What’s the Harm in Drinking Poison?
What to do about false teaching and why–2 Timothy 2:16-19
There are different levels of poison. There are some here who are lactose intolerant, must be gluten free, or never have nuts. Like a poison, those food items can cause serious damage, even potential death. Those may be poison to you, but there are some items that are poison to everyone—arsenic, chlorine, cyanide and mercury.
But even more deadly are the subtle but fatal poisons that surround us daily–cleaning substances, pain meds, pesticides, nail glue remover, wild mushrooms, drain cleaners, and rat poison. A friend of mine had his dad die suddenly and painfully. He saw a substance that looked like jelly on the kitchen counter and swiped it up with his finger, slurped it down, only to discover too late it was rat poison and he died.
All of you are good parents and are careful with deadly substances in your house. But I wonder, this morning, if you are as careful with the deadly poisons of the soul? They are everywhere and are increasing–and if you are not careful, you will see some, slurp it up like it was jelly, but discover later it is deadly poison.
It doesn’t matter if you are five months old or fifty years old as a Christian, spiritual poisons are deadly to your soul and to the hearts of others you care about. And the only way to remain healthy is to react to spiritual poison the way you would physical poison and avoid it–which is exactly what Paul tells Timothy to do in 2 Timothy 2.
Read aloud with me from your outline verses 14 to 19. “Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. 15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. 16 But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, 17 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. 19 Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.’”
I will briefly review verses 14 to 15 from last week in order to focus on 16 to 19 for this week. If you were a New Testament Christian in Ephesus reading these verses in Greek, it would have been obvious. There’s one command which begins this section and one command that ends it. Like bookends for verses 16 to 19, the only two commands both come from the same root.
In verse 16, Paul commands Timothy to avoid—“avoid worldly and empty chatter.” Then in verse 19, Paul commands Timothy to “abstain from wickedness.” Between these two commands, Paul tells Timothy what to do about false teaching. At the beginning he says avoid, and at the end Paul says abstain.
What do you think the main point is overall? Stay away from false teaching. Avoid false teaching. Abstain from error. Error is on the increase and it comes from people we know of–NT Wright, Rob Bell, Steven Furtick, TD Jakes, Joyce Meyer, Beth Moore, Joel Osteen and many more. Avoid their poison. Abstain from their books.
You ask, “Chris, why?” Paul will strongly answer that question in these verses. But it is almost as if there are two different sermons in this passage. In sermon one, Paul is teaching Timothy and you how to avoid false teaching. In sermon two, Paul is teaching Timothy and you why to avoid false teaching here.
There are some who might be tempted to say, “This is not a temptation of mine.” That may be true, until . . . your wife starts reading the books of a particular heretic. Your daughter runs off with a cute guy who is attending a church which teaches heresy. Or a friend at work begins to challenge your believing friends with confusing doctrine. Or you hear good answers to questions you’ve had, but from a guy with wacky doctrine.
Today God will tell you why false teaching is rat poison. Avoid—abstain from false teaching as if it were rat poison because, it will lead to further ungodliness (verse 16), it spreads like gangrene (verse 17), it’ll upset the faith of some (verse 18), and how you react to it will reveal who’s side you’re really on (verse 19).
Avoid it, Christian, because it maligns Christ, distorts Christ, insults Christ–causing believers to not depend on Christ, forget all His benefits, and ruin joy in Christ. It’s poison! How do we live on the island of truth while being surrounded by an ocean of error? Friends, there’s a place where you find the only truth there is–the Bible. So Paul says . . .
#1 Pursue continual EXPOSURE to God’s Word
Verse 14a, “Remind them of these things.” These things refers to the doctrinal truths from verses 11 to 13, so Paul says “remind them”–keep teaching, hearing, learning deep in the truths of God’s Word. You and I need to eat the protein of truth continually to remain healthy around the junk food of error.
#2 Refuse to WRANGLE about Error
Verse 14b, “and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers.” Paul commands Timothy before God to stay away from fights and quibbles about error, simply because a focus on error is completely worthless and it can ruin, literally cause catastrophic harm to those who hear it. Instead of building up the hearers, it tears them down. Instead of bringing enrichment, it brings disaster. And . . .
