False Teaching audio (5MB)
1 Tim 1:1-11
It’s interesting that the two places where Paul spent the most time in his missionary travels, Corinth and Ephesus, appear from his letters to have the most problems. He certainly spends a lot of his time writing to correct the errors that were being introduced by certain people. But then we shouldn’t be surprised about that. Wherever God’s ministers are doing good work we can expect Satan to be working hard to oppose them. In fact, on his final visit to them, Paul warned the Ephesian elders to look out for opposition. Let me read you what he said as he addressed the Ephesian elders: “29I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. 31Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears.” Acts 20:29-31 (NRSV)
Now it seems that those wolves have indeed come into the Church. And so Paul writes to them addressing 5 main topics: what Christians believe; how we should conduct worship; who should be leaders in the church; how we should handle our social responsibilities; and what our attitude should be to material possessions. Now much of what he says is addressed to the particular context of Ephesus, with its strong affiliation to Artemis, or Diana – the Goddess of the Hunt and of Fertility. The temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world and the population was very proud of their goddess. But there’s also the general context of a culture where authority and influence came with years and to be considered wise you needed to be old.
One of the things we’ll discover as we go through this letter is that the Church is central to Paul’s thinking. Can you see why that is? It’s because the Church is the visible messenger of the gospel. So the way Christians live as a Church is emphasised because what others see when they look at us will either promote or undermine the gospel.
Well, let’s look at chapter 1.
He begins in his usual style by announcing himself, describing the recipient of the letter and reminding the readers of the source of all they have. We often jump over these introductory sentences, but here the way he introduces his letter is quite significant.
Notice how carefully he describes himself. Not just as an apostle but as an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Saviour and of Christ Jesus our hope. He wants to emphasise his authority as an Apostle, not just of the Church; he’s not just a missionary like we might send out today; no, he’s an apostle of Jesus Christ, chosen, appointed and authorised directly by Christ our hope and by God our Saviour. The term “by the command of” is the sort of formula that would have been used in an official letter of authorisation. We use the same term today in “Royal Command Performance”. He speaks as one authorised by God himself.
Similarly he addresses Timothy as “my true child in the faith.” The term translated there as loyal was used for legitimate children. It’s as though Paul wants to pass on to Timothy some of his own authority by referring to him as a genuine child of Paul. Paul, of course, was responsible for his conversion so he saw him as his spiritual son, but he no doubt also sees him as a true child because he holds faithfully to Paul’s teaching.
Timothy is a “young man”, which probably means he’s in his mid to late 30s. And apparently he’s shy and unsure of himself, possibly because of his age.
Thirdly Paul refers to God who binds them together in his family. What holds them together is their common share in God’s grace, mercy, and peace
He then sets the letter in its historical and geographical context. The details he gives don’t fit with Luke’s account of Paul’s travels in Acts so commentators have deduced that these events must have happened sometime after Paul was imprisoned in Rome. They think he must have been released and then travelled again to Macedonia via Ephesus [possibly after first visiting Spain]. But the main point is that Timothy was charged with leading the Church in Ephesus in Paul’s absence and particularly with instructing the Church and correcting those who were teaching false doctrines.
Now he wants to reinforce this instruction. Timothy is to instruct certain people who are teaching what he describes as a ‘different’ doctrine. That is, different from what was taught by the apostles. There are certain truths that are central to Christian belief that we mustn’t swerve from: the things mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed for example; or in this context, the centrality of grace, mercy, and peace from God but these people were teaching something different from that.
Looking at how Paul puts it, it seems that these people were putting the wrong emphasis on the use of the law. Not that the law is bad, but it must be used in the right way.
He refers to these people as concentrating on myths and genealogies. It’s suggested that this refers to certain Jewish myths that basically retold the book of Genesis in a way that made Israel out to be God’s one and only people. As part of that it seems they were promoting things like celibacy and abstinence from certain foods (4:3) as a means to acceptance by God.
The problem with this false teaching was that it encouraged speculation and meaningless talk rather than training in righteousness and faith. This sounds like the sort of endless speculation that university students love to spend hours on when they should be studying. At least that’s how it was when I was at university. Apparently science week at the Cathedral this week has the theme of whether there might be extra-terrestrial life somewhere in the universe – lots of fun but probably not something they’ll discover an answer to.
