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"Hold on to the truth, put your faith and hope in the living God who is our Saviour and not in the words of men."

1 Timothy 3:16, 1 Timothy 4:1-10

I actually want us to look at the passage from chapter 4 verse 1, but I couldn't resist adding the last few verses of chapter 3.

What have we here other than a 1st century worship song.

And like other examples that we find scattered through the Bible it reminds us that we're not reading a bit of fiction here, but we're dipping out toes into a living and vibrant Church whose worship was having to constantly evolve to meet the needs of the congregations.

A hymn or song such as this served a very special purpose within a without the multitude of hymn and worship books, overhead and video projectors available to the modern Church - it enabled them to remember and express through words and music the basic truths of their creed.

And it that respect again it resembles in form a modern worship song which often states in very simple language some aspect of our faith in a way that is easy to remember and learn, as opposed perhaps to some of the more theologically difficult hymns of Charles Wesley and his contemporaries - which of course have their place within worship.

Anyway, I digress. But I do hope that you agree with me that it's nice to at least glimpse something of the worship that took place within the very first gatherings of believers.

Right! At the start of chapter 4 of this reading we have a title in my Bible "Instructions to Timothy".

Timothy was very much Paul's protégé, and although only a young man was obviously being groomed by Paul for leadership within the Church. They were very close, and it's clear from Paul's words in his letters to Timothy that there was a real almost father/son relationship going on.

Here we see Paul's background and Jewishness coming to the fore, and why not because Paul had spent his early years steeped in the Law.

By way of background, and to help us visualise the situation here you need to know that the Jews thought of time being split into two distinct phases. There was 'the present age' which was very much in the grip of evil and everything that that encompassed (I'm sure many of us can relate to that concept); and there was 'the age to come' when the Glory and Majesty of God would be revealed in all his splendour ' it would be the perfect age of God.

But sandwiched in-between was 'The Day of the Lord' written large in capital letters because this was going to be monumental battle, a last judgement before the new day dawned and evil was finally defeated.

The New Testament writers were also Jews and also took up this theme - and naturally enough, because after all they'd been brought up with this idea. One of the features of this battle was to be that in the last days, heresies and false teachers would appear. We find this concern throughout the New Testament.

Matthew 24:11 "Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold."

Mark 13:22 '"For false christs and false prophets will rise and show signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect."

2 Thess 2:3 "But don't be fooled! People will rebel against God. Then before the Lord returns, the wicked one who is doomed to be destroyed will appear"

As far as Paul was concerned this was an ever-present danger for Timothy and the Church. He could see the prophesies of old being fulfilled before his eyes.

False prophets such as these were very active in Ephasus. There was an active belief in evil spirits who haunted the air and were out to cause ruin and distress wherever they settled.

But Paul's interpretation of what was happening is worth looking at. As he saw it, the root cause of the false teaching and lies that were being taught came from evil spirits, but they were manifested or made known through the actions of men - men whose consciences, in the NIV translation "have been seared as with a hot iron".

In the days of slavery it was often the case that a slave was branded with the mark of his owner. They were the property of the one who had bought them. Do you see where Paul is coming from here?

I also like a modern translation that says quite bluntly "These teachers are hypocrites and liars. They pretend to be religious, but their consciences are dead".

The conscience is a fascinating thing. I remember first being made aware of the spiritual implications of the conscience when I first stumbled across the book "Mere Christianity" by C S Lewis, which if you haven't read you really must. I can honestly say that it was the one book that persuaded me that Christianity actually made sense - if that's not a rather strange thing to say. Every home should have one, as they say.

Conscience, according to my dictionary, is defined as such "The sense of right or wrong that governs a person's thoughts and actions -a feeling of guilt or anxiety".

Paul was quite clear when he used the word "conscience"; in his opinion these false teachers had nothing but their own interests at heart when they were peddling their own particular "gospel". They were sowing division and confusion over issues that had nothing to do with God and his Truth. Their consciences were leading them one way, but their words showed that they were following another.

We have recently been on holiday in southern France, in what is known as Cathar country. The Cathars are famous for several things; they were a religious group who considered themselves to be the real Church as opposed to the corruption and politcal intrigue rife in the Roman Church of the 12th and 13th century.

They distanced themselves from the world by building castles on top of the most inaccessible mountains and rock faces they could find (amazing constructions); and they were famously wiped out as heretics by the Roman Church by being burned at the stake - sometimes hundreds at a time.

Now we read in one book that these poor Cathars were probably very close to the New Testament Church, an evangelical group who lived simple lives opposing the excesses of the age, were obviously seen as a real threat to the established Church of the time and had to be stopped, though maybe not quite so brutally.

