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Following Christ means rejecting error: Apostasy in the Church
1 Timothy 4:1-5
Did you ever hear your teacher say, “This homework is all wrong”? Or from your boss, “This proposal is all wrong” or “This sale was done wrong” or “Your skills with the customer were all wrong”? That’s never fun, but not life threatening. It is sad when the plumber says, “These pipes are all wrong.” Or the electrician mumbles, “This wiring is all wrong.”
It is really scary when the pilot says, “This airplane is all wrong.” Or when the doctor says, “This surgery was done all wrong.” Worse than all those, more savage than life threatening, far worse than dying is hearing, “Your thinking on salvation is all wrong. Your understanding of Christ is all wrong.”
It is one thing to be wrong about an assignment at school or to mess up a job at work. It is quite another thing to be wrong about your eternal salvation. There’re different levels of error, requiring different reactions from believers. And when it comes to our faith, there is some error you must be willing to call wrong.
As a Christian, it is essential we affirm truth and reject error. We are to treasure the Word and discard lies. Every believer is committed to truth and a rejecter of error. If you don’t, you are refusing Christ, salvation and sanctification, which are all truth. In John 14:6 Jesus said, “’I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.’” John 17:17, “’Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.’”
Since creation, the earth has been a battleground between God and Satan. God commands mankind to embrace and follow His Word–the truth. Yet Satan tries to lure them to be indifferent to the truth and follow lies. Yet there are apostates who claim satanic perversions to be truth from God.
Sadly, even apostates who profess to follow God’s truth, turn away from it. Again, it’s one thing to be wrong about homework. It’s another thing altogether to be wrong about salvation. The New Testament has its share of apostates–can you name one? Judas . . . Demas . . . and more.
As a church, we are studying 1 Timothy verse by verse. Turn to 1 Timothy 4. In chapter one, verses 18 to 20, Paul already described two apostates to Timothy who embraced error and rejected truth in the church at Ephesus. Hymenaeus and Alexander had departed from the faith.
Remember 1 Timothy 1:19 and 20, “Keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. 20 Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme.” Since the New Testament, and saturating our day, there are too many examples of apostates. Error is on the rise and the number of so-called Christians who embrace error is frightening.
You have Rob Bell, NT Wright, individualism, prosperity gospel, hyper-grace, Rastafari, the rejection of Hell, corruption of justification, the denial of Christ’s deity. Just three weeks ago, my son Matt sent me the teaching of a guy who had reworked Judaism and the Old Testament to errantly affirm Christ is not God. Someone in the church was embracing this poisonous tripe–condemning himself, and any he convinces, to hell.
These are all apostates–those who used to affirm the truth of Scripture, but then prove they were never saved in the first place by abandoning sound doctrine for error which alters the teaching of God and salvation–condemning all who embrace it.
The Bible describes apostates as those who have turned aside to follow deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons. Demons are angels who have sinned, now called demons. It is demons who author and energize all false religion. Like their evil master, Satan, their deception is effective because they disguise themselves as angels of light. They look good and what they teach sounds good–at first (2 Corinthians 11:14).
Apostates had made their way into the church of Ephesus. Paul left Timothy there to deal with the growing problem and set the church in order. That’s why . . .
Chapter 1 was about REJECTING false doctrine, then EMBRACING true doctrine
Chapter 2 was about the correct behavior in the Church for men, then women
Chapter 3 was about the correct qualifications for elders, then deacons
Paul wraps up chapter 3 with his PURPOSE in writing 1 Timothy–the HOUSE RULES. This New Testament letter is about how we conduct ourselves in the Church of Jesus Christ. Paul concludes his purpose comments by quoting a song of orthodoxy about Christ in 3:16. It is a sound doctrine song, affirming the person and ministry of Christ.
Now in contrast to a correct view of Christ, and a correct view of the Gospel in chapter 4, Paul addresses the apostate problem head on. Read aloud verses 1 to 5, “But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; 5 for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.”
