“I am writing all this to you, hoping I can come to you before too long; but in case I am delayed, you will know how one ought to behave as a member of God’s family—the assembly of the living God, the pillar and foundation that support the truth— and I think you will agree that the mystery of godliness is great: He was revealed in the flesh, proven right in the Spirit; He was seen by the heavenly messengers, preached to outsider nations. He was believed in the world, taken up to the heavens in glory.
But even so, the Spirit very clearly tells us that in the last times some will abandon the true faith because of their
devotion to spirits sent to deceive and sabotage, and mistakenly they will end up following the doctrine of demons. They will be carried away through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences have been branded with a red-hot iron, saying, “Don’t marry. Don’t eat such-and-such foods.” But God created all these to be received with gratitude by people who hold fast to the faith and really comprehend the truth.
For everything God made is good. That means nothing should be rejected as long as it’s received with a grateful heart, for by God’s word and prayer, it is made holy. Place these truths before the brothers and sisters. If you do, you will be a good servant of Jesus the Anointed, raised and fed on words of true belief, trained in the good instruction you have so clearly followed.
Reject worldly fables. Refuse old wives’ tales. Instead, train yourself toward godliness. Although training your body has certain payoffs, godliness benefits all things—holding promise for life here and now and promise for the life that is coming. This statement is worthy of trust and our full acceptance. This is what we work so hard for! This is why we are constantly struggling: because we have an assured hope fixed upon a living God who is the Savior of all humankind—especially all of us who believe." (The Voice)
Because the Apostle Paul cared about Timothy and wanted him and his church to succeed, Paul gave him some important advice about what it looks like - and doesn't look like - to pursue true godliness. To build on a strong foundation, followers of Christ need to do two things: 1) believe things that are true, and 2) do the hard work of living in that truth.
1 The Importance of True Beliefs
Paul makes it clear that the mystery of godliness is all about Christ: revealed in the flesh, proven right in the Spirit; seen by the heavenly messengers, preached to outsider nations, believed in the world, and taken up to the heavens in glory. We get off track when we start to think it’s all about us instead of Christ. Paul lists three types of wrong beliefs that undermine our pursuit of godliness: Doctrines of Demons (Religious Deception), Worldly Fables (Cultural Lies) and Old Wives' Tales (Spiritual Tradition).
“Doctrine of demons” in this context is immediately followed by a description of liars who think religious favor is something people can earn, so they erect false guidelines or obligations that they claim people must follow if they want God to bless them. These kind of people set up false standards of what it meant to be holy - in Timothy’s church, it was “Don’t get married" (perhaps a reflection of the Greek disdain of the physical world, including sex) and “Don’t eat food X” (likely a reference to the Jewish adherents to the clean and unclean foods in the Old Testament). Either way, they had taken something that God had given as a good thing and made it a bad thing and used it as a tool of manipulation and control.
Paul says their consciences were “seared with an iron,” as if they had become so fixated with their own standards of holiness that done damage to their souls. The original word is a medical term for cauterization. They had wounded themselves and cauterized the wound, which robbed them of sensitivity. Their judgment and harshness on secondary issues they thought would earn them God’s favor had made them incapable of empathizing with or extending grace to others, and they had lost sight of the Christ. How does this false spirituality look today?
- “If I raise your kids in this particular way, I am a more godly parent, and my kids will automatically grow up to be strong Christians.”
- “Sunday rest HAS to look like how I do it.”
- “I don’t have a TV. We just watch movies (or nothing), and people who consume more entertainment than I do are bad people.”
- “My devotions and prayer life and spiritual disciplines make me better or more attune with God than yours.”
- “If you pray just the right way or make all the right choices, you will never experience pain, poverty or sickness.”
By all means, let’s talk about prayer and let’s pray. Let’s raise our kids in godly households. Let’s be sure our entertainment choices do not corrupt us or control us. Let’s not forget the importance of spiritual disciplines or Sabbath rest.
But you won’t earn you salvation no matter what you choose in these areas. You will not become spiritually elite. If you think you are earning God’s favor by the way you live out issues like this, you don’t understand the gospel, and you are taking good things – prayer, spiritual disciplines, Sabbath rest, quality family life – and using it in such a way that you will “sear your conscience.” You will become judgmental and withdrawn, lacking empathy and understanding, and you will struggle to understand why everybody keeps talking about freedom in Christ.
