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2 Timothy 3:1-9: Dealing with False Teachers Print E-mail
2 Timothy
Sunday, 31 July 2011

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We may have a tendency in our day to view false teaching as something that only happened in biblical times.  We read the New Testament and the repeated warnings against false teachers and perhaps think: ‘Sure am glad they put an end to all of that back then.’  Yet, even a quick glimpse at Church History corrects such a notion.  In one sense, the Church battling to deal with false teachers is written on every page of her history.  The Church Councils were convened to deal with false teaching.  The Reformation was a response to false teaching.  Christian history is filled with stories of people claiming to be followers of Christ who teach and promote ideas that are contradictory to the gospel that is revealed in the pages of Scripture.  And today is no different.  Let me mention just three ideas that are currently threatening the Church. 

First, there are those are teaching that God does not really know the future, an error known as Open Theism.  This teaching attempts to answer the problem of evil (or ‘How could God let this happen?) with the simple response that like the rest of us, He is simply doing the best He can with what He knows.  This error may be far removed from people we know, but it is out there.  Second, a teaching that refuses to go away is that the miracles of the Bible are not really miracles.  For example, Jesus’ resurrection was not a bodily resurrection but simply a spiritual resurrection (which sounds very close to the error of the false teachers in Ephesus).  People continue to struggle with the Supernatural and so some simply seek to remove that barrier.  Third, many are claiming that there are many roads that lead to Heaven, an error called pluralism.  Where we see this the most is in the regular cries for ‘tolerance.’  Proponents of this claim: ‘Since many roads lead to Heaven, we need to let everyone believe what they want.  The only real error is to claim that anyone else is in error.  No, live and let live.’  It is this error which could possibly lead to more and more persecution of conservative Christians, who will be labeled as ‘intolerant’ and ‘dangerous.’  Granted, it may not ‘feel’ like these errors are threatening us, but they, and others like them, will continue to oppose the true gospel as revealed in the New Testament.

So then, what do we do?  Well, Paul has already told us that we must be approved workers, rightly handling the word of truth (a point he will later return to), avoiding foolish controversies, and being gentle and loving in our correction, never forgetting the gospel.  The hope is that by handling controversies in this way, God will perhaps grant repentance to the false teachers.  Yet, the truth remains that not all will repent.  Not all will turn from their false teaching and embrace the truth.  Paul is aware of this and so he continues to give Timothy instructions on how to handle those who repeatedly oppose the true gospel.  In our passage this morning he gives Timothy two more commands concerning false teachers.  Let’s consider these.

First, do not be surprised by them (v. 1-5a).

Paul does not want Timothy to be surprised by the difficulties that he is facing.  Look at what he writes in verse 1.  He commands Timothy to understand this or ‘know this.’  What is he supposed to know?  He writes: that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.  He then goes on to continue addressing the issue of false teaching.  Thus, he wants Timothy to be aware of the times.  He does not want him to be surprised by times of difficulty.  He wants him to know that the last days will be filled with conflict and difficulty.  The last days refer to all of the time between Christ’s first and second comings.  Thus, Timothy was living in the last days.  He was facing times of difficulty with false teachers.  We are living in the last days.  We are facing difficulties because of false teaching and false teachers.  We should not be surprised. 

Instead of being surprised by false teachers, we should be able to recognize them.  How can we do this?  Paul gives a ‘vice list’ in verses 2-5a to describe them.  Look at those verses with me.  Instead of simply commenting on each individual description, let me make some general comments on the whole list while briefly touching on some of the individual components. 

First, a central issue is the fact that false teachers love the wrong things.  They are lovers of self and lovers of money.  They only care about themselves.  They are selfish.  He goes on to say that they are lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.  They simply want to please themselves.  Their affections are not on God.  In one sense, all of the other vices are fed by this error in their affections.  They love the wrong thing. 

Second, false teachers are full of pride.  Paul says that they are proud, arrogant, and swollen with conceit.  Their pride and arrogance allows them to be above correction.  They know what is right.  They know what is true.  And they don’t need anyone else to tell them anything different.  Their pride blinds them to the truth and to their errors (as it always does). 

Third, false teachers have personal, relational, and theological problems.  Notice how they have personal problems: proud, arrogant, unholy, heartless, without self-control, not loving good, swollen with conceit, reckless.  These are personal problems which lead to problems with others: abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unappeasable, slanderous, treacherous.  And as we have mentioned they love themselves more than they love God, which leads them to our last comment. 

