|The apostle Paul held a special love for the believers in Ephesus. In a tender farewell during his third missionary trip, Paul mentioned his two-fold concern for them: that “savage wolves” would attack from outside the Church, and that “perverse things” would be taught inside, even by some of their own number (Acts 20:29-30 NKJV). Within a few years, these dangers were already developing. So Paul wrote Timothy, his “true son in the faith,” with specific, divinely inspired instructions that would safeguard the Christian testimony in Ephesus.* Paul urged Timothy to address six major errors. These points can be identified in the epistle by the word “some,” indicating that various groups of Ephesian believers had already begun promoting these errors.|
Our hearts and consciences will never enjoy Christian blessings if we attempt to prove our spiritual maturity by our works. In fact, some Ephesians had gone so far as to reject the notions of faith and a good conscience. Paul pictured their Christian walk as if it were a wrecked ship, showing how significant this error is (1:19). We cannot have a good conscience if we are always worried about some transgression of the Law; there will not be Christian growth under those circumstances. Those who promote this error probably intend to foster spiritual maturity, but the end result brings the worst kind of self-defeat.
“Some will depart from the faith”
This section presents the problem of false piety. The word translated “depart” (4:1) refers to apostates, those who fall away from Christianity because they were never true believers. Yet despite their rejection of Christian truth, they continue their involvement with other believers, which only causes trouble. They declare that a more ascetic lifestyle is more pleasing to God, as if refraining from marriage or certain foods would cause one to be more holy.
In reality, God has given us these things to enjoy within the bounds of His truth (4:3). Paul tells Timothy to teach God’s principles clearly. This error can still be identified today whenever non-biblical prohibitions are emphasized. The answer is found in true godliness, which has enduring value and is useful in every situation (4:8).
“Some have already turned aside”
Seeing some believers turn aside from the faith brings true sorrow to the hearts of others. While they have not turned away from the faith like the apostates, they are making absolutely no progress for Christ and are actually supporting Satan’s causes, though probably not intentionally (5:15).
In this case, some widows (especially younger women) were evidently turning away from godly living and giving themselves to uncontrolled sensuality. “They have begun to grow wanton against Christ” (5:11). The effects of faith were so nullified in their lives that they were as unspiritual as unbelievers. As an antidote, Paul instructs that younger widows ought not to be financially supported by the local assembly of believers, which would foster idleness. Instead, they should be taught to live properly, perhaps remarrying in the Lord, and not giving the enemies of Christ a reason to speak against His testimony (5:11-15).
Although these erring widows bore personal responsibilities for their behavior, there was another, more subtle issue as well. Some families were completely ignoring the needs of their widowed relatives (5:16,3-8). These families had “denied the faith” and were also worse than unbelievers. It’s helpful to realize that both the undisciplined and the self-centered have been wrong. It may be easy to identify the sins of the first group, but the others may appear quite spiritual. Yet neither group is displaying a good testimony to others and before God.
“Some men’s sins”
Timothy next had to be warned to exercise caution about those who might be unfaithful in leadership capacities among God’s people. “Some men’s sins are clearly evident … but those of some men follow later” (5:24). Certainly Timothy would not approve of believers living in obvious sin; yet other sins were more secretive, so the sad results would only be seen over time. Therefore, Paul exhorted, “Do not lay hands on anyone hastily,” because this could actually place Timothy in the position of having fellowship with their sins (5:22). This would be particularly harmful in the case of one serving the Lord in the office of an elder; however, the principle has a broader application to godly wisdom and discernment as well. This verse does not mean that we should not keep other Christians at arm’s length for unreasonable periods of time, but it is prudent to avoid linking ourselves with other believers too quickly.
“Some have strayed from the faith”
Problems had also developed among a third group of people. Believing servants were apparently being taught that, if they had Christian masters, they did not have to respect them in the workplace any longer (6:2-3). The love of money is addressed in the same context, so it is likely that these servants and others were being encouraged to make financial gain their primary goal. Through greed, some had “strayed from the faith” (6:10), seduced by the lure of money and the prestige that can accompany it. This is another example of how natural attitudes will soon bring us to complete spiritual failure.
