Comparative Commentary on 1 Timothy Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2020
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A Comparative Translation Commentary
On 1 Timothy
(Volume 3: Chapter 4:1-5:16)
Roland H. Worth, Jr.
Copyright © 2020 by author
Such Radically Altered Doctrines
Are Coming in the Future
that Disciples will Substitute Some of Them
for Apostolic Teaching
TCNT: 1Ti 4:1 But the Spirit distinctly says that in later times there will be some who will fall away from the Faith, and devote their attention to misleading spirits, and to the teaching of demons, 2 who will make use of the hypocrisy of lying teachers. These men's consciences are seared, 3 and they discourage marriage and enjoin abstinence from certain kinds of food; though God created these foods to be enjoyed thankfully by those who hold the Faith and have attained a full knowledge of the Truth. 4 Everything created by God is good, and there is nothing that need be rejected—provided only that it is received thankfully; 5 for it is consecrated by God's blessing and by prayer.
The Holy Spirit had revealed both the fact and the certainty of apostasy (4:1a): “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith. . . .” “The Spirit,” i.e., the Holy Spirit. Jesus Himself had spoken of how the Spirit would be the intermediary agent responsible for revealing matters not discussed during His earthly ministry:
13 However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. 14 He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. 15 All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you (John 16).
Hence Paul is attributing this teaching to the same source provided the original apostles, that of the Holy Spirit.
When this revelation of
coming apostasy was given to the apostle is unknown--relatively recently or
many years before? Either way it was not
a product of Paul’s overworked imagination upset with whatever particular
foolishness was developing in
The changes produced are never guaranteed to be wholesome. Probability alone guarantees that some of them will be unwise and tend to warp faith in the wrong direction. Hence spiritual alertness—not paranoia—should be the guiding attitude. Or perhaps you would prefer to apply President Ronald Reagan’s judgment on worldly international affairs: “Trust—but verify.”
Not a bad religious guideline is it? Indeed the apostle Paul touches on this very point when he writes, “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians ). In a similar vein he reminded the Romans, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2). Acts 17:11 praises the Jews of Berea because they “were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.”
If we don’t do this, over time one unwise innovation becomes a precedent for something even unwiser. Perhaps the ultimate proof: As I write these words in September 2016, the United Church of Canada is beginning a debate whether it is proper to retain an atheist as a church minister. Or as one Canadian cynic was saying of the ultimate result of such things: “Wherever orthodoxy is optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed.” (In late 2018 the Canadians embraced the idea of atheist preachers.)
In 1 Corinthians there is a heavy emphasis on how the Spirit was speaking through local prophets and others. Here there is no mention of this phenomena existing so either the Spirit was not working through such means in the Ephesian congregation or, to whatever extent it was, it was not a subject of significant controversy. What the Spirit is spoken of as doing in the current epistle zeroes in on His role of revealing truth—which is exactly what Jesus predicted the Holy Spirit would do.
And the truth is the unpleasant one that fundamentals of the faith would come under serious challenge from within. What the Spirit had authoritatively spoken would not remain enough: Something new, different, and unheard of previously will be advocated.
Paul calls the source “deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons” (verse 1). What relationship this has--if any--to alleged revelations from the Divine Spirit we are not told. It could just as easily be revelations from alleged angels or even more obscure supernatural entities. (Those of gnostic style thinking had a very vivid imagination!) The fact that it differed and often blatantly contradicted what they already knew from the Holy Spirit would prove its inherent fraudulence. Even if someone brazenly claimed that the Spirit had also revealed the new innovation. That would either be a consciously blatant lie or a delusion.
“Expressly” carries the core concept of “clearly” (GW, ISV, NIV) and “explicitly” (Holman, NASB, NET). The Amplified Bible makes it “explicitly and unmistakably.” The teaching, as one commentator rightly notes, is “unambiguous.” In other words, there is no way around this grim reality. It will occur; it is certain to occur.
It is as bedrock a part of reality as the sun rising every day until the world ends. This implies that the revelation is not by some kind of vague spiritual illumination or influence that was provided; rather it is describing “direct communication.” Clear cut, precise—so much so that there is no way to doubt the intended meaning.
Some things in scripture are hard to understand. As even the apostle Peter conceded of Paul’s epistles: “speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). Not “most” things or “many” things, but the far more limited “some things.”
At the other end of the spectrum is what Paul is describing here: The Spirit speaks “expressly, clearly, explicitly.” In other words you have to work hard not to understand the point. You have to blind yourself to the truth for the text itself doesn’t give you any true dodging room. Yet how many people still do this? How many people read Mark and Acts and still insist that baptism plays no role in one’s salvation? What in the world could those texts possibly say to make the point clearer than what they’ve said? Nor, of course, is this the only situation in which individuals inject “fog” into a passage that was never there in the first place.
from the faith:” that rendering is retained by both
the ESV and Holman while the rough equivalent “fall away from” is utilized by
NASB, WEB, and
Outside our usual spectrum of comparisons, “renounce” is the wording of the NRSV, “will stop believing the faith” that of the New Century Version. Luke T. Johnson’s commentary opts for “will distance themselves from the faith.”
So far as God is concerned they have not gained new insights but have chosen a very different and contradictory path to walk. I rather like “desert” as a substitute because it so strongly conveys the idea that this is a conscious, knowing decision. They know what the truth is supposed to be, but have embraced a “new truth” that—in their eyes—is even more appealing.
We are not talking about merely drifting away, but a repudiation—either implicitly or explicitly. We no longer wish to be associated with that which we once esteemed. We are leaving it behind. Brian Evans astutely describes it as repentance in reverse: in repentance we leave sin and turn to and embrace God; when we “depart from the faith’ we disembrace and leave the cause behind that we once cherished.
We aren’t going to stop being religious. We aren’t going to stop claiming to be “Christians.” We are simply going to try to be such by doing it our way rather than God’s.
God does not say that He is going to make this happen; just that it will happen. This is an excellent indication of a truth often overlooked: Divine foreknowledge is not the same thing as Divine predestination. God speaks in the Old Testament of the Messiah being betrayed. He did not predestine Judas or any other specific man to do so, but He did know that someone would commit the vile act—which gave plenty of scope to be fulfilled through Judas or someone else. (The same conclusion would be true if we hold that he did foreknow that Judas in particular would do so. The foreknowledge was a recognition of future decisions and not the instillation of some uncontrollable compulsion to require him to act in that manner.)
Likewise God knew and revealed via the Spirit that certain parties would repudiate the Divine teachings on marriage and food consumption. Through the last 500 years this text has been used as a prophecy of what the Roman Catholic Church would one day do. Banning marriage sure sounds like its ban on priestly marriage. Banning the consumption of food certainly can take the form of obligatory fasting on certain days (no meat on Friday) and at certain seasons (Lent). The Catholic Church has never taken kindly—understandably—to this accusation,but when you act like what is prophesied as evil, there will be folk that think it has you specifically in mind.
The continued embracing of the condemned prohibitions provides no evidence that God now approves of the practices He once condemned. Because there is no good reason to believe that God takes more kindly to their modern practice than He did of the same thing in antiquity, but that does nothing to prove that their practice is what was originally in mind.
For one thing, Paul speaks of “some” acting this way. He does not claim that “most” or “all” would do so. He is not speaking of a universal apostasy. (Which does nothing to remove the valid application: If you act in a manner that the apostle brands apostate, well, then, what other word can be applied to you? He simply doesn’t have you in mind rather than the folk who originated these particular follies.)
By expressing himself so strongly, Paul is clearly determined to throw obstacles in the path of those who would attempt to introduce these prohibitions. He forewarns Timothy and anyone else who will listen to his words to be on their guard against encouraging or embracing these alterations in the genuine apostolic faith.
“Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times.” Translations
that prefer rendering this “later times” represent the overwhelming consensus
(ESV, GNT, Holman, GW, ISV, NASB, NET, NIV, WEB,
What is the difference in the two wordings? Both certainly place the event at an undefined point in the future. But “later” only means at some point after the current epistle. “Latter” can take the connotation of “something that is closer to the end of something than to the beginning of it.”
Hence “later” more naturally takes on the overtone of something close to the time of Paul’s letter while “latter” can take reference to some major phenomena much later; in the current context, the “Great Apostasy” of Roman Catholicism rather than the more obscure “smaller” apostasies that actually laid the foundational roots for elements that Catholicism ultimately embraced. At least that is the best I can come up with to explain any distinction between the two terms. As already mentioned, if the practice is the same the condemnation is equally relevant to both.
Whether one uses “later times” or “latter times,” either can be taken as equivalent to “last days”—the CEV actually invokes that rendering and it is hard to see how it could be wrong as to the meaning intended by the apostle. After all at that time they were already living in that era: the language is used of the then contemporary time period by Paul and others. It did not require the passage of many centuries:
* Jesus’ ministry was at the end of the previous (spiritual) age—Hebrews 9:26: He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.
at the culmination of the ages (NIV); at the consummation of the ages
(NASB, NET); at the Close of the Ages (
* Acts 2 narrates the events on the first
Pentecost after Jesus’ death: 7 Then they were all amazed and marveled,
saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? 8 And
how is it that we hear, each in
our own language in which we were born? 14 But Peter, standing up with the eleven,
raised his voice and said to them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in
* 1 Peter 1:20: He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.
At the end of the times (Holman); at the end of times (WEB); at the end
of time (ISV); in the last period of time (GW); in these last days (
* 1 John 2:18-19: 18 Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.
Alternate translations: The end of time (GW); “the end times” [first usage] and “the final hour” [second usage] (WEB)
* Either intentionally implying it or certainly open to that interpretation is Colossians 1:26: The mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints.
past ages and generations (NASB); in the past God hid this mystery (GW);
all ages and generations (
* Hebrews 1:2: [God] has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds.
has at the end of these days (
* Warning of behavior patterns in that time period, the subject is introduced in 2 Timothy 3:1: But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come.
Alternate translations: None.
* After the typical behaviors are listed (verses 2-5) the readers are warned to avoid such lifestyles, indicating that the time period they are living in is exactly the time period Paul has in mind: And from such people turn away! (Verse 5)
Furthermore the current epistle stresses the danger of false teachers. Would it seem at all improbable, then, that some of them embraced the views Paul condemns in these verses? Or at least were cautious playing around with them in private among their fellow sectarians? Indeed, would it not be rather odd to go on so relatively long on dangers that are not even thought of yet—especially when there were those that unquestionably were present?
This does not deny that later individuals might carry them to an even greater extreme or that they might fade out of popularity and be revived by some later sectarians. Bad ideas rarely really die. A later generation simply revives or resurrects them. Or expands them even further than the originators would have dreamed of. Or conjures them up again from the imagination thinking they have discovered something “new.” All of these paths make total sense.
If we are anywhere close to right, Paul is attempting to “bite this off at the bud.” Grind it to a halt before it even seriously gets underway. Yet his very warning surely carries the ominous overtone that he realizes that he will only be partially successful. P. T. Barnum’s “a sucker is born every minute” remains quite true—even in religious endeavors. But one can hinder the success and assure that many who otherwise would fall for the empty rhetoric will be so forewarned that they won’t be deceived. And that is what Paul is doing.
of apostasy was a subject the Ephesians among whom
Timothy labored were well aware of.
