True of False?
Today we continue on our series of sermons on the theme legacy and we are looking at the letters of Paul to Timothy. Last week we began by looking at the relationship between Paul and Timothy and we got a sense of the background of the letters so we could better understand them. And we asked the question how are we raising the next generation in the church. Who are our Timothys and who are our Pauls?
Today we are going to take a deeper look at the message of 1 Timothy and next week we will focus on the message of 2 Timothy.
Last week we learned these letters from Paul to Timothy were written near the end of Paul’s life as he was continuing to mentor Timothy as a young church leader in Ephesus. Now Ephesus was the second-largest city in the Roman Empire at that time. There was a large Jewish community in Ephesus and out of that community grew a large church. Many Gentiles, or non-Jewish persons, were added to the church and so it was quite a collection of diverse people gathered as the church in the city.
Paul spent over two years forming this church and it became the most prominent church in all of Christianity in the first century. Paul has sent Timothy who is his best young associate to take care of the problems in Ephesus and he writes this letter to pass along wisdom and counsel.
The big idea that we find in 1st Timothy is that there were false teachings going on in the church. There were people who had become Christians and they started teaching but they were bringing in from the outside world the pagan influences and philosophies from their early life. They were trying to meld those together with Christianity. But when Paul heard what they were teaching he became concerned that they were teaching things that were not in keeping with the gospel which he had taught the people and which Christ embodied. So Paul is going to address the false teaching by helping Timothy encourage them towards true teaching. He is going to lay out in 1 Timothy what that true teaching looks like.
Paul is then going to address false spirituality that he sees coming from the false teaching. Paul is going to encourage Timothy to teach the people what true spirituality looks like. He called this "godliness."
Today we are going to look at these two things: true and false teaching and true and false spirituality.
We get a sense of how important this is from the very beginning of this letter. Usually when Paul begins a letter he goes on for a whole chapter saying nice things about the people who are in that city. In 1 Timothy however he doesn't do that. He jumps right into the problem which tells you there is urgency in this letter. And so the very first thing right out of the chute is Paul says, “I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine.” (1 Timothy 1:3)
So there are teachers there who are teaching things other than what Paul had taught them. We then probably wonder what the false teaching might be that people are teaching. Well Paul goes on to tell us a little bit more about what these false teachers were teaching. Paul says to command these false teachers, “Not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations.” (1 Timothy 1:4)
Now these people saw themselves as teachers of the law so since they did we have to assume that the genealogies were genealogies in the Old Testament – that was the law. And there are lots of genealogies in the Old Testament. Which were generally not meant to be the foundation for huge doctrines. But presumably they were taking those genealogies and they were building doctrines on top of these genealogies. Which sounded really interesting and people were willing to pay money for it but it wasn’t necessarily true.
In addition to that Paul says that they were bringing in the myths. And remember most of these people were pagans who worshipped the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods. These teachers were bringing in those myths from their past faith and they were integrating them into the Christian faith. Cultural ideas were brought into the church and they were melded together with Christ in something that scholars call "syncretism."
This is the bringing together of two different faiths and making a new third faith. And Paul wants to make it clear that by doing this they are speculating on things they don't know much about. They are teaching these ideas as fact and Paul says this can be dangerous.
Paul goes on to say that they had, “Turned to meaningless talk desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.” (1 Timothy 1:6-7)
Paul is simply saying, “You know I simply want you to teach the gospel the way I taught it to you. I want you to teach that there is a God who created all things and that he sent his son Jesus Christ to be the Savior and Redeemer of all humanity. When you receive this free gift of grace and salvation our response should be to do good works and to help bring about his kingdom. This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ and this is the essence of the gospel. And if you do these things then you will be on the right path. But as it is you’re spending a whole lot of time talking about things you don't even know about and things that don't even matter. And so I want you to come back to the essential truth of the gospel.”
When scholars look at 1 Timothy they often see the beginning of what would become Gnosticism. Maybe you’ve heard this term before, we’ve talked about it in my Wednesday morning Bible study. This was a challenge in the early church because it was a melding together of popular Greco-Roman thoughts and philosophy with the Christian faith. The word Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means "knowledge.”
And the basic idea as we see it develop in 1 Timothy is that there is a God who created the spiritual realm and that God is good and pure and holy. That God created spiritual beings. Some people call them Angels that’s not what they were always called, but we might think of them as angels.
Somewhere along the way one of those angels said, "Let's create matter." God did not create matter but an Angel did and this Angel did it against God's will. Matter, or the physical reality that we see, was an aberration and was not originally supposed to be in existence in God's universe. That Angel then created human flesh from the dust of the earth. The spark of divinity was placed within human beings, but because flesh was an aberration from what God originally intended, there was pain and sickness and suffering and hurt which came from this aberration of flesh.
