Fight The Good Fight Of Faith
I Timothy 1:1-11, 18-20
My friend has been a pastor for many years. He has held all kinds of leadership positions in the conference and is a man highly respected by many people. He looks like a person who, as far as his Christian faith is concerned, has it all together. Yet, I know that there are times when he gets discouraged, when he needs a word of challenge and encouragement.
When we read the Bible, we may think of Timothy as such a person. He was highly respected. He co-authored some of the letters of Paul. He was sent by Paul to teach and establish faith in the various churches. Paul first met Timothy in Lystra when he was there to deliver the message from the Jerusalem council that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised or follow all the Jewish law in order to be followers of Christ. Timothy was the son of a Jewish woman and a Greek man. He was well spoken of in the faith community in Lystra and so he was chosen to accompany Paul on this journey of good news. He continued to work with Paul for many years afterwards and we hear his name together with such notables as Silas. If you look up all the occurrences of his name in the NT, you get a very good impression of him and his abilities as a Christian leader. Yet, like most of us, he also needed to be guided in his faith and also needed a word of encouragement from time to time. It is because Paul wanted to encourage him in his ministry that he wrote I & II Timothy. In these books, there are many instructions about Christian leadership, but also many practical lessons about what it means to live like a Christian. Over the next while, we will take some time to examine I Timothy in order to be encouraged in our faith.
Please turn to I Timothy 1 and join me in a learning adventure. Read text I
Timothy 1:1-11, 18-20.
Paul, the apostle, who was an apostle by God's command addressed Timothy with the normal greeting which occurred in letters of that time, including specific Christian elements such as grace, mercy and peace. In the beginning of the letter, we get a hint as to the reason for the letter and that is to encourage him to stay in Ephesus in order to teach the believers there because there were some problems.
Recently, I have been reading Revelation 2,3 in my devotions. These chapters are about the messages of Jesus to the churches of Asia Minor. It is quite disturbing to read these letters to the churches. It is disturbing to realize that if a church is faithful, it has God's approval, but if it is not faithful, it comes under God's condemnation. As I was reading these letters, I began to wonder about our church. What would Jesus say about us? Since God has such a deep concern that his church be faithful, the writing of I Timothy is an important letter to read because in it, Timothy is told to correct false teachers. Are we being true to God? Are we faithful as individuals? Are we faithful as a church? Are we holding to God's truth? As we read I Timothy 1, we discover the dangers of false teachers and also the strategy which will help us be faithful.
I. Detours And Garden Paths
When Carla and I were traveling one time, we came upon a construction area. In order to get by, it was necessary to take a detour. Once we were on the detour, it was not very well marked and we were not sure if we were still going the right way. If we would have missed one sign, we would have gotten thoroughly lost. Detours from the main path create a problem when we are trying to get to our destination.
Sometimes, people talk about being "led down the garden path" which means that someone is taking them off the right way and onto a path which leads away from where they want to go.
Spiritually, there are also detours and garden paths, which get us off the right path. The other day, I was reading an article in Faith Today, the EFC magazine. The article was about Christians participating in Yoga and in Martial Arts programs. The question being asked was, is this something that is OK or is it a detour from the path of faith? There were some significant warnings issued about such participation because of the non-Christian spiritual background of these activities. Jesus indicates in Matthew 13:25-40 that the enemy will come and sow weeds among the wheat, so the presence of false and dangerous teachings was present at that time and is still a concern today.
A. The False Way
What was the situation to which Paul was writing? It is hard to know what specific false teachings there were, but Paul gives three descriptions of these false ways which help us understand that they exist.
He talks first of all about false doctrines. One of the translations of this word is novelties. Sometimes people get tired of the old and tried and true and are open to something new, something that is a little more exciting than what they have always had. Yet not everything that is new and appears exciting is good. Some of it is a detour, a false doctrine.
Another phrase he uses is the phrase, myths and endless genealogies. There were a lot of things written following the time of Christ and some of them came from circles that looked an awful lot like Christianity, but weren't. There is a book called The Revelation of Ezra. In it we read, "If the first day of January comes on the Lord's Day, it makes a warm winter, a wet spring, a windy autumn, good crops, abundance of cattle, sufficient honey…" The writing seems to have a connection to the Biblical person, Ezra, but the content sounds more like a horoscope. Another writing is called The Apocalypse of Adam. It begins, "Listen to my words, my son Seth. When God created me out of earth along with Eve your mother, I used to go about with her in a glory which she had seen in the aeon from which we had come." Sounds kind of strange, and these were the kinds of myths and endless genealogies which existed at that time and were drawing people away from the truth of God.