In chapter 4, verses 1 to 5 are a devastating description of apostasy. Then next, verses 6 to 16 tell Timothy how he should deal with apostasy. Hey, it is going to happen to you and you will need to know what to do. A family member is going to buy into some weird view of God or salvation. A student in high school will date someone in a cult and embrace their error.
A fellow believer you are close with will walk away from Christ and His Word. Or someone you respect will teach you error undermining salvation and you’ll have to say to them, “You’re wrong!” Why? Because following Christ demands rejecting error.
Now there are believers who believe truth you disagree with–that’s always been. And because any tolerance of error regarding God’s Word is a dishonor to the Lord, true believers seek to be as accurate as possible, uphold sound doctrine and embrace only the author’s intended meaning of every text.
But with apostates, the error they embrace and often publish is eternally damning. Apostates attack the person and work of Jesus Christ. Their teaching is far worse than a bad diagnosis or a plane with engine problems. Apostate beliefs destroy the good news and make salvation impossible. Apostate teaching is heresy. Embracing it leads to Hell, never to Heaven.
That is why you should never be enamored with, intrigued or interested in heresy. There will be times, even in our relativistic, non-absolute culture when you must say, “You’re wrong”—because following Christ demands rejecting error. Today, don’t go with what you feel, embrace the truth of chapter 4:1 to 5.
#1 The REALITY of Apostasy Verse 1
The key to unlocking this passage is the phrase, “some will fall away from the faith” (verse 1c). “But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith” (verse 1). Like Judas, Demas, and the false disciples of John 6:66, some church attenders abandon the faith. The verb fall away means to depart from.
It is much stronger than the word straying, or suffering shipwreck. It means revolt, mislead, rebel, defect, divorce, and refers to a purposeful, deliberate departure from a former position. Physically, it can describe a geographical leaving–but in a spiritual sense, it refers to those who come very close to the truth that saves, only to leave.
Jesus used this verb when He described those who heard the Gospel as being like seed falling in soil that has a rockbed just below the surface. Luke 8:13, “Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away” (same verb).
Paul uses fall away to describe apostasy to Timothy. There will be some you know who will act like Judas and turn their face from eternal life and choose eternal torment. Students, you will have friends who walk away from Christ. Families, you will have relatives who abandon the faith. Christians, there will be people who will shock you by their decision to walk away.
An apostate is not someone struggling to believe, wrestling with other doctrinal issues, or a believer in a moment of crisis. An apostate is a churchgoing, card-carrying, so-called Christian who willfully abandons the biblical faith he or she had once professed. Paul says, “some will fall away from the faith.” The faith refers to the Bible–the content of divine revelation that constitutes what Christians believe (Jude 3).
Some will fall away from the faith then describes the apostate as a rejecter of Christ from within the ranks of the church. Their presence in your circle demands you declare that apostates are wrong, since following Christ demands rejecting error. And beloved church, someone you know, possibly someone you love, will turn apostate.
#2 The CERTAINTY of Apostasy Verse 1
“But the Spirit explicitly says” (verse 1a). Apostasy is going to happen. Yes, I was saddened when one of my fellow pastors at GCC denied Christ. Yes, I was outraged when another pastor walked away from the faith and divorced his wife. But I was not shocked, nor was I surprised. Why?
Because Paul tells Timothy in the Ephesus church, verse 1, “But the Spirit explicitly says” it is going to occur. As my old Bible prof used to say, don’t you read your Bible? God, in His Word, has been warning you of apostasy from the beginning.
You remember the golden calf incident? Do you recall how God described King Saul? First Samuel 15:11, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me and has not carried out My commands.” Or what Nehemiah said about apostates in Nehemiah 9:26, “They became disobedient and rebelled against You, and cast Your law behind their backs and killed Your prophets who had admonished them. And they committed great blasphemies.”