Indeed, it was the elders of the congregation (Acts ) that Paul addressed in
27 For I have not shunned to declare to
you the whole counsel of God. 28 Therefore
take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has
made you overseers, to shepherd the
Whether “from among yourselves” refers to the elders in particular or the Ephesian church members in general, the danger would still spring up locally from one or both sources. So when Paul warns in 4:1 of how “some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons,” he is reiterating a teaching that they were already acquainted with. If anything, it carries the unspoken “freight” that the hour of its fulfillment was even closer than it had been.
Aside: The fact that there were already elders present in Ephesus in Acts 20, then when Paul provides the list of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3, he is discussing the appointment of new ones. With an uncertain number of years having gone by and in light of growth in the congregation and possible death of one or more of these earlier leaders, the time had come to give serious thought to replacements. And Paul intends to provide a concise list of what they should be looking for.
The Text and the Emergence of Roman Catholicism
A few other words deserve additional attention in this section, in particular, “some will depart from the faith.” The “some” indicates that Paul does not have in mind the contagion becoming common or universal among God’s people. At least at the stage Paul is considering, they won’t become dominant within true Christianity.
This doesn’t rule out them effectively and even inadvertently creating rival systems that they call Christianity and whose adherents ultimately surpass the real version in number and popularity. This could gradually occur as individual advocates discretely breed their thoughts among less informed members of the spiritual community. If they are successful in their propaganda, they may eventually control individual congregations. If not, they might even split off to form rival congregations that would superficially appear to be genuine Christians to those uninformed of the details of what was believed--or to those who were not concerned with what could be passed off as “secondary matters.” But dominance of the “Christian movement” is definitely not within the time frame implied by the word “some.”
Even so their alterations even at this early stage would still go far beyond anything small and insignificant. Phillip L. Long rightly stresses that “depart from the faith” implies not a minor deviance or even a major disagreement but such a dramatic change that the belief(s) is no longer compatible with Biblical truth: “The verb Paul uses here is the same as . . . Acts 5:37 [“drew away”] to describe a messianic pretender who led crowds astray. In [the LXX of] Deuteronomy 7:4 it is used for turning away from God to worship other gods. These opponents have rejected the core truth of the Gospel (1 Tim ) and can no longer be described as within the faith.”
Just as Paul condemned innovations in these verses that long later would become pillars of normative Roman Catholicism, his reference to elders/bishops departing from the truth (Acts 20), also became even more profound in Roman Catholicism. There the departure was not merely from Bible doctrines but also took the form of building up power claims that scripture never gave them--a new organizational structure than that provided by Divine revelation.
Elders/presbyters became separate (and lower) than bishops. And bishops increasingly demanded the recognition of a greater authority locally and, over time, over other congregations and a broader geographic area. Empire building, always in the name of the faith. Though the Biblical faith provided no authority for it, the evolving church gradually developed precedents that did. These traditions became as authoritative as Jewish traditions became among ancient rabbis—and all too often with little or no real connection with what the Scriptures actually taught.
At this point, we encounter a tension between two strands of New Testament thought. On the one hand, we have an emphasis on “some” departing from the faith (1 Timothy 4). Yet we also find other passages that speak in terms of larger numbers embracing blatant falsehoods. Let us examine two of those briefly.
In the period leading up to the
4 And Jesus answered and said to them: “Take heed that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many.
9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. 10 And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. 11 Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. 12 And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold.
The “many” are certainly believers (verse 9) but they are identified as
those in the area of geographic
Another case of “many” drifting away is found in 2 Thessalonians 2 though the word is not actually used. Even so it is hard to see how the text makes sense without that interpretive intent being glossed into it:
1 Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, 2 not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. 3 Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition.
7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming. 9 The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, 10 and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. 11 And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, 12 that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness
This is predicted for a time when it would be quite credible for the Thessalonians to receive “by word or by letter, as if from us” (verse 2)—in other words to a time when Paul was still alive.
How in the world do we reconcile Paul’s “some” in 1 Timothy with the “many” clearly implied in 2 Thessalonians? The best approach would seem to be that it is “some” who will apostasize in the near term context (as suggested earlier) but devastatingly “many” at a later date, as the spiritual drift feeds on itself and becomes even more extreme. That does not have to carry the connotation that the true apostolic church was in virtual ruins by the end of the first century as some suppose. Significant damage had been inflicted, but the rot would take a lot more time to become pervasive. Only later would the “many” become “virtually everyone.”
What apostasy will be motivated by (4:1b): “giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons.” There are two aspects to the “giving heed” to—embracing and obeying. The first refers to the inward and intellectual adoption of the teaching and the latter to going out and practicing it.
The encouragement to do this comes from what is inherently unreliable: “deceiving spirits.” The underlying Greek word means “erroneous, wrong, misleading”—what is being said is simply neither true nor reliable. For an equivalent concept, perhaps imagine being in the middle of the sea with a compass that is unreliable.
To our contemporary preferences such language may be regarded as horrifying, as “both dangerous and distressing to modern tastes.” Although religious polemics can—and are—sometimes vastly overdone, the equally dangerous problem is that the stakes can be large and overwhelming . . . unless Paul is totally wrong not only in specific language invoked but also in the underlying concept the words convey: At some point in the drift, you endanger your soul. Why shouldn’t Paul get upset? And we, too, unless we are opting for the concept of universal and inevitable salvation. A kind of positive only Calvinistic predestination that leads everyone to the same glorious destiny.
Evil “spirits” and “demons”—is Paul engaging in repetition of the language because both refer to the identical source or two different but similar ones? Or is this Paul’s way of saying that no matter what label you apply to the source it is still an evil one since it/they encourage a departure from God’s will?
And it doesn’t suddenly become acceptable because we are convinced by a human intermediary! Nor does it become acceptable because some deluded soul insists that it is fully compatible with the Divine will even when we can give “book, chapter, and verse” that shows it is wrong. If the change encourages evil in us it can only be regarded as having, ultimately, an evil source.
These are the kind of doctrines that they want us to embrace as a way of undermining our loyalty to God. Most obviously they are things that demons would have us practice in place of what God has revealed. For example sin is magically transformed into something irrelevant to whether God embraces us as His faithful son or daughter. It is changed from an “anathema” to God to “God’s blessing--especially for people like you.”
But it can also work in the opposite direction. One can enjoy the pretense of a superior spirituality by insisting upon more restrictions than God actually requires. Think of the Pharisees in their confrontations with Jesus over the authority of “tradition.” Although the “thou shalt nots” of Christianity are very real, the multiplication of them only provides us of the illusion of increased spirituality rather than the substance. Being encouraged into moral and religious error in the twenty-first century leads one to think in terms of the first approach. Paul is, however, clearly thinking in terms of the latter.
Note how he only singles out two representative doctrines for censure: prohibiting marriage and the consumption of certain foods (verse 3). Interestingly these might be called “ultra-Puritanism” rather than “ultra-liberalism.” Rather than freeing you to do whatever your private fantasy might be, it is making your spiritual load extra heavy--demanding of you far more than what God ever required. But, oh, how much “superior” you now are to every one else! (Alas, only in your own over-worked imagination. But it sure does put you in a position to try to unload a burden of needless guilt on the spiritual “weaklings” around you!)
Paul doesn’t bother to tell us what additional doctrines he would apply the rebuke to. Quite possibly because any list could only be partial and not comprehensive. In fact one can reasonably argue that he isn’t all that much concerned with any doctrine in particular—he is concerned with the forces that encourage any departure from the Divine will. He is concerned with the forces that underlie such deviations rather than the specific “fruit” they bear.
The language of Paul could refer to “revelations” given by these demonic sources, in which case we are unquestionably talking about genuine demons and evil spirits in the most literal of senses. Hence it is common to read that these teachings were “transmitted by false prophets, people who claim to be speaking under the influence of God’s Spirit, but were really controlled by the Devil.”
Since Divine revelation has ceased (1 Corinthians 13:8-10), it seems inherently impossible that the Lord would permit rival demonic revelations to continue today even if such had been present in the first century. How in the world could He reasonably allow the false imitation to prosper while the genuine voice of direct Divine revelation has ceased?
Even so, within the first century context itself, one could interpret various passages as alluding to the danger of such evil sponsored revelations occurring. In 1 John 4:1 we have the warning, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” This can easily be taken as teaching that demonic “spirits” provided encouragement and teaching to the contemporary false prophets. However it could also be referring to whatever internal psychological “spirits” and attitudes that motivated the false teachers. The seeming equating of “spirits” and “prophets” within the verse—when one normally thinks of the two terms as contrasting ideas--makes one inclined to the latter.
Paul speaks in terms of varied supernatural gifts in the early church and that these differed from individual to individual: “To another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues” (1 Corinthians ). This could easily be taken as referring to the ability to determine what supernatural entities are revealing or encouraging something—whether the message actually comes from the Holy Spirit or demonic ones. On the other hand one could take it as referring to the inner human attitudes motivating the speaker . . . the plural “spirits” being used due to a multiple number of individuals being envolved.
In all fairness, when speaking of the first century context and in light of the unquestioned existence of overt demonic interference in human affairs in Palestine—think of the varied cases of possession in the four gospels—it is quite possible that something quite literal is, indeed, in Paul’s mind. But this did not remove the responsibility of the person to avoid accepting or conveying that demonic message.
Note the warning that some would “give heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons” (verse 1)--note that he wasn’t made to or compelled; he surrendered to it. There is no possible way that this kind of censure could be given if he had no control over doing so! Furthermore we could hardly have a situation where the message itself is under Divine censure . . . and those embracing it are condemned . . . while the soul conveying the message to others has no responsibility at all in sharing the falsehood!
We can see this in the fact that even when you thought you were under Divine inspiration, there was no overpowering of your ability to restrain yourself. We know this is true because even when it was the genuine Spirit of God, a person had control over whether to immediately express its message or to share it at all. Paul could hardly be more specific in 1 Corinthians 14:
26 How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. 28 But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God.
29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. 30 But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. 32 And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. 33 For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.
Did God permit demonic sources to have more power than He permitted His own Holy Spirit? The mind rebels at the thought! With that in mind note that the genuine Divine Spirit would not be making a person speak; they retained control over doing so.
Nor did the Spirit compel them to accept the message. The obligation to test and examine remained: “Test all things; hold fast what is good” is the same apostle’s message to a different congregation (1 Thessalonians ).
Furthermore there is no reason to believe this was different outside the church service. Indeed to avoid the danger of immediate exposure, one would expect lying spirits to make that the least likely place to speak due to the danger of immediate exposure. Even outside that setting, the obligation to “test all things” remained equally true. The recipient could internally review what he had been told and compare it to genuine apostolic teaching that already existed.
In addition he (or she) could review it with trusted and well informed believing friends. If they discovered it was, indeed, contrary to the truths they had been taught how else should/could an honest person react than dismiss it as coming from a source seeking to subvert the mind and faith? Call it demonic or anything else you wish: regardless of the label, it was untrustworthy, unreliable, to be rejected, and never to be listened to again.
