Guard against false doctrine (preaching resource for 9/11/22)
Drawing on commentary from John Stott, this post addresses the RCL Epistles reading for 9/11/22 by exegeting the longer passage of 1 Tim. 1:1-20.
|"Jesus Speaks Near the Treasury" by Tissot (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)|
Because it is a key aspect of the strength of the church, its historic, otrhodox biblical teaching (doctrine) must be carefully guarded and passed along. In that regard, Paul had grave concerns about some of the teachings within the church in Ephesus. For that reason, Paul begins his letter to Timothy by exhorting him to *command certain men not to teach false doctrine any longer* (3b). Paul is willing to take action to protect the church and its doctrine from false teachers (19-20).
The church today faces similar challenges. We live in a post-Christian, post-modern culture that increasingly sees truth as relative. It seems that everyone has their own 'truth' and the culture asks that each be held as equally valid. In consequence, the most prized virtue in our increasingly pluralistic and relativistic culture is tolerance. Though followers of Jesus must treat all with love (including those who do not embrace biblical truth), no follower of Jesus can embrace a non-biblical worldview.
Truth matters to Jesus. He stated that he was the truth, that he had come to bear witness to the truth, that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, and that the truth will set us free (Jn.14:6; 18:37; 16:13; 8:32). Jesus also said to beware of false teachers. So did his apostles. Indeed, Paul urges Timothy to stay in Ephesus precisely in order to stop the spread of false teaching. He calls these teachers' activity *heterodidaskaleo* (3)--a word that means teaching what is 'different'--in this case different than what the apostles taught (the apostolic gospel). Similarly, Paul complained that the Galatians had deserted the grace of Christ for 'a different gospel' (Gal.1:6) and that the Corinthians were being led astray to a 'different Jesus', 'a different Spirit' and 'a different gospel' from those that had first received (2 Cor. 11:1ff.).
The verb *heterodidaskaleo*, which Paul uses both on 1:3 and in 6:3, clearly indicates that there is a norm of doctrine from which the false teachers had deviated. That norm is variously referred to as 'the faith' (1 Tim.1:3), 'the truth' (1 Tim.2:4, 'the sound doctrine' (1 Tim.1:10), 'the teaching' (1 Tim.6:1) and 'the good deposit' (1 Tim.6:20). In such expressions, the noun is typically preceded by the definite article, indicating that a body of doctrine existed which was an agreed standard by which all teaching could be tested and judged. It was the teaching of Christ (1 Tim.6:3) and of his apostles (1 Tim.1:11).
Paul's prediction some five years previously that 'savage wolves' would enter and devastate Christ's flock in Ephesus (Acts 20:29ff.) had come true. But who were these wolves, and what were they teaching?
Paul writes that they *want to be teachers of the law* (7). Thus the *heterodidaskaloi* (false teachers) are also called *nomodidaskaloi* (law-teachers). So what is wrong with teaching the law? Nothing, if *one uses it properly* ('lawfully') (8). Evidently, Paul believed that there is both a right and a wrong, a legitimate and an illegitimate, use of the law. One accords with correct doctrine, the other amounts to false doctrine. Let's explore both.
False doctrine: the wrong use of the law
What were the false teachers in Ephesus doing with the law that was wrong? Paul tells Timothy to command the false teachers not to *devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies* (4). Paul also calls this false teaching 'godless myths and old wives' tales' (4:7), and 'Jewish myths' (Tit.1:14). These lies are false substitutes for 'the truth' (2 Tim.4:4).
Two ancient Jewish documents may throw light on what Paul is referring to. The first is The Book of Jubilees written in about 120 BC. It retells what is covered in the Law (the Torah) from a Pharisaic perspective. It spans from Creation to the giving of the Law at Sinai and it asserts the uniqueness of Israel among the nations. The second book is The Biblical Antiquities of Philo, written after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. It retells even more of the Old Testament story, from the creation of Adam to the death of King Saul. Its chief objective is to maintain the eternal validity of the Law. Both books rewrite Old Testament history, stressing the indestructibility of Israel and of Israel's Law. Both embellish the story with fanciful myths and very long ('endless') genealogies of such people as Adam and Enoch.
False teachers in Ephesus may have been taking a similar distorted approach to the Torah. They were apparently using the books of Moses as a 'happy hunting-ground' for their personal conjectures. They also apparently used (misused) the Law to advance certain ideas that developed later into ascetic Gnosticism. For example, they were forbidding marriage and the eating of certain foods (4:3f.). This teaching considered matter to be evil--a teaching in direct contradiction to the biblical doctrine of Creation (which God pronounced to be 'good').