Another phrase he uses is the phrase "They want to be teachers of the law." But Paul warns, that they do not have a good grasp of the purpose of the law or really understand what they are doing.
It is evident that there were false teachers and the interesting thing is that they were not necessarily people who had come from somewhere else and infiltrated the church, it seems that they were people within the church who were taking detours and leading people down the garden path.
The same dangers exist today. The source of false teaching comes from many sources. There is the influence of society around us. There is the influence of other religions whose practices can sometimes influence the church. The article about Yoga illustrates such dangers. There is also influence from groups which claim to identify with Christ but they are not. Most of these dangers are outside the church and I think we have some understanding of their error and of the danger of them. Those who are in the church are usually well warned about such false teachers. The real danger is often from false teachings which arise within a church. When people whom we know and who discover a teaching which is just slightly different, influence us with their teaching, we are dangerously led down the garden path. Some of those errors which make themselves known are legalism, doctrinal errors and moral compromises.
B. The Dangers
Why do we have to be so aware of these false teachings? Paul identifies the dangers of them.
He indicates that false teachings promote controversies instead of God's work. When an issue causes us to stir up controversy instead of getting on with God's work, it is a detour because it takes our focus off what is really important.
A second danger he mentions is that they "wander away." One time when I was at Spruce Woods, even before it was a provincial park, we had been wandering around on the Spirit Sands. On the eastern edge, we noticed Ox Bow Lake, which was where we were camping and it looked like it was close by. Instead of going back by the path we knew, we decided to walk through the bush to our camp site. What a mistake that was. The bush was much thicker than we had expected. The trip was longer, more difficult and more dangerous than taking the path. We were in danger because we wandered off the path. The same thing happens, Paul says, to those who get into false teaching. They wander from the path of truth onto paths that can get one into serious trouble.
On November 10, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald ran into a severe storm on Lake Superior and she was lost together with her entire crew of 29 men. The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald lies broken in 2 pieces in 530 feet of water 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan - shipwrecked, never to rise, never to float again. People who wander into false teaching put themselves into similar danger. Paul says that they have "shipwrecked their faith." It sinks and bringing it to healthy faith again is difficult if not impossible.
C. How To Relate To False Teachers
False teachers are in the world and even in the church. They are dangerous because they threaten the souls of believers. How do we relate to them?
1. Warn Them
Paul indicates that we are to warn them. Because they come from within the church, and are a danger to the church, Paul tells Timothy that he is to command them not to teach these things and not to devote themselves to them. If we ever find false teaching in the church, it is up to us as a church to make sure that such teaching is not taught. Timothy had something close to apostolic authority and as such was told by Paul to "charge" them not to teach falsely. As a church, we need to be alert to false teaching and then decide as a church a response which is equally authoritative.
2. Beware Of Them
Paul further indicates that Timothy and also all church members are to be very much aware of false teaching. When Paul says in verse 19, "hold on to faith," I understand that this is a warning not to be drawn in by the false teaching, but to be very much aware of the danger and to avoid it.
3. Discipline Them
Furthermore, those who engage in such teachings are to be disciplined. That is the intent of "handing them over to Satan" which we read about in verse 20. This idea of handing over to Satan appears several times in Scripture. It happened when Ananias and Sapphira lied about the offering they brought to Peter. It happened in I Corinthians 5:5 when Paul delivered a man over to Satan to be taught the error of his ways. This is the other place where this concept appears. It seems rather harsh, but essentially it is a form of discipline. I understand it to mean that those who are involved in some form of sin, who are handed over to Satan, are put outside of the protection of God, in order that they will discover the destructive path which exists apart from God where Satan has full sway. It is intended to let them see that if they persist in false ways, they are on a path that leads to destruction.
II. God's Work
As we think about these things, it can get us a little paranoid. If we are to be constantly on our guard, constantly vigilant to every possible deviation from the truth, it can become a negative and fear filled faith. We do need to know these things, to be aware of the danger of false teaching and to be prepared to deal with it when it comes into the church. But I hope we will realize that we can't get bogged down with it. Paul invites us to a much more positive concentration. We are to focus on God's work. In order to win this battle, we have a much more important thing to do and that is to fight the good fight of faith. This language uses a military metaphor and the thing we need to concentrate on is the armor which will protect us from danger. The text mentions four things.
