuting something that is a current and immediate threat to the church at Ephesus, and perhaps secondarily other heresies that may be coming down the line in the next few centuries. I don’t think we should consider this passage to be referring to the Roman Catholic Church.
Now the church is still young at this point in its history, but Paul has just described it as the pillar and bulwark of truth in chapter three. But we note that these false teachers are apostates, that is, they are believers who have “renounced the faith” and are now spreading lies. The fact that there are lies coming from those who claim to be part of the church, which is the pillar and ground of the truth, might be alarming to the early Christians. Thus Paul makes it clear that the Spirit has long forewarned of these things, as a way of comforting the Ephesians. He is letting them know that God is still in control and that the advent of these false teachers should not be taken as a sign that God has abandoned his people. Jesus made such predictions, and we can turn back to Acts chapter 20 starting in verse 29 to see where Paul had previously warned the elders at Ephesus of this:
Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears.
Back to our text, Paul makes it clear that the source of these false teachings is Satan and his agents, the deceitful spirits and demons, but these false teachings are mediated through men, that is, the lying hypocrites whose consciences are seared. We can take the seared consciences image in two ways. First, we might say that their consciences are cauterized and made numb to any sensation, so that they no longer have any sense between right and wrong. Second, we could take it to mean that their consciences have been branded, marking them as slaves and the property of the demons. Either way, Paul calls them hypocrites. In other words, they are not telling lies because they are genuinely confused or misinformed, but rather because they are deliberately trying to lead the believers astray.
That’s enough about the false teachers. Now we turn to what they are actually saying:
They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.
As has been mentioned previously, the church at Ephesus seems to be dealing with some kind of mixture of proto-Gnostic belief and Jewish laws. There are a few theories about where this might be coming from. This strict asceticism appears later in groups such as the Gnostics who take cues from Plato and decide that all matter is evil and to be rejected, and only the spirit is good. Thus we should reject physical activities such as sex or eating meats. In Second Timothy chapter two, Paul mentions that some believe the resurrection has already occurred. This might explain the forbidding of marriage, as Jesus had said that there is no marriage in the resurrection. It might also explain the forbidding of foods, as Adam and Eve did not eat meat when they were still in the Garden of Eden.
Whatever the origin, the belief has arisen that some things are unclean, and this is the topic that Paul tackles specifically:
…foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.
In other words, God created it and called it good when he did so, therefore let no man think he can call it unclean or evil. The goodness of God’s creation is emphasized most dramatically in the incarnation of Jesus Christ himself. As the hymn said earlier, “he was revealed in flesh.” If physical bodies are intrinsically evil, our Lord himself could not have appeared in one and remained good.
I think it’s very interesting how Paul says that God created the food to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe. We all know the purpose of food is to nourish us, to give us energy and growth, right? But Paul focuses specifically on thanksgiving as the purpose of food. From the beginning, God has intended food to be a means of communing between human beings and himself. That is, God provides for us in his loving care, and we thank and bless him for what we have received, and thus we commune. As a side note, we should not find it surprising, then, that the Communion we partake of every week is mediated through bread and wine, that is, food. For the gift of Christ’s body and blood that we receive from the Lord, we thank and bless him, and thus we commune with him.
Clearly, we find here one of the many scriptural supports for the practice of saying grace at the table before eating. I think it would be helpful to clarify for us that we do not pray over our food to make it clean or “safe to eat”, as if it previously were unclean or harmful. Paul has already said that it is good. Jesus himself thanked God in prayer every time he broke bread and ate in the gospels, and as far as we know he never ate anything that the Law would have considered unclean. We pray over our food because it is a means of communion with God.
I don’t know about you, but I have tended to slack off in this practice at times, especially if I’m eating alone at home or we’re at a restaurant and I think the waitress is about to come back with some ketchup. But this is not about a mere duty, or worse, a superstition. It is something far more compelling: it is about relationship with the living God, and so I would exhort both myself and any of you who like me have neglected thanking God for our food to reinstate that practice with fervor. The primary purpose of food is not nutritional. It is relational, or to put it another way, sacramental.
Paul does not refute their claims against marriage, but we may find plenty of other places in this letter alone that imply his support of it. Incidentally, Paul’s understanding of marriage may also be viewed as sacramental.
If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales.
