Beyond the Lectionary Text: 1 Timothy 4
by Randy Blacketer
Apostasy. It’s not a word that we hear too often in Christian circles, except in perhaps more argumentative circles. It’s not a word that one should use too quickly or easily. But it’s the term that the apostle uses here: Some will apostatize (ἀποστήσονται) in later days, or the last days. To apostatize is to abandon the faith. The Holy Spirit has made this clear to Paul (v. 1) in a way that is not entirely transparent to us, perhaps through special revelation and/or the gift of prophecy that Paul mentions elsewhere. There were some in Paul’s day who claimed to be Christians, yet who nonetheless abandoned the genuine, authentic faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3) and replaced it with a substitute so foreign that it constituted another faith altogether.
The apostle has harsh words for these teachers who have not only departed from the bounds of the faith themselves, but also deceived others. They are deceiving spirits. Their muse is not the Holy Spirit but demons. These “hypocritical liars” are easy to identify, because it is as if they have been seared with a brand, like cattle or runaway slaves, who cannot help but display that they belong to the Deceiver himself (v. 2).
The substance of the apostate teaching included forbidding marriage and abstaining from certain foods (v. 3). These call to mind ascetic tendencies in Greek thought, such as that of Pythagoras, as well as similar tendencies among the Essenes, of the Dead Sea Scrolls fame. Denying the goodness of the physical world was becoming a popular cultural trend in the first century; eventually a variety of world-denying movements would emerge, collectively known as Gnosticism. Some of these claimed to be the true interpretation of Christianity. The rejection of certain foods also brings to mind the error of the Judaizers, which Paul forcefully rejects in his letter to the Galatian church. The early church would be burdened with apostate sects (like Montanism) that said the gospel was all about renouncing the world in the sense of denying the goodness of God’s creation. That same early church also absorbed some of the pagan asceticism of its intellectual and spiritual milieu, with tendencies to downplay the goodness of sex and claiming that marriage is a lesser calling than ministry. Eventually, spiritual practices such as fasting or abstaining from meat became church law. The Reformers of the sixteenth century found themselves in a similar situation as did Timothy: having to remind the church of the goodness of marriage and of the dubious value of asceticism.
This was a departure from the basic biblical principle that the created world is “very good,” as God pronounced his benediction on his newborn creation. It was an error that also afflicted the believers in Colossae. Paul has to remind them that ascetic practices have no real effect in restraining sinful desires (Col. 2:20-23). Here in 1 Timothy, Paul provides a summary theology of the goodness of creation: all created things are good. Nothing should be rejected as long as it is received with a spirit of gratitude. And the Word of God (perhaps a biblical understanding of the good creation) and prayer ensure the sanctity of all created things. The only time one should refrain from something good in itself is when it might cause a weaker believer to stumble (I Cor. 8-10).
The young pastor Timothy lived in challenging times; but then again, every age has its challenges. To be a good minister (diakonos) he must fulfill several duties:
1. Teach this corrective theology to his congregation, and also be nourished himself by the “truths of the faith” and the good teachings that have guided him (v. 6), which stand in opposition to the things taught by demons (v. 1). Today, pastors must be aware of the deceptive teachings and “spiritual junk food” that are attractive to so many believers, especially those that promise us health and wealth if we would just employ the right spiritual techniques.
2. Avoid godless myths and “old wives’ tales”—today we might say: harmful and deceptive urban legends (v. 7a). Some modern equivalents would be the fantasies of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, or internet conspiracy propaganda such as the film Zeitgeist, which claims Jesus never existed, and that the Christian faith is nothing more than an amalgam of pagan ideas.
3. In contrast to such godlessness, a pastor should train for godliness like an athlete trains for competition (γύμναζε—the word from which we get “gymnasium”). This kind of training is superior to physical training, because spiritual hygiene and strength endures into the new creation (vv. 7b-8). Our calling is to promote spiritual fitness, through exercises of prayer and working out in the Word, not to mention the spiritual calisthenics of public worship with God’s people.
Paul either summarizes what has gone before, or introduces the following section (it matters little since they are related) with the formula that is found in the pastoral epistles: “This is a trustworthy saying and worthy of full acceptance’ (cf. 1:15, 3:1, 2 Tim. 2:11, Titus 3:8). The goal of godliness is the reason that “we” (apostles like Paul and pastors like Timothy) work like a dog (κοπιάω) and compete like an athlete (ἀγωνίζομαι—from which we get the word “agony”). And what keeps us working and competing is our hope in the living God—not the god of the philosophers, who is remote from creation and urges an escape from the goodness of the world, but the Creator of Heaven and Earth. This God is the Savior of all (i.e. he is the sole Savior of humanity); specifically, he is the Savior of those who believe (v. 10).
This is the perspective that Timothy, if he is to be a faithful pastor, must teach, and with authority (v. 11). And speaking of authority, he must not allow anyone to undercut his authority by pointing out his lack of years. Jewish offices were often reserved for men over forty years of age. Timothy’s youth would raise eyebrows for some, particularly those who were older than he, perhaps even giving rise to a challenge from false teachers who were his seniors. On the other hand, one might recall young King Josiah, who initiated a spiritual reform and a return to the Lord in the Kingdom of Judah (2 Chron. 34). Paul’s advice is: prove them wrong by the way you conduct yourself, in the words that you speak, in the way that you love the people under your care (v. 12).
Paul himself will be coming, but until that time, Timothy should devote himself to the duties of the ministry of the Word: the public reading of scripture (in the early church this would be the Hebrew scriptures), to preaching (focusing on how Jesus fulfills those scriptures), and to teaching (catechesis, instructing believers in the sound doctrine that Paul has commended throughout this passage). This ministry of the Word is Timothy’s particular gift, which had been prophesied (cf. 1:18) and which was confirmed by the leadership of the church, the elders, through the laying on of hands—a practice that today we would call ordination—to symbolize the empowerment of the Spirit (vv. 13-14). Timothy should witness to his divine calling by his devotion to the ministry—something that all of us who are pastors must keep in mind and make a priority, especially when we feel the burden of our office (v. 15). Finally, our calling requires that we watch how we live—not cultivating a joyless legalism, or an abstaining asceticism, but seeking to practice how we preach—and what we teach. God will use our perseverance in this ministry (or service, diakonia, cf. v. 6) not only for our own salvation, but for the salvation of those entrusted to our care.
While traveling in South Africa in 1966, Robert F. Kennedy gave a speech in Cape Town in which he said, “There is a Chinese curse which says, ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we live in interesting times…” The news media reported it and the saying entered the English language. Curiously, this proverb was news to the Chinese! They had never heard of such a “curse.” The obscure origins of this pseudo-curse are earlier than Kennedy’s use of it. Nonetheless, the wittiness of the saying, as well as its aptness, has given it staying power. With all the distortions of the gospel that were current, Timothy lived in interesting times. With the prosperity gospel, and consumerism infecting the church, we also live in interesting times.
But while we could see it as a curse, we could also consider it more positively: as a challenge, and a privilege, to proclaim the authentic Christian faith, and to allow ourselves to be used by God to bring about the salvation of many who are coming to faith in Christ.