“Some have strayed concerning the faith”
Finally, Paul concludes his letter with an urgent plea for Timothy to guard the truth and avoid the controversies of “falsely called knowledge” (6:21). Some translations use the word “science” in this verse, but this is misleading. The process of investigation and inquiry, which the word “science” has come to mean, is a relatively modern concept. It is true that modern science may be abused as a means of belittling Christian truth, but that is not Paul’s point. Instead, he refers to false knowledge which created an atmosphere of opposition, strife, and elitism among the Christians. Consumed with worthless discussions, some had actually strayed from the faith, missing the mark (6:22). In the same way, we should take care not to stray into topics of discussion which the Bible does not address. These become foolish debates which produce discord, not fellowship (2 Tim. 2:23).
An important generalization can be made about these six problems. Each one has the common theme of straying from the faith and being distracted by wrong influences. For a sheep, straying from the flock begins with just one small step, then another. A believer who has strayed from Christ also usually does so gradually. With the exception of apostates, who were not believers in the first place, the straying often comes little by little, perhaps unnoticed by others until it has fully developed into definite wickedness.
There are two lessons in this. First, our God-given, sanctified consciences should be tender, active and sensitive to the conviction of the Holy Spirit when things start to go wrong in our personal lives. Paul wrote about keeping our consciences good and pure (1:5; 3:9), whereas others have burned their consciences so thoroughly that there’s no longer any response to evil (4:2). We should be extra-sensitive to sin so that our feet are kept in the narrow path.
Second, we should be vigilant in our care of others. It can be easy to miss the signs that other Christians are starting to drift away from their relationship with the Lord. Then, when the habits are full-blown, they are much harder to deal with. Observant fellow believers will be used by the Lord to help keep others on the right track. We should be prepared to identify and then correct these errors, as Paul asked Timothy to do.
What should Timothy do about these problems? Another key phrase, “these things,” surfaces in this letter, indicating which truths Timothy was to teach. He would instruct, command, and teach the believers (4:6,11). He would give special exhortation to widows (5:7). And he would meditate personally on “these things” from Paul, making certain to apply them accurately (4:15; 5:21).
As Christians today, we have our own set of “these things.” We have the words of Christ and the apostles’ doctrine recorded for us in the Bible, and we should give ourselves completely to them just as Timothy was to do. To be possessed and controlled by the Word of God is a great safeguard against any of the attacks that might develop against God’s people.
For Timothy, chapters 2 and 3 of this letter contain the positive teaching which would help the Ephesians. Chapter 2 emphasizes the essential character and nature of prayer. Men especially take the public lead in this, while women display the modest and submissive character that glorifies God. Chapter 3 provides specific instructions for the offices of overseers and deacons. Their personal lives were to reflect the highest standards; their family lives were to be reverent towards God. With no distractions in their own lives or problems in their families, these Christians would be able to help the souls of others (Heb. 13:7,13). Each of us should individually display this character, as well, living out practical righteousness and encouraging others in spiritual growth.
Paul’s most significant use of the phrase “these things” comes at the end of these two chapters. He intended to come and help Timothy; but in case he was delayed, “these things I write to you … so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the Church of the Living God” (3:14-15).
We should be clear about the house of God. It refers not to the building where Christians may gather but to the Christians themselves. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians makes this even more plain: “You are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22).
God has been building His house for generations since Paul’s letters were written. So Paul’s exhortations to Timothy are also for us. They are not limited to a certain time of the week, when believers are gathered together at a certain location. Rather, these words will help us behave in God-honoring ways wherever we are, because we always form part of the house of God.
* Many Bible scholars believe that Paul, after his first imprisonment in Rome for two years (Acts 28:16,30), was released and able to travel again. Based on 1 Timothy 1:3, it seems Paul was able to revisit Ephesus for a short time. Because of the concerns he had while there, he asked Timothy to stay rather than travel on with him to Macedonia.
By Stephen Campbell
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org