Updated: Apr 26, 2021
We need to focus on truth, not lies.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Timothy 4:1-13
Now that Paul has told Timothy how set expectations for pastors, deacons, and their families, Paul turns his attention to Timothy: here’s how to identify false teachers; here’s how to respond to false teachings; here’s how to stand firm under pressure. Ultimately, it’s about knowing Jesus and His Word.
Now the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will depart from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared. 1 Timothy 4:1
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
The Great Babble Challenge.
Let’s find out who the best babbler in your class is!
Put three random/obscure/technical topics in a box
Pick your two/three best “talkers” (don’t tell them the topics)
Pick a topic out of the box and tell them to start talking
Whoever talks the longest “wins” (with no real breaks)
If they go on for more than, say, two minutes, cut them off and declare both the winners. Here’s the point—in our passage, Paul talks about “silly myths” which is an ancient slang for meaningless babble. In other words, the teachers of that day were literally making things up and babbling on about them (which you just proved people can do well!). Timothy shouldn’t dignify their pointless words with a response—he should focus on godliness, Christlikeness, and the things that actually make a difference in life.
Strange Things We Debate Today.
Here’s another way you can approach the “silly myths”. Ask your class about things people debate today (very seriously). In sports, it might be “new school vs. old school” or “DH vs. no DH” or “instant replay on PI or not”. This is not a debate about a favorite school, but something "serious" about the nature of the game itself. Here are two shows that only exist to talk about other shows: The Talking Dead and Talk the Thrones. All they do is break down what happened in another show. You can find entire communities which analyze the meaning of video games or Marvel movies or novel series. It might be fun, but is there any eternal value in doing that? Well, that’s essentially what Paul was telling Timothy to avoid: “Don’t waste your church’s time debating these silly teaching that Joe Schmo made up.” Here’s the point: if members of your class get more worked up about a debate over The Bachelorette than biblical theology, then it’s time to refocus our priorities!
Great Young Leaders.
Finding young leaders is the new white whale. It’s a driving force behind our Archway Partnership in McDuffie County. It comes up every year at the Georgia Baptist Convention. There are entire websites devoted to identifying great young leaders (look up “World Economic Forum Global Young Leaders” as an example). And truly there are young people in our world doing amazing things. (Here’s my observation about those websites: they make the assumption that doing something is the same as doing a good thing, which makes them a good leader.) So ask your class this question: “do you know a good, young leader?” I hope and assume they do. We have them in our youth groups, our high school (thinking teenager). But how about young adults in our community? Yep, I think so. What challenges do young leaders face that older ones might not? Answer that, and you’ll help your church empower the young people who can be learning how to lead now.
This Week’s “Big Idea”: “Deceitful Spirits and the Teachings of Demons”
In our passage, Paul says that “in later times, some will depart from the faith”. Well, we’re certainly “in later time”. And plenty of people have departed from the faith! What are the sort of teachings out there that Paul is warning us about, that we would call inspired by demons? (No building bridges there!) Let me summarize what I think Paul is saying about these demon-inspired teachers in our passage:
they are deceptive,
they add things to God’s Word (particularly salvation), and
they make up stories and interpretations (doctrines) and teach them as God’s truth.
[Warning: when you talk about these things, be warned that someone might say, “Wait, haven’t Christian leaders done all of those things?” And yes, they have. That doesn’t mean they were demon-possessed; it just means they were wrong. In our passage, Paul isn’t talking about the pastor who listened to bad advice or made a poor interpretation; he’s talking about one who is characterized by those three traits.]
With those three characteristics in mind, we can identify groups that Paul warned us about. Two easy starts are Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their leaders literally wrote their own version of the Bible and now they debate Christians from the foundation of believing that their doctored scriptures are inerrant. They are deceptive in how they characterize themselves. I recently had a phone conversation with “Nelson” who insisted that he was just calling because he had a question about the Bible, but before long it became apparent that he wasn’t actually interested in my answers, he just wanted to prove that God was a literal “father” to Jesus. After some back and forth, he finally admitted that he was a Jehovah’s Witness. Mormons have been up front with me about their identity, but they insist that they believe the same things I do about the Bible. Until eventually they acknowledge that they believe a bunch of other things about the Bible. That’s all three, right there, with both of those groups!
When I was in seminary, I found the “Watchman Fellowship” website (not Watchtower; that’s Jehovah’s Witnesses). They started in Columbus GA, and I just found out that they’re still going strong. They have an index of more than 1,000 “cultic” groups (which just means that they promote teachings and practices outside of traditional orthodox Christianity).
