The Apostle Paul is writing to Timothy, who is a young minister in the city of Ephesus. And Paul is writing to this young minister with instructions about some of the things he needs to know and to do and to teach in Ephesus. And in chapter 2 Paul instructed him about public worship. And in chapter 3 he instructed him about overseers and deacons: the overseers, or the elders, oversee the spiritual well-being of the congregation; and the deacons help the overseers by taking care of practical and administrative jobs.
In today’s chapter, Paul is, in a sense, going back to where he started in chapter 1, because in chapter 1 he instructed Timothy to command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer. And he went on to refer to some who had rejected faith and a good conscience and they had shipwrecked their faith. And at the beginning of chapter 4 Paul tells Timothy that the Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. So, chapter 1 and chapter 4 have those two ideas in common: false teaching and abandoning the faith. And Paul goes on in chapter 4 to describe some of the things the false teachers, who had abandoned the true faith, were teaching. And then he tells Timothy how he needs to respond to the challenge of the false teachers. and what he needs to do so that the members of the church will be saved in the end. And so, that’s how we’re going to divide this passage. Firstly, the challenge of the false teachers. And secondly, how to respond to it.
Verses 1 to 5
And if you look at verse 1 you’ll see Paul refers to ‘later times’. He’s referring to what is sometimes labelled in the Bible as ‘the last times’ or ‘the last days’. And the thing about the last times is that we’re already living in them. The last times began 2000 years ago when the Lord Jesus came into the world as one of us to give up his life on the cross to pay for our sins. And then he was raised from the dead and he ascended to heaven. Those events marked the beginning of the last times. And the last times will continue until he comes again in glory and with power to judge the world.
And so, we’re living in the last times. And, according to Paul, the Holy Spirit clearly said that in these, the last times in which we’re living, some will abandon the faith by following deceiving spirits and the things taught by demons. When did the Spirit say that? We don’t really know when the Spirit said that, but there are several warnings in the New Testament which make clear that we should expect this kind of thing. In Matthew 24, the Lord Jesus spoke of a time when many will turn away from the faith. In Acts 20, the Apostle Paul was speaking to the elders in Ephesus and he warned them about false teachers who will come into the church and how from among their own members false teachers will arise. In 2 Peter 2:1 Peter warned his readers about false prophets and in chapter 3 he wrote about scoffers who will come in the last days. Jude also warned about such scoffers in the last days. And John in his first letter warned about false prophets who have gone out into the world.
So, we’ve been told to expect these things. In fact, we can say that one of the signs that we’re living in the last times is false teaching. And Paul makes clear that the source of this false teaching is the Devil and all his demons, because Paul refers in verse 1 to deceiving spirits and to things taught by demons. Ever since the serpent deceived Eve in the Garden, he’s been blinding the minds of men and women and boys and girls to keep them from knowing the truth.
But the Devil and his demons don’t come to us in person, do they? No, they teach their lies through the teaching of hypocritical liars. That’s how Paul describes the false teachers in verse 2. And they’re hypocritical liars because they present themselves to us as those who know the truth. In fact they present themselves as the only ones who know the truth; and everyone else has got it wrong. And so, they tell you that everyone should listen to them, because they’re the only ones who really understand.
But, says Paul, they’re not teachers of the truth, but they’re hypocritical liars and their teaching is from the Devil and his demons. And he adds at the end of verse 2 that their consciences have been seared. When someone’s skin is seared and badly burned, it loses all feeling. And therefore Paul means their consciences have lost all feeling and they don’t realise how wrong they are to teach such things.
And Paul tells us what they were teaching in Ephesus. This, of course, is only a sample of the kind of thing which is taught in these, the last times in which we’re living; and different false teachers will teach different false doctrines. But in Ephesus they were forbidding people to marry and they were ordering them to abstain from certain foods. So, they were teaching a form of self-denial which God has not commanded. God has not commanded us to remain single. In fact, he is the one who has given us marriage and he has given it for our good. And God is the one who has given us all kinds of good things to eat and to enjoy; and, while his Old Testament people had to follow certain regulations about what food was deemed clean and could be eaten and what food was deemed unclean and could not be eaten, nevertheless those rules were for those people at that time and the Lord Jesus has since declared all food to be clean. So, God has not commanded us to remain single and God has not commanded us to abstain from certain foods. And Paul goes on to say that God created the foods they forbade as something to be received by us with thanksgiving; and everything God created is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving. He’s referring back to the account of creation in Genesis 1 when God looked at all that he had made and declared that it was good, even very good. Now, because we’re sinners, we have spoiled God’s good creation; and we often misuse and abuse his good gifts. Nevertheless, everything God created is good and he has given it to us for our good and for his glory. It’s been consecrated, says Paul, by the word of God and prayer. He’s perhaps referring to the practice which many Christians still follow of reading a portion of the Bible and offering a prayer of thanksgiving before we eat.
