The Lord's Day Morning
August 29, 2004
I Timothy 4:1-5
“The Latter Times”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to I Timothy 4, and as you do so, allow your eyes to sneak a peek back just a few verses to I Timothy 3:14-16, where we were last week. That declaration in I Timothy 3:14-16 is a climactic declaration about the church: the nature of the church, especially the nature of the local church and the way God has ordained to use the local church to prorogate His truth, and to defend the truth against false teaching. And it's also a glorious statement about the Redeemer. And it's meant by the Apostle Paul to give us a great encouragement.
In this book there are many directives that Paul gives–the standards, for instance, that he gives for officers in I Timothy 3. All of us, we are humbled–those of us who are officers serving in the church–when we look at those standards we're humbled, and each one of us, we look in our hearts and ask if we're living up to what the Lord has called us to. Perhaps if we have a desire in our heart to serve the Lord as an officer, and we look at those standards, we wonder how we could ever measure up to these particular qualifications which God sets forth in His word.
And Paul knows that he has said many things which are challenging in this letter, and he has many more challenging things to say in chapters four, five and six; and in Titus, and in II Timothy. And so he wants us to be encouraged. And first he encourages us by showing us the church. He shows us the Church and he describes the local congregation of God's people as the pillar and ground of the truth: that place where our truth is shored up, our discipleship is strengthened and grounded, our walk in the faith is helped and assisted and made stronger; and he calls the Church the assembly of the living God, where God meets with His people. He calls the church the household of God, the very place where He dwells, His family. And so he describes the Church in glorious terms.
And then he describes the Savior of the Church in glorious terms. Paul gives us these words as a word of encouragement to us, because he knows that we live in a fallen world, and he knows there are many challenges.
This is not the only thing that Paul wants us to know about the Church. Paul, though he firmly believes in the hope which is set before him, and though he firmly believes in the glory that the local church is, also is an utter realist; and he wants us to realize what it's like to be in a fallen world and an imperfect church–an imperfect local church. And so side by side with this glorious declaration of I Timothy 3:14-16, he gives us I Timothy 4, verses one to five.
Now let me outline this passage before we read it and hear it proclaimed. There are five parts to this passage: one, two, three, four, five, corresponding to each of the verses. Verse one gives you the first part. There Paul speaks about false Christians, people who claim to be Christians, who are members of the local church, but who are not in fact truly Christians. False Christians, part one, verse one.
Part two, verse two: False teachers. There he describes the character of those who teach falsehood in the church
Third verse, third part: False teaching. He moves from false members to false teachers to false teaching. He describes in detail the specific false teaching that was being fostered in this local congregation to whom he was writing, and he warns us thereby against it.
Verse four, part four, is where he gives the antidote to that false teaching. He takes us to the truth of the word of God. The truth of God's word is the antidote to false teaching.
And then, verse five, part five of the passage, is where he shows us how Christians ought to use the good creation that God has given to us. And so he gives us positive instruction in how to use creation. He does this in particular because part of the false teaching of the false teachers in verse three was that there were some parts of creation which in and of themselves were bad and couldn't be used by Christians, or ought to be eschewed by Christians. And so he explains to us how we can use it.
So there's the outline, but his points are basically two. His first concern is that we would be on guard for false professions, false teachers, and false teaching. And secondly, that we would be ready to combat false professions, false teachers and false teaching with the truth of the word of God. Paul's message is very simple, as always. May God grant us to hear it now as we read the very word of God from I Timothy 4, beginning in verse one:
“But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude, for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your word. We ask that You would nourish us by it. We know that You intend us to be instructed in it, corrected by it, encouraged and comforted. So by Your word this day, teach us. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Idealized pictures of life in the local church are harmful for mature and healthy Christian experiences. If you expect life in the local church to be perfect, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Now I know that comes as a great shock to you here at First Presbyterian Church, because this is the perfect church! We never disagree about anything…we always all want to do exactly the same thing. We never, ever struggle with forgiving one another. There's never a faction or a division in our church. Why, it is the perfect church…isn't it?
If you believe that a Bible-believing, gospel-preaching, Christ-exalting local congregation of Christians, a congregation characterized by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit is going to be a congregation where there is no controversy, no division, no obstacles, no struggles, no trials, no false members, you’re going to be sorely, sorely disappointed; and perhaps discouraged to the point of despair. And so the Apostle Paul, after describing the local church as the assembly of the living God, the household of God, the household of the faith, the pillar and support of the truth, also wants us to recognize that in the local Christian church, however faithful it may be, there are always challenges for the faithful; and, therefore, we must be on guard against false teaching and false teachers, and false members. And on the other hand, we must be on guard to resort always to the word of God, to the truth found in God's holy, inspired, inerrant word, if we are to resist false teachers. Paul knows that idealized pictures of a perfect local church are dangerous and they blind us to the hard realities predicted by Jesus Himself and by the Holy Spirit, through Paul, but also through Peter and through Jude. And so in this passage he outlines for us these five points that we've already considered.
