Theme: Two Errors to Avoid
In this week’s lessons, we see that godliness, rooted in a thorough understanding of biblical doctrine, is necessary for the Christian life.
Scripture: 1 Timothy 4:7-8
One part of this teaching is false theology, which Paul has been concerned about from the very beginning. In verse 7 he speaks of “godless myths” that take the place of true religion. The other is what today we would call “asceticism.” These two things really indicate two different tools the devil uses to get people either not to take religion seriously and, therefore, never come to faith in Christ in the first place, or, if the person is a Christian, to try to get them off the track by dealing with things that are of no profit. One is the error of dabbling with spiritual things, and that has to do with a mythology. The other is the area of fanaticism, where we become so fanatic about certain particulars of the faith that we really miss the heart of it.
As for this matter of mythology, we are not sure what myths Paul had in mind in his day, but probably it was the beginning of that kind of mythology that we have in gnosticism, which flowered shortly after this period, and that John also seems to be very much concerned with in 1 John. Gnosticism focused on a kind of speculative metaphysic that built on a Greek idea of god, who is all spirit and separate from the material. And upon this basic idea of the spiritual being good and the material being evil, gnosticism constructed a whole metaphysical system where you had a series of emanations from the one true god as they understood him, with each emanation being a little bit less than this god and a little bit more material than the one before. So for those who tried to blend gnosticism with Christianity, they would view Jesus Christ, not as God incarnate, since for them the flesh was evil and God would never identity with it, but as one of these emanations who might be many generations from God as the Greeks viewed him. All of this, of course, has no grounding in reality; yet this is the kind of thing that people were doing in that day, and passing it off for true religion.
We actually have the same kind of thing today. It doesn’t have to do with emanations, but reincarnation is a kind of mythology that passes for religion. Some people are serious about this kind of idea. They maintain that they have had a previous life, and now they are having this present life. And after this life, there’s going to be another life. Why do they believe that? There’s no reason to believe it; there’s no evidence whatsoever for it. But it’s a kind of idea that has religious and spiritual appeal for secular people. But, you see, what they’re really doing is fooling with a false religion. These matters of who God is, who we are, the reality of our sin against God, and the righteousness that God demands, are too important to fool around with. And yet people do this rather than come to grips with God’s revelation of the truth in Scripture and in Jesus Christ—all of which has evidence for it.
The other error is this one of fanaticism, and particularly in aesthetic matters. There were people who were saying it’s really not enough to believe that God has redeemed us in Jesus Christ, and to follow Him, and to serve Him in the midst of the world. You have to do all kinds of things to show that you really have a pure life. And apparently in Paul’s day, two of these areas were the forbidding of marriage and the prohibiting of the eating of certain foods. The tendency when you start to define proper Christian conduct along the lines of asceticism is to get wrapped up in things that at best merely operate on the external level, and at worst are denying something good that God has given to us.
Certainly, marriage is of God and blessed by God. It is said in the marriage service that it is not more holy to remain single than to get married. Now Paul did say that practical considerations come in. For example, if you’re going to go off to Afghanistan as a pioneer missionary, where the danger is great, you might want to go alone rather than to bring a spouse and children along. There may be practical reasons why you don’t marry. Paul himself seems to indicate that at least in the period of his missionary endeavors, he wasn’t married because of the nature of his ministry. For Paul it was easier, better, and more profitable to remain unmarried. Yet, when he talks about marriage elsewhere in more general terms, he says it’s a great gift of God. More than that, Paul says that marriage illustrates the relationship of the Lord Jesus Christ to the church.
In this area of food, Paul also writes that food is of God. He has given it for our well-being. Therefore, we ought not to get caught up into a phony kind of religion where we say that we are pleasing God and leading a more holy life because we abstain from certain foods. Now again in a practical way, there might be certain things you don’t eat because they are not good for you. It is called “junk food” for a reason. And Christians are called to be good stewards of their bodies because God created them. But we need to be careful that we do not fall into the kind of ascetic thinking where we regard ourselves as a better Christian because we don’t eat potato chips, doughnuts, or some other food.
For those who in Paul’s day were trying to make spiritual judgments based on diet, the apostle makes the general point (in a day when there were no processed foods known to be unhealthy) that food is given by God and is to be received with thanksgiving. Now Paul was saying that in these later days, the devil’s going to be very subtle, either trying to get someone to be a dabbler in false religion or a fanatical ascetic. Paul is countering both of those temptations by instead exhorting us to a life of godliness, which he is now about to describe in verses 6 through 8: “If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”
- In general categories, what are the two errors about which Paul is warning Timothy?
- What is thought to be the false teaching that Paul refers to as “godless myths”? What modern error is mentioned as an example of a kind of mythology?
- What problems of asceticism was Paul concerned about?
Reflection: What are some errors that the church is combatting today?