But there are always those with too much pride or who are susceptible to delusion because they passionately want to be “something special” in the church. When such things get out of hand, the intended “fail safes” won’t even be invoked. The demonic message will be cherished as much as if it were actually from God.
Two other things should be remembered:
1. If objectively real, external “revelations” are under discussion--rather than the phenomena being the result of subjective delusions--then we can be confident that the true source is always hidden to the person being utilized demonically. Would there possibly be an advantage in the Devil admitting him and fellow felons as the source of the teaching? It would create a major impediment to accepting what is being said!
But hide the poison in a brew that has a major truth in it is a different proposition: “Jesus accepts you just as you are” represents a major Bible truth but when hidden within that is the premise that you can continue living in the same immoral fashion that got you in trouble with God in the first place, a message of liberation from sin becomes a message that permits you to continue to wallow in it.
So if one keeps the language Biblical one can hide within it that which is still fatal to the soul. The truth is pure to the core and not just in its outward fringe.
2. It should also be stressed that Paul is not claiming that the only way to apostasize is through “giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons.” Anything that causes one to depart from the purity of Biblical faith is the kind of teaching that “deceiving spirits and . . . demons” would advocate. Whether they have anything directly related to your hearing about it or not. False doctrine and paper thin “morality” is “playing in their kind of ball park,” the place where they prefer to be, where they have the “home field” advantage. You’ve quietly accepted key assumptions that work to their benefit and that guarantees you will land up the loser.
The Bible attributes the decision to sin to reasons independent of any demonic influence, so those reasons can exist and prosper regardless of any direct demonic role in encouraging evil. For example:
· Paul quotes the Old Testament about the lack of respect for God leading to transgression, “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans ).
· There are those who are “inspired” to evil by their friends—not any external “authority”—to do wrong: “Do not be deceived: ‘Evil company corrupts good habits’ ” (1 Corinthians ).
· Some do wrong out of ignorance and not out of what they’ve been directly instructed: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).
· Others do wrong because they are convinced that it is of such a nature that God will overlook it: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes -14).
Our list, of course, could be considerably expanded. Even in the age of direct demonic action in the first century, the bulk of sin—in light of the commonness of such passages—must have still represented only a minority of cases . . . and, even then, quite likely being “supercharged” in strength by characteristics such as those we have listed.
How the apostates will corrode their own character to advance their influence (4:2): “speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron.”
(1) They will be “speaking lies” (4:2). One reason they could be condemned as hypocritical liars is that they know what they are saying is untrue but, for unknown reasons, believe it is important to uphold the doctrine or cause. As Paul L. Long presents the approach: “Combining hypocritical and liar indicates that their teaching appears to be well-intended, but it is in fact false. This indicates that the opponents are not simply fooled into teaching something that is false, they are choosing to maintain a lie for some reason (Towner, The Pastoral Epistles, 291).”
“For example, Jesus’ enemies pretend they want to learn something from him by asking Him a question, but their true intent is to find reason to arrest Him and put him on trial (Mark 12:15; Matthew 23:28). Jesus called this sort of hypocrisy ‘the yeast of the Pharisees’ (Luke 12:1).”
Hence Paul’s point would be illustrated by folk to whom the victory for their side is all that counts. This mind frame can easily develop among heretics but even within what begins as a principled and Biblically sound movement. The other side is considered so misguided and so reprehensible that any tactic is acceptable to destroy their influence. Even tales conjured up out of whole cloth. They may well be extremely bad and worthy of vehement criticism. But must we destroy our own souls in order to do it? Must we become apostates to save the church from apostasy?
(2) They will be characterized by “hypocrisy” (4:2). Another reason they could be branded as hypocritical liars is if they themselves weren’t living up to the standards they themselves were advocating. In other words they find a way to exempt themselves from what they are teaching. Like folk who teach against adultery—for other people than themselves—these individuals find a way to exempt themselves from the very obligations they advocate. In the least extreme case, they think they have an “excuse” that others do not share. In the most extreme case, they think God never intended for such rules to apply to people of their level of spiritual development.
This “double standard” approach would be condemned even if the doctrine being defended were true! When Jesus criticized the Pharisees, part of it was based on the fact that even when they got the truth right and were accurately presenting it, they still managed to find a way to avoid actually living it themselves:
1 Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. 4 For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Matthew 23).
(3) They will have destroyed their own sense of guilt over such things: “having their own conscience seared with a hot iron” (4:2). They have crushed the moral scruples that would warn them against such behavior. It is that important to their cause; there is no room left for anything that gets in the way of victory. Of course, even assuming they were in the right, of what value is a “victory” that guts your own soul?
Flesh that has been “seared” feels nothing. When it is done, their conscience no longer recognizes the guilt and shame that their behavior would once have brought them and which, hopefully, would have encouraged them to change for the better. Even individuals deep into chicanery and deceit can sometimes back off from their excess--as in the case of those who were using a woman caught in adultery as an excuse to force Jesus into making a decision that could be invoked against Him.
They were caught between what He wrote on the ground (John 8:6, 8) and His pointed accusation of unidentified “sin” on their part (8:7). Was that the equally guilty male who was conspicuously not brought? Furthermore what He wrote on the ground could have been the name of those among the accusers who had committed the same sin . . . even with that particular woman. However one chooses to interpret these matters, His foes felt the compulsion to back off, “And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst” (8:9).
But the kind of individual Paul is describing is one whose conscience is so distorted that it no longer has the capacity to shame him (or her!) into backtracking from misguided and outright evil behavior. Or as Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:19 utilizing the seared consciousness imagery: “who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.” They know no inhibitions any longer. They are thrilled and joyous in their pursuit of . . . whatever attracts their fancy and fantasy.
In extreme cases, it is not mere “victory at any price” that has become the lodestar of behavior, it is a conscience that is so bent that it genuinely believes its own lies. To such there is no need for any inhibition at all beyond “what can I get away with?”
The term “seared” can, quite fairly, also be taken in the sense of the kind of searing that occurs in branding. Hence they have the devil’s mark of ownership upon them. They have been branded, like a slave, to show his ownership: In their very bent teaching and misconduct, they show and prove they serve the devil. Not to themselves, of course, but to those following the Divine path of restraint and moderation.
A little historical context: Slave branding was permitted to be done on
the face until the reign of
However it appears to have been acceptable practice as early as the first century to substitute a slave collar since one from around 65 A.D. has survived with the wording, “You will get a gold solidus if you return me to my master Zoninus.” These ultimately gave way to the simpler abbreviation on the collar, “T.M.F.Q.,” standing for “ ‘tene me quia fugio,’ ‘arrest me since I am a fugitive.”
From such data we can conclude that branding might be either a disfiguring mark on the body or an external neck band with the “branding” upon it rather than flesh. Either would indicate the fact of being a slave or the specific ownership of the slave.
Hence even if we accept the meaning of a “conscience seared” as a reference to Satan’s ownership--rather than to the destructive behavioral lifestyle natural to a slave to sin--the text would still mean that he is under the influence/control of Satan. Two different ways of alluding to “ownership.” In either case, no human could physically “see” the brand but only the behaviors that reflected his owner’s attitudes and preferences.
The two doctrines that will characterize these apostates—The first doctrine: Repudiating the right to marry (4:3a): “Forbidding to marry. . . .” In some contexts the underlying Greek term can mean either “to prevent” or “to discourage.” Forbidding could even carry the connotation of active intervention to keep them from doing so--or of convincing the parents to reverse permission. To face either would be little short of traumatic and embittering whether one yielded to the demand or not. Likewise facing people who repeatedly brand it evil to enter the relationship that God designed to fulfill their inborn sexual instincts
“Discouraging” suggests the idea of “pouring cold water” on their plans. Intervening to turn them against what they had either already decided or were seriously considering. However you don’t say they “can’t;” you simply make them miserable for considering it.
Either of these approaches—if they became a pattern—could hardly avoid evolving into “a no marriage ever” mindframe. “Forbidding to marry” by subversion of plans if not by an outright doctrinal prohibition.
Our cross section of translations emphatically embrace the “forbidding to marry” approach rather than the “discouraging” one however. They use either “forbidding” (Weymouth) or the shorter form of “forbid” to describe what is happening (CEV, ESV, Holman, NASB, NIV). For concise equivalency there is NET, which speaks of “prohibit marriage”
The GNT has a rather long winded substitute, “teach people that it is wrong to marry.” The ISV has a different one, “they will try to stop people” and GW has something essentially the same: “try to stop others.”
This practice of “forbidding to marry” and banning the eating of certain foods is all that Paul mentions as to their doctrine. We, as is common, will refer to them as ascetics because both items played such a major role in their life. Yet we should be cautious in estimating how pervasive their asceticism was. These could be major examples of their asceticism or they could be the sole definers of it—that it went no further. We simply have no way of knowing. Whichever it was, they were still envolved in major errors that endangered their own spirituality as well as that of others.
There is a psychological element mixed with a twisted concept of “spirituality” that is found both in the specific types of asceticism that are discussed and the various other forms that have been popular through the centuries: There is a profound difference between denying ourselves indulgment in the sins of life and denying ourselves the joy of the innocent pleasures of life. There is a vast gap between purging ourselves of what God condemns as sin and eliminating those things that do not have such a taint but which bring simple, sinless joy.
The other side of that coin is that there is a vast gap between cultivating the virtues that God has clearly revealed through Scripture and inventing our own unrequired “greater” standard of spiritual excellence . . . as if God is somehow going to be so impressed by our acts of “extra righteousness”—for lack of a better term—that He will feel obligated to give us recognition as superior Christians. Is this not a kind of spiritual arrogance?
We rarely consciously think these matters out, but it is hard to make sense of the behavior if some form of this reasoning isn’t quietly—and almost without internal overt recognition, perhaps—bouncing around the brain as it moves a pious individual into a search for something above and beyond “mere” righteousness itself.
Ray C. Stedman made sense when he once spoke of the phenomena in these words:
[A]t the heart of asceticism is a conviction that self-denial somehow pleases God. It can be very earnest, very sincere. Often Christians fall into this error in their early Christian days, thinking that if they deny themselves in some way God is going to be pleased, and their status in His sight will be advanced.
That is why some Christians love to get up early in the morning, or memorize hundreds of verses of Scripture, or pray on their knees for long periods of time, etc. These practices, which in themselves are not wrong, nevertheless become wrong because their motive (that of gaining God's favor by self-denial) is wrong. . . .
There is a difference between self-denial and denying self. Jesus said, “If anyone will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke ). That is denying self.
But that is easily confused with self-denial, which says, “I will give up this thing or that thing.” “I will not do this or stay out of that, because I want to reveal my dedication.” “I want to be admired for my zeal.” “I want to gain a special mark of favor before God.” “I want to influence God to do something for me in return.” That motivation renders it no longer denying self, but self-denial.
Now as to their marriage or, rather, anti-marriage doctrine. Whatever Paul’s personal preferences on the matter, he clearly regarded any effort to secure widespread celibacy to be nothing short of absurd. The nature of the individual has to be taken into consideration. Some have the nature that makes a great warrior; others have the nature that makes them a “natural” celibate. But most fall into neither category.