The contrast here is with true divine training which has as its aim love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.
This is a good test for us to apply to the things we spend our time on or put our energy into. Do they lead to love that comes from a pure heart? Is the result of your study, as we saw last week, genuine love for one another? Do they lead to a good conscience? Are you assured by your study of the gospel or do you despair that you’ll ever manage to keep God’s law well enough? And do they produce a sincere faith in God. Does what you learn teach you that faith in God is the key to being right with God; or does it make you wonder whether God is just testing you to see if you fail?
Of course the false teaching we find today is a bit different to that, although it still leads us away from those things. But you’re more likely to find false teachers today telling you to forget God’s law and just do what seems right to you. they may pretend to teach love but it’s not love that springs from a pure heart. They may attempt to salve your guilty conscience but that doesn’t mean it’ll produce a good conscience. And as for faith, much of the false teaching we find around the Church today denies the need for faith in God and in Jesus Christ.
It’s interesting though that the sorts of myths and genealogies that Paul talks about here are still found today though in different forms. You may have heard of the various apocryphal writings that sprang up in the first few centuries after Christ; books like the Gospel of Thomas. They’re wheeled out every now and them when someone wants to undermine the writings of the New Testament and particularly to deny the divinity of Christ. It seems the main point of bringing up these false writings is to prove that Christianity isn’t the only way to God. If you can show that the New Testament can’t be trusted then all the claims for the uniqueness of Christ can be dismissed, along with his ethical and moral claims on our lives.
Paul’s fairly scathing of these false teachers, isn’t he? He says although they desire to be teachers of the law they’re actually ignorant of it, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.
I sometimes wonder whether some of my fellow Anglican ministers really understand what they’re saying when they question the truth of the New Testament writings. Do they really understand that the path they’re going down ends with nothing to believe in?
An Anglican Church blog I saw recently had an article that began: “Jesus came to show us the “Kingdom” not to die for our sins!” it goes on to conclude: “The Kingdom is bigger than the church, bigger than Christianity, it must be. There are Kingdom people who are Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and atheists. You don’t have to be a Christian to be a Kingdom person, but you do have to be a Kingdom person to be a Christian.” When you read something like that you begin to wonder what’s left of the Christian gospel. If Jesus didn’t die for our sins, why did he come in the first place? What sort of a kingdom is it if he hasn’t washed away our sin?
The test that Paul puts before us is whether this teaching promotes the glory of God and the good of the church. In fact it didn’t. All it did was to promote keeping of rules that were set up by these false teachers.
But then he stops because he wants to clarify his view on the law. It isn’t that he doesn’t want people to teach the law. Rather he wants them to understand what the law is given to us for. He says the law is good if you use it correctly, if you understand why God gave it to us.
Why did God give us the law? The reformers suggested that he gave it to us for 3 reasons. To stop people relying on their own efforts at righteousness. The law shows how badly even the best of us fail; Luther says of this idea that the law is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. Secondly it has a political or civil use in restraining wrongdoers so we can live in peace. The fear of punishment is one of our great deterrents. And thirdly it points the way for believers to learn how to live according to God’s will. Well here Paul’s concentrating on the first two purposes. He says the law is given for the lawless and disobedient, presumably to show up their evildoing and lead them to repentance. In other words, to dwell on the law as your main focus is like working in the slums. It may be a good thing to do if you’re a missionary, but you need to do it with a mind focused beyond to something more healthy and beautiful. Don’t make the law your focus because it’ll distort how you see the rest of the world.
The alternative to what these false teachers are offering is the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God. There’s something wholesome and glorious about the gospel that lifts us beyond the evils of this world. What is it? It’s the grace of God shown in Jesus Christ. In the next section he’ll go on to remind us of the amazing truth that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners – even those as bad as Paul was. This is the answer to those who want to emphasise the law. Jesus came to bring us grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, to cleanse us from our sins when we were unable to help ourselves. If you hear anyone teaching anything that leaves that out you’ll know they’re not true servants of the gospel.
Let’s pray that we might remain faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ despite the false teachers we may come across from time to time.