Falling Away from the Faith
1 Timothy 4:1–5
But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer. (4:1–5)
Since creation, the earth has been the battleground between God and Satan. God calls mankind to respond to His Word, and Satan tries to lure them to follow lies. Some claim satanic perversions to be the truth from God. Sadly, even some who profess to follow God's truth turn away from it.
Such deviations from the true faith are nothing new. Among the many examples of apostasy in the Old Testament was King Amaziah of Judah. Second Chronicles 25:2 says of him, "he did right in the sight of the Lord, yet not with a whole heart." His religion was mere external behavior; in his heart he did not know God. Soon he was lured away into idolatry. Second Chronicles 25:14 tells the tragic story: "Now it came about after Amaziah came from slaughtering the Edomites that he brought the gods of the sons of Seir, set them up as his gods, bowed down before them, and burned incense to them." At the close of his life, his epitaph read, "Amaziah turned away from following the Lord" (2 Chron. 25:27).
The New Testament also has its share of apostates, men like Judas Iscariot (John 6:70–71) and Demas (2 Tim. 4:10). The church at Ephesus had seen Hymenaeus and Alexander depart from the faith (1:18–20). Church history from New Testament times until our own day is replete with examples of apostates. They have turned aside to follow deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons. It is fallen angels, those demonic beings, who energize all false religion. Like their evil master, Satan, their deception is effective because they disguise themselves as angels of light (2 Cor. 11:14).
When men worship idols, they are in reality worshiping the demons behind those idols. Leviticus 17:7 says, "They shall no longer sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat demons with which they play the harlot." Deuteronomy 32:17 laments that Israel "sacrificed to demons who were not God," while Psalm 106:36–37 shows the depravity of such worship. Israel "served their idols, which became a snare to them. They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons." "The things which the Gentiles sacrifice," Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "they sacrifice to demons" (1 Cor. 10:20).
The presence of apostate false teachers at Ephesus is indicated from 1:3–7, 18–20. In chapters 2 and 3, Paul dealt with some of the ramifications of their false teaching and corruption of the church. He countered their deceptions with the divine design for men and women in the church, and the spiritual qualifications for true church leaders. Chapter 3 closed with a creedal statement affirming what apostates most directly deny and what is the central truth of the Christian faith: the Person and work of Jesus Christ. In chapter 4, Paul returns to his discussion of the false teachers themselves. The battle lines are thus sharply drawn. While not always popular in our day of toleration and "love," there is a biblical mandate to deal directly and firmly with false teaching. Any tolerance of error regarding God's revelation is a direct form of dishonor to Him. "For Thou hast magnified Thy word according to all Thy name" (Ps. 138:2). Professing believers who would not speak a blasphemous or degrading word against God Himself out of reverence for His name will nevertheless readily misrepresent and pervert His Word, which is to be equally exalted.
The Certainty of Apostasy
some will fall away from the faith, (4:1c)
The key to unlock this passage is the phrase in verse 1, some will fall away from the faith. There will be those, like Judas, Demas, and the false disciples of John 6:66, and those often warned in Hebrews, who abandon the faith. Fall away is from aphistēmi, which means "to depart from," or "to remove oneself from the position originally occupied to another place." It is a stronger term than either the word translated "straying" in 1:6, or the one translated "suffered shipwreck" in 1:19, and refers to a purposeful, deliberate departure from a former position. This term can refer to a simple geographical leaving (cf. Luke 2:37; 4:13; Acts 5:37; 12:10). But in the spiritual sense, it refers to those who come very close to the truth that saves, only to leave. Jesus used this verb when He described some who hear the gospel as being like seed falling on soil that has rockbed below the surface: "Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away (aphistemi)" (Luke 8:13). Here it is used to describe apostasy, to identify the tragic reality that some will act like Judas and turn their face from eternal joy to choose hell.
An apostate is not someone struggling to believe, but one who willfully abandons the biblical faith he had once professed. As already noted, the faith refers to the content of divine revelation that constitutes what Christians believe (cf. Jude 3). This phrase, then, describes an apostate, a rejector of Christ from within the ranks of the church.
In this passage, Paul gives us six features of apostasy: its predictability, its chronology, its supernatural source, its human purveyors, its content, and its error.