He regarded any attempt to impose such a system on most folk as nothing short of delusional. As the apostle put it in 1 Corinthians 7:
Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2 Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. 3 Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
5 Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. 7 For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.
Paul expected the bulk of men and women to get married. He expected them to have the sexual pleasures that come from a contented and relaxed relationship. He wasn’t about to bind on others the celibacy that he felt fit him so well: “Each one has his own gift from God.” These false teachers denied such freedom to choose.
Why did the false teachers believe marriage was deplorable? Theoretically one might shoe-horn into the text a prohibition on all remarriage or that they were claiming the right to veto the choice of one’s mate, thereby vastly expanding their “right” to intervene in the affairs of church members. But the terse text we have makes the only probable subject a blanket ban on marriage--period. The most extreme form of asceticism.
There has always been a certain personality type that defines “greater spirituality” in terms of what they can deny themselves. It is not a temporary thing to allow one to greater concentrate on, say, prayer but a permanent state of affairs in which the denial becomes the end in itself rather than a mere tool in seeking a greater end. In turn, if one denies X to become more spiritual, then would not my spirituality be even more enhanced if I deny myself Y . . . and maybe even Z as well?
When one attempts to provide a rationale and precedent for such practices in regard to marriage, one can point to three first century sources.
The ascetic impetus from Jewish sectarian movements. In such a context, we naturally think of the Essenes, who are well documented because of the records preserved among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Steven D. Fraade sums up their system concisely:
Those practices included celibacy (at least for a major segment of the movement), a materially simple life free of private possessions, temperance in food and drink, avoidance of oil, simplicity of dress, reserve in speech, desert separatism (for those at Qumran), strict rules of ritual purity and of Sabbath observance—all part of a collective and individual discipline that made them in Philo’s eyes “athletes of virtue.”
The evidence as preserved by Josephus, Pliny, and Philo present them as insisting upon celibacy in order to obtain and assure a greater spirituality than could be hoped for in any other way. They regarded marriage as inherently compromising this goal by leading them away from study and threatening the cohesiveness of the group by diverting members into the concerns of private endeavor. Paul clearly regarded such attitudes—wherever found—as rooted in self-delusion and demonic rather than divine influence.
makes allusion to a separate Essenic movement
that did not demand restrictions on marriage. Even in regard to
Furthermore the documents make no specific mention of “permanent celibacy.” (By the same “logic,” when Paul stated his preference for celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7, did he really mean he only preferred to stay that way temporarily?) Out of such thinking grows the conclusion that the external describers of the Essenes are actually projecting the “Cynic-Stoic ideal of celibacy onto the movement” rather than describing it as it actually existed.
Another way of accomplishing the same result of dismissing the evidence is to argue that any duties they felt as to procreation were to be fulfilled in the interim between admission at age twenty and age twenty-five, when he would be expected to fully enter into all the duties and obligations of the movement. In that interim, marriage would have been viewed as quite proper. (So what happened at 25? Obligatory divorce, remaining celibate while living with her, or having her live separately within the community with the obligation of celibacy effectively imposed upon her as well due to the lack of a divorce? Can you imagine the “hissy fit” the apostle Paul would have had about any of these “options”?)
limited the practice of obligatory celibacy within the Essene
movement may have been, even in that scenario it does at least show that
for some first century Jews it was perceived as quite proper, desirable,
and exemplary to somehow shoe-horn the doctrine into their interpretation of
the Old Testament. After
all, that Testament offers precious little on which to even attempt to ground
such a doctrine. (If nothing
else, how was the Messiah to be born if there was no one getting married and
the entire race had perished as the result!)
This ability to make the seemingly incompatible “compatible” should
serve as a strong precautionary caution to us Christians as well . . .
lest we similarly shoe-horn into our religious system doctrines and
practices that can only be done with a maximum of text “bending” and outright
ignoring of other passages.
The ascetic impetus from the Gentile world. Although we rightly connect the Gentile world with strongly encouraging depravity rather than restraint (consider Romans 1), there was an element of the population that recognized that the ideal life required considerable self-restraint and self-discipline. This kind of limited philosophical asceticism functioned within the context of fulfilling all the duties of life rather than abandoning the “lesser” for the “higher.” To the extent that a more rigid abstinence was regarded as necessary, this could be postponed until after the other duties were first amply taken care of.
But there were others who thought delay was unnecessary and a display of needless weakness. Gillian Clarke describes pagan thinking in the fourth century when “Christian” asceticism started its own worst plummet into the exaltation of extreme self-denial:
Why is all this rejection felt to be necessary? Why not live a moderate, self-disciplined life, giving generously to the poor, producing children in youth and abstaining when your family is complete, meeting your social obligations but making time for your religious commitment?
There was a recognizable and long-established lifestyle for doing just that. It was acknowledged that the philosopher, the lover of wisdom, should be able to cope with heat and cold and hard physical activity, should need little sleep and food, and should abstain from luxuries including elaborate food, wine and non-procreative sex. Philosophers must be tough, or how can they concentrate on wisdom without being distracted by minor discomforts?
The traditional philosopher’s cloak, ideally a single garment worn in both winter and summer, was a symbol that its wearer was committed to these ideals rather than to the advertisement of status and wealth; the Cynic philosopher, instantly identifiable by cloak, bag and stick, offered a dramatic role for stripping down needs to the minimum. But, as Epictetus pointed out, the Cynic lifestyle is not suitable for babies. The philosophically trained Greek or Roman man was exhorted not to abandon his family duties; he might prefer to devote himself to philosophy without distraction, but he had an obligation to provide grandchildren for his parents, citizens for his city and worshippers for the gods. . . .
The first century C.E. teaching of Epictetus neatly demonstrates the contrast between traditional philosopher and Christian ascetic [in the fourth century]. Epictetus had been a slave, and used his experience to point out to his audience of well-fed young Romans that if slaves can endure hunger, loneliness, hard labor, beatings, life as fugitives with every person’s hand against them, those who are slaves to the comfortable lifestyle should be ashamed of themselves when they complain about a disciplined lifestyle and the hard intellectual work required by living as one ought. But he did not suggest that they should try to share the experience of a slave. The fourth-century Christian ascetic, by contrast, is praised for deliberately seeking deprivation.
The Christian truth benders condemned by Paul seem to have been going well beyond even the pagan “ascetic.” To him it was moderation in food rather than the banning of it. There could indeed be a ban of sexual expression, but only later in life rather than embraced by all and from an earlier date.
The strongest argument that the doctrinal deviations that have aroused Paul’s ire were of a specifically Gnostic nature comes from the use of such language in 1 Timothy 6:
20 O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge— 21 by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith. . . .
Jerry L. Sumney offers some useful comments on the usage found here:
Many interpreters contend that this use of the term gnosis provides convincing evidence that the opponents are Gnostics. Even if the opponents use the term gnosis to describe their teaching, this is not clear evidence that they are Gnostic. The word gnosis was a widely used term which could be applied to nearly any body of religious teaching, and was applied to many. As Spicq has commented, even Christianity was a gnosis in this period. Thus the opponents’ possible use of this word reveals nothing about the content of their teaching.
Furthermore one must consider that Paul is mocking their claims, ridiculing the very language they apply to their supposed spiritual insights. As Sumney observes, “Scott . . . rightly calls this expression ‘ridiculing invective.’ ” And that is exactly what it was. It isn’t that they truly represent a body of spiritual insight; it is that whatever distinctive things that they are teaching actually consists of empty rhetoric and delusions masquerading as perceptivity.
Finally the ascetic life could be pretexted—not texted or justified by—apostolic age preaching and teaching. We have already shown from 1 Corinthians 7 that Paul did not regard the married life as the best choice for himself, but emphatically stressed that this was an option that was absolutely absurd for most men and women.
One can imagine, especially after the apostle’s death, individuals arguing that Paul’s teaching was for the era in which he lived, but “now” was the time to strive for a “greater spirituality.” If Paul could best serve God while celibate, is it not time for all of God’s people to grasp and embrace that ideal? The fact that this repudiated the apostle’s own teaching was irrelevant. It could be “interpreted around” as actually irrelevant to the present situation.
(If the early 2100s, we certainly find enough “Christian” ministers doing this to justify the extreme opposite, the embracing and practicing of sexual lifestyles that Paul branded as evil! So let us not delude ourselves that it couldn’t be done in the opposite direction of more restrictions as well.)
Whether our scenario is accepted or not, it still does provide a reasonable explanation to explain how Christian “tradition” could be distorted into an anti-marriage doctrine. Why then insist upon deriving it from a Gnostic-style flesh hating philosophy/theology when there was something so immediately at hand?
Perhaps the fundamental problem with embracing this “distorted truth scenario” is why Paul doesn’t specify it and tackle it head on? After all, Paul had faced such a situation earlier: “7 For if the truth of God has increased through my lie to His glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner? 8 And why not say, “Let us do evil that good may come”?—as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say. Their condemnation is just” (Romans 3). Why not do so again?
Of course, one could say that the contempt for marriage was the only element where Pauline doctrine itself was being distorted and that the opposition to eating certain foods came from a different source. Therefore Paul could not conveniently condemn both with the same argument and simply presented the false doctrines as existing and left it at that.
In what way were these false teachers hypocrites (verse 2) on this matter? Jesus warned that one identifier of the false teacher is that they do not live by what they teach: “Therefore by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew -20). When their behavior directly contradicts their teaching, the inconsistency screams out at you. They have to find some way to rationalize it.
All we have to go with is conjecture of course, but today when people try to justify practices for which they have no scriptural support they use the kind of techniques that would surely have been thought of back then as well. The most obvious begins with, “This doesn’t apply to me because”--and follows with the assertion of some intriguing rationalization. But it remains in flat contradiction with their teaching. If it were really all that beneficial and desirable how could they possibly avoid practicing it? Especially when they consider it a hallmark of true piety and orthodoxy!
The hypocrisy could also be in permitting key (financial?) supporters the liberty of not practicing some key teaching. Due to “special circumstances” of course.
Or those intrigued by his teaching may be relieved of immediate obligation to practice because they are merely at an “early stage” of their initiation into the “secret wisdom.” We do know that gnostic movements had “degrees” of “enlightenment” and these heretics may be engaging in the same technique of revealing their “special insights” gradually: Alternatively to know them may even be permitted; to have to observe them only comes in the future. Now they seek only intellectual adoration; actual practice can come later.
In short the hypocrisy could be demonstrated in a variety of ways and could have varied from individual practitioner to practitioner.
Second doctrine of the apostates: repudiating the right to eat the foods we wish to (4:3b-5): “. . . Commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. (4) For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; (5) for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.”
What is particular fascinating here is not only were these folks intellectually and spiritually wrong, but that they had reversed what God really wanted: “God created [them] to be received with thanksgiving,” while these folks prohibited their consumption. Now the Old Testament did have a variety of limitations, but Paul’s words surely imply that God did not impose such at creation and never intended for the Mosaical limitations to be permanent.
The reality of excessively zealous food limitation in the apostolic age church. Whatever the exact nature of these folks’ prohibitions—and the basis of it—the desire to needlessly multiply the “thou shalt nots” in Christianity already existed. Paul refers to people operating out of at least a parallel set of beliefs in Colossians 2:
20 Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— 21 “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” 22 which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? 23 These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.