It’s a pretty amazing/overwhelming list, and you could easily get lost in there. While I don’t agree with everything they say, I appreciate that they try to be even-handed. For example, they list Seventh-Day Adventists. But in their description, they say that most current SDA churches teach evangelical Christianity; however, there are some who teach that Sunday worship is a mark of the beast and salvation by works. The vast majority of these entries are small groups—a charismatic leader who has influenced a few hundreds or thousands (Tony Alamo, Herbert Armstrong, Alice Bailey, David Koresh). Some of them are movements that, while small, have spread pretty far—like Scientology or Christian Science—including movements related to New Age, Hinduism, and other non-Christian sources that play themselves as “true” spirituality.
Here are some GA/SC groups on the list.
The Ancient Mystic Order of Malchizedek from Eatonton (apparently responsible for a lot of crime).
The Ancient Wisdom Connection from Myrtle Beach (“Lord Sananda” is a reincarnation of Jesus).
The Center for Spiritual Awareness in Lakemont (some sort of new age enlightenment).
The Church of Y in Smyrna (yeah).
Comfort Corner Church in Lawrenceville (UFOs and stuff).
Grove of the Unicorn in Atlanta (wicca).
PPPANA in Macon (some sort of new age thing).
Thoughts Trends, a New Age newspaper in Roswell.
I don’t know what your class will think of when it comes to false teachings and godless myths. If they ask you about something you don’t know, tell them you’ll look into it and get back to them. And remind your class that Paul’s point was to not focus on those things; rather, focus on what the Bible clearly says to believe and do. It’s good for us to be aware of false teachings around us, but it’s best for us to know the truth, that way we won’t be fooled when a “new” false teaching arises.
Our Context in 1 Timothy.
As we’ve learned, Paul is trying to help Timothy with the big problem of false teachers in the church at Ephesus. He’s pointed out what those teachers are like, he’s explained what a “true”/godly leader should be like, he’s pointed out what troublesome behavior from women in the church looks like, and he’s given the model for women in the church (the deacon’s wife).
Sadly, we skip over Paul’s beautiful song of truth—his example of what true teaching looks like: “He was revealed in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the gentiles, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” That’s the truth that the churches should be focused on teaching. In our passage this week, Paul gives Timothy some warnings: people will continue to teach falsehoods in churches, but you can be aware of them. The solution to Timothy: know the truth, and don’t let false teachers “bully” you in any way (for Timothy, the easy target would be his youth).
Part 1: Be Aware (1 Timothy 4:1-5)
Now the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will depart from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared. They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods that God created to be received with gratitude by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, since it is sanctified by the word of God and by prayer.
This is a sobering warning, one that all of us know the truth of. There are lots of false teachings and teachers out there, and with the internet, everyone has direct access to it all. Paul says that the Spirit says this—he doesn’t say how; my guess is that this is a direct revelation to Paul. “In later times” is phraseology that the Bible uses to describe the era before Christ’s return (so...now). People will “depart from the faith”. Note that Paul is not talking about salvation here. “The faith” refers to the body of teachings considered orthodox by the church. That’s how cults work (see the next page): people leave their church and join some new group. This is important—if someone was a Christian when they left their church to join, say, a cult, they do not lose their salvation. They were just deceived and made a mistake. The problem is for those people who were not Christian when they joined said cult—they aren’t going to find the truth of salvation there. Those are the people we worry about. “Teachings of demons” literally means “teachings whose source was a demon”. While that seems harsh, the truth is that Satan’s only tool left against humanity is to keep them from salvation. What better way than to muddy the waters? [Ask: what is biblical salvation?]
Paul gives us two of the characteristics of these false teachers: (1) being deceptive, and (2) adding things to God’s truth. Paul specifically talks about marriage and food. This plays back into Paul’s earlier comments about how it’s good to be married and raise a family. These particular teachers were against pleasure of any kind, and thus no marriage (but see below). This played into their strict diets. (If your class can have this conversation in good humor, ask them if it’s harder to put the fork down from a food you love or a food you hate? If you only eat foods you dislike, you’re probably not going to get fat! So they have a point, but Paul shoots back with the truth that God created all natural food to be good, and people should enjoy it. People should also have self-control when they eat. Note: we’re talking about food created by God here. I don’t think Paul had processed foods by Hostess or Lays in mind here.) Peter’s vision in Acts 10 was God’s way of telling Peter that the old dietary laws given to the Jews were no longer in force. Just as God had accepted people from every tribe and tongue to become Christian, food from all over the world was acceptable for Christians to eat.
“Received with thanksgiving” is where we get the idea of a meal blessing. If we receive the food with thanksgiving, it has been sanctified. Ask your class what meal prayers they remember or say (like “God is great . . .” or others). Clarify some misconceptions. Paul is not saying that if you don’t pray over your meal, it will make you sick. Prayer is not some magic spell that makes your food safe. “Sanctified” means “set apart”; if we are truly thankful for the food we eat (as we should be), then we see it as a tangible expression of God’s wonderful care for us. Thus the food is “sanctified” in our hearts as a blessing from God.
