A Good Servant of Christ
1 Timothy 4.1-10
The Bible often speaks of the church as being a “flock”—this isn’t something we like to hear today, at the time it wasn’t an insulting idea. A shepherd cared intensely for his sheep, and guided them where they needed to go. Indeed, Jesus called himself “the Good Shepherd” when referring to the way in which he cared for his church. And in this image of the “flock,” Jesus introduced another image: that of “wolves,” who would come in and try to harm the church. Paul took up this image again in Acts 20 when he warned the Ephesian elders, 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20.28-30).
This was a remarkable insight; for now, about ten years later, Timothy is serving in the church in Ephesus and things have happened exactly as Paul has described: false teachers are coming up, trying to divide the church and get people to follow them. And some of these false teachers (if Paul was correct in his remarks) had apparently come from among the elders themselves—from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. This is why Paul gave Timothy such extensive criteria for elders in chapter 3: he wants to make sure that everyone who is serving as elder or who wants to be an elder is actually fit to serve in that way.
So now, in chapter 4, Paul loops back on himself: he returns to the subject of these wolves, these false teachers. But he goes about it a little differently than he did the first time. There’s a lot of material, and we won’t get to go into detail about everything, but hopefully we’ll be able to get a clear view of what Paul’s really telling Timothy here. Paul is going to say some difficult things here, so keep your Bibles open; it’s important for you to see that ultimately, I’m not the one saying these things; the Bible is saying these things.
1) The Fruit of False Teachers (v. 1-5)
v. 1: Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith... So think about this for a minute. There are people in our churches—they know their Bibles, they take notes during the sermon, they regularly attend a home group, they are in discipleship with other Christians—and one day, they will depart from the faith. When he says “the faith” here, he doesn’t mean saving faith—the Bible gives us the assurance that if the Holy Spirit causes us to be born again, if he produces saving faith in us, he will maintain that faith until the end. When Paul says “the faith,” he means “the faith”: the Christian faith, the truth of the gospel.
There are people who are in our churches now, who bear all the marks of a faithful Christian…and who do not know Christ. They know information about Christ; they have learned what patterns of behavior are acceptable in church, and they are able to conform to those patterns of behavior…but one day they will abandon the gospel. The seriousness of this matter cannot be overstated.
And Paul tells Timothy how that will happen. V. 1 again: Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
So these people, who are currently conforming to a pattern of behavior, but who don’t know Christ, will be led astray by false teachers, who listen to deceitful spirits and teach the teachings of demons. This doesn’t mean that they’ll be coming at Christians with a copy of the Satanic Bible in one hand and a pentagram hanging around their necks; it’s far more subtle than that. Any teaching that is contrary to the gospel is inherently a demonic teaching: some will depart from the faith BY DEVOTING THEMSELVES TO deceitful spirits and teachings of demons. Now, these are strong words; but they are strong for a reason. There is no neutral ground here—either you teach the gospel faithfully, or you teach what Satan wants you to teach.
But it’s not just a matter of teaching: Paul goes on to say what else characterizes these false teachers. This departure from the faith happens (v. 2) through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared… That is, these false teachers have become desensitized to the conviction of the Spirit; they’re so far gone that even when they’re actively living in sinful behavior, they feel nothing. No guilt; no conviction; no sense that they maybe shouldn’t be doing these things… Their consciences are seared.
V. 3: …who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. Apparently some of these false teachers in Timothy’s church were saying that Christians shouldn’t get married (as if sex was in itself a bad thing) and that they shouldn’t eat certain foods (as if some foods were inherently sinful). And Paul says this isn’t the case: nothing that God created is inherently bad; all that he has given us for food is good, provided that we use it in the way God intended.
God created marriage; he is the one who instituted marriage in the garden. God created plants to eat; God created the animals and gave them to man for food. The problem isn’t the thing in itself, but what we do with the thing. What do we so often do? We turn marriage into a battleground, a framework in which a man and a woman constantly try to one-up each other. We use food as a crutch, eating far more than we need, and eating in ways that are actually damaging to our bodies rather than nourishing.