So, God has given us these things for our good and we’re to receive his good gifts with thanksgiving. But these false teachers have come along and they were saying these things are not good and we should abstain from them. We don’t know much more about what the false teachers believed or taught, but perhaps they were saying that the truly heavenly-minded person, the truly spiritual person, should have nothing to do with physical, earthly things like marriage and they should keep tight control of what they eat. That’s been a very common idea in the church down through the ages. Just think about how people will sometimes give up certain things during Lent. As I used to say to people in Naas, the only thing we have to give up is our sins; and we should give them up permanently and not for Lent. But there’s no reason to give up anything good.
And then, what the false teachers were saying is all law-based, isn’t it? It’s all about what we have to do. Here are some rules we have to keep and the way to climb up to God and the way to receive eternal life is by keeping these rules. That’s also been a very common idea in the church; and when we were studying chapter 1 I said that instead of being a law-based church with a law-based message, we need to be a gospel-based church with a gospel-based message. The law is about the things we have to do. And focussing on the law and on the things we have to do can either lead to pride or despair. It can lead to pride, because we’re proud of ourselves for keeping the rules. Or it can lead to despair, because we’re not able to keep the rules. A law based message leads to pride or despair. But the gospel is about what Christ has done for sinners to bring us to God. He gave up his life for us to pay for what we have done wrong. He shed his blood for us to cleanse us from our guilt. And through faith in him we are pardoned by God and receive eternal life as a free gift. We do not deserve it and we cannot earn it, but he freely gives it to us and we receive it from him through faith in his Son who died for us.
The false teachers were teaching people to reject the good things God has given us. And that’s not right, because we should receive his good gifts with thanksgiving. And the false teachers were relying on law and the things we have to do, instead of relying on Christ the Saviour who died to bring us to God.
Verses 6 to 16
So, while we wait for Christ to return to bring these last times to an end, we should expect to hear all kinds of false teaching. And remember Paul is only giving us a sample of the kind of false teaching we can expect to hear in these, the last times in which we’re living; and the Devil is able to think up all kinds of things to deceive us.
So, that’s the challenge. How should Timothy, and how should any minister, respond to this challenge. That’s what verses 6 to 16 are about. And rather than go through it one verse at a time, let me divide it into the things Timothy should do and the things he shouldn’t do. And we’ll start with the things he shouldn’t do.
Godless myths and the gospel
Look down to verse 7 where it says:
Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather train yourself to be godly.
He mentioned myths and endless genealogies in chapter 1 and I explained that some of the commentators think the false teachers in Ephesus used myths and legends and made-up stories about people whose names appear in the Old Testament genealogies. Here Paul calls them old wives’ tales, which again suggests they’re made-up stories. And we still come across the same kind of thing, because every few years some book will be published by some so-called expert who has discovered some secret in the Bible which no one has ever discovered before. But the reason no one has ever discovered it before is because it’s nonsense. However, Christians often latch on to these things because they’re new and they’re slightly tired of the old, old story of unseen things above and of Jesus and his love.
Timothy and ministers like him must have nothing to do with myths and old wives’ tales and made up stories. Instead they must train themselves to be godly. And in verse 8 Paul contrasts physical training with godliness. Physical training is of some value. It’s good to stay fit. We’d all agree to that. However, godliness has value for all things, because it’s of value for us in this life and in the next life.
But what does Paul mean by godliness and how do we train ourselves to be godly? Well, we don’t have to go far to answer that question, because in last week’s chapter Paul wrote about the mystery of godliness. Do you see that in verse 16 of chapter 3? And the mystery of godliness is the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who appeared in the flesh as one of us; and who suffered and died on the cross before being vindicated by the Spirit at his resurrection; and he was seen by angels; and he was preached among the nations; and many believed in him; and he has now ascended to heaven to rule over all. That’s the mystery of godliness. And Paul calls it the mystery of godliness because by believing the gospel and by keeping our focus on the gospel, we will be transformed more and more into the likeness of God. So, do you see what Paul is saying? How do ministers face the challenge of false teaching? How do believers face the same challenge? By having nothing to do with godless myths and by keeping our focus firmly on the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Let no one despise you
But let’s move on to the next thing Timothy must not do. And it’s in verse 12:
Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers….
We don’t know what age Timothy was, but in those days in Ephesus, the male population was divided into elders who were over 40 and the young men who were under 40. So, presumably Timothy was under 40. However, some of the commentators think he may only have been in his 20s. And perhaps the older men in the congregation weren’t taking Timothy seriously because he was so young.
There’s nothing we can do about our age, but, as one writer has put it, the way to stop people looking down on you is to make sure they look up to you. The way to stop people looking down on you is to make sure they look up to you. And so, Paul instructs Timothy to set an example for the believers in speech and in life; and in love and in faith; and in purity. Let them look up to you because of what you say and how you say it; and in how you live your life and in the things you do; and in the way you love all kinds of people with a selfless love; and in the way you trust in the Lord always and never get afraid; and in the way you live a life of purity. Live like that among the believers and soon those older men and women will not be looking down on you, but they’ll be looking up to you.
