2 Timothy 4:1-4
I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; 2 Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; 4 And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.
Last week, we learned the external reason why people reject the gospel. When the gospel is rejected, it is rejected because “the god of this world [the devil] has blinded the minds of them who do not believe [the gospel]” (2 Cor. 4:4). Tonight, we will look at the internal cause of the rejection of the gospel. Why people reject the gospel when it is the greatest news for their dying souls?
Ever since the birth of the New Testament church, the church has struggled with lots of problems. Trevin Way, director of Bibles and References at LifeWay Christian Resources, articulates on the four big challenges facing the church in the west today: individualism, pragmatism, immorality, and divisions (isolation, fragmentation, and polarization).1 Of course, the list of the problems we deal with in the church can go on and on. Yet, though we can expand the list endlessly, all these problems can be boiled down to one category: sin. It is simply a sin problem. The church consists of sinners saved by grace and, at times, it is inevitable to deal with problems in the church. A church without problems is a church without people. Yet, the problem the apostle Paul is dealing with in the tonight’s text is not just one of many church problems. This is the worst kind of problems that the church can ever face. It is the problem of having unsaved people as members of the church. These are the people who have deceived themselves. They confessed their faith in the Lord at a certain moment of their lives and got baptized. Their names are written in the church membership roll, and they are the ones who make decisions for the church. Here, we must raise a very important question. How do we know who they are? What are the marks of the people who have never received the pure gospel into their hearts and yet think there are genuine Christians?
False Believers Will Not Endure the “Sound Doctrine”
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine (v. 3a)
The future tense Paul is using in this sentence does not imply that false believers have never been in the church of Ephesus before. It is just to warn Timothy of what he should expect so that he would not be off guard. “The time” that will come could be tomorrow or even tonight for Timothy. They can reveal themselves anytime in the church and, when they come, Timothy will be able to know who they are because they would not be able to put up with the “sound doctrine.” The term “sound (or healthy) doctrine” is synonymous with the gospel in the Pastoral Letters:
If there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine; 11 According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust (1 Tim. 1:10b-11).
While rejecting the sound doctrine according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, these false believers embrace false doctrines.
False Believers Will Rather Cling to Manmade Myths
but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables (3b-4).
Rather than the healthy gospel, they want false teachings to tickle their ears. In other words, they don’t want to listen to the fundamental doctrines of pure Christianity, but only to hear what they want to hear! They will turn their ears away from the truth of the gospel and turn to fables or myths. These myths are not originated from the divine mind. They are rather from flawed human brains to satisfy the sinful desires of the human heart. They would say,
- “We humans cannot be so sinful to the point that we cannot contribute to our salvation. Find something good in you and bring it out in your life. God will be pleased with it!” [Pelagianism/works-righteousness]
- “Why bother with a holy life? Haven’t you heard ‘Once saved, always saved?’ No matter what I do I am getting to heaven!” [antinomianism/licentiousness]
“Jesus did not die on behalf of humanity. He was just a great teacher and example for humanity. He just wanted to teach us by His teaching and death that we need to live a noble life like his.” [moral influence theory of atonement]
“Believing in Jesus’ blood? How cruel it is to say that God can only be satisfied by His own Son’s blood and death? That is too primitive, offensive and hideous. Don’t you say that a loving God would ever do that.” [classic liberal view of atonement]
“Was Jesus bodily resurrected? Nope. He was just spiritually seen by His followers. What’s important is not its historicity, but its spiritual meaning. All scientific facts assure us that he did not physically come back to life. Nevertheless, He lives in my heart, so does He in your heart regardless of your religion.” [a form of liberal view on Jesus’ resurrection/a form of universalism]
“Waiting for Jesus’ return? No way! What He wants us to do is to make the world better now on the earth. He is not physically coming back. Just do your best to make your life and society better! That is what Jesus taught!” [classic liberal eschatology]
“There is no hell! How could a good God create such a horrible place? In the end, everybody will be saved.” [a form of universalism]
How could people who call themselves Christians cling to such erroneous teachings? What is the root cause of their rejection of the true gospel?
