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False teaching and heresies.

"Be sincere in what you believe, continue to read and understand the Scriptures and let them speak to your heart"

1 Tim 1:1-7

Paul doesn't mince his words. He knew exactly where he stood in the grand order of things

'"God our Savior and Christ Jesus commanded me to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, who gives us hope."

The actual word that is used here and translated as "commanded", in the Greek means "by the royal command". It's a word used by someone who holds the king's commission to do some important task. And it is clear from the opening verse of this passage that Paul considered himself to be a man holding the king's commission.

Paul also starts his letter with three important words "God our Saviour." Paul doesn't use this title in his earlier letters, but it would seem to be a very relevant title to use if we look at the times in which this letter was actually written.

Around 60AD the title of Saviour (sōtēr) was very much in use. In the old days the Romans had called Scipio, their great general "our hope and our salvation", and the Roman Emperor Nero among others rather arrogantly used this word to describe himself. So here we have Paul taking a familiar title and giving it to the person to whom it rightfully belonged. We are used to the idea of Jesus as Saviour; our prayers and our hymns take this up as a major theme. But we must never forget those words of John 3:16 and the fact that it was God who loved the world so much that he gave his Son to the world.

"God our Saviour and Christ Jesus commanded me to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, who gives us hope."

Ignatius of Antioch on his way to execution in Rome sends word to the Church in Ephasus "Be of good cheer in God the Father and in Jesus Christ our common hope."

Jesus as "our hope" was a very common title in the early Church. Throughout the centuries it has been Christ, who went through so much and showed so much love and compassion for mankind, who has been thought of as the source of our hope. Christ is our hope for release from fear and the captivitythat fear holds us in; he is our hope for release from sickness; for release from adversity of all kinds; for release from guilt.

Just a little more in the opening paragraph of this letter than we might have put. No simple "Dear Timothy, how are things going, Son?"

In fact, the opening couple of verses are typical of a letter of its time. It includes a blessing, a very nice way to begin any correspondence between friends.

"I pray that God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ will be kind and merciful to you. May they bless you with peace!"

But of course this wasn't just a pleasant letter with a "wish you were here" message attached. Behind the so-called Pastoral Epistles of Paul ( Timothy, Titus and Philemon) there is the nagging concern in Paul's mind that there are people within those congregations who are not holding onto the truth which he brought to them. Instead they are either being led astray by teaching which Paul considers to be dangerously adrift from the truth, or getting themselves mixed up in a theology and culture that is at the very least distracting them from the Gospel.

It's worth spending a few minutes looking at the sort of problems that were common in the Church at that time, and getting a feel for what Paul saw as the chief threat to the Gospel message. Again and again in the New Testament Epistles we find the problem of false teaching cropping up.

The more we understand the problems that Paul faced, then perhaps the more easily we shall be able to recognise and face up to similar issues as they crop up in the Church today.

So what was all the fuss about that Paul felt so compelled to write to Timothy about?

"You needed to warn them to stop wasting their time on senseless stories and endless lists of ancestors. Such things only cause arguments. They don't help anyone to do God's work that can only be done by faith."

The people of that age loved a good story, it was a part of their culture. They were storytellers and liked nothing better than, for example, to write up the history of families, towns and cities to the point where fact seems to have blended into fantasy and you get amazing tales of a god marrying a mortal girl and founding a family dynasty. Even someone as well known as Alexander the Great had his own family tree constructed, which seems to have traced his family lineage back to Achilles, Hercules and Perseus.

They loved their genealogies, you've only got to look in the Old Testament with its book loads of names, and even within the New Testament we get the very same as in Matthew's and Luke's Gospel we find a genealogy of Jesus.

These things were important to the culture but, says Paul are a real distraction for the Church. If you are going to spend all your free time writing and retelling stories, or constructing these endless family trees and biographies then where is the time to do the important business of the Kingdom, which is not based on speculation but rather on faith, experience and love. Get out there and live out your Christian faith, rather than wasting precious time.

You must teach people to have genuine love, as well as a good conscience and true faith. There are some who have given up these for nothing but empty talk. They want to be teachers of the Law of Moses. But they don't know what they are talking about, even though they think they do.

There were other distractions and threats to the truth that Paul was only too aware of, and these came not from the Jews and their culture but from the Greeks. Around this point in history there was a developing line of thought which became known as Gnosticism, and John's Gospel, the letter to the Colossians and Paul's letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon all seek carefully to counter the thought processes of this Greek influence.

When Paul talks in verse 6 about "empty talk" - or "useless discussions" as one translation has it - then it's worth looking a little at what he was referring to.

Gnosticism began with the problem of sin and suffering. If God is all good then he could not have created something essentially bad, so how did they get into the world?

Can you start to imagine already the minefield that such a discussion might get could up into?