#3 LABOR intensely in the Word
Verse 15a, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed.” Timothy and Christian, make every effort to pass God’s evaluation by working hard in God’s Word–so that you don’t blush with embarrassment at his judgement. How?
#4 Interpret the Word ACCURATELY
Verse 15b, “accurately handling the word of truth.” Accurately handling was used of a craftsman cutting a straight line, of a farmer plowing a straight furrow, of a mason setting a straight line of bricks, or of workmen building a straight road. Metaphorically, it was used of carefully performing any task. And here it means doing the hard work of Bible interpretation.
Using a consistent hermeneutic, you must interpret the Bible normally, taking into account the original languages, understanding the original culture, embracing only the historical setting, the geographic setting and the context of each passage. That was last week’s challenge to prevent spiritual poisoning. Today, as Paul continues, he gets even more pointed with Timothy.
#5 AVOID empty discussions about error
Verse 16, “But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness” . . . and verse 17a, “and their talk will spread like gangrene.” Are you wondering what’s so bad about “chatter”? Paul answers that it grows into a prairie fire of un-godlikeness and it eats the body of Christ alive like stage 4 cancer.
Paul is sarcastic here. The false teachers think they’re making progress with truth and advancing theology. The false teachers tell others their new truths lead to progress. So what does Paul say? Oh, it leads to something–it leads to ungodliness! But what kind of talk leads to ungodliness?
Worldly chatter is not godly talk, it is actually against God–it is godless talk. The word means trivial chatterings, empty, idle, foolish, no-value talk. The word translated worldly is bebelous–literally babblings, like baby-talk. It is pointless, worthless talk and this kind of talk leads to ungodliness.
Ungodliness points to a danger–when you participate in this kind of chatter, words become a substitute for deeds. An abundance of theological chatter produces clever, speculative, intellectually reckless, and spiritually destructive talk.
A true test for what takes place in Bible studies, discipleship, community groups and times of fellowship is this–has the dialog caused you to be more intimate with God and to actually live more like Christ. Friends, if your spiritual discussions do not result in your living more like Christ and growing more intimate with Christ, then something is wrong.
Look at verse 16, the first word. “But” is in contrast to verse 15, interpreting the Bible accurately. But in contrast, avoid worldly and empty chatter. Get diligent about interpreting the words of Scripture correctly. But in contrast, Timothy I command you to act upon yourself all the time—continually, 24/7, to avoid the words of speculative, worthless, and fanciful ideas only found in the white spaces of your Bible.
Avoid is to shun–deliberate evading. Paul isn’t commanding Timothy to avoid idle chitchat or gossip, but avoid heresy talk. Avoid undermining the obvious intention of the biblical authors—otherwise your decision to not avoid it will always result in ungodliness. This kind of talk is a disease that infects the hearers and spreads the contagion to others. Don’t touch it, read it, pursue it, or talk about it—avoid it all the time.
Paul repeatedly commands believers to stay away from empty chatter. Like in Titus 3:9, “But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” This term empty chatter here refers to the unholy, useless disputes about fictitious genealogical histories (called “old womanish myths”) and hair-splitting debates revolving around speculative ideas about the Law of Moses.
Romans 1:22, “Professing themselves to be wise, they become fools.” This sort of talk is confusing at best and spiritually harmful at worst. Paul clarifies in verse 16 by using the plural–empty chatter or empty jabberings.
Paul is not telling Timothy to stay away from a single idol statement, or a concern about a theological issue, or wondering about error. No, Paul is commanding Timothy to avoid ongoing talk—repeated, speculative talk about error, which with its repetition gives it credibility and influence. Stay away from it. But why, Paul?
This kind of ongoing, sick chatter will devour. Verse 17, “and their talk will spread like gangrene.” Spread is an ominous word. Spread is literally grazing, like cattle devouring a pasture of green grass until it’s gone. Left unchecked, false teaching eats away at the Church body until the Church body loses its very life.
The foolish disputes of the jabberers resemble a gangrene or malignant tumor. Even in modern warfare, gangrene is one of the worst dangers in battlefield injuries. If not treated promptly and carefully, it can quickly lead to amputation or death. False religion and satanic lies spread faster than the truth, because the sinful human heart is more receptive to them.