One thing you’ll notice, if you go through that Watchman Fellowship page, is that they really, really don’t like yoga. Lots of people do yoga these days! They say it’s a great stretching and flexibility routine. Here’s what the website would say: true yoga isn’t just about stretching; it’s about body control on the path to enlightenment and self-actualization, rooted in ancient Hindu teachings. And they’re absolutely right.
What might be a Christian response to this (especially if you do yoga!)? Here’s my take. There’s a difference between using terminology and embracing a worldview. I know what Downward Dog is. I know what Warrior 1 and 2 are. Sun Salutation. Yeah, yeah. I don’t care what the name of the stretch is if it helps me follow a workout or stretching routine. However, when the leader starts talking about things like “feel your energy” or “focus on your center”—things that are purely associated with eastern mysticism or transcendentalism—my radar starts beeping. Things like breath control, balance, and stillness are not at all incompatible with Christianity; that’s just about body health. But when they start using those things to create “spiritual union” or an altered state of consciousness, then we have a problem. If you’re in a group that does that, you have two options. (1) If the talk of meditation or “energy” is totally unnecessary and tangential, then you can ignore it and spend those moments in prayer. (2) But if the yoga leader pushes those things regularly in your workout/stretching routine, then I would recommend dropping out of that group. There are lots of ways to stretch and be healthy that have nothing to do with eastern mysticism.
Part 2: Be Disciplined (1 Timothy 4:6-10)
If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished by the words of the faith and the good teaching that you have followed. But have nothing to do with pointless and silly myths. Rather, train yourself in godliness. For the training of the body has limited benefit, but godliness is beneficial in every way, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance. For this reason we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
Paul ultimate solution to Timothy and these false teachings is to focus not on the false teachings but the truth. Focus on what Jesus said and did—those are the words of life. Avoiding junk food is a very small part of a good diet—eating the right food is the most important part! See John 6:60-70. That’s why it is so important that a church focus on teaching the Bible (but more on this in the next section). When Paul tells Timothy to have nothing to do with those false teachings, he means “don’t waste your time learning or explaining them”. He’s not saying to ignore them or fail to warn the church about them, but the focus should be on God’s truth. That’s what the next phrase means—Paul isn’t telling Timothy to be unhealthy, or fail to take care of his body. We all know that a healthy body improves the health of the mind. However, the healthy body is not Timothy’s main goal; health as a tool to improve godliness is the right perspective. Likewise, Timothy should only spend time with false teachings insofar as to help his church understand the truth. That’s what it’s all about, so to speak. Why do we do church? Why do we share the gospel? Because we have hope that the living God is able to save all people, but only if they believe. (Paul’s comment about Jesus in verse 10 might look weird. Essentially, Paul is saying that Jesus is the Savior of the entire world. Anyone could identify Jesus as “Savior” correctly. However, only those who believe actually have the benefit of that salvation. “Especially” can be translated “particularly” or “specifically” or “above all”.) In fact, Paul is telling Timothy not even to dignify those false teachings by spending time on them. Rather, in teaching the truth, their falsehood will become evident.
Ask your class what they worry about the most: their diet? their athletic ability? their physical appearance? Or their godliness? The only thing that has eternal significance is our godliness because that draws lost people to Jesus.
Aside: Cult vs. Sect vs. Denomination vs. Religion
When you start talking about false teachings, someone in your class might use the word “cult”. The problem with that word is that many people immediately think of something extreme like the Branch Davidians. It doesn’t have to be. (True story: when my wife became a Christian, her parents thought she had joined a cult because her behavior and interests changed so dramatically.) Here’s how I was taught to understand these terms/groups:
A religion is centered around a specific “god/pantheon/energy”. There should be no confusing Hinduism with Christianity, for example. If the religion is unable to enforce a monopoly of belief, there will be differences of opinion on major doctrinal matters. Those break into denominations—groups who acknowledge they are part of the same religion, but disagree on some matter of doctrine. Sometimes, members of a denomination will protest an element of that denomination and split off. Those are called “sects”, and sects either fade away with time or harden into another denomination. Here’s the difference with a “cult”: cults aren’t necessarily rejecting something old, they are embracing something new (usually a gnostic-type focus on illumination or a new inner experience). They usually coalesce around a charismatic leader who articulates this new teaching and pulls people away from the denomination into their new, often closed, group. We think of the cult as being fanatically devoted to this new teaching, and when it is, it often leads to tragedy. But some cults are more subtle; some scholars prefer to call them “New Religious Movements” to get rid of the stigma of “cult”. Here’s what we should care about as Christians: what do they teach about Jesus and salvation? Some Christian diet plans have cult-like elements because of the behavioral control they promote, but they don’t mess with salvation. Similarly, I mentioned that though Adventists really harp on Saturday worship, most have an evangelical view of salvation. When we see groups (who claim to be Christian) teaching things at odds with biblical salvation, that’s when we worry.