Here he speaks of such things as “mere” folly. By the time he wrote First Timothy, he clearly sees the attitude as having evolved to something far more alarming and ominous.
Judaism had its Pharisee element that, in a desire to be “super scrupulous” in observing the Divine law, manufactured a growing number of prohibitions that went way beyond anything the Mosaical system actually demanded. Remember Jesus’ stringent rebukes of their “traditions?”
Even from scripture alone, Jewish converts would have been (if even reasonably faithful) attempting to heed “the minuteness of the Levitical law” that provided so many regulations on the matter. Unscrupulous or “inventive” souls could easily use this as a pretext for enjoining the most narrow of interpretations . . . the most limiting on one’s choices—even if the text itself did not require such limitations.
Indeed, this is arguably a temptation inherent in any form of faith that takes the authority of its holy book seriously. “To err on the safe side” easily becomes the excuse for manufacturing prohibitions difficult to live by in this world. Just as bad, significantly more limiting than anything Scripture actually imposes.
Examine the history of controversies among militant Biblically orientated conservatives and fundamentalists to see not only vigorous defenses of Biblical doctrine, behavior, and morals—but also the temptation to push the edge of “the safe side” into a tighter and tighter cordon.
Paul could well have this mindframe in mind. For they did not expand the “thou shalt nots” into “thou mayest.” They did the opposite: they limited the “thou mayest” into unsound and undemanded “thou shalt nots.” Yes, they are talking about foods in particular, but the mind frame is surely not limited to that alone.
What foods did the false teachers prohibit: Did they enjoin the provisions of the Mosaical system? As noted above, mainstream Judaism had its Old Testament prohibitions as to proper food and it is not uncommon to suspect that that is what Paul has in mind here. But when that is dealt with in Acts and Paul’s other epistles, it is not countered with this kind of extremely harsh language. The limiters are certainly never criticized in terms of “giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons” (4:1)—for the Old Testament revelation came from God, not demonic sources. So how can Old Testament regulations actually be in mind here? Hence Paul seemingly has to have something significantly different in mind than the erroneous expansion of the “thou shalt nots” of Jewish dietary and other laws.
From his other epistles, we know that the controversy of having to avoid “unclean foods” under the Mosaical system was a bitter issue for a certain faction of Christians. They expected not just Jews but Gentile converts to abstain from them as well—or else be regarded as inferior and second class Christians.
At least four things argue against that controversy being easily applied here: (1) The concept of another ethnicity being bound with the practice (i.e., Gentiles) is completely omitted while that was a major front in the Judaizing controversy—as was the right of Jewish Christians to properly overlook those past restrictions as well. (Since they were no longer bound by Old Testament law under the gospel of Christ. They could voluntarily continue such things, but they were no longer compulsory.)
(2) Then there is the omission of the word “unclean” in description of the prohibited items. Although this is quite true and, at first, sounds like a powerful argument against a strictly Jewish concern being under consideration, it isn’t anywhere near as powerful as easily supposed: In all his writings Paul used the word in regard to food only once and that is in Romans 14:14-15. In other words the label does not play a significant factor in his arguments in other texts that are clearly targeting the issue. Hence there would be no need for it to do so here either.
(3) We find the “foods” being in the plural, which argues that no one particular item was exclusively in mind (such as pork). To most of us the prohibited item specifically refers to the pig and that alone. The truth of the matter is that this was not the only “meat” nor the only “food” that was forbidden by the Torah however much we tend to “Readers Digest” the list down to that one major illustrative example.
Geoffrey Wigoder provides this summary in the Almanac of the Bible:
Meat. Meat was restricted by dietary laws. “You may eat any animal that has a split hoof completely divided and that chews the cud” (Leviticus 11:3). The key word is “and,” for Leviticus 11 continues to describe the animals that have one or another attribute, but not both at the same time, e.g., the camel, coney, rabbit, and pig. Of them, it says, “You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses” (Leviticus 11:4-8). This leaves the sheep, goat, ox, steer, and wild game, e.g., gazelle, deer, roebuck, wild goat, wild ox, and chamois. Even ritually fit animals, however, were subject to certain regulations and methods of preparation. . . .
Fowl. Certain kinds of fowl were forbidden, including birds of prey (eagle, osprey, hawk, falcon, owl); those that feed on carrion (vulture, buzzard, raven); certain waterbirds (pelican, stork, heron, swan, sea gull); and other birds (ostrich, bat, lapwing). Poultry (goose, chicken, duck), pigeon and doves, and wild birds not on the above list were permitted (Leviticus 11:13-19; Deuteronomy 14:12-18). Only the eggs of clean fowl could be eaten.
Fish. Fish could be eaten if it had fins and scales. This excluded all shellfish and fish that had fins but no scales, e.g., shark, catfish, and eels (Leviticus 11:9-12; Deuteronomy 14:9-10).
Insects and creeping things. Certain insects were acceptable as food, including the locust, katydid, cricket, and grasshopper. “All other flying insects that have four feet shall be an abomination to you” (Leviticus -24). Creeping things that crawl upon the earth are considered unclean, including worms, caterpillars, snakes, snails, lizards, chameleon, and moles (Leviticus , 41-43).
Finally the argument that is unquestionably relevant here: (4) The Judizing food controversy was already going on; it was not something awaiting some indefinite time in the future--note the “in latter times.” Hence Paul distinguishes these food controversies from the ones surrounding eating previously forbidden food items. To him that was “settled history;” what he is concerned with are newer and unprecedented food prohibitions. These would emerge to the forefront and, possibly, were already beginning to be stirred about in their most primitive form.
Jerry L. Sumney insists that we have actual textual evidence that this heresy concerns the Judaic controversies that Paul had an established track record in opposing, “What we can say about these food regulations is, as most interpreters acknowledge, that they probably come from Jewish food laws. The attachment these teachers have to the Law (1:6-7) makes this origin for food regulations quite secure.”
To evaluate this argument let us examine not only the two verses that he cites but also what comes immediately afterwards:
6 from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm. 8 But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, 9 knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, 10 for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.
The “fables and endless genealogies” of 1:4 might give one something Jewish to work with. But these certainly weren’t things found in the Old Testament itself for that “law” came by Divine inspiration. (Skeptics may prefer not to believe that, but can anyone seriously question that it was Paul’s belief?) So we can’t very well argue that Paul was weighing in against the misuse of the Old Testament for the things he condemns weren’t part of that “law” in the first place. Paul speaks of them being rooted in “fables” not law--Divine or human.
Certain dietary laws were unquestionably Torah rooted, but our text conspicuously fails to provide us sufficient data to prove that those being criticized in chapter 4 are any more rooted in the Old Testament than the “fables and endless genealogies” in chapter 1. Both might well be myth building delusionary distortions of that “law,” but just as reasonably not rooted in it at all.
Even if we speculate that popular (or, more likely, obscure) Jewish myths built around Old Testament narratives are in mind, that would still not envolve the “Judaizing” of Christianity rebuked in other New Testament books. That concerns grafting what is in the Old Testament into the Christian system—something totally different than something crafted from human imagination and delusion being under consideration.
But even if we attempt to semi-salvage anything distinctly Jewish out of “fables and endless genealogies, ” the case that the “Judaizing” is referred to in verses 6-7--the argument made by Sumney and others--clearly falters as well.
The reality is that “the law” in 1:6-7 is clearly not the Old Testament. They wished to be “teachers of the law” (verse 6). But that “law” is not one that has been superseded by the New Covenant; rather it is the “law” that is currently binding. That “law is good”--remains “good” and fully authoritative--to establish moral right and wrong (verse 8). Paul then goes on to specify a number of areas regarding behavior that this still binding law specifically prohibits (verses 9-10).
Knowing that his list is far from exhaustive he adds “and if there is any other thing.” “Any other thing” that does what? “If there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine” (verse 10). And where do we find that “sound doctrine” . . . that “law” which is obligatory? “If there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust” (verse 11). In other words, the “sound doctrine”--the “law” that he is insisting is required to be obeyed--is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Odd as it may sound, “the law” in this case is emphatically not the Old Testament. In some other, far different, context the “law” would carry the meaning of the Torah and prophets, but not in the current passage, where gospel law is clearly under consideration because it is directly specified in the verse itself.
However there is another way to take this as well. In our commentary on these verses in chapter 1 we did not discuss this approach but expressed a bit different analysis:
Although “the law” is typically the Mosaical system, since the acts he lists are explicitly or implicitly condemned by both testaments, what he surely has in mind are acts condemned by Divine ordinance under both systems of revelation, especially the gospel since that was what they were now under. It would be rather absurd to just condemn acts prohibited by the Old Testament, unless Jesus’ law also prohibited them as well. Why condemn acts prohibited by the law that was nailed to the cross (Colossians -14) unless the gospel system still condemned them? Hence both Divine systems embrace these same prohibitions.
Paul confirms our reasoning by concluding his list of transgressions that begins with a reference to “the law”—“the” is in the Greek in verse 8 but not verse 9)--with a reference to how these acts are also condemned “according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust” (verse 11). In other words the gospel has not just faith and grace, but also a moral code as well. To repudiate the moral code as unessential—in whole or part—is as foolhardy as to count as unessential faith and grace. We either go to heaven God’s way and meeting God’s standards revealed through the gospel or we go to a far more unpleasant and inhospitable destiny.
This clearly comes to essentially the same conclusion as in the preceding analysis: the law they are in violation of is that contained in the gospel. It differs by emphasizing that the same standards under discussion were rejected by both the gospel and Torah systems.
In other words there was no hiding room under either for what the coming heretics would advocate. What “the” law taught on these matters, gospel law also taught. And it is on the basis of the latter that such behavior is definitively prohibited for Christians.
Other pro-Jewish law arguments. The possibility that Jewish food laws are under consideration has been dismissed on the grounds that earlier Pauline and other apostolic teaching had already resolved this matter. Sumney argues that this is insufficient evidence:
A problem with Christians observing the Mosaic food laws cannot be excluded as a possibility by asserting that the issue had already been settled by the time of the Pastorals. The presence of Ebionites through and beyond the second and third centuries and their mention in the heresiologists show that the matter of the Law and its dietary regulations continued to be debated in circles of both Jewish and Gentile Christians.
this is quite logical—regardless of whether one accepts a skeptical late dating
of this epistle or whether one accepts one prior to the destruction of
Which is profoundly different from saying that this particular problem is what Paul has in mind. The roots of what he condemns seems to be supposed new revelations (“deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons” pretending to speak on God’s behalf) rather than the demands of the Old Testament system itself. Abstinence from food could realistically be grounded in either. The truly “creative” false teacher might well weave the two together, creating an “Old Testament plus” system: stuffing their eccentric demands within a veneer of Torah.
Sumney cites two evidences that the matter of proper food consumption laws continued to be an issue. Both concern systems rooted in traditional Jewish practice. This actually only proves that Jewish based dietary restrictions continued to be a source of controversy and not that this was the only basis on which groups rooted their demands.
Although Sumney does no more than cite these, the actual text can be obtained from other places. They are worthy of consideration on grounds of general historical interest and curiosity regardless of whether Judaic based limitations is the source in Paul’s mind in 1 Timothy.