Religious deceptions are so infectious, malicious, and insidious they are to be handled only with protective mask and gloves. Not only does the gangrene cancer eat away the healthy tissue, but as it does, it also aggravates the condition of the patient. For the wheat, it steals your intimacy with Christ, robs your joy, erodes your trust, and undermines your faith. And for the tare, it kills the soul.
On a broader scale, false teaching in the Church will act like gangrene, adversely affecting an ever-increasing proportion of the church body, eventually destroying the Church organism. You don’t need any evidence. All of you know of Harvard, which began as a training seminary and now is completely secular, even anti-Christian.
You all know of denominations which used to be solid, and now have lost Christ, His Word and the Gospel completely. All of them allowed false teaching to exist. It spread, then destroyed the organism. When false teachers are unopposed or unexposed, 2 Peter 2:2, “Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned.”
My brother, the doctor, works hard to treat the disease, but as he does, he’s very careful not to expose himself to the disease itself. Paul tells Tim to do the same. Cure the disease, but don’t allow any unhealthy exposure to it—avoid error. Don’t let error have any credibility in our midst through over-discussion, nor in your heart.
#6 REJECT the men who teach error, and their teaching
Verses 17b-18, “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.” Like a cancerous growth in the body, false teaching left unchecked or allowed to remain, will get worse. These two men need to be dealt with as false teachers.
These men evidently had been fellow-laborers to some extent with the Apostle Paul. They seem to have been recognized as Christian teachers, but they drifted from God’s revealed Word and took up vain speculating. They went astray–literally deviated. And they attacked the Gospel saying, “The resurrection is past already.”
And with this false teaching, they overthrew the faith of some. It might seem a smallish thing as to whether the resurrection has passed or not, but it’s the biggest thing. If they are right, then our hope in Christ will count for nothing. These two men ooze with the infection of heresy.
You have already met Hymenaeus in 1 Timothy 1:20, where Paul tells Timothy he had excommunicated him and his partner, Alexander. Now in 2 Timothy, Hymenaeus has a new sidekick, and both of them are working hard to spread their virulent infection. All of this took place in Ephesus.
Their insistence that “the resurrection has already taken place” was not primarily about Christ’s resurrection. Rather, their insistence was that the final resurrection, the great resurrection of the living and the dead, had taken place spiritually for all believers. They claimed that all the promised, end-time, eternal realizations were now theirs spiritually.
The damning thing about this teaching (apart from its plain untruthfulness) is that this false teaching attacked the reality of Jesus’ physical resurrection. The physical resurrection of believers is so linked to Christ’s resurrection that if Christians are not physically resurrected, it would prove that Christ had not been bodily resurrected either.
As Paul argued in 1 Corinthians 15:12 to 14, “Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.”
Hymenaeus and Philetus would reject this passage. Their gangrenous teaching had been sugarcoated and wrapped up in Hymenaeus’ and Philetus’ smiling declaration that they had the fullness of the resurrection now–all its health, all its wealth, all its privilege, and all of its resurrection power.
They said theirs was the good news. But Paul is in prison, they’d say–his position is a lie. They’d say if Paul had the authentic good news, he’d be living free like them–free and easy. But sadly, their so-called gospel was unadulterated anthrax—poison. And with it, they destroyed the true faith.
These two are the ringleaders. You see the two words at the beginning—“among them,” literally “among whom,” telling us there are others beside Hymenaeus and Philetus. What do we know about them? Hymenaeus was possibly the leader. We do not know why Alexander is no longer mentioned along with Hymenaeus. Had he moved away? Had he died? Had he repented? About Philetus (meaning “beloved”)–nothing else is known.
Although Paul had put him out of the church and delivered him over to Satan, while he himself was still in Ephesus, Hymenaeus obviously persisted in his efforts to mislead believers, and Philetus replaced Alexander as his co-conspirator.
Now track with me–Hymenaeus and Philetus were the kind of people who had wandered away from the truth, that is, from the true doctrine of salvation in Christ. This is not a minor difference of opinion—this teaching is a capital error. Their errant assertion stated the resurrection has already occurred spiritually.
