2 Timothy 2:16-19
16 But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. 17 And their word will eat as doth a canker: of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus; 18 Who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some. 19 Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.
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.
The Corruption of the Gospel Begins in a Small Scale
The dispute over the gospel truth begins in an insignificant way. Paul commands Timothy to charge the Ephesian church “before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers” (v. 14). In other words, Paul is saying, “Don’t allow your people wrangle over small words and terms. There is no benefit in such arguments, and some will buy false teachings and ruin their faith.” When small disputes over orthodox doctrines are left unchecked, they become “profane and vain babblings” (v. 16). They are worldly chatters that are “distant from and foreign to God” (Phillip H. Towner). The characteristic of the false teachers in Ephesus was that they subtly attack the truth of the gospel. This corruption of the gospel in the church always begins in a very small scale. A conservative Christian does not become a liberal one over the night. But when we allow slightly corrupted talks and opinions over core doctrines in the church, they will grow more and more.
A Corrupted Doctrine Is Infectious and Destructive
Paul compares the false teachers’ teaching as a “Canker” (v. 17a). Commentator Bernard says that in the ancient world, this word was “used of flesh-eating sores. It is a common medical term used as early as Hippocrates. It is used here figuratively, emphasizing the heresy’s ability both to spread and to destroy.” The small corruption in a core doctrine of Christianity does not stay there. Just like a malignant tumor quickly spreads to other parts of the body, the corrupt doctrine allowed in the church can quickly corrupt other doctrines, even the truth of the gospel.
Paul names two false teachers—“Hymenaeus and Philetus” (v. 17b). Paul already mentioned Hymenaeus (paired with Alexander) in the previous letter: “Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck: Of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.” (1 Tim 1:19-20). Because the name Hymenaeus was not a common name, it seems like Paul is dealing with the same person. This indicates that it is not easy to get rid of false teachers once they gain popularity among people.
Many Christians naively think that they are free from the danger of false teachers. Yet, false teachers are not far from us. In Acts 20, the apostle Paul gives encourages and warns a group of Ephesian elders as he is headed to Jerusalem. In verses 29-30, we find the apostle’s very interesting warning about false teachers.
29 For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also of [or from] your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.
From where false teachers arise? From the Ephesian elders themselves, the apostle says. Hymenaeus and Philetus were not strangers to the church of Ephesus. They were most likely teachers or pastors in the church.
What did they teach? The fundamental attack of these false teachers was on the doctrine of the resurrection: “the resurrection of believers has already occurred.” (v. 18). Most likely, they promoted an over-realized eschatology. Paul had taught that Christians are presently raised with Christ (Rom. 6:1-11; Eph 2:6; 5:14; Col. 2:12-13; 3:1-4). Probably, some teachers, including Hymenaeus and Philetus, distorted and overemphasized this truth to the point that the promise of the resurrection of the believers is already fully realized in a spiritual sense. This teaching would lead people to conclude that the future bodily resurrection of believers is unnecessary. This was a serious attack on the gospel which guarantees the bodily resurrection of all believers according to the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:12, 13, 21, 42). When the foundation of the gospel is rejected, the end result is destructive.
The Corruption of the Gospel Results in a Moral Failure
The result of such teaching is that they “overthrow the faith of some” who are spiritually unstable and doctrinally immature (v. 18b). Biblical scholar Knight remarks on the effect of the false teaching in the church of Ephesus: “This error can affect how one regards Jesus’ resurrection and its significance for one’s future standing and hope for eternity, and thus also how one thinks of the Christian’s present relationship to Christ and one’s perspective on the body and conduct in this life and attitude to material creation. Therefore, Paul regards it as striking at the heart of Christianity and thus as a departure from the truth.”
The corruption of the gospel brings not only a spiritual shipwreck but also a moral failure. We don’t know exactly why, but the teaching that believers are spiritually fully resurrected caused its followers to live immorally. When a person begins to follow a different gospel, it is inevitable that he or she will live in an immoral lifestyle. It is because false doctrines will cause them to “increase unto more ungodliness” (v. 16b). A corrupted gospel always leads to immoral behavior.
In contrast, those who are identified with Jesus Chris by their faith in the genuine gospel would stand on the firm foundation of God and depart from iniquity or unrighteousness (v. 19). What is the firm foundation of God then? The pure gospel (vv. 8-9, 11-13). This is the reason why we need to be vigilant in keeping the pure gospel. In order to keep our gospel free from corruption, we must do our best to present ourselves to God as diligent workers who accurately handle the word of truth (v. 15). Paul gives the same command to the group of Ephesian elders who are exposed to the danger of false teachers (Acts 20:31-32):
Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears [by preaching “the gospel of the grace of God” (v. 24), “the kingdom of God” (v. 25), and “the whole counsel of God” (v. 27)]. 32 And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.
- What is the gospel?
- How is the gospel corrupted, in a small scale or a large scale? What can a small doctrinal corruption do to a soul?
- How is a one’s belief in a corrupt gospel manifested in his/her life?
- Read Acts 20:28-32. Paul is warning Ephesian elders about false teachers who will emerge after he is gone. Where are they coming from? (esp. v. 30)
- What is the cure for false teachers/teaching? See 2 Tim. 2:15 and Acts. 20:31-32.