I. As glorious as the local church is, there is always such a thing as false members.
First, in verse one, he says to us, “Don't be surprised by apostasy.” Don't be surprised when somebody who has professed to believe in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, don't be surprised when somebody who has joined the local church, don't be surprised when someone who has claimed to be a Christian somewhere down the road turns their back on Christ and the church. Paul says, “Yes, the church is the pillar and the ground of the truth, but don't be surprised if some turn their back on Christ and the faith.”
You see, it's so discouraging for Christians in any circumstance where someone who has once professed in Jesus Christ turns his or her back on Jesus Christ. That's a discouraging thing. But if one is not expecting that as a part of life in a fallen world in the local church, it can be devastating.
Many of you may know that early in his ministry Billy Graham was accompanied in his evangelistic crusades by one Mr. Templeton. Well, they were partners. They preached crusades all over the United States together. They were both Bible college graduates, they had no formal education, and they talked much about the need to be formally trained in Bible doctrine at the seminary level. And so eventually Mr. Templeton decided that he would go to what was perhaps the most famous Presbyterian seminary in all of the world. It was also a very liberal theological seminary. And in one semester, Mr. Templeton lost his trust in the authority of God's word. He wrote back to Billy Graham, and he said, “Billy, we're a hundred years behind in what we're teaching! We've got to get up to date! We’re wrong in what we're saying.” Billy Graham, with great sadness in his heart, wrote back to his friend and said, “I am standing on the truth of the word of God.” Eventually his friend left the faith. Can you imagine how discouraging that would have been to Billy Graham?
But you know, I bet there are many of you who could tell me stories just like that today in your own experience. Friends, perhaps, whom you were in youth group together with a vibrant faith in Jesus Christ, but who, through the years drifted away from Christ and eventually renounced Him and His Church. And the Apostle Paul is saying, “Don't be surprised when that happens. The Spirit has said it would happen! God's word is not failing when you see that happen: God's word is being fulfilled when you see that happen.” Notice what he says: “The Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith.”
You may be asking, “Where, exactly, in the New Testament does the Spirit say that?” Well, the Spirit says that through the words of Jesus in Matthew 24, doesn't He? Jesus Himself warns of people being led astray in the latter times. Paul, speaking to this very congregation back in Acts 20, warns the elders of this church that there will be some even from among their own number that will rise up and will lead some of the flock astray. In his prison letter to the Colossians, he will warn the Colossians of false teachers who will lead them astray. And Peter and Jude in the New Testament also, according to the inspiration of God's Holy Spirit, will warn the people of God about the danger of falling away. Paul here is warning us about the danger of idealizing life in the local church in this world. There is no such thing as a perfect local church where everyone is irreversibly committed to the Lord Jesus Christ. There is always the danger of false teaching leading people astray.
Now I need to pause and say very quickly as we look at this phrase, “some will fall away from the faith.” Paul does not mean that some people become Christians, they’re regenerated by the Holy Spirit, united to the Lord Jesus Christ, truly resting and trusting in Him alone for salvation, and then they lose their salvation. That's not what Paul says. Paul is speaking about people making a profession of faith and then eventually, by their renouncing of the faith later on, by their apostatizing, by their falling away later on, revealing that they never really experienced grace in the first place.
Now you say, “Oh, you’re reading that into that particular phrase.” And I say to you the Bible is reading that into that phrase. Turn with me to I John 2:19. John explains this very phenomenon in I John 2:19. Listen to how the Apostle who leaned his head on Jesus’ breast describes this very phenomenon:
“They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us.”
Isn't it interesting how John describes the group who was following the false teachers in that local church. He says when they left the church, when they renounced their fellowship with us in Jesus Christ, they showed us that they were not of us. He doesn't say they once were of us, but then because they rejected their profession of faith in Jesus Christ they ceased to be of us. He says, “No, we know that they never were of us, because they left us.” They left their profession of faith in Jesus Christ. They left their resting and trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
And so Paul is explaining here how someone goes from being a professing believer to being someone who has turned his back upon Jesus Christ. He's not explaining how someone loses his or her salvation. However, notice how Paul explains in verse one that someone who professes faith in Jesus Christ ends up being a person who doesn't profess faith in Jesus Christ. Listen to his words: “…paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons….” How is it that you cease to be one following in the way of Christ? How is it that one goes from being a professor of faith in Jesus Christ to one who doesn't embrace Him? By listening to false teaching. And how often have we seen that happen in the lives of friends. They have listened, they have dabbled, they have become interested in, they have had their curiosity peaked by false teaching. And it boggles my mind today that people who claim to be good shepherds will often encourage their flock to read false teachers. That is a dangerous practice! And Paul tells us here that that is precisely how the people who profess faith in Jesus Christ are led astray in this circumstance. They have listened to false teaching.