The first quote is from c. 135 A.D. and is Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, 47. As I read the section, mainstream Christians were of two minds of what to do with individual Jews who wished to continue with Jewish customs. Some would have nothing to do with them and rejected them from fellowship.
Justin was considerably different. So long as they were “not inducing them [Gentiles] either to be circumcised like themselves, or to keep the Sabbath, or to observe any other such ceremonies, then I hold that we ought to join ourselves to such, and associate with them in all things as kinsmen and brethren.” In embracing Jewish Christians continuing these traditional practices, it is viewed as unacceptable only if it envolves trying to “compel” Gentiles to also adopt them and if they are “striv[ing] in every way to persuade other men” to do so. (Today we would perhaps say, “if they are vigorously agitating the issue.”)
Again, without quoting, Sumney also refers to the evidence from the Ebionites in Contra Celsum 5.60-66 (c. 250 A.D.). He assumes the same folk were under discussion in what Justin had to say, above. I note two references to the group, which I reproduce in full since they are not very long (the context is much longer however but does not directly discuss the group):
Chapter 62: Let it be admitted, moreover, that there are some who accept Jesus, and who boast on that account of being Christians, and yet would regulate their lives, like the Jewish multitude, in accordance with the Jewish law,--and these are the twofold sect of Ebionites, who either acknowledge with us that Jesus was born of a virgin, or deny this, and maintain that He was begotten like other human beings,--what does that avail by way of charge against such as belong to the Church, and whom Celsus has styled “those of the multitude?”
Chapter 65: For there are certain heretical sects which do not receive the Epistles of the Apostle Paul, as the two sects of Ebionites, and those who are termed Encratites. Those, then, who do not regard the apostle as a holy and wise man, will not adopt his language, and say, “The world is crucified to me, and I unto the world.”
In one text we read that they wished to live “in accordance with the Jewish law” and in the other that they rejected the apostle Paul’s epistles as authoritative. Neither mentions or implies that scruples about food lay anywhere near the heart of their teaching. They seem to have wanted to effectively make Christianity a sect of Judaism rather than just follow those earlier food codes. Their agenda included food matters but was far more comprehensive.
In clear contrast, if similar general “judaizing” were the case in those mentioned in 1 Timothy 4, would Paul not have been putting that “front and center” as he does in epistles where it was the problem? His argument is very different and only emphasizes one element that was found among such Jews--what food to eat. Does not the movement being faced almost have to represent a mind frame drastically different from the traditional “judaizing” one?
The possibility of a Gentile Gnostic style vegetarianism rather than a Jewish style limited meat diet being under consideration. When we think of “not eating meats” within a first century context we naturally think in terms of a Jewish sectarian movement. On the other hand when we expand the prohibition of the chapter to cover a far wider range of dietary prohibitions we are immediately forced to face the possibility that we have a Gentile rather than a Jewish cultic agenda in mind.
Either Gentile or Jewish orientated, we are almost certainly dealing with an ongoing, year round rule of practice. If it were a special occasion prohibition, the future controversy fits in much better with the foods being abstained from at times of the year especially important to either Jews in general or Christians in particular (cf. the modern season of Lent?). However could Paul have avoided tearing into their limiting their prohibition in that manner? Can’t we mentally hear his obvious rebuttal: “Is it that empty a ritual that you only apply it to part of the year rather than making it the standard for year round behavior?”
The development of a general bias against eating any meat would make a certain logical sense: It allowed one to be part of a movement that could “visually” be distinguished from society in general and even the “church population” in particular. It would be sacrificing something one would normally enjoy having, but still not be “too big a sacrifice” for many to make. We ground that assertion on the fact that the amount of meat consumed by most households in the ancient world was modest already.
What would be different would be making vegetarianism obligatory (or anything near it) rather than as the result of economic disadvantage. However this provided a certain advantage itself in “selling” the agenda to potential converts: It would make a religious virtue out of what used to be economic necessity--an appealing concept to those who wanted to further a doctrinally eccentric agenda among the maximum number of people. They were already (almost) used to that lifestyle. Now there was a “moral excellence” and “superiority to others” attached to their abstinence.
Although we could document the dietary practices of the first century from a variety of sources, we will limit ourselves to Jerome H. Neyrey’s useful summary of the dietary research done by several scholars:
oil and wine were the most important commodities, especially grain and the
products made from it. One-half of
the caloric intake of much of the ancient
Mediterranean region came from bread. Since wheat was much superior to barley, the
husband who provided an estranged wife [under the provision of Ket. 5:8-9 in the Mishnah]
with barley bread was required to provide her twice the ration of wheat. Vegetables (lentils, beans, peas, chickpeas,
lupines, cabbage and turnips) were common, but of much inferior status. Olive oil and fruit, principally the dried
fig, were also a required part of the provisions an estranged husband must
provide. Another quarter of the caloric
intake came from wine, usually for males and wealthy women. It is estimated that an adult male in ancient
Meat and poultry were expensive and rarely eaten by peasants. Most people ate it only on feast days or holidays, though temple priests ate it in abundance. Livestock kept solely to provide meat was unknown in Roman Palestine and was later prohibited by the Talmudic sages. Fish was a typical Sabbath dish. Milk products were usually consumed as cheese and butter. Eggs, especially chicken eggs, were also an important food. Honey was the primary sweetener (figs met some needs) and was widely used in the Roman period. Salt served not only as a spice but also as a preservative of meat and fish; pepper, ginger and other spices were imported and expensive. . . . Fish, especially in fish sauces, formed a regular part of the diet.
Neyrey also provides a useful insight into how what might be a mere eccentric action when practiced by only one person could easily become transformed into a unifying mark of independence from and rejection of the larger group when turned into an obligatory rule of faith for all: “Thus analysis of the symbolic importance of dietary restrictions has much to say about who belongs to the group and who is welcome. After all, ‘you are what you eat’ (i.e., group identity confirmed by specific diet); but then ‘likes eat with likes’ (i.e., group identity confirmed by commensality).”
The word “foods” in 4:3 has traditionally had imposed upon it the more limited meaning of “meat” and that continues to be the case. Richard Young argues that, “Commentators usually interpret broma in this passage in the specialized sense of ‘animal flesh.’ ” (In other words that certain types of “meat” are prohibited--encouraging the idea that Jewish limitations are in mind.) The KJV’s “forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving. . . .” surely bears much of the responsibility for this. “Meats” was retained in the late 19th century by the ASV and ERV. Beyond about that time, one rarely finds translations retaining it—including none of our comparative ones we use in the current study.
Even so we seem inevitably driven to that interpretation of the “foods” under consideration. For if meats are not under the subject, we are left totally without guidance as to what foods Paul had in mind. If it is not the broad category of either “meat” or “vegetables,” it virtually has to be some combination within one or both groups. I suppose that one could argue that the language is kept vague because of divisions that existed--or would exist in the future--within these unorthodox movements, with one faction specifying certain foods and another something different. That would practically beg for Paul to interject “and they won’t even agree on which foods are to be avoided!”
Hence we seem to be pushed back to the heretics insisting upon an absolutist division and the most practical one seems to be the prohibition of all forms of meat eating and not just that connected with the Mosaical Law: in other words what we would call “vegetarianism.” But as we’ll note below, even then the list of what meat products are actually prohibited in order to be “truly” vegetarian can vary immensely according to various streams of thought. One suspects the same was true back then--whether they particularly wanted to admit it to outsiders or not.
vegetarianism is under discussion, they might have insisted this be done on the
basis of it restoring the rightful “original order” in
This prohibition could be read as providing an implicit permission to innovate and eat animal flesh if they desired. On the other hand, the original wording in chapter 1 gave both humans and animals only the right to eat “herbs.” If it carries the connotation of limitation—and, frankly, it probably does—then neither human nor animal were made in such a way as to seek out a meat diet.
Something changed—presumably at the time of the “fall” in Genesis 3. In Genesis 4 we find the first sacrifices and they were both meat and vegetable:
3 And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. 4 Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, 5 but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
Whatever else we conclude from this text, it was a meat offering that was accepted by God. Furthermore, Abel was clearly a shepherd for the offering was from “the firstborn of his flock.” Would there be any rational reason for raising a flock if you weren’t going to eat of it?
In rebuttal to that assumption it has been argued that Abel raised sheep strictly to have animals for himself and others to sacrifice to God and to provide clothing for them to wear. But when the sacrifice is eatable and resources are inevitably limited, would it make any sense not to use them for dietary purposes as well? God found them “clean” and “pure” enough to receive as an acceptable sacrifice. On that precedent was Abel likely to consider them unacceptable for his own use as well?
Hence the acceptance of such a sacrifice surely must carry the implication that consuming meat was at least by now acceptable to God. Can one think of any case in the Bible where God accepted or demanded the offering of something he considered sinful for the offerer to consume? Does not acceptance therefore imply approval as well?
Certainly at some time something changed for what is not arguable is that by the time of Noah’s flood God explicitly endorsed meat consumption:
1 So God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. 2 And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be on every beast of the earth, on every bird of the air, on all that move on the earth, and on all the fish of the sea. They are given into your hand. 3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs. 4 But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Genesis 9).
Hence it is clear that God had no intention of making vegetarianism a permanent part of humankind’s existence.
Note: The picture of the idyllic perfect future
that is found in Isaiah 11:1-9 is also introduced as evidence that
vegetarianism is God’s ideal. Far more
accurately it is the verbal picture of formerly dangerous foes coexisting
peacefully within the kingdom that Christ established. It is a reference to ideal behavioral
patterns rather than ideal diet.
If the theological dreamers did not go this route of reasoning from the Old Testament, the problem might well be a manifestation of Gnosticism. And it is within this context one normally finds interpreters going due to the widespread conviction that the epistle deals with an early form of the movement. Even if that be the case, it does not answer the question of whether this is Gentile or Jewish Gnosticism: neither group was immune from this type of thinking. Indeed it is highly probable that for many “advanced” Jewish Gnostics that their speculations counted for far more than the actual text of scripture. To them that merely formed a jumping off point to develop the esoteric “insights” that mere Bible readers were being “denied.”
Whether thinking in a Gnostic connection or not, the severe limitation of meat or its total elimination made it a logical means for any self-imposed asceticism to “establish” and “prove” their superior spirituality. Since only a (small?) minority were (or would be) spurring this movement, the limitation gave them “bragging rights” in regard to others--surely it must prove my superiority to them! (Note how pride easily fuels asceticism.) Something that is consumed regularly would be one such target for elimination, but so much “easier” would be something rarely consumed but valued as a kind of special treat, as was meat--for most folk in that day and age.
That mentality continues. Quite a few modern individuals claiming to be “Gnostic” argue that eating meat should be avoided, not purely for “spiritual” self-enlightenment reasons, but even for health ones as well.
Wiser individuals advocating such a
change concede that the transition to a meatless regimen should be carried out
carefully and over a period of time lest one compromise one’s health. Others making the same claim to be Gnostic
consider it far fetched to do such at all.
Isn’t there evidence that plants have what can only be called an anxiety
response when others nearby are destroyed?