“Worldly Fables” in this context are the cultural stories that shape how people view life. There were plenty of myths and fables floating around, and they were damaging. People were told crops grew because they gods has sex, so they would go to the temple and engage in ritualistic sex to gain the favor of the gods. They were told the gods were petty, jealous, and demanding, so that’s what they became. Whatever we think is the standard, we will copy. We will inevitably look like the things or the people we worship. Look at how this works in our culture. We turn our TV and pick up a magazine and we are told certain cultural stories:
- Your worth is connected with wealth, beauty or education
- Science, not religion offers all the answers
- Sexual expression is healthy; sexual restraint is bad
- People who make moral judgments are oppressive jerks.
- The good life looks a lot like Hollywood.
These are all worldly fables, and we have to be careful they don’t seep into our faith.
“Old wives tales” is probably a reference to superstitious beliefs that had little basis in fact. In Paul’s time, women were generally not educated, and it’s no surprise that many of their explanations or ideas weren’t well informed. I heard more than once growing up, “Rub butter on a burn!” That's actually a terrible idea, but that's the way well-meaning but uninformed information can undermine true health. There is an equivalent in church life:
- God helps those who help themselves
- When praises go up, blessings come down
- Charity begins at home.
- Cleanliness is next to godliness
What do these have in common? They are not in the Bible, but we often hear them used as if they are. Even worse, we see plenty of misquoted Bible verses that distort the message of Scripture. One verse is taken out of context and then a theology is built up around it. Here's just one example. Growing up, I was told that Christians should never go into a place where alcohol is served, play cards or go to the theater because all these things could be used badly, and so we could lead people to believe we were living badly, and Christians were to “abstain from all appearance of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:22). We had an entirely separatist culture. The problem is that’s not what the verse is about. Paul was telling the early church that what when someone claims they were moved by the Holy Spirit or when someone prophecies, they weren’t to blindly accept it. They were to exercise discernment by clinging to what was good and rejecting what was evil.
So what is the solution? How do we avoid crumbling under these false beliefs? How do we build strong as we press on? Through good instruction. It's not popular to say, but some things are true and some things are not. We have to be bold for truth. We speak truth in love. We speak boldly but gently. But we have to confront and argue and defend at times. We have to identify error and lies at times.
I have recently heard the claim that brothers and sisters in Christ need to stop arguing with each other. We should all just get along. That's true in many areas that are of secondary importance, but on the issues of primary importance there comes a point when we must take a stand. If people deny the physical resurrection of Christ or claims that we can be saved apart from the person and work of Christ, they are not our brother or sister in Christ. They may be our biological siblings, or fellow citizens, or co-workers, and they certainly share in the image of Christ which we have all been given. They deserve to be treated with dignity, worth, and honor. Let's be clear about that. But they are not our brothers or sisters in Christ.
If you think this sounds challenging, you're not alone. Even Paul knew it was a tall order. That's why he says we will have to train. Spirituality is so much more than just a sense of being in God’s presence, or as a supernatural experience that happens entirely on God’s side where everything is imparted to us. Don’t get me wrong – God does His work, and it’s miraculous and beautiful. Thank God our salvation and righteousness are not up to us to.
But disciples are not passive. There is a reason Paul uses sports analogies. The audience lived in cultures that got it. You don’t absorb your way to a first place ribbon. You don't finish the race by sitting and watching. Paul even uses a word that wrestlers used at the time to refer to the hard work of grappling.
You are called to train spiritually like an athlete trains physically. Being “trained in good instruction” prepares you for the fight for true belief. You will have to wrestle with false ideas and worldviews at times. There are a lot of voices out there clamoring for your attention. Don’t just accept what they say at face value – and that includes what you hear taught from the pulpit or what you read on this blog. Read the Bible for yourself. Study respected commentaries. Pray. Then do all those things with other Christians so you can process what you are learning as a community of believers.
As you train in instruction, you train in godliness. You mature. You build spiritual muscles and skills. You develop into the disciple God has intended you to be. And you will find that it “benefits all things, holding promise for life here and now and promise for the life that is coming.”
We are not training in this way so we can look better, or get a better job, or be able to afford nicer clothes, or guarantee our kids will turn out like we want them to, or to stay healthy, or avoid persecution… That is not why we train in truth. We train in truth because our only hope is in the truth of who Christ is and the reality of what His work has accomplished.
Pursue true belief. Train purposefully. That is the only way we can begin to understand the mystery of godliness and build on a foundation that cannot be shaken.