We talked to a person on top of one of these mountains who said almost the same thing - here was the real Church which had been destroyed by the dastardly Church of Rome, and wasn't it such a shame.

Then we bought a book which explained who the Cathars were and what they believed. These folk were as heretical as they could possibly be, their faith bore no resemblance at all to the Christianity that we know, and in fact the "gospel" that they preached sounded more like that of the false teachers that Paul was warning Timothy about.

It's easy to be deceived, to be persuaded by the words of men rather than the Word of God. Paul knew the dangers and wanted to warn his friend Timothy.

I want to go back to the idea of conscience, because I want to try and show how God has provided us with this wonderful in-built mechanism to help us live fruitful lives - in the NT understanding of the term - and which we often ignore, perhaps at our peril.

I hope this is going to make sense, and again I'm indebted to C S Lewis for the knowledge behind this.

How many times have you heard an argument that starts something like this "How would you like it if someone did that to you?"; "'That's my seat, I was here first."; "Come on, you promised!"

What is the person saying here? It's not just that they don't like the way the other person is behaving, it's more than that. Isn't it that they're expecting the other person to conform to and understand the same standard of behaviour as they hold to.

And strangely the other person is unlikely to reply "I don't hold to your particular standard, I'm afraid." They're more likely to try and argue a case for justifying their actions. "Yes, I know I promised, but.."; "I know you got to that seat first, but.."

It's as if both people have in mind some kind of unwritten rule or law in their minds about what is Right and Wrong but choose sometimes to interpret the rules differently.

Now this so-called Law or Rule about Right and Wrong used to be simply called the Law of Nature. Now we think of things like gravity and the laws of chemistry or physics as "laws of nature", and perhaps it ought to be called the Law of Human Nature.

Now you might say that it's our upbringing - our parents, schooling and social class - that influence us in our behaviour, and that the concept of some built-in mechanism is silly. But I've worked in the past with some really not very nice young kids who have had the most appalling background and would be dismissed as past redemption. Believe me, those kids knew all about Right and Wrong although it had no part in their upbringing.

There's a very big difference of course between the Law of Gravity and the Law of Human Nature.

Jump off a bridge and you have no choice over whether you obey the Law of Gravity, but you can choose to obey or disobey this Law of Human Nature.

In common with all living creatures and organisms as well as all inorganic elements we are constantly subjected to all the various laws of science - we have no choice in the matter. But uniquely, there is this one Law that is not shared and is particular to mankind, and it's the one we can disobey if we so wish.

Now if all this talk of a Law of Human Nature, some sort of unwritten code of behaviour imprinted into all of us sounds a little bit far fetched, then suspend your disbelief for a moment.

Let me quote to you from a book by Robert Wright who is a social anthropologist - that is, he studies people and their behaviour for a living. I have no idea whether he is Christian, Muslim or atheist. He writes from an objective viewpoint quoting from studies of so-called primitive tribes who have had little or no contact with modern civilisation.

He says this - "generosity, gratitude, and an attendant sense of obligation; a growing trust of those who might be called friends - these feelings and the behaviours they fruitfully sponsor, are found in all cultures. Some degree of social structure is thus built into our genes. Then he adds this - 'Love of kin is human nature.'"

Do you see how his comments gel with what I was saying before - that there seems to be imprinted in us some knowledge of Right and Wrong - the only trouble being that many people make bad choices.

C S Lewis sums his ideas up like this "First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in."

He then goes on to talk about a third impulse, which looks at a situation from the point of right or wrong action and points the way that we should act. And what is that if not our conscience.

Yes, our parents influence our behaviour, as does the neighbourhood we grow up in, the school we go to, the friends we make, the place we work, the country we live in. But strip all these away, go back to basics and those who study human nature scientifically tell us that mankind is born with the instinct to give rather than receive, to reciprocate when love and care is shown. A set of values; a basic rule or law by which to live our lives; .

And I would add that we're also given a mechanism by which we can make decisions based upon that law ' our conscience.

What did Paul say about those false teachers? That their consciences had been seared as with a hot iron, or in the modern translation "their consciences are dead".

We only have to look in our newspapers or on the TV to see people who we might describe just like that. People who do unimaginable things to others without even a shred of conscience - almost as if it had been switched off.

Let's go back to the Old Testament, to Genesis and the story of the Garden of Eden. God told Adam "You must not eat from the knowledge of good and evil!" But the serpent told Eve "God knows when you eat from it your eyes will be opened".

And how!

And what does Eve do when confronted by God? She makes excuses just like I said at the beginning "Then the Lord God said to the woman 'What is this that you've done?' The woman said 'Ok, Yes I ate the apple... but It was all the serpent's fault.'"