And notice who he says is behind the work of that false teaching. Listen to how he describes it: deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons. It is the work of the evil one that is behind false teaching. Paul wants us not to be surprised by apostasy, not to be surprised when people who have professed faith in Christ fall away. Because when that happens, Paul says, well, what Jesus said and what the Holy Spirit said through Paul and Peter and Jude and others in the New Testament is simply coming to pass. The word of God's authority is not undermined when people, however prominent they may be, turn their back on Christ. The word of God is being confirmed when some people turn their back on Jesus Christ. But Paul says this to warn us of this reality.
II. There is always such a thing as false teachers/ing.
Secondly, if you look at verse two, he goes on to describe the false teachers themselves. And he zeroes in on their character, and he focuses especially on three things: hypocrisy, lying, and seared consciences. Paul says “by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron”, some will fall away from the faith. Paul points especially to the character of these false teachers. They are characterized by hypocrisy. They’re one way on the outside and another way on the inside. They are seductive with the use of their speech. They lie in order to draw people into their web of untruth. And their consciences are desensitized. They have really begun to believe the falsehood that they teach is true, and so Paul says we must be on guard for them ourselves. We must warn our people against them.
Now let me say two things about this. First, the very fact that Paul can speak of false teachers and false teaching proves that there is such a thing as right teaching, or truth, or orthodoxy. Now you know, so often we hear people say today, even in the church, “Oh, there's no such thing as absolute truth.” Or, “The idea of orthodoxy? Well, that was invented at the Reformation,” or “that was invented by Rationalists” or, “that was invented by Greek philosophers. There's no idea of true and false teaching or right and wrong doctrine on the Bible. That's something we've invented later.” Now if you said to the Apostle Paul, he would have said, “Huh?” Because you can't talk about false teachers if there's no such thing as false teaching. And you can't talk about false teaching unless there's such a thing as true teaching, or right teaching. And so the very fact that Paul can speak of false teachers indicates that there is a bedrock of absolute truth and orthodox, right doctrine, which Christians need to hold to. And that's one reason we're so concerned to teach the doctrine of the Bible in the pulpit and classroom here at First Presbyterian Church.
But the second thing I want you to see about this passage is that Paul expects you to be able to pick up certain signs about false teachers from their character. Because as far as Paul is concerned, what you believe always ends up having an impact on how you live, and if you live and teach that which is wrong, it will have a detrimental affect on your character. It will show in your ethics and the way you live. And so Paul points to the character of these false teachers and says ‘Be alert. The one who is teaching must have a character corresponding to the truth of God's word.’
III. The error of false teaching often shows in their view of the Christian life
Thirdly, he points specifically to one aspect of their teaching. He zeroes in on their ethical teaching. What do they teach about the nature of the Christian life? And you see this in verse three. Paul asserts there that with false teachers, their ethical teaching is always warped. It's always warped in one direction or another, but he particularly zeroes in on one of the two main directions of warped ethical teaching in false prophets here. He says here that the error of false teaching often shows itself in the way the false prophet teaches the Christian life. Listen to what he says: “…men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth.” In other words, they are making ethical demands which are in conflict with the word of God. God pronounces marriage to be good, not only in Genesis 2 but also in I Corinthians 7, and in Mark 2, and we could go to a myriad of other passages. And these men come along and they say if you really want to be super-spiritual, you will abstain from marriage and you will abstain from all sexual activity. If you really want to be spiritual, you've got to wean yourself away from these animal desires. And they come along and they say if you really want to be spiritual, you’ll wean yourself away from the animal desires for food; and, therefore, you will eschew certain types of foods and you will go through certain types of prescribed fasts which we will instruct you in.
The idea behind this was apparently that Creation itself was tainted; matter itself was not as spiritual and holy and the spirit world, and so salvation involved escaping from matter. And if you could put to death these animal desires for sex and marriage and food, then you could escape from his material reality of Creation and into the higher world of the spirit. That is a very Gnostic and a very Greek and a very dualistic view of salvation, but it's not a biblical view of salvation! And so Paul comes back and says that view is not the view of the Christian life, or the view of salvation taught in the word of God. He contradicts it by saying that these false teachers have a wrong view of creation and a wrong view of the problem of sin.