Jesus warned about those who would deceive many of God’s people. The book of Hebrews warns about those who might demonstrate an evil unbelieving heart, which would then will fall away from the living God. And worst of all, just six years before writing 1 Timothy, in Acts 20:29 and 30, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.”
Paul knew Ephesus would not be spared six years earlier. Paul knew the enemy would sow false believers in their midst who were there to deceive the flock, seeking to damage the church and lead some into abandoning the truth. First Timothy 4:1, “The Spirit explicitly says.” The revelation from the Spirit in Scripture shows, apostasy is predictable and inevitable–this will certainly happen. Do not be shocked.
There will always be those who appear to respond to the Gospel, but have no genuine faith in God. Do not be surprised when they leave. John says it clearly in 1 John 2:19–memorize this verse. “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us.”
They will leave and you will tell them they’re wrong, because following Christ demands rejecting error. But when will this occur?
#3 The TIMING of Apostasy Verse 1
“But the Spirit explicitly says, that in later times some will fall away from the faith” (verse 1b). In later times–when is that, Paul? John MacArthur says, “The later times include, but are not limited to, the eschatological future. The first coming of Christ ushered in the later or last times. First Peter 1:20 says Christ “has appeared in these last times for the sake of you.” Hebrews 1:2 informs us God “in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.”
From the first coming of our Lord to His return, through all this age of the Church, apostasy will occur. And apostasy will escalate, rise, and get worse toward the end as Matthew 24:12 says what you don’t want to be true of you. And what’s that? “Most people’s love will grow cold.” We’re in the last days when apostasy will grow intense–so following Christ demands rejecting error and making sure your love doesn’t grow cold. But how does apostasy happen?
#4 The CAUSE of Apostasy Verse 1
“But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons.” Apostasy is generated by demons. Ephesians 6, you war not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
How do you lose the war? Verse 1, you pay attention to deception and evil doctrine. The verb pay attention is way more than listening or looking. Pay attention here is to devote oneself to, or cling to something. The present tense shows apostates continually cling to demonic teaching.
Apostates understand the facts of the Gospel intellectually. Apostates even outwardly identify with the Christian faith. But because their hearts are not born again and they are not right with God, they don’t have the Holy Spirit to teach them nor protect them. The cause is paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons.
So they are lured away by deception, by lies, by 9/10 truth and 1/10 error. You might ask, “What’s the big deal about 1/10 error?” And I would say, “I will make your next hamburger with 9/10 meat and 1/10 rat poison–or dog poop. No big deal, right?” The word deceitful–deceitful spirits gives the idea of misleading, deluding, leading astray, cause to wander. Causing people to wander away from the truth.
The Holy Spirit leads people into saving truth, but their unholy spirits lead them into damning error. Apostates are not the victims of smooth-talking college professors, tele-evangelists, soft-hearted speakers or clever writers–they are actually the victims of demons. This particular demon class invent clever lies to be purveyed through humans.
Heretical teaching is much more than a human invention. It is the doctrine of demons. The Greek text would indicate this teaching is not about demons but done by demons. With thousands of years of experience under their belts, Satan and his army have concocted the most tantalizing, appealing and destructive lies with the sole purpose to damn the lost and confuse the elect. This should cause you to hear God’s alarm.
To sit under false teaching is to put your mind at risk and your soul in jeopardy. Listen to the warning of 2 John verses 7 to 11, “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. 8 Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward. 9 Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; 11 for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.”
If your family is telling you to leave a church, and they show you clearly from God’s Word and sound doctrine the reasons why, leave your friends to preserve your faith. Following Christ demands rejecting error. There are many forms of apostasy, but the purveyors of apostasy are all the same.
#5 The PUSHERS of Apostasy Verse 2
“By means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron” (verse 2). Have you heard of K-BAD—“all talk, all demon, all the time”? It doesn’t exist. All demonic teaching is taught through preachers, seminary profs, authors, bloggers, psychologists, Christian TV shows, Christian movies, Christian colleges and tele-evangelists. They are often right on several key points and heretically wrong on one major point.