And if we paid attention to the Word of God, if we devoted ourselves to prayer, that God may speak to us through that Word, we would know that: nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. If we receive his gifts in this way, we would be able to enjoy the things God created in the way he intended: we would love our wives as Christ loved the church, and give ourselves up for them; we would enjoy the good things he has given us, but we would enjoy them in good measure, and in generosity toward those who don’t have what we have.
And we will be able to recognize when someone comes and tries to lay on our shoulders new rules—don’t eat, don’t enjoy, don’t touch—that God never does. Obedience to God’s revealed Word is a path to joy: the Bible gives us many commandments, and all of them are for his glory and for our joy. Adding on additional rules that God never intended has the opposite effect. It’s like trying to run a race blindfolded, with a rope around your ankles. These false teachers are coming into the church and telling Christians that what the Bible tells them is not enough. That in order to be right with God, you not only need to do what he says in his Word; you also need to adhere to all these other rules we’re putting before you.
So Paul makes Timothy aware of the seriousness of the matter—these false teachers, who often won’t look like teachers at all, but just ordinary Christians spreading lies about what God expects of us—these false teachers will lead people astray to such an extent that some of those who are in our churches today and who bear all the marks of Christian behavior will depart from the faith.
Now, most of us have examples of this; we’ve seen it happen. Someone comes to church, hears the gospel, and initially it sounds like good news. But some other Christian comes along and says, “Wonderful! I’m so glad you’ve heard the good news! But if you really want to be in line with God, you need to stop eating meat (because it’s cruel to animals); you need to stop watching television (because it’s the devil-box); you need to stop spending time with your homosexual friends (because it could rub off on you!); you need to stop wearing sweatpants and get your tattoos removed and have a maximum of one piercing in each ear, thank you very much.”
Now, there are commandments in the Bible—please don’t hear me say that being a Christian means being able to do whatever we feel like doing—but these people will add all kinds of rules that seem right but in fact are not commandments given to us by God (and that, in may cases actually go in the opposite direction!). And an unbeliever will quickly see through the hypocrisy in what they’re saying. Is God really that petty? They see these silly rules Christians often set up for themselves, and they see Christians as superficial and proud, and think, Well if THAT’S what God is like, I don’t want anything to do with him! This is not a small issue—this goes to the heart of our witness! So given the seriousness of the matter, Paul tells Timothy how to combat this false teaching.
2) How to Fight False Teaching (v. 6-10)
6 If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. I want to say this as clearly as I possibly can: our insistence on theology in this church is not accidental, nor is it incidental. Our insistence on theology is intentional, because getting the gospel right matters. It is essential. Firstly, right doctrine is essential because getting the gospel wrong dishonors God. I heard this example once, and I have shamelessly used it ever since: I could tell you how much I love my wife; I could say the most wonderful things about my wife. I could describe to you how beautiful she is—I could tell you about her lovely, flowing blond hair and her amazing, deep blue eyes. Now, you’d probably say that’s really nice. Yes, it would be nice…except my wife’s a brunette. And she has brown eyes. So it’s going to go bad for me—not because the things I’m saying aren’t nice, but because they’re not true. When we get the gospel wrong, no matter how admirably we describe it, it undermines what we were trying to commend. Getting the gospel right matters.
Secondly, if we get the gospel wrong, then inevitably we will waver into the same habits as these false teachers: don’t do this, don’t do that. We will inevitably turn the gospel, the power of God, into a list of rules and regulations which we’ll be able to follow, but which will make us proud and selfish and arrogant. Some of you will remember Raphaël, who moved to Japan a few months ago, but who was a part of our church since the very beginning. Raphaël gave a testimony last year in which he confessed that for the first few months of our church, he was a little frustrated that we talked about doctrine so much. It irritated him that in our church we were so heavy on theology. And many of us naturally feel that way: “Just tell me what to do!”