Well, to try and set the Gnostic answer to all this as briefly as possible, and that's not easy, they had to separate what they saw as all that was imperfect from God who is perfect. If God did not create sin and suffering, then they formulated that they must have been created by another means.

To the Gnostic all matter was essentially imperfect and therefore evil - it was the only way they could explain all the bad that was in the world. And here they really got bogged down because it throws into the melting pot God as source of all Love, God as all-powerful, Almighty, Creator of the Universe.

They even tried to get around that one by trying to distinguish the God of the Old Testament from the God of the New Testament and placing the blame for sin and suffering on the former. All very confusing to us, but very serious to those who adhered to the belief.

It was not only the senseless argument and discussion, as Paul saw it, which concerned him. There were social and moral consequences to the beliefs of the Gnostics. If matter was essentially evil, then the desires of the body should be resisted at any cost and rules made up which forbid certain actions like eating meats. The converse was also true for some. If the body and matter is essentially evil then it doesn't matter how we behave.

Throughout Paul's letter to Timothy we have reference to this Gnostic thought and how it had started to get into Church life.

1 Timothy 4:2-3
They will also be fooled by the false claims of liars whose consciences have lost all feeling. These liars will forbid people to marry or to eat certain foods. But God created these foods to be eaten with thankful hearts by his followers who know the truth.

2 Timothy 3:5-6
Even though they will make a show of being religious, their religion won't be real. Don't have anything to do with such people. Some men fool whole families, just to get power over those women who are slaves of sin and are controlled by all sorts of desires.

Do you begin to see why warning bells were starting to ring in Paul's mind? Why he felt it so important to write to Timothy and make sure that this trusted companion of so many years was on top of the situation and not getting dragged into what was plainly a heresy.

So what makes for a heretic?

Of course there have always been people within the Church who have held beliefs that differ from the mainstream. Many folk have looked at the Bible, thought long and hard about their faith and honestly struggle with some areas of doctrine. That's not the sort of person that was troubling Paul. In fact, our non-conformist background encourages us to let the Bible speak to us personally and for us not be unduly swayed by a particular teacher or commentator.

But if the police were making some form of identikit picture of the typical heretic of Paul's day what would they come up with?

Well, it would be someone who was not happy with anything that could be thought of as traditional or old. We're talking about a dedicated follower of fashion, as the 60's pop song called it. Wanting to follow the latest fashion in thinking or worship simply because it was new.

Christianity has always had this problem - presenting the Gospel message in a way that is relevant to each succeeding generation. But although the method of presentation may change to suit the age the truth does not and cannot.

This identikit heretic is someone who consults his mind and not his heart. He is steeped in theological discussion and argument but short on real experience of God's love and knowledge of Salvation. In fact he (or she) spends far too much time thinking to actually get out in the real world and do anything. The Christian faith has always been about putting faith into action. Lastly this person is someone who would look down on anyone who didn't understand what they were talking about, who couldn't comprehend the complex arguments that were being put forward.

One of the well-documented aspects of the Gnostics was that they considered themselves to be a cut above everyone else when it came to religion. They possessed a knowledge that made them special. They were, to put it bluntly very arrogant!

And Paul has a word for them

"There are some who have given up these for nothing but empty talk. They want to be teachers of the Law of Moses. But they don't know what they are talking about, even though they think they do."

The Church is no different to any other institution. Talk to a group of people about politics and you will always find someone who thinks they know exactly where the government are going wrong and how, if they were in the job they would soon put the world to rights. And even within our Churches there are always those who think they know best, who have their own particular theology and viewpoint which is not based on a deep examination of Scripture, but rather on their own prejudices.

As one commentator puts it "It may well be that the Christian cause has suffered more from ignorant dogmatism than from anything else" If you think about what I've said, and particularly about our identikit heretic, I hope that you can see that nothing really changes. The descendants of those early heretics are still with us. Those who insist that their way is the only way, those who arrogantly put forward a theology or doctrine that to many is confusing and proclaim it as "truth". Those who look down on others who don't hold to their beliefs.

"These things," says Paul to Timothy "They don't help anyone to do God's work that can only be done by faith. You must teach people to have genuine love, as well as a good conscience and true faith"

It's a warning that the Church needs to heed if it is to be relevant to each succeeding generation.

By all means make the presentation speak to the age but do not deny the basic truth of the Gospel.

By all means be honest in what you believe or find difficult to believe, but don't force your own doubts onto others as that might weaken their faith.

Don't spend time in endless speculation about what might or might not be the ultimate truth and don't be arrogant enough to believe that your viewpoint is the only one that matters.

More importantly, says Paul to the Church and to us, in all things be motivated by love which will save us from falling into these traps. Be sincere in what you believe, continue to read and understand the Scriptures and let them speak to your heart, hold fast to the truth and put that truth into action through the love that you show in and through your life.

 

 

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