And their technique–the hypocrisy of liars! They lie–just like their father! John 8:44, “You are of your father the devil, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” The source of apostasy is supernatural–but the agents are natural. MacArthur says, “To purvey their hellish teachings, demons use human deceivers who speak their lies.” And never forget, these men appear committed and devout–but under their mask of piety, they don’t serve God. They serve Satan and speak demonic lies.
Paul says later in 2 Timothy 2:17 to 18 that sitting under their teaching is like listening to spiritual gangrene. “And their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some.”
So how do they do it? How do they keep lying, living phony and undermining the truth of the Gospel? Verse 2, they’re “seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron.” False teachers spread lies while appearing to be sincere, mature men of integrity, because they have seared their own conscience—“seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron.”
The conscience is the God-given faculty that affirms or condemns an action. It is an internal integrity barometer–the indicator light of moral right or wrong. The conscience is the sensitivity to right and wrong that alerts you to the best behavior. And the apostate’s conscience is seared–meaning their conscience has been so ignored and so misinformed, it’s become like scar tissue burned beyond recognition or function.
Their conscience doesn’t work anymore–there is no warning light, no alarm, they keep teaching error in order to live error, and it doesn’t bother them at all. Get this, they appear soft, humble, thoughtful and truth driven. But they are hard, proud, thoughtless and error driven. What do they teach?
#6 The TEACHING of Apostasy Verse 3
“Men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods” (verse 3a). Anything contrary to Scripture can be the entry point of demonic teaching. False teaching doesn’t have to be a denial of the Trinity or the deity of Christ. Demon teaching is subtle–it makes its entrance through a practical area like marriage or foods, in order to eventually undermine eternal truths like God’s character and salvation.
Look at what they were saying in Ephesus. “Forbid marriage”–there is nothing wrong with singleness. In fact, the New Testament teaches there are great advantages to singleness. Marrieds are not better than singles and singles are not more godly than marrieds. Singles, in fact, can enjoy “undistracted devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35). Singles can serve Christ in ways a married person can’t. We need to honor singleness.
But there is also nothing wrong with marriage by God’s Word and in God’s will. So to forbid marriage is to violate the teaching of Scripture. Apostates might teach this by saying avoiding sex, or the distraction of a mate, makes you more spiritual.
And there is nothing wrong with fasting or verse 3, “abstaining from foods.” You talk to some nutritionists, exercise fanatics, diet freaks, and foodnaphobes and you’d think eating an In N Out double double is the same as snorting cocaine. Modern apostates might teach eating shell fish, like crab, lobster or scallops, is evil. And keeping the Old Testament dietary laws makes you more spiritual. It’s better. God likes it . . . not.
The next step would say keeping those laws gives you assurance of salvation. That in keeping those laws might be necessary for salvation. Violating Scripture, even in a small way–usually in some way to make you more spiritual is the first step toward apostasy. It can be a food, a day, a time of year, even a festival.
Colossians 2:16 and 17 warn, “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.” Following Christ demands rejecting error. Then how do we fix it?
#7 The CORRECTION for Apostasy Verses 3b-5
“Men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; 5 for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer” (verses 3 to 5). What’s Paul teaching here? All false teaching is a denial of God’s Word. In contrast to the false teaching in Ephesus, God created both marriage and food, and He pronounced them both good at creation.
God created marriage and food to be “gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth” (verse 3b). Paul is saying God made marriage and food for believers–for us. Praise God! Marriage and food are good, amen? God made marriage and food for the same reason He made everything else–to give man joy and to bring Himself glory.
Some unbelievers enjoy marriage and they do enjoy food, but they do not fulfill God’s ultimate intention for them–nor do they praise God for them. So in the truest sense, God made marriage and food for (verse 3c) “those who believe and know the truth,” because genuine Christians are the ones who will glorify God for such gracious goodness.