She knew what she had to do and chose to do something else. Her conscience said don't, the serpent said do.

Back to the plot. And I make no apologies for spending a bit of time looking at our consciences because I hope you can relate to what I was saying. Have you been in that situation where you know perfectly well what you should do, but you go and do the exact opposite. Surely I'm not the only one?

God has not only given mankind free will, he has provided the control mechanism by which we can know which is the better way to live our lives and make certain crucial decisions. I firmly believe that our conscience is a gift from God and is not to be abused as it had been by these false teachers that Paul talks about.

What Paul's words in verse 1 of chapter 4 show us is that although we know that God is constantly making himself known to people, and looking for those who will be his instruments in the world, so is the opposition. Mankind is constantly torn between one and the other - again, a dilemma that goes right back to the beginning, to that fateful if symbolic apple in the Garden of Eden.

Let's look very briefly at the pressures and tensions that were causing division and confusion among the believers.

They were a fragile bunch these early Christians. They had heard first hand about Jesus and had believed, unencumbered by the depth of theological knowledge that we possess - it was a simple faith, but a genuine faith.

Now there comes along these rather arrogant teachers who insist that they've got it all wrong. That anything to do with the world is evil and they must separate their lives totally from the world, even to the extent of what they eat and drink and the relationships they make.

Hang on, says Paul. Think about this for a moment. These are things that God has created for mankind to enjoy. Everything that God created is good (Genesis tells us that God was well pleased with all he'd made) and is to be received with thanksgiving. Don't get sucked into their arguments and lies, however plausible they might be.

These so-called teachers have their own motives for telling you this, but it has nothing to do with God and they know it in their hearts (v.2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars - do as I say, not as I do)

Stay focussed, Timothy - that's the message from Paul. Hold fast to the truth of the faith and of the teaching that you've already had. Stay clear of all the superstitious nonsense that is being peddled around (v.7) Stay focussed on the one in whom you have put your trust, the living God who is the Saviour of all men (v 10). And one way of staying focussed is by exercise.

The Greeks were very hot on exercise, and physical education in the gymnasium was a part of every boy's upbringing. And that's of some use, says Paul but not half as much as spiritual exercise because that prepares the whole body both for this life and for the life to come.

And as a leader, Paul gives very clear instructions to Timothy about how he should teach. What he shouldn't be doing is bible bashing or tub thumping. v.6 "If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus".

The word used here is to advise or to suggest. It's a gentle word, humble; in the sense of reminding the people of what they already know to be true, rather than laying down the law. "Guidance given with gentleness" is the way one commentator describes the process.

So where does this leave us? What can we relate to here in Paul's words to Timothy 2000 years ago?

Well, I think almost every word is relevant here. We are constantly bombarded by people telling us that the way that we consider a life should be led is wrong. On the one hand are those who say that the Christian life is too constricting, too lacking in freedom.

On the other are those who would say that we should be living far simpler lives, getting rid of the clutter of material things, distancing ourselves from the world and temptation. Against both of these are those who would say that Christianity has it all wrong and their way is better, and others who would say that there is no God and we're all barking up the wrong tree spiritually.

And what do we have in our defence, how do we make the right decisions? Well, says Paul as regards the way you live your lives in the world then you have this wonderful mechanism called a conscience. That still small voice, if you like, that says "weigh up the possibilities and consequences, I think you really know what you should do in this situation."

Give thanks to God that in giving us free will he didn't leave it at that. He doesn't allow us to be presented with the options and be unable to distinguish between right and wrong, but instead he helps us to make the right decisions.

Don't be like those false teachers though, who, like Eve know the difference between right and wrong, know what is the right thing to do, choose to switch off their consciences and then make up excuses for their action. That's human nature of course, and we all find ourselves doing it at times ' and kicking ourselves afterwards.

As far as our spiritual lives, well these are difficult times as they were in Paul's day. Some would say that we are very much in the midst of that last battle between Good and Evil, when false prophets and teaching would feature heavily. You need to make up your own mind on that one.

But don't close your minds to the eternal truth of God's word like those false teachers had. Read the Word, let it speak to you. Train your mind and your body. Hold fast to the truth. Give thanks to God who created all things, is pleased with all things and gave all things for mankind to use, enjoy and be stewards of.

Hold on to the truth, put your faith and hope in the living God who is our Saviour and not in the words of men. Let God's Word speak directly to your heart and when you share this truth with others do it with humility and gentleness, and then says Paul in a modern translation "you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus. You will show that you have grown up on the teachings about our faith and on the good instructions you have obeyed."

 

 

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