Bonus Aside: Marriages and Cults
Paul spoke about false teachers who forbid marriage. That meant something very different in Paul’s day than it does today! In Paul’s day, gnostic teachers said that the flesh was evil and the spirit was good, and so anything that provided pleasure or gratification to the flesh was evil (marriage —> sex —> bad). They forbid marriage to forbid sex. Cults today that forbid marriage do so for a very different reason. They don’t forbid sex, in fact they often encourage it. Likely not by coincidence, the cult’s teachings on marriage and sex often result in the male leaders having free sexual access to any of the female members of the cult. Sometimes it’s through plural marriage (sometimes called “spiritual marriage” as in some Mormon groups). Sometimes it’s through another kind of “spiritual marriage” (as in the Branch Davidians) in which the leader declares a divine union with a female member, often for the purpose of convincing an otherwise hesitant person that God wills them to have sex. One way or another, this is why Christians should understand and promote God’s purpose and plan of sex as only within marriage, and marriage as between one man and one woman. Being single and abstaining from sex is good! Being married and then sexually faithful to your spouse is also good! Any other teaching is a red flag.
Part 3: Be an Example (1 Timothy 4:11-13)
Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone despise your youth, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity. Until I come, give your attention to public reading, exhortation, and teaching.
Paul then summarizes his task to Timothy: “Command and teach these things”. I think that “these things” refers to everything Paul has talked about in the letter, but I don’t think it excludes what Paul has yet to say. The point is that Timothy needs to “take charge” of the church. It’s not because Timothy has any authority in himself; it’s because Timothy is teaching the truth. That’s why Timothy’s age doesn’t matter (have you ever used the phrase “out of the mouths of babes”? or been corrected by your children?). If the message is true, then it makes no difference for the person to despise the messenger. In my first handout this quarter, I said that Timothy could be anywhere from 25-35; he was probably young 30s. What matters here is that he was younger than the leaders and false teachers of the church in Ephesus, and they were using it as a knock against him. Paul’s response is for Timothy to “take the high road” and prove his authority through his behavior. Just as the false teachers are deceptive, manipulative, and combative, Timothy is to be loving (to all people), faithful (to the truth) and pure (in his conduct). That’s how you silence your detractors!
Paul ends this passage with an excellent command to all of our churches today: when we get together, we need to focus on the public reading [of the Scriptures!], on exhortation (which means how to apply and live out the Scriptures), and on teaching (which means explaining the meaning of the Scriptures). That’s why Baptist churches emphasize the sermon in our worship services. But don’t forget that God has given us other things to do in worship! (Those of you in my Wednesday night class know what I’m talking about.) And as long as our songs and prayers and actions like the Lord’s Supper are communicating the truth of the Bible, then we are fulfilling Paul’s command to Timothy in any case.
There is an application to your Sunday School class that you might want to take: Paul’s command is also the reason why we teach the Bible in our Sunday School. How much time do we spend in our classes “making small talk”, and how much time do we spend digging into God’s Word? We need to get together regularly outside of Sunday morning to build up those relationships; but when we’re together in Sunday School, we need to focus on God’s Word. That’s what makes a difference in our godliness, and that’s how we impact lives for eternity.
Closing Thoughts: Bizarre Jewish and Muslim Myths
Here’s one of the myths that Paul might have been talking about. Ancient Jewish writings say that Abraham studied the stars and thus came to believe in the one true God. This created tension with his father Terah who was an idol maker. Terah turned Abraham in to the evil king Nimrod, who threw Abraham into a fiery furnace. Miraculously, Abraham emerged unharmed. The Muslim version of this tale goes on to say that the flames turned into water, and the firewood turned into carp, and the carp that currently swim in the lake in the modern town of Sanliurfa are descendants of that carp. Huh.
Other Jewish myths you might be more familiar with include that of “Lilith”, the supposed first wife of Adam who rebelled and released sin into the world (and then Eve was good). Those stories are truly bizarre.
There’s one in which God stopped creating the world in the north (the land of bitter ice and snow), which is where the demons and evil spirits come from. God left it unfinished as a challenge to any who would claim to be god. They have a myth about a giant named Og who survived the flood by riding on the ark, a myth about the miraculous city of Luz where people don’t age, a weird myth in which every person has a “evil double” born in hell when they are on earth, a myth about a vampire demon who tried to stop Solomon from building the temple, and more. The point would be that Jews have lots of myths scattered throughout their history. This isn’t even getting into the Greek and Roman myths which were well-known in Paul’s day. Hopefully, you can see how taking any of those myths seriously can really mess up your understanding of what the Bible teaches. That’s why Paul was so keen to shut them down in Ephesus.