So God seeing we poor human beings with a divine spark inside yet stuck in human bodies, sought to deliver us from that. God sent a Redeemer and a Savior to give to us a secret knowledge that would deliver us from these mortal bodies and this flesh that was never meant to be. The idea of Gnosticism is that you could find knowledge which would set you free. In life you will experience less pain if you have the secret knowledge and then finally when you died you would pass into his spiritual realm and you would be set free from this prison that is your physical body.
And you can see how that sort of sounds like parts of Christianity, that we have a soul inside of us and that a redeemer was sent to save us. Jesus was this Redeemer who passed on the secrets of the Kingdom of God. The parables begin to sound like that secret knowledge. And so these two ideas got brought together and by the second century this was a huge challenge within the Christian faith.
Let me just remind you that it was not just in ancient times that people had a tendency to take popular ideas from the culture and meld them together with the Christian faith. Christians have done this in every generation. In many ways we continue to struggle with that even today.
So when we ask what does this whole thing about false teaching mean for us today we have to be careful about how we adopt the ideas from our culture which are popular and how we meld them into the Christian faith. Let me give you an example.
Over the course of the last several decades there have been Christians who have adopted what we have come to know as the "prosperity gospel." Some people call it the, "name it and claim it gospel." And if you flip through your channels on cable or satellite television and go through the religious channels you will find some which are really great and some of which have a whole lot of teachers who teach this kind of stuff. They basically say, "God wants you to be rich. God wants you to have more and more. God wants you to have a big house. God wants you to have all these things. And the way that you get that interestingly enough is if you’d send your money to me. If you’ll send your money to our ministry then I will pray for you. You plant your seed and God will meet your need, pressed down and shaken together, running over. God will pour into your life all of these blessings if you will just buy faith and plant your seed in our ministry."
Well that’s kind of an interesting idea because they are quoting Scripture as they talk about being "pressed down, shaken together and blessings running over." And yet somehow they missed the Scriptures where Jesus said, "You cannot serve both God and money." They might talk about them every now and then, but they missed the one where Jesus is talking to the rich young ruler and tells him to, "Sell everything you have and give it to the poor and then come and follow me."
Some preachers of this prosperity gospel take what the culture says is important – how do you determine your worth in our culture? Well you subtract your liabilities from your assets, and that gives you your net worth. Well these folks have taken that idea and said, “Let’s make sure that the Christian gospel fits into that cultural norm. Instead of judging the cultural norm in the light of the gospel they have pushed this cultural desire and drive for more into the box of the gospel.
But we’ve got to be careful about how we judge our ideologies in the light of our fundamental conviction we have about Jesus Christ and the things that He taught us because He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Well when it comes to trying to decide what is true it can be a little bit complicated. How do we know what is true? I remember sitting in a Sunday school class many years ago, before I was a pastor, and the teacher was sharing on a particular topic. And I don’t even remember what it was I just remember being a bit perplexed and confused about what he was teaching. And so I finally raised my hand and I said, "I don't remember ever seeing this in the Scriptures or hearing about this in the Bible. Can you tell me where you got these ideas and the thoughts about this topic?"
“Well I read it in a book.” Really. “Well I know you may have read it in a book but that doesn’t make it true.”
And we know this. Just because something is published in a book or on the Internet does not make it true.
So how do we decide, how do we know what is true?
Christians have a fundamental conviction that the Bible has for us true statements about God, about faith, about life. The Bible is the foundation of our faith and life.
The Bible speaks to us profoundly about faith and life and God's will for us. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, would say that, "Scripture contains everything necessary for salvation." But it’s not written as a dogmatic treatise. It’s not written like, “Here’s all the answers to everything you need just laid out for you. And you can look up and here’s the answer on this page.” Instead this is 2000 years’ worth of reflections of people of faith about God and their life situation and how they heard God whisper to them. And how they understood what God’s will was in the light of their historical circumstances. So even when you go to read the Bible you’ve got to read it with a little bit of help and a little bit of historical knowledge to discover its full impact for transformation. The reality is that we should not read the Bible just for information but for transformation.
We are supposed to read the Bible because it changes our hearts and it helps us learn how to love God with all of our heart, soul mind and strength and how to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This is why we read the Scriptures, not so that we can use it as a weapon towards other people or topics that we happen to feel a certain way about.
I have run into people who say things like, "The Bible says it, so I believe and that settles it." Listen here's what I know as a pastor and a student of the Bible for more than 25 years. You can make the Bible say almost anything that you want to say. You can find five versus about almost anything and twist it into saying that God is in favor of racism, or that God is in favor of abusing women or any one of a number of topics that we would all universally agree are incorrect. If you just take and lift this verse out of its context.