But Raphaël confessed that he had been struggling with a particular area of temptation for many years, and what helped him overcome that area of sin—what helps him still—was not a technique that he learned; he didn’t grow because someone told him “five steps to be a better man.” What helped him overcome was the gospel! He was resisting his sin before, but he was miserable. But as he learned to grow in the gospel, his resistance to sin became his joy, for he knew that he wasn’t resisting by willpower alone, but because his heart was changed; his desires were different. He was free from his sin. By growing in the gospel, rather than being weighed down by a long list of do’s and don’t’s, he was freed to pursue joy in Christ because he knew that ultimately, his salvation didn’t depend on whether or not he performed admirably enough, because Christ had already perfectly performed for him. These are “the words of the faith,” “the good doctrine.” So Paul calls Timothy to put these things before the brothers.
V. 7: 7 Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Loanne works for a group called Songs for Saplings; they make music which teaches theology to children. It’s excellent. I was talking to a man once who had got one of the albums for his kids, but who had gotten rid of it. I asked him why, and I expected him to say talk about the content: the songs don’t pull their punches when they talk about theology, and I understand why some subjects may be difficult for parents. But that’s not what he said. He said he had gotten rid of it because a few of the songs had a drum beat which was a little too aggressive, and their guitars used some distortion; and that rapidly beating drums and distorted guitars incite rebellious behavior in children. Now, I don’t know if this person will ever hear this message—I haven’t seen him since—but if you’re listening, I’m sorry, and I’m sure you mean well…but this is an irreverent, silly myth. It has no basis in Scripture and isn’t even terribly logical.
Now, before we’re too hard on this guy, please understand that we all have a tendency to do this. If we’re not very careful, we all, naturally, read the Bible through the lens of our own likes and dislikes. Which is precisely why Paul takes care to say what he does. If we are left to our own devises, we all elevate our own preferences to the level of truth—which is irreverent, and silly, and ultimately deceiving. So we need to be aware of that tendency in ourselves and make every effort to not allow ourselves to get sidetracked by secondary issues that seem important to us, but rather to take what the Bible says is central and keep it central.
V. 7 again: 7 Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. RATHER, train yourself for godliness; 8 for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. Let me put this a different way: rather than focusing so hard on what we need to do and not do, we should be focusing on what we love. “Godliness” is not first a pattern of behavior; transformed behavior is the fruit of godliness, but it’s not the root. All the obedience in the world doesn’t please God if it comes out of a hard, unrepentant heart. The gospel changes us by showing us the beauty of Christ and the greatness of his mercy toward us, and by making us want to be like that, making us want to act like him.
Let me give you two scenarios, and you can tell me which scenario is better. Imagine my wife tells me one morning that she wishes I would express my love to her more. (Unfortunately this is an area I still need to grow in.) She says, “I know you love me, but you don’t really show me that.” So I show up at home a couple hours later with a bouquet of flowers and I say, “There you go!” How do you think she’ll react to those flowers? They won’t mean anything to her, because she knows I’m only doing it because she got on to me earlier about not doing it. Now imagine that my wife is having a hard day. And without any warning or any discussion at all, I come home with a bouquet of flowers and I say, “Honey, I know you’ve had a hard day. So here you go—I know it’s not much, but I wanted you to know I love you.” Can you see the difference? The first case does nothing for her—if anything it’ll make her even angrier at me—whereas in the second case, she is honored, because she knows I’m doing it because I love her, and because I want to.
So you see, training ourselves in godliness does not mean working on our behavior; it means working hard on seeing Christ clearly and loving Christ deeply—which is why he says just before that If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in THE WORDS OF THE FAITH and of THE GOOD DOCTRINE that you have followed. If we see Christ clearly and love Christ deeply, our behavior will change, but it will change for the right reason, because the more we see him and love him, the more we want to be like him. And the more we become like him, the more we’ll see that he was the one working in us all along, to produce that change in us.