The Predictability of Apostasy
But the Spirit explicitly says (4:1a)
Whereas apostasy should sadden and outrage believers, it should neither shock nor surprise them, because the Spirit explicitly says that it will occur. This prediction is part of His ongoing revelation in Scripture on the subject of apostasy. In the Old Testament, He warned of the consequences of apostasy (Deut. 28:15:ff.; Ezek. 20:38), and gave numerous examples of apostates (Ex. 32; 1 Sam. 15:11; Neh. 9:26; Ps. 78). The New Testament also warns of apostasy, particularly at the time of the end just before the Lord's return. Our Lord warned of false christs who would deceive many (Matt. 24:4–12). Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about the wholesale departure from the faith that will take place during the future time of tribulation (2 Thess. 2:3–12). Peter and Jude warned of mockers, who, in the end time would depart from the faith (2 Peter 3:3; Jude 18). The apostle John cautioned that "it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour" (1 John 2:18; cf. 4:1–6). But apostasy, though escalated in the end time, is not limited to that era. The writer of Hebrews exhorted his readers, "Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God" (Heb. 3:12; cf. 5:11–6:8; 10:26–31).
Paul knew that Ephesus would not be spared efforts to deceive people into abandoning the truth. In his farewell address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:29–30 he said, "I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them."
As the revelation from the Spirit in Scripture shows, apostasy is predictable, and inevitable. There will always be those who make a temporary response to the gospel, but have no genuine faith in God. We should not be surprised when they leave, and should remember the words of John, "They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us" (1 John 2:19).
The Chronology of Apostasy
that in later times (4:1b)
Paul defines the time frame in which apostasy will take place as the later times. The later times include, but are not limited to, the eschatological future. The first coming of Christ ushered in the later or last times, which was the Messianic era. First John 2:18 supports this fact when it says simply, "Children, it is the last hour." First Peter 1:20 states that Christ "has appeared in these last times for the sake of you." The writer of Hebrews informs us that God "in these last days has spoken to us in His Son" (Heb. 1:2), and "now once at the consummation of the ages [Christ] has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself" (Heb. 9:26). From the first coming of our Lord to His return, through all this age of the church, apostasy will occur and escalate toward the end when "most people's love will grow cold" (Matt. 24:12).
The Source of Apostasy
paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons (4:1d)
As already noted, apostasy is generated by demonic beings. Ephesians 6:12 says that the battle for the truth and the kingdom of heaven is a struggle "not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places." Paying attention to is from prosechō. The verb expresses more than merely listening to something. It means "to assent to," "to devote oneself to," or "cling to something." The present tense of the participle shows that apostates continually cling to demonic teaching. They understand the facts of the gospel intellectually, and outwardly identify with the Christian faith. Since their hearts are not right with God and they do not have the Spirit to teach and protect them (cf. Jude 19), however, they are lured away by deceitful spirits. Planos (deceitful) comes from the root word from which our English word "planet" derives. It carries the idea of wandering, and thus came to mean "seducing," or "deceiving." Demons are called deceitful because they cause men to wander from the orbit of the truth. The Holy Spirit leads people into saving truth (cf. John 16:13), while these unholy spirits lead them into damning error.
Apostates are not actually the victims of sophisticated university professors, false religious leaders, or wickedly clever writers or speakers. They are the victims of demonic spirits, purveying lies from the depths of hell through such humans. False teaching is thus something far more than a human aberration, it is nothing less than the doctrines of demons. The subjective genitive indicates this is not teaching about demons, but teaching done by them. Satan and his agents have concocted all manner of lying theologies to confuse and deceive. To sit under false teaching that contradicts the truth of Scripture is to be taught by demons, and to put one's mind and soul in jeopardy. It is no wonder, then, that the Bible cautions against exposing oneself to false doctrine.
In his second epistle, the apostle John wrote,
Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, that you might not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward. Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds. (vv. 7–11)
We are to rescue those under the influence of false teaching like we would snatch a stick out of the fire, being careful not to get burned ourselves (Jude 23).
Deuteronomy 13:12–18 gives us a very straightforward warning about apostasy:
If you hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you to live in, anyone saying that some worthless men have gone out from among you and have seduced the inhabitants of their city, saying, "Let us go and serve other gods" (whom you have not known), then you shall investigate and search out and inquire thoroughly. And if it is true and the matter established that this abomination has been done among you, you shall surely strike the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying it and all that is in it and its cattle with the edge of the sword. Then you shall gather all its booty into the middle of its open square and burn the city and all its booty with fire as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God; and it shall be a ruin forever. It shall never be rebuilt. And nothing from that which is put under the ban shall cling to your hand, in order that the Lord may turn from His burning anger and show mercy to you, and have compassion on you and make you increase, just as He has sworn to your fathers, if you will listen to the voice of the Lord your God, keeping all His commandments which I am commanding you today, and doing what is right in the sight of the Lord your God.