A. Having Sincere Faith
The first thing we need to concentrate on is faith. Since we come to Christ by faith we must also live in Christ by faith. If anyone says you need to do this or do that thing in order to be true to God, they are missing the core. The core is faith in the finished work of Christ. When Jesus hung on the cross and cried out "It is finished" he meant that the work of God was finished in His death on the cross. That is the starting point of a relationship with God and it is also the way in which we continue to live in that relationship.
We have examined faith pretty thoroughly several times in the series on Genesis, so to spend a lot of time thinking about faith again would be redundant. But it is rather curious that Paul should say "sincere faith." Isn't that a contradiction in terms? How can faith be anything but sincere. It isn't that faith can be insincere. If it exists at all, it must be sincere. Why then does Paul say "sincere faith?" The problem is that we sometimes claim to have faith, but we deceive ourselves. The evidence of a sincere faith and not a self deceived faith is seen in the evidence of a life lived in obedience to God and of love for God. Now that is not to say that there isn't place for questions and struggles. Sincere faith and struggles can co-exist, but self deception about our faith and sincere faith cannot co-exist.
If we have a sincere faith, false teaching will not deceive us, so let us grow in faith.
B. Having The Goal Of Love
A second point of concentration for people of faith is that the goal is love, as Paul says in verse 5. In John 13:35, Jesus indicated the importance of love in the life of a believer. He said, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Love for one another is the mark of a Christian. Whatever leads in the direction of love for God and love for one another, that is true. If it leads in the direction of concentration on outward things or being judgmental, it is in the opposite direction from God's work.
This encourages us once again that a major concentration for us as believers is to love God and to love one another.
C. Having A Pure Heart
A third concentration for keeping on the true path is that we must have a pure heart. What quickly comes to mind is that our heart must be sexually pure, but a pure heart is so much more than this. Purity of anything is that it is singular, it has nothing else mixed in it. Pure gold is 100% gold and pure water has absolutely no impurities in it. A pure heart is unmixed in its motives, direction and faith. A pure heart trusts God completely. A pure heart is not enamoured by sin and trying to follow God at the same time. A pure heart is not a mixture of love and hate, obedience and rebellion, honesty and deception.
There is a business which entices a lot of Christians to become involved in it. The motive for getting involved is wealth, yet it presents itself as a Christian business. However, it has always seemed to me that it is not pure precisely because it presents a mixed message of loving God and loving money.
If our hearts are pure, we will not be deceived by false teaching and so we must focus on a pure heart.
D. Having A Good Conscience
The last thing to concentrate on is a good conscience. We all understand that conscience is that still small voice within which tells us that something is right or wrong. But conscience is an interesting thing. A conscience can be overly sensitive to the influence of others so that we feel guilty about things that are not wrong. It can, on the other hand be hardened. In I Timothy 4:2, Paul speaks about people "whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron." We know very well that where we have been burned on our skin, after it heals, that area becomes hard and callused and insensitive to pain. If we become like that, our conscience will not be very helpful in directing our thinking. A conscience can also be corrupted as Paul says in Titus 1:15, "To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted." That is why it is so important that we concentrate on developing a healthy conscience. We need to build a conscience that is informed by the Holy Spirit. Paul speaks about this in Romans 9:1, "I speak the truth in Christ-I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit…"
May we concentrate on a conscience taught by the Holy Spirit so that we will rejoice that there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus and that we will be sensitive to holiness, love and faith in the Holy Spirit.
You may think, “why do we need to think about this, we would never get into false teaching.” Yet, as I hear stories of the church and as I see what happens to Christians, I have become aware that there is a need for vigilance in regards to true doctrine and teaching. It is my passion to accurately teach the word of God so that believers will know the truth that sets us free. Whenever I hear of detours and garden paths, as we sometimes do, I realize again the importance of good solid Biblical teaching.
Although we need to be fully aware of the dangers of false teachers, I pray that our concentration will not be on these, but rather on God's work - on faith, love, a pure heart and a good conscience. As we concentrate on these, the falsehoods of detours and garden paths will quickly become obvious and we will be able to resist them and walk in righteousness.