A Commentary by John Stott
1 Timothy 4:1-2. a) The causes of error.
On the surface the situation is quite straightforward. Certain teachers begin to spread their erroneous views, and some gullible people listen to them, are taken in by them, and in consequence abandon the apostolic faith. But Paul looks beneath this surface appearance, and explains to Timothy the underlying spiritual dynamic. He refers to three successive stages.
The first cause of error is diabolical. Those who *abandon the faith* do so because they have been ‘paying attention to’ (NRSV) or *follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons* (1). Thus in the same verse Paul refers both to the Holy Spirit and to evil spirits or demons. For behind the false teachers he sees the activity of demonic forces. Speaking himself under the influence of the Spirit of truth he declares the false teachers to be under the influence of deceiving spirits.
We tend not to take this fact sufficiently seriously. Scripture portrays the devil not only as a tempter, enticing people into sin, but also as the deceiver, seducing people into error. Often he does both together, as when in the Garden of Eden he prevailed upon our first parents to doubt and then to disobey God’s word. No wonder Jesus called him ‘a liar and the father of lies’ (Jn.8:44). And the apostles regularly attributed human error to devilish deceit (E.g. 2 Cor.2:11; Eph.6:11; 2 Thess.2:9ff.; 1 Jn.2:18; 4:1ff.; Rev.13:14). Is this not why intelligent and educated people can swallow the fantastic speculations of the cults and of New Age paganism, some of the far-fetched doctrines of the ethnic religions, and the barrenness of atheistic philosophies? It is because there is not only a Spirit of truth but also a spirit of falsehood, who is able to delude, drug, bewitch and even blind People (1 Jn.4:6; 2 Tim.2:26; Gal.3:1; 2 Cor.4:4).
Secondly, error has a human cause. The devil does not usually deceive people direct. ‘Demon inspired doctrines’ (REB) gain an entry into the world and the church through human agents. *Such teachings come through hypocritical liars* (2a), or literally ‘by means of the hypocrisy of liars’. It is a terrible combination of words, since hypocrisy is a deliberate pretence and a lie a deliberate falsehood. So then false teachers, although seduced by deceiving spirits, are themselves intentional deceivers, however misleading their mask of learning and religion may be. They do not themselves believe what they are teaching.
The third and basic cause of error is moral. For the hypocritical lies of the false teachers are now traced back to the violation of their *consciences*, which have been *seared as with a hot iron* (2b). The verb *kausteriazo*, which occurs only here in the New Testament, means to ‘brand with a red-hot iron’ (BAGD). It was used of the branding of cattle and slaves, in order to establish their ownership. Most commentators opt for this interpretation and suppose that somehow the false teachers have been branded as the property of Satan. But how can their conscience bear a mark of identification which is visible to others? It seems more probable that *kausteriazo* is used here in its alternative, medical use of ‘cauterize’. When skin, a nerve or a superficial tumour is cauterized, it is destroyed by burning and so rendered insensitive. Just so, a cauterized conscience has been ‘anaesthetized’, even deadened. ‘By constantly arguing with conscience, stifling its warnings and muffling its bell’, its voice is smothered and eventually silenced. In that state of moral insensibility (Eph.4:19) false teachers easily fall prey to error. Paul has already mentioned Hymenaeus and Alexander as examples. By rejecting their conscience they ‘shipwrecked their faith’ (1:19).
The grim sequence of events in the career of the false teachers has now been revealed. First, they turned a deaf ear to their conscience, until it became cauterized. Next, they felt no scruple in becoming hypocritical liars. Thirdly, they thus exposed themselves to the influence of deceiving spirits. Finally, they led their listeners to abandon the faith. It is a perilous downward path from the deaf ear and the cauterized conscience to the deliberate lie, the deception of demons and the ruination of others. It begins when we tamper with our conscience. Instead, we need to say with Paul: ‘I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man (Acts 24.16).
Tomorrow: 1 Timothy 4:3-10. b). The tests of error.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Timothy. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.