Now the New Testament does teach a spiritual resurrection–the act of God whereby He imparts the new life into those who are dead in their sins. But the apostle also most definitely taught a physical resurrection of the body, just as Jesus had done. According to Paul’s teaching, denial of the bodily resurrection implies the complete overthrow of your salvation and your faith.
It seems probable that these men also asserted a form of spiritual resurrection as the only resurrection. And in an early form of Gnosticism, they probably taught the only resurrection was the spiritual union with Christ in His death and resurrection. But they made it harmonize with pagan Greek philosophy.
It is likely they taught that the body and all material things are intrinsically evil. Their reasoning may well have been, since matter is evil, our bodies must be evil. Hence, they will not be raised. And now that they had been resurrected spiritually, sin is no longer an issue–they could live any way they like.
They were free to live fleshly and wicked, since they had died physically and were raised spiritually. This was a spiritual resurrection that encouraged Gnostic licentious living. Their teaching lead to ungodliness. What made matters worse was that Hymenaeus and Philetus professed to be Christians. They were self-righteous and proud.
First Timothy 1:20 says they blasphemed the true Gospel. And their false teaching was contagious. Verse 18 says they upset the faith of some. They literally “turned believers upside down.” The majority were not deserting the faith–notice the words “of some,” the faith of some. But this attack was only the beginning. And the true shepherd seeks to protect all the sheep.
Yet as a malignant tumor eats away the healthy flesh, so this wicked teaching eats away the Christian faith. And Timothy needed to cut it out–emergency surgery. The Greek verb to upset, “upset the faith of some,” carries the idea of overturning, indicating the faith held by some who listened to the false teachers was not saving faith, which cannot be destroyed.
Those hearers apparently had heard the Gospel and had been attracted to Christianity. But because they had not placed their faith in Christ as Lord, when they were exposed to deception, they fell prey to the corrupt teaching and remained lost. Every church has its wheat and tares and the tares are subject to deception.
False prophets lead many astray. If it were possible, false teachers would lead astray even the elect. But “the Good Shepherd knows His sheep, and gives everlasting life to them, and they shall certainly never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of his hands” (John 10:14, 28). Regardless, reject the men who teach error and their teaching.
#7 Trust God to KEEP the true and EXPOSE the false
Verse 19, “Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.’”
How will it turn out for those who mishandle the Bible with their word fights, as opposed to the believer who “correctly handles the Word of Truth,” those who get it straight and give it straight? To answer, Paul cleverly references a famous Old Testament event. Do you know it? The rebellion of Korah in Numbers 16.
There the Levites, Korah, Dathan, Abiram and some 250 leaders, rose up against Moses’ leadership in an effort to take over the priesthood. I like how Kent Hughes describes verse 19–so listen carefully and see if you can see the connection between the rebellion of Korah and this passage and verse 19. Ready?
The Korah crew came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said (in the NIV), “‘You two have gone too far! The whole community of Israel is holy already, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then, do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?’” At this attack, humble Moses fell facedown before God in verse 4.
Then in verse 5, Moses said to Korah and all his crew, “Tomorrow morning the Lord will show who is His, and who is holy, and will bring him near to Himself; even the one whom He will choose, He will bring near to Himself.”
Then Moses set up a confrontation. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram and their families and the 250 leaders were to present themselves carrying priestly censers and stand before Aaron and his priests bearing their censers. At the appointed moment, the glory of the Lord appeared and the Lord ordered Moses and the rest of the congregation to distance themselves from the rebels, or false teachers.
So everyone moved away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Moses mightily prophesied, and the earth split apart like a great mouth and swallowed their tents, livestock, and families–every trace of them. “At their cries, all the Israelites around them fled, shouting [in verse 34], ‘The earth is going to swallow us too!’.
Then fire roared down from Heaven on the 250 leaders, incinerating them. All that remained were their red-hot censers, which were gathered, then hammered out as an overlay to the altar. Every time they saw the altar, they were reminded how God had delivered Moses from the rebellious usurpers, vindicating Moses’ words to Korah the day before. “In the morning the Lord will show who belongs to him” (Numbers 16:5).