John Wesley was very clear that Scripture was meant to be primary and he used to say that, "I am a man of one book." (homo una libre) This is why we give the third graders Bibles, because it is the foundation of our faith and life. Wesley however said there were other tools that we should use to help us understand our faith more fully. So let me just remind you of what is called the Wesleyan quadrilateral.
So the Bible, if this is a three-legged stool, the Bible is the seat. It is the most important way that we have to discern what is true. But we need help in making sense of it and so we also have the TRADITION of the church. That is what have Christians believed about these texts and how they interpreted them? How have they interpreted faith through the past 2000 years? That includes our current church and small groups and groups of Christians.
Then there is EXPERIENCE of the Holy Spirit. So we invite the Holy Spirit to lead us as a church and as individuals. We listen for the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit leading us.
And finally, there is REASON. God gave us a brain and expects us to use it. And so we bring all of these things to bear in trying to discern truth from error.
Now when it comes to Scripture Paul says this in 2 Timothy. “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
So this is part of the reason why we give third graders and confirmands Bibles. This is why we encourage you to take Disciple Bible Study and other small group Bible study classes which help you to know more fully what the Scriptures teach so that you are theologically informed. We hope that you will experience not only transformation but that you will come to know the truth through these words.
A number of years ago there was a counterfeit operation going on which made headlines here in northern Virginia because there were hundreds of counterfeit $20 bills showing up at stores and businesses in our community. They were interviewing an do you study all the possible counterfeit agent about how they go about not only catching the criminal but finding the counterfeit bills. There are so many $20 bills in circulation and they were done so well so the interviewer wanted to know how it is they would be able to study all the different possible counterfeit bills. You might remember what he said, "We don't study the counterfeit bills. We spend hundreds of hours studying the actual true $20 bill and after we have studied it so well, we know where every little ink drop goes and so you can spot the counterfeit a mile away. You study the real thing."
That's why we invite you to really be informed and to study the Scriptures and to listen for the Holy Spirit. And to learn what Scripture teaches us and what tradition teaches us to know the truth and to see the truth as something different from the error.
Well this false teaching was also leading to a false spirituality in Ephesus, which is where we want to go for the next part of the sermon. In Gnosticism, since flesh and matter were evil and the spirit realm was good, then many Gnostics taught that you should not feed the fleshly part of your life. So if there was something that brought you a lot of pleasure, something that made you feel really good, then you shouldn't do it because that was just feeding the flesh. You don't want to feed the flesh but you want to feed the spirit.
Here are two examples. One was if you were married then you shouldn't have intimate relationships with one another because that is feeding the flesh. Now maybe if you are determined to have a child you might do that, but after that you should refrain and turn off the intimacy because that is catering to the flesh. Better yet, don't ever get married in the first place.
A second thing that they said is that if there is something that you really like to eat and it tastes really good, don’t eat it. Because if it tastes really good then that is like pandering to the flesh. And so you should eat rice cakes all the time. Eat broccoli and brussel sprouts but don't eat anything really tasty because that is pandering to the flesh. That's what you hear in 1 Timothy 4:3 when Paul says this. These false teachers, “They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.”
Let me just say a word about what Paul says there. What Paul’s making clear is, “You know what, things that are a blessing and you really like to eat, things that taste really good - like for me its Krispy Crème Donuts. It's not that they are bad for you and you shouldn't have them, but rather we should be saying, "Thank God that God gave you taste buds. And thank God somebody thought of the desert which tastes as good as Krispy Crème Donuts."
That doesn't mean that you eat a whole dozen of them because moderation is a good thing as well, but when we have that one, we should thank God for the blessing of something it tastes good. Not feel guilty because it is feeding our flesh because the flesh is bad.
That was Paul's perspective and he says that this is false spirituality. “So let me tell you about true spirituality.”
And true spirituality Paul also described as godliness. Now that sounds like an old Victorian term, but I want us to help us see how godliness should be one of the goals of the Christian life and what godliness looks like for Paul.
So let me give you two examples of the way that Paul teaches this in his letter to Timothy.
The first one you can find this in 1 Timothy 2:9-10. Paul is speaking to women about the relationship between godliness and the clothing and jewelry that they wear and the way they wear their hair. This is kind of interesting. So listen to what Paul says:
“Women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.” (1 Timothy 2:9-10)
Now one thing that’s clear when I read that passage is that Paul was never married. I think if Paul had been married he would not have written that passage in just that way.
And the second is that every cultural situation is different. What's appropriate in one culture and modest or decent may not be appropriate in another culture. However you dress here, if you were going to go on a mission trip to Jamaica you dress differently. You don’t wear the same clothes or the same jewelry. I have no idea and haven’t taken the time to study why braids were a problem in first century Ephesus, but there was some reason that was a problem. Today I can't think of any reason why I would look at someone with braids and think that was inappropriate. This has a lot to do with the culture and the situations in which people live.