But, of course, Paul says this not because he wants those older members to admire Timothy and to think he’s a nice young man. No, he wants them to pay attention to Timothy and to pay attention to Timothy’s message. Don’t listen to the false teaching of the false teachers. Listen to the gospel message which Timothy is able to proclaim to you. And so, the way to face the challenge of false teaching is by making sure there is nothing in our life and in the way that we live which would put people off the gospel.
Don’t neglect the gift
There’s one more thing Timothy must not do. It’s in verse 14:
Do not neglect your gift, which was given to you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.
This verse confirms for us that Timothy was a minister, because Paul is referring in this verse to his ordination. The Greek word translated ‘body of elders’ in this verse is actually presbuterion from where we get the word presbyterian and presbytery. And while we don’t have prophetic messages now, we still have presbyteries. And when a new minister is ordained today, and set apart to be a minister in Christ’s church, it’s still done with the laying on of hands by members of the presbytery. And Paul reminds Timothy of the day of his ordination and he now commands him not to neglect the gift he received on that day. Paul, of course, is thinking of a spiritual gift, not a financial gift. And he probably means he received a gift from God to equip him for gospel ministry. It may even have been a gift from God enabling him to preach and teach God’s word. Perhaps Timothy was tempting from time to time to give up preaching and teaching God’s word. But Paul tells him not to neglect his gift. But to make use of it. And that brings us to the things Timothy and every minister like him must do in order to face the challenge of false teaching.
What Timothy must do
He’s not to have anything to do with godly myths, but he’s to focus on the gospel. He’s not to let anyone despise him, but he’s to set an example so people will listen to him. He’s not to neglect his gift, but he’s to make use of it. Those are the things he should not do. Here now are the things he must do. Verse 6:
If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus….
Command and teach these things.
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.
Be diligent in these matters [this is, the things Paul has been telling him to do which includes reading, preaching and teaching God’s word].
So, what should he do? How should Timothy and any other minister face the challenge of false teaching which will abound in these, the last times? He must point out these things, which means he must teach the people. He must command and teach these things. He must devote himself, devote himself, to the public reading, preaching and teaching of God’s word. He must be diligent in these matters.
Have you ever wondered why we do what we do on Sundays? When we gather for worship, I read from the Scriptures. And then, having read from the Scriptures, I preach and teach from that passage of Scripture. I’ve been ordained for just over 20 years, and that’s been my practice from the first Sunday I was ordained to this Sunday. And, with the Lord’s help, I’ll continue to do it. Why do I do it? Because this is what Paul — writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — commanded Timothy to do. This is what all ministers are commanded to do. We’re to devote ourselves to these things, because this is how to face the challenge of false teaching. The Holy Spirit has warned us that there will be many false teachers in these, the last times. And the way to face the challenge and to overcome it is for ministers to read, preach and teach God’s word.
But before we finish, look at verse 16, where Paul commands Timothy and ministers like him to watch their life and doctrine closely. This is useful advice for everyone, but it’s especially important for ministers, because there are two main ways for a minister to wreck his ministry. Firstly, if he doesn’t keep a watch on his life and ends up in some kind of moral scandal. And secondly, if he doesn’t watch his doctrine and ends up teaching something other than the word of God. And so, ministers need to persevere in these things, says Paul. Persevere in watching your life and doctrine, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.
Isn’t that interesting? He ends with the word ‘hearers’. He’s referring to those who hear the preacher. He’s referring to the congregation. You’re the hearers. And how are you saved? And how am I saved? We’re saved, of course, by trusting in Christ, who is the only Saviour of the world. But we need to keep trusting in him throughout our life; and we must not abandon the faith, but we must continue to trust in Christ right to the end of our life. And so, those who believe and who keep believing will be saved.
And how can you ensure that you will keep believing? By hearing. Let me say that again. By hearing. God calls the minister to devote himself to the public reading and preaching and teaching of the Scriptures. And you’re to hear the reading, preaching and teaching of the Scriptures.
So, how is your hearing? Are you hearing God’s word frequently and regularly? I’m here every Sunday morning and evening and every Wednesday evening to read, preach and teach God’s word so that you will be saved. Are you here to hear it?
And when you hear it, are you hearing it in the right way? Are you hearing it as the word of God, and not as the word of a man. You can take or leave the word of a man, but you must receive and believe and obey God’s word, because it is the word of God.
You see, God loves us and he sent his only Son to pay for our sins with his life and to shed his blood to cleanse us. And then he sent his Spirit into our lives to enable us to believe. And he added us to his church, where he’s given us elders to oversee us and he’s given us deacons to help us. And he’s also given us ministers to read and preach and teach God’s word so that we won’t go astray. And if the minister is to devote himself to reading and preaching and teaching God’s word, then you need to devote yourself to hearing and believing and obeying God’s word.