The phrase “put these instructions” here implies an absence of authority. That is, Timothy is not to command or compel these instructions, but rather to suggest them, as if giving advice. Likewise, Paul does not tell Timothy to refute the profane myths or argue with the old wives’ tales. He says simply to have nothing to do with them, to ignore them. As we’ll see in the verses ahead, Paul is telling Timothy to counter these false teachers by being a positive example, himself. It will not do to get into endless arguments with the apostates; rather, let the light of the sound teaching and the godliness of holy living shine so brightly that there will be no question as to which side carries the truth of God.
Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance.
This comparison between physical training and godliness ties back to the false teachings mentioned earlier. The apostates are focused on physical asceticism, but while disciplining our bodies has some limited value, Paul says our focus should be on spiritual discipline, or godliness, which is valuable both now and in the life to come. I don’t think we should read into this a total rejection of spiritual disciplines such as fasting and celibacy. Jesus’ teaching on fasting implies that he expects his followers will practice it, and in Matthew 19:12, he implies that celibacy for the kingdom is acceptable:
There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.
Paul also has said in other letters that foregoing marriage is a viable option for young believers. The Christian witness throughout history has shown that these practices have spiritual value. I think the difference is that the false teachers are “forbidding”, that is, advocating a total and permanent rejection of marriage and meats by all believers, based on the belief that these things are inherently evil or unclean. Spiritual disciplines throughout the life of the church have been considered something to be taken on voluntarily, and in the case of fasting, for a time.
For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. These are the things you must insist on and teach.
The “end” here is referring to the life to come. Paul says that we “toil and struggle.” We should take note, here, of the struggle in our faith. Let us not become complacent, thinking that our salvation will require little or no effort on our parts. Paul says it everywhere: salvation is a struggle. (More on this topic when we get to chapter six in a few weeks.)
Paul frequently refers to God as the “living” God. God is the source of life for us. Life itself flows from God, and without God, we would have no life, either now or in the life to come. That God is the Savior of all people might be a bit shocking to us. Surely Paul is not suggesting universal salvation, right? Why, then, would our salvation be a struggle? Clearly, there are plenty of people in this world who are not struggling at all. There are a few ways you could take this phrase. The first ties directly back to the fact that God is the living God, and saves all people here and now by providing life for them, and especially for the believers, by giving them the hope of the life to come. The second way we might take it is that God desires to save all men and thus is the savior of all, but not all will accept his salvation, and thus he is especially the savior of those who believe and accept his promises.
Paul’s command to Timothy in that last sentence is different than the one before. Where before, he was to suggest the instructions to the brethren, here he is to insist on and teach them. The verbs here imply authority and boldness, that Timothy should not let anyone push him around on this matter of the Christian hope. And so we come to the verse that gets appropriated as every single youth group’s mission statement:
Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.
Timothy is probably in his thirties, hardly a teenager, but that’s not really our point here. The point is that Paul is continuing with the idea that Timothy needs to be a positive example to the church in every way, and Paul leaves nothing out. This example will confirm the truth of the faith that he is to defend against the apostates and protect him from criticism of elder members of the church, who may even themselves be going along with the apostates.
Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching.
The practices here, reading, exhorting, teaching, all appear with definite articles in front of them in the Greek. In other words, the reading, the exhorting, and the teaching. This suggests that these practices already had an established place in the assembly of the church. “Scripture” at this point in history would refer to the Old Testament, although it is conceivable that a few of Paul’s letters may have been in circulation to the point of being considered scripture at this time. “Exhorting” would be preaching, that is, expounding on the text and encouraging the believers to live godly lives. “Teaching” would mean to present and describe the doctrines of the faith. Paul is telling Timothy not to get distracted with the debates and genealogies; focus on the fundamentals of the faith.
Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders. Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.
Just a few closing points here. That the gift of God may be ignored to the detriment of the one who has received it is implied here. While we may not have received them as dramatically, through prophecy and the laying on of hands, we all have gifts as members of the body Christ, and we should seek to use them for the building up of the body, just as Paul has exhorted Timothy here.
Paul has iterated throughout this passage the need for integrity in the conduct and teaching of the leaders of the church. As he says here: “pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching.” The message of the gospel is confirmed in the godly lives of the believers. If our lives are not consistent with the faith we proclaim, we make ourselves to appear like the apostates in this passage. Let us, therefore, be attentive, and walk with care, that we may be saved, and save those who hear and see us.