That sobering warning shows how seriously God wants us to view apostasy. It was to be cut out of the nation of Israel like cancer from a human body.
The history of demonic seduction dates back to Satan's successful tempting of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Throughout human history, culminating in the terrible influence of demons in the Tribulation (Rev. 9:2–11; 13:14; 16:14; 18:2, 23; 19:20; 20:2, 3, 8, 10), deceitful spirits will ply doctrines of demons. Through God's mercy, however, true believers will not succumb (Ps. 44:18; Heb. 6:9; 10:39; Jude 24–25).
The Purveyors of Apostasy
by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron (4:2)
Demonic false teaching is purveyed through human agents. While the source is supernatural, the agents are natural. The phrase the hypocrisy of liars translates two nouns in the Greek text and could be rendered "hypocritical or deceitful lie-speakers." To purvey their hellish teachings, demons use human deceivers who speak their lies. They may be religious leaders, and appear outwardly good and devout. They may teach in an ostensibly Christian college or seminary. They may pastor a church, or write theological books or commentaries. Though they wear the mask of religion (even Christianity) and wear a mask of piety, they do not serve God, but Satan. They blaspheme God. Sitting under such teachers has no redeeming value, and it results in being exposed to spiritual gangrene (2 Tim. 2:17–18).
The false teachers are able to go about their devilish business without restraint because they are seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron. Some argue that Paul's metaphor here is that of a slave branded with his owner's mark. The false teachers, according to that view, carried Satan's brand in their consciences. It seems better, however, to understand this as a reference to the burning or numbing of their consciences. Kautēriazō (seared) was used by the Greek medical writer Hippocrates to speak of cauterization. The false teachers can carry out their hypocrisy because their consciences have been destroyed. Conscience is the faculty that affirms or condemns an action (cf. Rom. 2:14–15). It is the sensitivity to right and wrong that controls behavior. Paul looked to his conscience as the divinely given witness to the condition of his soul (cf. Acts 23:1; 24:16; Rom. 9:1; 2 Cor. 1:12; 2 Tim. 1:3). The apostle has already stated that false teachers reject "a good conscience" (1:19), which is the very goal Paul pursued (1:5). The false teachers' consciences have been so ignored and misinformed that they have become like scar tissue burned senseless, which cease to function. With scarred consciences, they feel no guilt or remorse as they purvey their false doctrines.
The Content of Apostasy
men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, (4:3a)
Anything contrary to Scripture can be the entry point of demonic teaching. We might have expected the apostle to follow his severe comments about demon doctrine with examples like denying the Trinity or the deity of the Savior, or rejecting salvation by grace. But Satan is so subtle and seeks to gain a foothold on territory more easily yielded. Paul gives a sample of what was being taught at Ephesus. The deceivers there were focusing on two seemingly minor teachings: that spirituality demanded avoiding marriage and abstaining from foods. As is typical of satanic deception, both of those teachings contain an element of truth. There is nothing wrong with singleness, and such a state may aid spiritual service. First Corinthians 7:25–35 honors those designed by God to be single. Nor is fasting wrong; it is an important accompaniment to prayer (cf. Matt. 6:16–17; 9:14–15). The deception comes in seeing those as essential elements of salvation. The devising of human means of salvation is a hallmark of all false religion.
The teaching that self-denial on the physical level was essential for true spirituality characterized the Essenes. They were a Jewish sect that appeared in Palestine as early as the second century b.c. They formed the Qumran community, near the Dead Sea, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. They practiced asceticism, denying marriage and enforcing special dietary regulations. It is possible their influence was being felt in Ephesus.
Another possible influence was the philosophic dualism that characterized much contemporary Greek philosophy. That view held that matter was evil, and spirit good. Marriage and food, being aspects of the evil material world, were to be shunned. Such teaching may have influenced the Ephesians, as it did the Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1–7, 28–38; 15:12). In the second century, this false teaching developed into the dangerous heresy known as Gnosticism. Gnostics boasted of a secret, hidden knowledge. They believed they were the initiated ones, who had transcended the mundane and touched the reality of God. They rejected the body as part of the evil, physical world. Gnosticism was to pose a serious threat to the orthodox faith for several centuries.
The emphasis on externalism that marked the Ephesian apostates is typical of all satanic false religion. From the animism of primitive tribes to the sophistication of major world religions, men rely on good works, outward ritual, and self denial. William Barclay comments,
—MacArthur New Testament Commentary, The