Somebody mentioned to me some weeks ago that they went to one of these huge mega churches and that the pastor preached in jeans and an untucked dress shirt. And they said maybe you should try that one Sunday. I thought to myself, “I guess they think I look like a dork up here!” Maybe I need to wear more hip clothes we’d attract more people. But I’m like I can’t wear jeans and preach in jeans. I just don’t think it’s appropriate. I can’t preach and untuck my shirt. My gosh that’s just not appropriate. I mean I wear my shirts tucked in at home. Even when I wear a t-shirt it’s tucked in my pants.”
So on the one side if you’re not careful you can go too far the other way. And if I showed up wearing a $2000 suit, Italian leather shoes, a custom tailored shirt complete with a designer tie and cufflinks. then you would be right to ask, "Why is our pastor wearing a $2000 suit?" There is something not quite right about that. There’s something not quite right about that here.
I think the point is to remember that godliness has something to do with how you carry yourself. How you present yourself. It has something to do with making sure that the most important thing other people see in you is the quality of your character not the quality of your clothes.
So here’s the second thing. In 1 timothy 6 we come to the connection between godliness and the stuff that we own. And Paul says this: and we recognize that here in 1st century Ephesus the world was not so much different than 21st century America. And that is that people got caught up in wanting more and more and more.
Sometimes their desire for more became the center of their lives. And so Paul says this in 1 Timothy 6:9-10:
“Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. And in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
So here he’s saying, “Here’s the problem for which godliness is a solution.” And this problem is one which all of us face because we live in a society that constantly tells us that our value comes from the stuff that we possess. Through commercials and advertisements constantly begging us to buy the next, coolest thing we are tempted into thinking that we need that next big thing. As kids we can't wait for Christmas and our birthday to come along so we can get that toy or game.
And as we grow up it becomes more sophisticated in how we play these things. We have to have the bigger house and the bigger car and a bigger television set or whatever it might be.
Several years ago I met with a man who began coming to our congregation to worship. He talked to me about how many businesses he owned about how much he was accumulating and how wealthy he was becoming because of some good business decisions. He came to me because his family was becoming a very sick environment because he was working night and day to attain the next big thing for his kids and for his wife. Eventually his wife came to me and said she was worn out and she couldn't do it anymore and she was taking the kids and moving back to her parents.
This man still didn't get it. He went home at night to a large house that he had all to himself with nobody else. He finally moved out of town and I'm not sure if he ever got it because he was too focused on the stuff of life. He was indicative of someone who "craving money, had wandered away from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows."
Paul goes on to give Timothy this direction for the people in the church in Ephesus which we would be well to listen to today.
He says, “As for those who in this present age are rich, (which would be all of us compared with a world which 2/3 of the population lives on $2 a day) command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” He not saying not to enjoy things or that it’s bad if you have things. Don’t make that the focus of your life. Enjoy the things you have. Possess them but don’t let them possess you. This is not meant to be the focus of your life. “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” (1 Timothy 6:17-19)
Money and possessions are a means to an end and they are not the end in and of itself. And the end is doing the work of God and loving God and loving your neighbor. It is godliness.
So here it is. We learned about false teaching and true teaching. We learned about turning to Scripture and tradition and reason and experience. We learned about false spirituality versus true spirituality. True spirituality is godliness and pursuing God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. And in which we seek to care for other people; to have our head on straight when it comes to our possessions and when it comes to carrying ourselves with modesty and with an appropriate sense of God's goodness in our lives.
And that leads to one last scripture, 1 Timothy 4:12, one we heard last week: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.”
And I love this because this is the last thing he’s going to tell us about what godliness looks like. And what godliness looks like is you set an example for other people in speech and the way you talk; in conduct and the way you act; in faith and the way you trusting God; in the way you love other people and in the purity of your heart. This is what godliness looks like.
And maybe you’re not young. So insert the thing for which people might look down on you for.
Do not let anyone look down you because you are unemployed but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.
Don't let anyone look down on you because you are disabled, but set an example for others in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.
Don't let anyone look down you because you are old, but set an example for others in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.
Don't let anyone look down you because you are rich. Don't let anyone look down on you because you are poor but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.
And that convicted me this week. Because here’s my hope and dream. You know what I’d really like to be and I’ve kind of forgotten it sometimes is for you as your pastor is to live my life as an example. I want to be able to say with the apostle Paul, "Follow me as I follow Christ." I don't do it perfectly but I want to try and set an example for the believers in speech in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.
My dream is that when people look at you and they know that you go to Sterling United Methodist Church they would say, "I know somebody that goes to that church. They are the real deal. I’ve listened to how they talk. I’ve watched how they act. I’ve seen their trust in God. I have watched as they love other people, and I can tell they have a pure heart. They are the real deal."
This is Christ’s call for us. It is our legacy. Set an example for others in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.