Moderation is fine; banning killing food for pleasure rather than eating
is fine; but killing anything living inflicts, so to speak, a harm on those of the same kind.
If modern individuals claiming special Gnostic “insights” can disagree over such matters, would it be surprising if there weren’t similar divisions in the ancient world? Furthermore, what foods are abstained from varies from one vegetarian to another. One in-depth medical advice website sums it up in this manner:
The term “vegetarian” is really a misnomer, since vegetarians eat more than just vegetables. Vegetarian simply means a plant-based diet. There are several kinds of vegetarian diets, defined by what types of foods are consumed:
· A strict vegetarian, a vegan, avoids all foods of animal origin, including meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, and eggs.
· Lacto-vegetarians include dairy products in their diet. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians also eat dairy products and eggs.
· Pesco-vegetarians eat fish, dairy products, and eggs along with plant foods. (We believe this is the healthiest diet for most people).
· Finally, there are semi-vegetarians, who cheat a little and eat a little poultry along with fish, as well as dairy products and eggs. Most veggie lovers are not strict vegans
Again, it is likely—by the very nature of the case—that vegetarians in the ancient world also varied in a parallel manner among themselves. Different people; different circumstances. Quite possibly even regional variations and factions within the broader Gnostic-vegetarian movement.
The order of the words is important. The Gnostics weren’t vegetarians who happened to be Gnostics. They were vegetarian because they were Gnostics and thought it reflected a spiritual insight denied others. Note that it grew out of religious-spiritual perceptions (however misguided) and not, primarily at least, health ones.
And, yes, the early centuries unquestionably did have Gnostics who were known to embrace vegetarianism—but whether as far back as the life of Paul is unprovable, but certainly not improbable. After all, if “X” (whatever it may be) grows out of Gnosticism in year 300, would it be at all unlikely that similar bent thinking caused a variant of the same phenomena among first century advocates?
When we finally start reaching written documentation as to the details of Gnostic beliefs—and it did come in a variety of forms according to which particular faction we have in mind—a negative view of both marriage and meat eating went hand in hand. Richard Young provides a concise analysis of how the banning of both might easily become interlocked:
This nexus reveals
that the opponents were envolved in a dualistic
belief system, similar to the Gnostic teachings that plagued the church during
the second and third centuries. It is
clear that they held physical things were evil and spiritual things were
good. Thus procreation (e.g.,
marriage, sexual relations) or any fruit of procreation (e.g., physical bodies,
animal flesh) were evil. Gnostic
groups of the first several centuries regularly forbade both marriage and meat
eating. We should note in passing that a
similar dualistic belief was the reason for the strict vegetarianism among the
Syrian Gnostic-Christian sects that produced much of the literature to “prove”
Jesus and the apostles were vegetarian.
Actually the beliefs the author confronts here in
It makes perfect sense, but if it was this simple why in the world didn’t Paul launch a pointed frontal assault on the linkage of such things together? Why hit the outgrowths of the theory rather than the flawed and erroneous core on which it was built? Does it really sound consistent with the blunt speaking apostle Paul to tear at the fruits rather than tearing the very roots out of the ground?
Hence it would seem far more likely that the doctrine of “all flesh as evil” evolved later to explain why both marriage and eating meats were prohibited. In other words, it was the result of trying to meaningfully link together two such very different phenomena—the exact opposite of this scenario that the doctrine gave birth to the two practices. Rather the reverse was very likely the case: the two practices were linked together by a “systematic theologian” to provide a comprehensive explanation for both prohibitions.
Powerful to me is Young’s invocation of the fact that we know by direct statement that Paul had no problem with voluntary absenteeism from meat--at least when it was not linked to some esoteric mystical doctrine that promoted the delusion of superior spirituality. He doesn’t refer to any specific verses in Romans 14, but these would surely be among the ones most directly relevant,
1 Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. 2 For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. 3 Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. 4 Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.
10 But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. 13 Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.
14 I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
19 Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense. 21 It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.
Paul argues that there is nothing inherently wrong in limiting oneself to a “vegetarian” diet and clearly implies (verse 10) that neither eater nor non-eater can rightly show contempt, disrespect, or rejection of someone whose behavior is the exact opposite on this matter. Nor are we to act in such a manner than we become a “stumbling block” that causes them to adopt a behavior they would not otherwise practice (verse 12).
Clearly something has arisen that causes the apostle to adopt a far stronger position and harsher language in 1 Timothy. What was it? Young is convinced that vegetarianism is the pivotal issue in Romans 14. From that he goes on to explain Paul’s indignation on the grounds “that it was not vegetarianism per se that was under attack and regarded as heresy, but rather the debasing of God’s creation. The author condemns only those who turn vegetarianism into an absolute law because they believe that the physical creation is evil.”
He argues that the point of the chapter is the question of “eating meat offered to idols.” He is wrong: 1 Corinthians 8 is the place that discusses that particular issue—explicitly and at length.
Instead Romans 14 is actually talking about limiting oneself to eating the meats approved of by the Mosaical Law--note the use of “unclean” in verse 14--and whether one should encourage that individual to eat meats that he cannot in clear conscience consume due to long years (or decades) of following the old religion. To present the issue in terms of the propriety of a vegetarian diet (verse 2), takes a lot of the potential “sting” out of the argument Paul makes. It is adopted as a kind of euphemism to make the topic easier to handle on an emotional level regardless of whether one were Gentile or Jewish convert.
Furthermore in Romans 14 Paul is discussing encouraging Jewish traditionalists to change their behavior. Indeed, there seems a clear overtone of “psychological intimidation”—to pressure the person to eat “unclean” meats. The consumer of a wider range of foods is to avoid even the hint of demanding such, Paul insists. Just like you wouldn’t think it proper to coerce a vegetarian to do so even though you will eat anything and everything yourself.
Now in 1 Timothy 4, we have the very opposite situation. It is the person with a limited food diet who is trying to pressure (or will in the future) the one with a broader range of preferences--to limit his or her choices to those the limiter insists are the right ones. The food limiters are doing exactly what Paul rebukes in Romans 14: pressuring people to reverse their prior customs. They are “show[ing] contempt for your brother” (verse 10). They are putting a stumbling block in their way (verse 12), trying to get them to accept limitations out of some reason other than personal preference. They are walking in the same kind of path of spiritual destruction (verse 15) that Paul had strongly rebuked.
In other words they had “upped the ante” and had “declared war,” determined to pressure others to adopt their preferences. Wouldn’t that—in and of itself—explain the stringent rebuke Paul gives? Indeed, having made the argument for mutual respect in Romans 14, would not the growth of a faction insisting on “accept our custom—now, period,” compel Paul to come out strongly against their excess? Especially when it is grafted onto major error of an entirely different type, the prohibition of marriage.
Yes, there may well be a shared assumption in both teachings, as analyzed above. However at this early stage it could just as easily be that advocates of the two views found each other very cordial to the others’ views and found mutual comfort in their shared battle to impose “needed” restrictions that were being widely ignored—even if there was only sympathy toward the other position rather than full scale embracing of it. Either way, the views existed, were gaining popularity, and Paul saw that it was going to get worse and, therefore, urgently needed to be dealt with.
Did they demand vegetarianism because of the post-resurrection “diet” of Jesus? Some suspect a New Testament “dietary” basis rather than an Old Testament rationale for their teaching. They argue that the sectarians were advocating a “realized eschatology” (others call it a “over-realized eschatology”): the eternal age had begun with the resurrection of Jesus and, therefore, we should imitate what He ate after the resurrection—fish and honeycomb. This would also explain the criticism of marriage for did not Jesus say that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven” (Matthew )?
At least here there is a scripture text in Luke 24 to (imaginatively) work from:
36 Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, “Peace to you.” 37 But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. 38 And He said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”
40 When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. 41 But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, “Have you any food here?” 42 So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb [critical Greek texts omit the italicized words, rw]. 43 And He took it and ate in their presence.
In John 21:9-13 Jesus appeared while the apostles were bringing in a fresh catch of fish. He commands that they “come and eat breakfast” (verse 12), one that consisted of fish and bread (verse 13). Although the text does not say He ate of them, are we really going to believe He simply stood there and “twiddled His thumbs” while they ate, rather than partaking as well?
Having noted that there is one or more Biblical text to (weakly) work from, a fundamental problem with the “realized eschatology” scenario is the same as we found earlier: Why in the world does Paul simply attack the fruits of the doctrine rather than tearing out of the ground the theoretical roots on which it is based? In the absence of doing that, would one not be allowing some other error to ultimately spring out of the same misconception?
Furthermore, Jesus is still appearing on earth during the forty days interim between resurrection and ascension. Then He will abide permanently in heaven till His Second Coming (Acts 1:9-11). Why would we assume anything else than that, while on earth, He would consume whatever food His followers were consuming--the same kind of foods He had consumed during His personal ministry? In John 21 they had just hauled in fish, so that would have been the natural thing to eat.
What He was doing in both cases was proving that He was really there . . . in the flesh . . . and that it wasn’t a delusion. Surely any other food they happened to be partaking of--or was immediately available--would have done the job equally well.
Even after seeing Him earlier, it would still have been startling to “see a dead man walking.” Hence they needed repeat reassurance as to the reality of what was happening and He provided it yet again. He doesn’t present what He eats as if it is to be their behavioral norm in the future and He provides nothing in what He says to even hint at such a demand. Teaching on that topic was not part of His agenda; what was His agenda was to repeatedly prove that He was quite alive and that death had not put an end to His existence.
Did these theorists have a core agenda of denying married people the right to partake of the Communion? We discussed earlier that the controversy makes best sense if the fantasizing faction were imposing a permanent ban on meat eating. Although A. J. Feko is more concerned about saving the passage from condemning the vegetarianism that results (see the next section below), he also offers a different framework that he believes best explains its meaning in regard to marriage. As he see it, these heretical folks’ criticism was centered on the extremely limited propriety of that institution and how it denied one participation in a core element of Christian worship:
It’s unnecessary to assume this refers to any group of vegetarians, heretical or otherwise. There are many strong reasons to conclude that these verses refer to a sect that denied either Agape fellowship, or the Eucharist, to people who marry. . . .
The word for thanksgiving “eucharistias” is used twice in this passage and the word rendered “received” is “metalêpsin” (or metalêmpsin in the Critical text). This is the only place in the New Testament where this word is used. Metalêpsis is a common synonym for Communion in Greek. . . .
[I]t’s certainly possible that the sect mentioned in this verse might have been of the sort that is commonly called by scholars “Encratic” or “Gnostic.” Many Gnostic sects had “higher sacraments” for those they considered more spiritually advanced. It’s easy to picture a Gnostic group holding that eucharistic participation is too holy for married people. But it could also simply be an overzealous sect.
It’s easy to see how this pious practice could have become exaggerated by overzealous people to exclude all married folk from Agape (or Eucharistic) participation. Also, the less than spiritual quality of Agapes in some regions may have encouraged others to restrict it to virgins [citing Jude, verses 12-13].
He provides some additional fascinating information on the development of church “orthodox” and “heretical” thinking, but this is the core of his argument. It lacks one important thing: Anything beyond the vaguest linkage to the Communion! There is nothing in the text or context to make that jump into mind. There is nothing beyond the vaguest whiff that would even put one on the trail to such a conclusion.
