A Commentary by John Stott
1 Timothy 4:3-10. b) The tests of error.
By now our curiosity has been aroused as to what the false teachers were propagating. In telling us, Paul also moves from the causes of error to its tests. He puts into Timothy’s hands two important criteria which may be applied to all teaching. The rest of the first half of this chapter is devoted to the question how error may be detected.
It is clear that the false teaching in Ephesus consisted of a false asceticism: *They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods* (3a). Marriage and food relate to the two most basic natural appetites of the human body, sex and hunger. They are natural appetites too, although both may be abused by degenerating into lust and greed. Yet from the beginning of church history some teachers have gone further, and have argued that sex and hunger are themselves unclean appetites, that the body itself is a nasty encumbrance (if not actually evil), and that the only way to holiness is abstinence, the voluntary renunciation of sex and marriage, and, since eating cannot be given up altogether, then at least the renunciation of meat.
One origin of these tendencies was Jewish. The Essenes of Qumran, for example, were said by Josephus to ‘reject pleasures as an evil, but esteem continence…to be virtue’, and to ‘neglect marriage’. Later this Jewish aberration came to be mingled with the dualism of Greek philosophy, and especially with incipient Gnosticism which regarded matter as evil and despised the material creation. The Encratites, for example, are described by Iranaeus as having ‘preached against marriage, thus setting aside the original creation of God, and indirectly blaming him who made them male and female for the propagation of the human race’. They also enjoined abstinence from animal food, ‘thus proving themselves ungrateful to God who made all things’. Some other church fathers, like Tertullian, were themselves tainted with an exaggerated asceticism, and regarded virginity as always higher and holier than marriage. In rejecting this, we do not forget that according to Jesus and Paul some people are called to remain single, or that fasting has a place in Christian discipleship, but these are special cases. The point is that celibacy and vegetarianism are not God’s general will for everybody; to forbid marriage and meat-eating is to be guilty of serious error.
But why? Wherein lies the essence of the false teachers’ error? And how can it be detected? Paul now supplies two fundamental tests, which are widely applicable. The first is a theological test, the doctrine of creation (3-5). The second is an ethical test, the priority of godliness (6-10).
i). A theological test: creation (4:3-5).
Marriage and certain foods, which the false teachers were forbidding, are gifts *which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth* (3b). The principle is plain. How can anybody despise marriage, let alone forbid it, when God instituted it? How can anybody command abstention from certain foods, when God created them to be received with thanksgiving? What God has made and given us, we are to receive and thank him for. The reference may be to an inward spirit of thanksgiving, but probably also to the open expression of it in saying grace before meals, which had long been the custom in Jewish households (Cf. Rom.14:6; 1 Cor.10:30).
We need to note carefully the double consecration of God’s creation gifts, which Paul repeats three times for emphasis. The first statement, as we have seen, brings together the divine creation and the grateful human reception (3). Secondly, the principle is given a universal application: *For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving* (4). If everything was declared good by creation, then nothing is to be declared taboo. This is assuredly an allusion to the refrain of Genesis 1 that everything God made was good. Thirdly, Paul clinches the argument: *Because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer (5).
Tomorrow: 1 Timothy 4:3-10. b,i). A theological test: creation (continued).
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.