According to Paul, such false teaching is contrary to both faith and love. These myths and genealogies *promote controversies* (4) and wild speculation *rather than God's work - which is by faith* (4b). 'God's work' here is God's plan of salvation, of which we are to be careful stewards, and to which we are to respond in faith. Speculation raises doubts about this work while the truth of the gospel evokes faith.
Furthermore, such false teaching, which misuses the Law, promotes 'arguments and quarrels about the law' (Tit.3:9). In contrast, *the goal* of God's plan of salvation and for all moral teaching (summarized here in the word *command*) must be *love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith* (5). *Some have wandered away from these* pure motives *and turned to meaningless talk*. One can talk a lot from the Law, but if the talk does not promote faith ('the faith' = the gospel) and love, it is meaningless (or worse). It must stop.
True doctrine: the right use of the law
The false teachers, who *want to be teachers of the law... do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm* (7, 'about which they are so dogmatic', REB). In contrast to their ignorance, Paul sets his knowledge. *We know that the law is good if one uses it properly* (8, 'lawfully'). *We also know that law is made... for lawbreakers* (9, 'for the lawless'). Putting together these two truths which Paul says, *we know*, we reach the striking statement that the lawful use of the law is for the lawless.
All laws are designed for those whose natural tendency is to break them. For example, the reason we need speed limits is that there are many reckless drivers on the roads. The reason we need boundaries and fences is that it is the only way to prevent unlawful trespass. And the reason we need civil rights and race relations legislation is in order to protect citizens from insult, discrimination and exploitation. If it was in everyone's heart to love others there would be no need for laws to protect from unloving behaviors.
What is generally true of all law is specifically true of the Law of Moses to which Paul here seems to cite. God gave Israel a particular law code designed for people not indwelt by God's Spirit of love. Paul offers eleven examples of the breaking of this specific law code: The *law is made...for lawbreakers and rebels* (JBP 'who have neither principles nor self-control'), *the ungodly and sinful* and *the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers and mothers, for murders, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers*. All of these unloving behaviors are addressed in the Law of Moses (the Ten Commandments in particular). But we note that Paul says these sins are also clearly addressed in the gospel (the *sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me*). Is the gospel devoid of instruction concerning moral living? No, indeed, for the grace of the gospel tells us to say 'no' to behavior that is not in accord with God's love and grace (Titus 2:11).
Paul's point seems to be this: the legitimate (doctrinally correct) use of the Law for a Christian teacher is through the gateway (lens) of the Gospel. Whereas the false teachers were mining the Law for proof-texts to support their distortions of the Gospel, a Godly teacher uses it as the Apostles did--to illustrate the Gospel.
"But what about morality?" some might object. Paul's point is that morality is fully (and more than adequately) addressed in the Gospel, which leads a believer to the avoidance of the immoral behavior prohibited in the Law of Moses. Note how Paul lists sins and notes that they are contrary to both the Law and to the Gospel. But note also that he makes no mention of Israel's laws pertaining to the breaking of the Sabbath or the keeping of Holy Days or Kosher laws related to meats.These sorts of ceremonial laws have no place in the Gospel. False teachers misuse the Law of Moses by using it unlawfully--in ways that are contrary to the Gospel.
God has an eternal moral standard that is addressed both in the Law of Moses (for Israel) and in the Gospel (for the church). Thus if one lives in accordance with the Gospel, one will be obeying the moral code expressed in the Law of Moses. But note that Paul says the Law of Moses is not binding (as a code of law) on Christians--it is *not for the righteous* (9)--or, more literally, *not laid on a righteous person.* Rather Israel's law was for a people without the Holy Spirit and without the Gospel.
But as followers of Jesus, we have the Spirit and the Gospel. What it that Gospel? Paul is quite clear: it is that *trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners* (15) and to give sinners who *believe on him* the gift of *eternal life* (16). It is this true teaching of the Gospel that Timothy is to teach. Moreover his is to put an end to teaching that is contrary to the Gospel, including teaching that misuses the Law. Timothy must *fight the good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience* because some teachers have *rejected* true doctrine and *so have shipwrecked their faith.* Among such false teachers *are Hymenaeus and Alexander* (18-20)
We understand from Paul's instruction about the church's teaching that true doctrine is centered on and upholds fully the Gospel. Any teaching in the church must flow from and be entirely consistent with the Gospel. We must carefully avoid all false teaching (doctrine) and in that regard we need to be particularly vigilant about the misuse of the Law of Moses in our teaching.
Note: for related articles from GCI related to the topic of doctrine, click here, and here. For a GCI tool for teaching the core doctrines of the Christian faith, click here. For articles concerning a Christian worldview, click here, here, and here.