But you see the fundamental error of these false teachers? The fundamental error of these false teachers is that they were setting their own view of the Christian life over the view that God revealed in His word. They were forbidding what God allowed in His word, and therefore they were setting their opinion above the final rule of faith and practice in God's holy word.
And friends, when you begin to forbid what God allows, soon you will begin to allow what God forbids. And false teaching will either lead in one of those two directions every time. It’ll either be narrower than the word of God and it will not allow things that the word of God allows, or it will be broader than the word of God and it will allow things that the word of God does not allow; because when you begin to forbid things that God allows, soon you will allow things that God's word forbids. Why? Because you've set yourself up as God, as the Holy Spirit, as the final arbiter of truth, over His word. And this is what Paul is so angered by in the teaching of these false prophets.
IV. We combat false teaching with the truth of Scripture
Well, how do you combat this? Well, Paul takes us to Scripture in verse four. And here he shows us that we combat false teaching with the truth of Scripture. He takes us right back to Genesis 1, and the truth of Genesis 1 about God's Creation. You remember what God says after each day of the six days of creation, and twice after the sixth day: He says, “It was good.” God saw it, and it was good. And it was good. And finally, after the culminating day of creation in which man and woman were created, He says, “It was very good.”
And what do these false teachers say? They say it is not good. And Paul says, “Well, let's see. We've got the false teachers on this side, we've got God on this side. The false teachers say that Creation is not good: God says in His word that it is good. Who are you going to believe?” Paul just takes you right back to Scripture and he says, “Don't be confused by what these people are saying. Go to the Bible! And the Bible tells you that God's Creation is good. It's made for His praise and glory, it's made for the enjoyment and for the good of His people. Therefore, listen to God, not to these false teachers–however persuasive they may be in their speech. All God's Creation is good, because He is good, and He made it good, and it's for our use if we receive it gratefully. Everything that God has created has its proper use if we receive it and use it in gratefulness to God.” That's what Paul says. He takes us right to Scripture, right to the biblical understanding of Creation, and he combats this false teaching.
V. All of the creation is acceptable and useful if consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
And then finally, he says this in verse five: that we are to use Creation rightfully, according to the word of God and prayer. All of Creation is acceptable and useful if consecrated by the word of God and prayer. Listen to what he says: “…for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.”
Paul may be pointing to the fact that these people were arguing that the Old Testament ceremonial laws had to continue to be observed–the difference between clean and unclean. And Paul may be drawing attention to the fact that the New Testament word of God had made it clear that all foods were now clean to Christians, as Jesus made clear in Mark 7; as Peter discovered in Acts 10; and as the author of Hebrews emphasizes on several occasions in his book. Those old ceremonial dietary laws were no longer binding on Christians.
Or, Paul may simply mean that our using of any food ought to be attended by Scriptural prayer. When he says “it is sanctified by means of the word of God in prayer” it may be that he is simply referring to the old Hebrew practice of praying Scripture.
Now there are two or three things that I want to draw to your attention just from this phrase. First of all, if that's what he's doing, isn't that an encouragement to us to pray Scripture? That's the way the people of God have done it since the beginning of time. They've prayed God's word back to Him. You say to me, ‘I'm not a good pray-er. I don't know how to pray.’ Well, pray Scripture! God has given you the word not only to be fed by, but to pray back to Him. Pray Scripture! And say thanks to God before your meals. Children, when your parents ask a blessing or say grace, or give thanksgiving to God before they serve you your meal, they’re not simply following a tradition that was established by white Anglo-Saxons a couple of hundred years ago. They’re doing exactly what the Jewish people did. They’re doing what Jesus did before He ate. He gave thanks to God in prayer. And Paul is saying we're to receive the Creation that God has bountifully provided for us with gratefulness, with thanksgiving, with prayer. And so, young people, when your Mom or your Dad leads in prayer at the table, they’re simply following the Bible. They’re following Jesus.
But finally, notice that Paul here points out that we are to use the world according to the word, in thankfulness to God. How is it that we are to be kept from either being sucked into the love of the world or to a wrong denigration of the world? We’re to be kept on the straight and narrow by using the world in accordance with the word, and with thankfulness to God in prayer. And if we will do just those two things, it will keep us on the straight and narrow.
Paul wants us to watch out for false members, for false teachers, and for false teaching. And he wants us to resist that teaching by resorting to the truth of the word of God, and to use God's Creation with grateful, scriptural prayer. That's the simple lesson that Paul has for us today, but it's a timely lesson. Everywhere we turn, we are awash in false teaching. Stay close, my friends, to the word of God, and listen to Paul's counsel.
Our Lord and our God, the dangers that surround us are many, but our times are in Your hands, and so we have hope and confidence in Jesus' name, the name in which we pray. Amen.