After providing a list of characteristics for elders and deacons, Paul closes Chapter 3 with “the mystery from which true godliness springs in great”—and he then references Christ as appearing in the flesh, seen by angels, appeared to many and taken up in glory.
From that reminder of the Gospel, Paul opens Chapter 4 with a warning to Timothy about false doctrine in the end times—and, we’ll see, he’ll provide Timothy with instructions on what to do. The chapter also continues the theme of character from Chapter 3, as Paul explains to Timothy the dangers and warnings of outward righteousness or simple obedience to law vs. inner godliness.
Applications we can make from this chapter include:
- How’s Your Spiritual Training?
- How Are You Pleasing God?
- How Are You Persevering?
Regarding these later times and people falling away—or abandoning—the faith, Paul is reminding Timothy so he will not be surprised or overwhelmed by the chaos he sees in the church at Ephesus. It’s also an urging, as we’ll see later in the chapter, to stay true to God’s Word and preach that Word.
From the first two verses, Paul outlines three dangers to be on the lookout for:
Danger 1: Apostasy: The abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief—aka “the faith.” In this chapter, Paul is referring to those who have fallen into an outward form of religion in which they deny themselves things, such as marriage and certain foods, as we’ll see in a bit. In essence, legalism. The faith, of course, is a reference to the essential teachings of Christianity—the Gospel. And the Bible uses the phrase “the faith” in various places, including Acts 6:7,Colossians 1:21-23, 1 Timothy 1:19 and Jude 3.
Dangers 2-3: Deception and false teachers: These false teachers aren’t just misinformed or have a misunderstanding of Scripture—Paul says they are “hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.
Hypocritical is someone with a “do as I say, not as I do” attitude. Someone who thinks their righteousness is found in simply keeping the rules. And the picture of searing—think of searing a nice steak or if you’re a vegetarian, maybe a portobello mushroom; you get those nice crosshatch marks; you do it to sear in flavor—this is the same idea. Seared with a hot iron you can think of brand or mark that is the result of continual, unrepentant sinning—a dulling of the sense.
According to Paul, these false teachers were forbidding people to marry and ordering them to abstain from certain foods, “which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.”
For lies—even the most subtle—to be effective, they have to have an element of believability. Like the serpent in Genesis, there was a believability to what he said, “Did God really say you can’t eat from any tree? Surely, you won’t die.” To the untrained—or to the prideful—we can see how that’s believable. But where Satan was speaking of a physical death, God was talking about a spiritual one.
Today, we can see these false teaching in the form of prosperity or health gospel, or the “name it and claim” gospel—God promises blessings, so if you’re not seeing blessings, you’re not giving enough or doing enough. Or we have preachers who are leading congregates to themselves, not Jesus.
While there are portions of Scripture that deal with whether and when to marry and the Old Testament certainly has a lot to say about foods that can and cannot be eaten, we know that our right standing with God and salvation is not dependent upon on checking off all the boxes and simply following the rules.
Jesus also had similar conflicts with the Pharisees, who sought godliness through of legalism, in Mark 12:38-40, Matthew 15:1-3 and Matthew 23:15. And Peter, too, had something to say about this in Acts 15:10-11.
If they kept all the points of the law, the Pharisees reasoned, they would be truly righteous. The problem is that they were outwardly righteous, but inwardly corrupt and seeking only to raise up themselves—which eventually led to Jesus being raised on the cross and paying the price for their sin and ours.
After setting the stage of false teaching for Timothy, Paul then provides him with encouragement, direction and instruction in this battle, including a comparison between physical and spiritual training in verse 8. While exercise has value in that our bodies are healthier, how fast we run or how strong we are won’t matter when we die. But our spiritual training—or godliness as Paul puts it—has value for all things: it has value for our present life and our life to come.
Paul concludes the chapter with his instructions and encouragement for Timothy in this battle:
Command and teach these things. (v.11): Paul reminds Timothy that we fight the inaccuracies, the lies the misunderstandings through God’s Word. And Timothy isn’t just to teach, but to command—he’s in charge and is to enter the pulpit with authority—not just because of his position, but because of the authority of the Word.
Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young. (v. 12): Timothy was young—about 30 or so at this time—just starting out in leading a church. And he was dealing with these false teachers who would try to use the Word to prove their point, and they were older, so they thought they were superior.
Set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. (v. 12): Timothy needs to walk the talk. If people are to understand the gospel, it’s not just head knowledge—they need to see it lived out. That’s why it’s so important for us, as men, to lead well in our homes—for our wives and for our kids. We can say a lot of things, but when we model, that’s where the learning is.
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. (v13): Again, the antidote to this false teaching is reading Scripture.
Do not neglect your gift. (v14): What was Timothy’s gift? As we’ve seen from Paul encouragement to teach and preach—we can safely say it was preaching and teaching. And exercising that gift ensures the Word is being taught, and it’s an act of thanks to God for providing that gift. There’s the idea here, too, that Timothy—and we—are to focus and work our gifts because, well, they are gifts from God, that come with a purpose. And it’s a reminder that we have only those gifts God has provided—we need not worry about gifts other people have that we may not; we aren’t to be envious of other people’s gifts—God has distributed them as He needs and by focusing on others’ gifts we are trying to do other things and not doing what God wants.
Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. (v15): Timothy has to be all in—we have to be all in—to live rightly according to God’s Word.
Watch your life and doctrine closely. (v16): If it is godliness that Timothy and leaders are trying to teach, they cannot do it just with words. Again, people learn to do what they see in action. Adding doctrine to this command, Paul is reminding Timothy to make sure he’s not trying to make the Gospel say something that it really doesn’t.
Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (v16): Paul’s telling Timothy that this won’t be easy. Persevere means to continue in a course of action even in the face of difficulty or with little or no prospect of success. In challenging and difficult times, we may feel overwhelmed and want to just give up. Or we go through the motions, and our heart is no longer in it. Paul is trying to keep Timothy’s heart on fire for the task and on his gift. And this is designed to have the same effect in our hearts. And note the promise that comes if we persevere: “You will save both yourself and your hearers.” It’s not to show up someone; it’s not to prove yourself smarter or more spiritual. Like we’ve said, Paul is about the gospel—and here he’s pointing to just that.