Literally in the Septuagint, “the Lord knows those who are his”–which is what Paul quotes here in 2 Timothy 2:19. How will it turn out for Paul and Timothy in relation to those who are rebelling against God’s Word, men like Hymenaeus and Philetus? Paul gives God’s answer in verse 19, “Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands.” That is, the true believers of the church of Ephesus, those not swayed by heresy, will stand firm.
The best interpretation of firm foundation is the Church. In 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul called the Church a household, the pillar and support of the truth. The foundation of Christ’s Church stands upon the truth. What does the phrase, “having this seal,” mean? Well, a seal is a sign of ownership and God has placed His divine seal on His Church. That seal of ownership is demonstrated two ways.
First God will secure the TRUE
If you’re a genuine, born-again believer, you have the assurance of God’s election. Just as God separated the believers from the rebels in Korah’s rebellion, so God has already separated the true follower of truth from the false teacher and his followers of error. Paul says in verse 19, “The Lord knows those who are His.”
Paul quotes Moses’ reproof to Korah’s crew at their rebellion, and by application is reproving Hymenaeus and Philetus. Here this phrase is used proverbially, as a true statement of fact. So these words also become a sovereign comfort to genuine Christians in the Church–“The Lord knows those who are His,” when the ultimate fires of judgment fall and the cosmos is but a cinder. “The Lord knows those who are His.”
Jesus said this to his own children in John 6:37 and 39, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me . . . all that He has given Me I lose nothing.” God’s knowledge of you is so vast and so intimate, our Lord even compares his personal knowledge of you to His intimate knowledge of the Father.
John 10:14 and 15, “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, 15 even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.” Wow–the Lord knows those who are His. Knowing the deep things about God demands deep things from us.
Second God will expose the FALSE
The second way God has placed His seal on the Church is through personal sanctification–your personal holiness. Paul adds in verse 19, “Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.”
The false teachers taught a freedom from the material world encouraging unhindered sin. They taught the spiritual resurrection has freed you from the physical world, so enjoy the flesh. But God says those who are genuine believers will abstain from wickedness. True believers who would take comfort in the first inscription, must take responsibility for the second.
There is no election found in verse 10, apart from sanctification found in verse 19. So this second phrase is both an exhortation and an affirmation. The exhortation is found in 1 Corinthians 6:19 to 20, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.”
Peter likewise admonishes in 1 Peter 1:15, “Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior.” The affirmation is, just as God has chosen you for salvation in election, He has also sovereignly promised to complete our sanctification. Philippians 1:6, “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Despite your many failures and your frequent unfaithfulness, God will graciously complete your sanctification. You can trust Him to keep you, but also transform you. So do not drink their poison of error–or any poison of any false teacher.
1 Continually pursue exposure to God’s Word
Never move away from a Bible-teaching church for school or job, if there is not another solid, Bible-teaching church. If you understand God’s Word, then that will be your first and most important criterion.
2 Do not wrangle over error
Do not read books full of error, listen to error, or give the poison of lies too much platform or attention.
3 and 4 Labor intensely in God’s Word and interpret the Word accurately
Use good commentaries–those that take the Bible literally and seek only the author’s intended meaning, seeking the historical, grammatical, contextual meaning of every passage. It’s hard work, but worth it.
5 Avoid empty discussions about error
You should hate error. Why? Because of what Paul just told Timothy.
False teaching ruins the hearer Verse 14c
False teaching shames the teacher Verse 15b
False teaching leads to ungodly living Verse 16b
False teaching spreads like cancer Verse 17
False teaching upsets the faith of some Verse 18c
False teaching exposes the condition of the heart Verse 19b
Make certain you read the Word and not merely books about the Word. Take time to read a paragraph a week, memorize a verse per week, keep your sermon notes out for review, have others hold you accountable for specific application to the Word so you are a doer, and not merely a hearer.
6 Reject the men and women who teach error and their teaching
There is so much truth to learn, you don’t need to focus on the heretics who are on TV. Maybe they are funny, cleaver, creative, or cool-looking. Regardless, reject them.
7 Know it is the Lord who keeps you safe
And those He keeps safe, He makes holy. Solid teaching and sound doctrine make you live like Christ and overcome sin. Errant teaching encourages compromise, unholiness and marginal practices. Trust the sovereign God to keep you and grow you for His glory and your good. The Lord knows those who are His. Let’s pray.