V. 9: 9 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. 10 For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. Now you armchair theologians are sitting on the edge of your seats, so I’ll just say it right off the bat—when he says that God is the Savior of all people, he doesn’t mean that everyone is saved (he went to the trouble of adding, especially of those who believe). He’s not making a point about universalism or definite atonement here—what he’s saying is that teaching the gospel faithfully is absolutely vital, because it goes to the very heart of God’s mission on earth. Without the gospel, the world is lost. It’s not as if there is one Savior for one group of people, who will do fine for them, and another Savior for another group of people, who will do fine for them. There is one Savior, for all people, the living God. Apart from him, there is no salvation, there is no redemption, there is no hope. And those who don’t receive him are rejecting their Savior—he is not their Savior in any real or saving way, because they have rejected him. But those who place their faith in Christ lay claim to all the blessings that come with salvation—this is how he is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. If we have faith in Christ, he is not just the Savior, but our Savior.
And because we know that, because we know him, because we have our hope set on him, we work—we toil and strive to preach the gospel faithfully and to defend the gospel rightly, because there is one Savior, and all people need him, and they will only know him through this gospel we are called to preach.
And you’ve understood: it’s a struggle. It’s difficult to not be distracted, and certain people, for various reasons, will want to take apart the work of the gospel. They will insult Christians who hold faithfully to the gospel; they will try to present them as shameless sinners, because they don’t obey to the rules they want to establish: “Don’t marry, don’t eat, don’t touch…”
So what is our reaction to these insults? We toil and strive. Because whatever these false teachers are saying, we know where our hope is: our hope is in the living God. We let them insult us, and we continue our work, because we know that our mission is not toward these false teachers, but to those who don’t yet know their Savior. Our eyes are fixed on the goal, and so to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
3) Good Servants of Christ
We are a young church, so we need to know it ahead of time: sooner or later, wolves will come. People will come into our church to try and shake Christians, attacking the gospel. But they will do it subtly—they won’t say that Jesus isn’t really the Son of God, or that he didn’t really die for our sins, but they’ll rather suggest that his death isn’t enough: if we want to be accepted by God, we have to also do all these other things. And they will have convincing and logical arguments as to why.
So what do we do? Firstly, we must examine ourselves, to see if we say such things. Do we really believe the gospel? Or do we place on ourselves and on others rules and regulations for the Christian life that the Bible never gives us?
We have to know that all have a tendency toward legalism. And this legalism generally produces two things in us. It will produce either a kind of spiritual depression—because we’ll see the commandments of God and know we can never meet them, and think our salvation is a lost cause—or it will produce arrogance and pride—because we’ll see those who don’t do as well as we, and we’ll be proud and thank God for letting us not be like them.
We must be experts in the gospel. Let us speak faithfully, and biblically, of the gospel. Let us study it, learn it, make sure that the gospel we preach is the same gospel the Bible proclaims. In this way we will faithfully teach others, and we will be able to recognize when someone comes along with a message which is contrary to this Good News.
And as we persevere in our right understanding of the gospel, let us keep this gospel central. If the gospel is central, holiness will be present, but it will be the result of our salvation, and not the cause. Since Jesus took our penalty on the cross, it is not by our perfect obedience that we are accepted or approved by God—but only by the death of Christ, which gives us pardon from sin, and his perfect life counted for us. Thus we work at our holiness in a framework of freedom, knowing that if we fall, the grace of God is sufficient to pick us up.
So lastly, let us fervently pursue love for Jesus. We become what we love. All the obedience in the world doesn’t honor God if it’s not done out of love for him. But if we love Christ, if we are truly wonderstruck at what he did for us, we will want to be like him. Which means that our joy remains intact—it’s easy to do something you want to do! It’s a joy to do what you desire more than anything else. If we love Jesus deeply, we will be made holy.
And if you don’t know Christ today, I’d invite you to imagine what such a life would look like—a life in which the thing you desire is also the rightest thing possible. A life in which our mistakes don’t weigh on our shoulders, but we are justified by someone else’s perfection. That is the gift God gives us in Christ. So if you don’t know him, I’d encourage you to learn about him. Ask a Christian to read the Bible with you and explain the gospel to you. There is only one Savior for all people, and he is not only the means by which we are saved, but also the source of our only lasting joy, our only hope, our only righteousness.