My Pleasure and God's Glory
Passage: 1 Timothy 4:1-5
Throughout my theological education I always really enjoyed the classes I took on church history. It was fascinating to learn about the godly men and women who shaped church history, but it was also interesting to learn about strange characters who influenced broader church history. I want to emphasize that word broad because most of these people didn’t truly believe the gospel. One of the strangest groups was the Christian hermits of the second and third century. Anthony is the most famous of these early hermits. When he was only 20 years old, he responded to Christ’s instructions to the rich young ruler to sell his possessions and give them to the poor by literally selling everything. He then moved into the desert and lived in a tomb under very harsh conditions for most of his life. He believed that by denying himself the basic pleasures of life and by removing himself from ungodly society that he could become closer to God. And a number of men took up his lifestyle, and came up with all sorts of eccentric behaviors. For example some would only eat grass, others lived in trees, or refused to bathe. Simeon Stylites is probably the most famous of these eccentric hermits. He is known for living 47 years on a small platforms that he mounted on top of poles. He stayed up there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and he would have people occasionally bring him food.
That sounds pretty miserable doesn’t it? It’s hard to comprehend why anyone would do such a thing, and it’s very sad to think these men thought there actions would earn God’s favor. This is what we commonly call asceticism. Asceticism is the belief that denying oneself the basic pleasures and convenience of life is a means of godliness.
Sadly asceticism has always had its fingers in Christianity. It is very prominent in Catholic theology, and we’ll see later today that even gospel-believing Christians often embrace aspects of this thinking. We may wonder why anyone would voluntarily make themselves miserable, but sinners have a really hard time just resting in the grace of God. You may be surprised today to find how some of your own thinking about godliness may have a flavor of asceticism. And so I’m excited to preach this paragraph because it includes some important instruction about the nature of true godliness that we don’t think about all that often.
Notice that these five verses consist of two basic units. In vv. 1–2, Paul gives a general warning regarding the nature and destructive power of false teaching. Then in vv. 3–5 he specifically addresses the struggle in the Ephesian church with asceticism.
I think it will help our understanding of this passage if we begin by describing the problem the Ephesian church was facing (v. 3).
The Theological/Philosophical Problem:
Paul tells us in this verse that the false teachers at Ephesus were forbidding marriage and eating certain foods.
Of course, Paul was himself unmarried, and in 1 Corinthians 7 he argues that there are advantages to remaining single, especially in a hostile culture, but Paul also taught that marriage was created by God and that it is a good thing. But the false teachers were going beyond what Paul says in 1 Corinthians and were teaching that really godly people abstain from the pleasure of marriage.
They were also forbidding certain foods. He doesn’t tell us which ones, but most likely they were forbidding meat and promoting a meager vegetarian diet that was free from excess and pleasure.
You are probably wondering why anyone would do this when God never required it. I personally can’t imagine why anyone would voluntarily turn down a hunk of red meat when God never told us we had to? The theological answer is probably rooted in Greek dualism. The Greeks believed that the world consists of spirit and matter and that spirit is good but all matter is evil. This thinking led the Stoics to believe that enjoying any earthly pleasure was inherently problematic. And so the Stoics lived a very simple, serious lifestyle devoid of pleasure, and that kind of thinking seems to have spilled into the Ephesian church.
They saw marriage and especially the physical relationship in marriage as a form of material pleasure and therefore as necessarily tainted by sin.
The same goes for eating good food like meats or maybe cheeses and other perishable products. Since these things are not essential to life and are forms of material pleasure, they taught that they are necessarily sinful and that you can be godlier by eating a simple, meager diet. And so they were teaching a form of asceticism, and Paul will go on in vv. 3–5 to demonstrate that asceticism is wrong because it rejects God’s purpose in creation.
Now, I’m guessing that some of you may be tempted to check out about now because this all sounds very strange, and you can’t see any similar struggle in yourself. Now it is true that we Americans struggle more with greed and lust for pleasure than we do with asceticism. But this doesn’t mean it’s not there.