If Paul meant the communion why wouldn’t he come out and use the word for it instead of a word used--apparently in non-Biblical Greek--to refer to the same thing? Furthermore Paul uses the plural “foods”—would a little fruit of the vine and a little bread really satisfy wording that far more naturally suggests the substance of a regular meal?
And trying to drag Jude, verses 12-13, advances the argument not at all. Jude rebukes what goes with the eating. Paul is rebuking the prohibition of eating. There is an ocean between the two concepts.
Hence this approach substitutes extreme conjecture for an immediately understandable meaning that lies on the very surface of the text. Rarely has the old adage been more appropriate than here: “The text says what it means and means what it says.” Why burden it with a load of improbable speculation?
Nor is the reasoning enhanced by the adoption of A. T. Hanson’s reasoning in Studies in the Pastorals: “It is sanctified by the word of God and prayer”—the “prayer” refers to the giving of thanks for the Lord Supper’s bread and fruit of the vine; “the word of God” refers to its use in that and any other service. The closest he can come to any reason to accept this conjecture--one that has no obvious roots in our text--is that the Greek word for “prayer” is too “solemn” a word for ordinary prayer and better fits prayer given in a church service.
The only place he makes sense is that “sanctified by the word of God” doesn’t really fit our personal prayers. He goes far afield when he insists that it is “forced” to say that the expression “is being used as a synonym for Scripture.” Well if the revealed word of God teaches that all foods are clean what better authority is there? Why in the world wouldn’t Paul regard as deciding the issue, God’s revealed will?
Furthermore, the use of the
expression as referring to that subject is hardly unique to the Timothy
passage. Consider, for example, John
10:35 which explicitly uses “scripture” and “the word
of God” as identical. Then there are the
various texts quoted in the New Testament where the expression “word of God” is
equated with what came from scripture (Matthew 15:6, for example.)
Attempts to remove eating of meats entirely from the passage. A. J. Feko, perhaps having actually been faced with such a foolish assertion, began a lengthy article on 1 Timothy 4:1-5 with the claim that this is “the one text of Scripture used by some to teach the compulsory eating of flesh.” The text is not demanding that one eat meats. Rather it teaches that one can not rightly prohibit the consumption of meats—the very opposite. Indeed, it is not even condemning what one does voluntarily out of any motive, good or foolish. Rather they were “forbidding” that anyone dare do differently.
As to our text itself, Feko is convinced that it cannot have meats in mind for the word translated “food” is too broad. Furthermore there is a meat-specific word that could easily have been used, if that were the apostle’s point. Excellent observation—but it still misses what Paul is driving at: it is wrong to prohibit others from eating any kind of food, whatever it may be. That includes meat, fish, or anything else.
Furthermore what the apostle refers to as “foods” in verse 3 is referred to as “creature” in the next verse and Feko notes that in Revelation 8:9 “the creatures in the sea” (NKJV: living creatures in the sea”). This has no usefulness in proving his point: because it includes more than meat does not remove the fact that it includes meat as well!
In short the text prohibits imposing on others as a religious obligation compulsory abstention from meat, fish, or any other eatable product designed for that purpose. One may abstain out of personal preference. But the moment you demand that others do so as well, you cross the line into overt sin.
It is hard to imagine that Paul would have thought any better of it if you tried to “secularize” the concept by saying you were doing it to “protect” nature and God’s creation. In fact it’s hard to imagine that he would have thought it anything short of ludicrous. Even so, this “fantasy” does not cross the line he draws unless you are demanding others share in your—call it anything from “enlightenment” to “delusion.”
In what way were these false teachers hypocrites (verse 2) on this matter? One would naturally assume that, like the prohibition of marriage, they would provide rationalizations for themselves and/or their followers to ignore these prohibitions. Either on an ongoing basis, upon special occasions, or even as the reward for some special achievement—to be cynical, an extra-large “special donation” to the church, or to the preacher/teacher binding the new rules.
Obligatory prohibitions adopted as prerequisites of “faithfulness” is what Paul attacks. If one voluntarily declines to marry or to eat certain foods that is not intended by Paul to be prohibited —whether done out of personal preference or because in his or her specific situation it seems to serve a greater good. Although we have already asserted this, it would be useful to provide additional evidence beyond the fact that the prohibition in the text is quite specific and explicit—prohibiting others from doing this, rather than voluntarily deciding to act in such a manner without requiring that others do so as well.
Paul’s own personal practice verifies this. Though he was a vigorous defender of the right to marry it was a right he voluntarily declined to exercise. Although he saw nothing wrong with eating meats of all types, there were circumstances when it was best not to exercise that right and that is the policy he embraced. He develops the thought at length in Romans 14:1-21 and the final verse sums up his thesis quite compactly: “It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.”
1 Corinthians 10:28 also concisely makes the same point: “But if anyone says to you, ‘This was offered to idols,’ do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you, and for conscience’ sake; for ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.’ ” This was the kind of standard Paul lived by, “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians ).
The remarks by Fairbairn on this theme, as quoted as quoted by A. E. Humphreys, would seem appropriate in this context:
does not deny that a person may occasionally abstain from certain meats or from
marriage, with advantage to his own spiritual life or the good of the
If temporary fasting should dispose and enable one to fight more successfully against the lusts of the flesh, or if by abstaining from marriage one could in particular spheres of labor, or in certain conjunctures of the Church’s history, more effectually serve the interests of the Gospel than otherwise, then the higher principles of that Gospel, the nobler ends of a Christian calling, will undoubtedly justify the restraint or the sacrifice.
But to do this is only to subordinate a less to a greater good: it creates no factitious distinctions in respect to the allowable or forbidden, holy or unholy, in the ordinary relationship and circumstances of life; and calls for a rejection of the natural good in these only when it may be conducive as means to a definite spiritual end.
 Gundry, Testament, 840.
 Luke T. Johnson, Letters, 238.
Evans, “Some Will Depart from the Faith—1 Timothy
 Phillip J. Long, “The Pastoral Epistles—The Opponents
 For an interesting collection of primarily Mormon quotes asserting such had occurred see Robert W. Bowman, Jr., “Acts 20:29-30: Does It Teach A Total Apostasy?,” part of the Institute for Religious Research website, at: http://bib.irr.org/acts-2029-30-does-it-teach-total-apostasy (dated May 7, 2015; accessed January 2020). Bowman’s assertion that the text does not refer to an eventual general apostasy is probably quite misleading: Whether specifically referred to here or not, how can one possibly conclude that anything else happened when so much of what is done today is in blatant conflict with the New Testament pattern--and has been for many centuries?
 Arichea and Hatton, 89.
 Luke T. Johnson, Letters, 239.
 As I did the final proof reading on this section, I stumbled across a sad example of how such delusion is unquestionably still with us. A woman, the newspaper report tells us, was driving around waiting for some kind of special “calling from God.” Apparently frustrated at not yet receiving such, she felt the need to “prove her faith” by intentionally causing an accident! “God took care of her by not having her injured,” the police reported her insisting. “[She] also stated she did not care if the other people were injured because God would have taken care of them.” Two were taken to the hospital as the result of her foolishness.
 Phillip J. Long. “Pastoral” (internet).
 Mike Ratliff, “In Hypocrisy of Ones Speaking Lies Having Been Seared in Their Own Conscience,” part of the Possessing the Treasure website, at:
 John Simkin, “Slavery in
 As quoted by Ibid.
 As quoted by Ibid. William D. Phillips, Slavery from Roman Times to the Early Transatlantic Trade (Manchester University Press, 1985), 29, implicitly dates this to the second century.
 Ben Witherington III, Letters and Homilies, n. 310, p. 254.
 Jerry L. Sumney stresses the lack of clear evidence and concludes,
“Recognizing that these teachers may have other reasons for imposing marriage
regulations leaves no substantial evidence that they advocate a general
asceticism.” See Sumney’s
argumentation in “Paul and His Opponents,” in Paul
and His Opponents, edited by Stanley E. Porter, Volume 2 (
 Ray C. Stedman, “Fraudulent Faith,” at: http://www.raystedman.org/new-testament/timothy/fraudulent-faith. (Dated: 1981; accessed: January 2016.)
 Steven D. Fraade, “Ascetical Aspects of Ancient Judaism,” in Jewish Spirituality: From the Bible through the Middle Ages, edited by Arthur Green, 253-288 (New York: Crossroad, 1986), 266. Reproduced in pdf form at: http://www.academia.edu/301773/Ascetical_Aspects_of_Ancient_Judaism. (Accessed: July, 2015.)
 Ibid., 268.
 Jerry L. Sumney. “Servants of Satan,” “False Brothers” and Other Opponents of Paul, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 188 (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, Ltd., 1999), 261.
 Gillian Clarke, “Women and Asceticism in Late Antiquity: The Refusal of Status and Gender,” in Asceticism, edited by Vincent L. Wimbush and Richarfd Valantasis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 41.
 Jerry L. Sumney. “Servants of Satan,” 263-264.
 Ibid., n. 63, p. 262.
 J. H. Bernard, Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges: 1 Timothy (1906), online at: http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cgt/, on 4:3. (Accessed: October 2015.).
 Geoffrey Wigoder, Almanac of the Bible, as quoted in “Food Laws in the Bible,” part of the “My Jewish Learning” website, at: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/food-laws-in-the-bible/. (Accessed: January 2020.)
 Jerry L. Sumney. “Servants of Satan,” 260.
 Ibid. 260.
 Ibid., n. 46, p. 260.
 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Tyrpho, at the Early Christian Writings website, at: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html. (Accessed: September 2015.)
 Jerome H. Neyrey, “Reader’s Guide to Meals, Food, and Table Fellowship in the New Testament,” at: https://www.3.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/meals.html. (Accessed: January 2020.)
 Richard Young, Is God a Vegetarian? Christianity, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights ([N.p.]: Open Court Press, 1998), n.p. provided.
 Eric Lyons, “Were All Men Vegetarians Before the Flood?,” at: https://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=11&article=1257. (Accessed: January 2020.)
 Samael Aun Weor, “Physical Nourishment,” an extract from his book Introduction to Gnosis (Glorian Publishing, 1971), at: http://gnosticteachings.org/books-by-samael-aun-weor/introduction-to-gnosis/361-physical-nourishment.html. (Accessed: September 2015.)
 Joe Daher, “Is It Wrong to Eat Meat?,” part of the Gnosis for All website, at:
 [Unidentified Author], “12 Frequently Asked Questions About the Vegetarian Diet,” part of the Ask Dr. Sears website, at: http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/feeding-eating/family-nutrition/vegetarian-diets/12-frequently-asked-questions-about-vegetarian-diet. (Accessed: September 2015.)
 Richard Young, n.p. provided.
 Doing the final revising of this volume five years after it began, I must admit I do not have the foggiest where I found this line of reasoning. I have left the section in the text because it makes a twisted kind of sense and it provides a rationale for first century vegetarianism however much that was not the intent of the scriptures that are invoked.
 A. J. Feko. “A Commentary on 1 Timothy 4:1-5,” at: http://www.all-creatures.org/discuss/1tim4.1-5.html. (Accessed: January 2016.)