They Are Driven by Their Own Lusts
No matter how different their symptoms are, their problem is one. The light of the true gospel cannot penetrate their hearts because they are darkened by their own lusts: but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers (v. 3b). From the beginning, they did not have the desire to listen to God’s word and obey it. The reason they came to church was not their hunger for God. They became “Christians” because they wanted something that benefits themselves. All they care about is their own interests and pleasures. That is the reason they can bring teachers into the church, who teach what they want to hear. What they care is not how true the teachers are to the gospel. As long as they tickle their ears or satisfy their curiosity, they are good Bible teachers. Commentator Mounce remarks on the meaning of “tickling the itching ears”: “The imagery is that their itching ears are tickled by the false teachers who teach whatever is sensational or novel but in the end what conforms to their evil lusts, specifically the myths of the Ephesian heresy, which people can always study but never gain in knowledge (3:7).”2 The problem is not that they never come to church or never study the Bible. They might even seem avid learners of Christianity. Yet, though they always study, they can never embrace the truth of the gospel (3:7) because their pursuit is not God but their own lusts.
How about you? What do you believe about the gospel? Why do you believe what you believe about the gospel? Why do you come to church? Is your understanding of the gospel based on God’s revealed word or your own idea? Is your pursuit of learning the Bible based on your love for God or your own curiosity for knowledge? Do you follow Christ to give yourself to Him or to fulfill your own desires?
- What is the gospel? Where is the reference that defines the gospel?
- What are the two marks of false believers?
- Why do fake Christians reject the gospel?
- Why do you come to church or why do you follow Jesus Christ? What do you want to fulfill in your pursuit of Christianity?
- What is the only remedy for self-deceived people? Read 2 Timothy 3:14-17 and 4:2.
2William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, WBC, 575.
Do you know the 2nd law of thermodynamics? This is the law in nature that when energy changes from one form to another form, or matter moves freely, entropy (disorder) in a closed system increases. In a simpler language, things fall apart unless you make some effort to keep them together. This phenomenon happens not only in our nature but sadly in many churches. The Lord Jesus Christ left the pure gospel with the apostle Paul, and the apostle faithfully proclaimed the untainted gospel. Numerous people responded to his preaching and lots of churches were established. The church in Ephesus was one of them. Yet, like things in nature fall apart when they are left alone, some people in the church of Ephesus have corrupted the gospel truth and made shipwreck of their faith. In his letter to Timothy, pastor of the Ephesian church, the dear apostle explains how the gospel is corrupted and its effect on the church.
How does the gospel get cheapened? There are two major ways: legalism and antinomianism. While legalists seek to earn God’s favor for their salvation by keeping the law, those who hold to antinomianism try to convince themselves and others that Christians can live in a sinful lifestyle (or disregard God’s law) because God has already forgiven them of their sins. In other words, they believe that the divine grace opposes the divine law. Thus, they are called anti (from Greek anti, “against”) + nomianism (from nomos, “law”). In today’s text, the apostle Paul specifically refutes the people who embrace and promote such an idea.
We know that as Christians we must evangelize the world (Matt 28:19-20). The problem is not that we do not know it but that most of us fail to do it. Why? While there may be lots of reasons, what we will deal with tonight is the fear of inadequacy. We say to ourselves: “I am not an eloquent speaker,” “Though I know what the gospel is, I feel so inadequate to articulate it to people,” or “What if people ask me a question I cannot answer?” If you’ve ever felt this way, don’t worry about it because you are not alone. Even Paul, the great apostle, felt inadequate to do the work of evangelism. In today’s text, he says to the Corinthians, “I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling” (v. 3). How could Paul overcome feelings of inadequacy and succeed in evangelizing Corinth and establishing churches in that city? Let’s look at the secret of the apostle’s way of evangelism.
Luther realized that “the righteousness of God” is a gift from God that renders sinners acceptable in God’s sight. The phrase does not refer to God’s distributive justice by which He judges people according to their works. Nor does it mean that the divine righteousness is infused into sinners so that they are internally transformed as righteous people. Rather, by faith in the gospel, God declares sinners righteous in His sight. This declaration is not a legal fiction but a real verdict.