Fourth, they deny the power of godliness by their sinful living.  Some think that the reference to power involves miraculous signs or something along those lines.  But I think Paul is referring to the fact that true godliness is seen through power over sin.  By believing in the true gospel of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection and through the power of the Holy Spirit that now lives in us, we can live godly lives.  The sinful lives of the false teachers make it clear that they do not have such power at work in their lives.

Of course, not every false teacher will exhibit every one of these characteristics.  Rather, the vice list serves as a guide so that we can recognize them when such characteristics are present.  They help us in identifying them.  Yet, once we do that, then what?  Paul goes on to answer.

Second, avoid them (v. 5b-9).

The second command that Paul gives Timothy in our passage is found in verse 5b.  Look at that with me.  After giving us a description of what they are like, Paul tells us to avoid them.  Why should we do that?  He gives us a reason in verses 6-7.  Look at those with me.  These false teachers are seeking to corrupt others.  They are looking for those in the Church who are the easiest to corrupt.  In Timothy’s situation, this was the weak women.  These women, who were perhaps widows, were morally weak.  They were burdened with sins and led astray by various passions.  Their moral resolve was not very strong.  Likewise, they were always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.  The description is ironic.  Even though they were always learning, they were never really able to learn the truth.  Thus, the false teachers in Ephesus targeted them.  They figured they were corruptible and so that is who they went after.  With this description we begin to see just how low these false teachers were willing to go to gain a hearing.  They simply targeted those in the community who were most likely to be persuaded to their side, and they went after them.  Paul tells Timothy to stay away from them.

Yet, does not this command to avoid them contradict Paul’s earlier hope of their repentance?  No, for as we mentioned earlier, Paul knows that some will simply not repent.  They will dig their heels in and refuse to listen to the truth.  Thus, stronger action must be taken with these.  Yes, we are to be gentle in our correction and hope and pray for repentance, but we must realize that some have been given over to their errors.  This does not justify cruelty on our part or ignoring the gospel, it simply means that we keep our distance and do not allow them any authority or opportunities to mislead the congregation.  For example, if someone asked if they could come and preach the ‘goodness and necessity of pluralism in our day,’ I would have no problem rejecting such an offer.  If they want to talk with me about the gospel or come and hear the preaching of the gospel, then they are always welcome.  But we will not allow their errors to be promoted from our pulpit.  We should avoid that.

Paul gives a biblical example to support his argument in verse 8.  Look at that with me.  Who are these guys?  Well, other literature of the day identifies them as the magicians who opposed Moses by trying to reproduce the miracles.  God had sent Moses to free the people of Israel from the Egyptians.  He was to produce certain miraculous signs that would convince the Pharaoh.  Yet, these men sought to oppose Moses (and God) by repeating the signs.  Paul is here comparing the false teachers to these men.  They are opposing the true gospel, they are opposing Paul, and they are opposing God.  And notice the description at the end of the verse.  They are men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith.  Again, these false teachers claim to be followers of Christ, but Paul makes it clear that they are not.  These are not just guys teaching on different ideas concerning secondary issues.  No, these are men who are outside of the faith.  They are teaching a false gospel and they are trying to lead others astray.

Yet, there is hope.  Look at verse 9.  What is interesting about the Exodus story is that even though the Egyptian magicians were able to do a couple of the signs, they were not able to do the rest.  They made their staffs turn into snakes and the river turn to blood and even frogs come up.  But they could not produce gnats and they could not even stand before Moses and Aaron when the boils came upon them.  Thus, their folly became apparent to all.  Paul uses that story to illustrate the fact that the same will happen to false teachers.  Their folly will eventually become plain.  It may take a while.  It may not even happen in this lifetime, but it will become clear.  All the wrongs will be righted.  Thus, we have hope even in dealing with false teachers.

At the end of the day, our best approach to handling false teachers is knowing the gospel.  The gospel prepares us for false teaching.  It helps us recognize errors.  It equips us to deal with those who teach such errors.  But we must be careful in our approach to such a passage.  Perhaps we have been led astray.  Perhaps we have failed to believe the true gospel.  Perhaps we have denied all or part of the good news of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection for our sins.  We must take a hard look at ourselves and be certain that we have indeed turned from our sins (some of which were surely listed in the passage) and put our faith in the one and only Jesus, the One who came in the flesh, died for our sins, was raised from the dead, and now is enthroned at the Father’s side.  May our eyes ever be on Him as we seek to hold fast to the true gospel.  Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Thursday, 11 August 2011 )

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