By forbidding marriage and abstaining from food, believers are being foolish since they are abstaining from God’s kindness and thus deny God the right to be glorified for their enjoyment. By loving that In N Out, after giving thanks to God–you are pleasing God.
The Ephesian demon-driven deceivers refused to recognize, “everything created by God is good” (vese 4a). They flatly denied the goodness of God’s creation, which would have led them to understand that, “nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude” (verse 4b). Paul is emphasizing God’s purpose in giving good things to men is so that in their enjoyment of those gifts, they would praise Him. We thank Him for marriage, not forbid it–and we thank Him for food, not abstain from it.
At the close of the creation week, God pronounced that everything He had created was good. All those good things on Earth which come from God, which believers gratefully receive, are “sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer” (verse 5). To be sanctified is to be set apart for holy use. The means to set things apart for God’s glory is accomplished by the Word of God and prayer. This prayer is thanksgiving, expressing gratitude for His gifts–saying grace at a meal is saying thanks for the food.
Look at verse 5–in the Pastoral Epistles, the reference to “the word of God” refers to the message of salvation. Through that message, believers have come to know the truth in Christ. Part of that truth is this–Christ has abolished the dietary laws. According to Mark 7:19, our Lord “declared all foods clean.”
All those Old Testament dietary regulations were temporary, intended to teach Israel they belong uniquely to the living God, to move them to live dependently upon Him, and ultimately teach them their need for a savior to forgive them when they violate them. To reimpose those dietary laws now, “to abstain from foods,” would be to manufacture a works righteousness system that denies the work of Christ and dishonors God.
If believers understand verse 5, “the word of God,” which here describes the Gospel–they know in Christ God has abolished those dietary laws, and with thankful prayer offered to God, they can enjoy all His good gifts and God will be glorified in the process.
TAKE HOME: What should you do about apostasy?
#1 Live satisfied in CHRIST
What did Paul say just before this passage (never forget the context)? Chapter 3:16, “By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”
Treasure the Word of God and commune with your Lord, Savior, friend–Jesus Christ. C.S. Lewis put it like this, “God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way… God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”
Stop long enough to consistently commune with Christ and be filled with His Spirit.
#2 Listen for VIOLATIONS of the GOSPEL
God did the work–His work transforms. One is the violation of adding anything to the work of salvation by grace alone. The sin found in Galatians–anything added to the Gospel is anathema. You are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Two is the violation of not expecting fruit and obedience to the work of salvation. The sin found in James–faith without works is dead. First John 2:4, “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”
Three is the violation of extra biblical rules. Distorting what the Scripture teaches–the sin found in 1 Timothy. Mandatory celibacy and abstinence from foods is the teaching of demons. It denies the goodness of God’s creation and robs God of the glory and praise He is due for that goodness. It also is a denial of God’s truth as clearly revealed in His Word.
Following Christ demands rejecting error. Mere externalism never pleases God, nor promotes genuine spirituality. Romans 11:36 praises God the way we should, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”
#3 Do not listen to, read, or sit under HERESY–and beware of WEAK teaching
Stop reading blogs that take one obscure verse and build a doctrine on it. Stop listening to men who seek to be novel–always finding something new in each passage. After listening, if you say, “I never saw that before”–it’s probably because it isn’t there, unless the interpretation honors the context and sound doctrine with the rest of the Bible.
Your friends and family need to stop being content with weak teaching. Apostasy springs from loosey goosey handling of the Word of God. Believers can avoid false teaching only by making gutsy decisions to sit under sound teaching.
#4 Do not be afraid to say, “You’re WRONG”
We need to be loving, gracious and kind. But when it comes to truth, sometimes that means speaking plainly—“I love you and respect you in a great way, but on this matter you are wrong. What you believe is errant. What your church teaches is heresy or weak.” Be gracious, be kind, be loving, but be truthful. Christ was “full of grace and truth.” Following Christ demands rejecting error. Let’s pray.