I’ve met Christians who feel guilty for enjoying innocent pleasures. They think that God wants them to be miserable. Or sadly I’ve heard Christians talk disparagingly about other Christians who have nicer things. Usually that’s just jealousy but we sometimes justify it with ascetic theology. Sometimes our convictions or standards come very close to asceticism. We don’t actually have a strong biblical reason why we don’t watch this or wear that; we just want to feel superior and we view the fact that we don’t indulge in a particular pleasure as a chip on our shoulder. I’ve heard married couples express a sense of doubt that God really wants them to enjoy their physical relationship.
Sadly, asceticism is especially common in people who struggle with depression. They frequently feel a great weight of guilt for no good reason, and they try to deal with that guilt with physical punishment. I’ve talked with teens who cut themselves because they think that punishing themselves will help remove their feelings of guilt. Sometimes eating disorders are also a form of self-punishment.
Folks, asceticism is more active among us than we sometimes realize. But why? Why do we think that misery is a form of godliness? I’d like to mention a couple of root issues though there are certainly others.
Legalism is a view of godliness that denies the significance of grace. It perceives my standing with God purely in terms of my works rather than beginning with a foundation of grace. It doesn’t make sense, but sinners would rather earn the favor of God than rest in his grace and accept his forgiveness. When you sin, you should grieve, but if you think that beating yourself up or contriving some form of prolonged misery impresses God, then you do not understand his grace. This is also true if you think that God is impressed by adding rules to your life that have nothing to do with actual holiness. I think that the legalist card is way overplayed in modern Christianity, but I also know that legalism is real, and it is destructive.
I’ve come across a lot of Christians over the years who are very ungodly, but they have some standard of false godliness that they believe makes them superior to everyone else. It’s certainly not true of all of them, but this is true of some KJV only people. The fruit of the Spirit hardly ever show up in their lives, but they are carrying the right Bible, and in their minds that necessarily sets them above everyone else. They’ve created a false measure of godliness through a relatively minor sacrifice, and they wear it as a chip on the shoulder.
And so asceticism is very alive among us, and we need guard against it carefully because 1 Timothy demonstrates that it has tremendous power to distract us from true godliness.
With that in mind let’s go back to vv. 1–2.
The Warning: God said we should expect false teaching (vv. 1–2).
Again, Paul addresses the main concern of this paragraph in vv. 3–5; however, it seems that some in the church were shell-shocked at how asceticism was affecting THEIR church. Therefore, in vv. 1–2 Paul seeks to calm them but also warn them by reminding them of some general truths about heresy “in the latter times,” which is a reference to the entire period from the beginning of the church until Christ returns.
According to v. 1 the Holy Spirit has clearly prophesied that false teaching is coming. You see that throughout Scripture. For example in Matthew 24:11, Jesus warned that in the last days “many false prophets will rise up and deceive many.” In Acts 20:29–30, Paul prophesied, “After my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.” God told us heresy would play a big role in church history.
But why is it so effective?
The Inspiration for False Teaching:
Paul gives two reasons why false teaching is so effective. The first is…
Demonic deception empowers false doctrine.
Paul calls heresy “doctrine of demons.” The Bible teaches that Satan is the master deceiver. He has a better grasp on the human psyche than the finest psychologists. He knows how we think and where we are weak. He knows exactly how to twist the truth in order grab the hearts of sinners and pull them away from the true gospel. And he has been in the business of designing false doctrine since Adam and Eve were in the garden.
But it’s not just that he inspires the creation of false doctrine; this verse also says that demons influences people’s hearts. We like to think that we are objective evaluators of truth, but that’s simply not the case. We are born resistant to God, and the devil and his demons are actively deceiving people.
Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when people are lured away by heresy. False doctrine is not just someone’s kooky ideas; it is the product of Satan.
But it’s not just people out there that are deceived by Satan. He is coming after you with lies every day. He is trying to make you believe that sin can satisfy more than God, and he is trying to plant doubts in your mind about the truth of Scripture. Therefore, you need to be in the Word and walk in the Spirit. Stay engaged in the church because the moment you think you are above deception you have already been deceived.
The second reason false doctrine is so effective is that…
Wicked men promote false doctrine.
The NKJV seems to read as if v. 2 continues to describe those deceived by false doctrine. However, it’s better to see v. 2 as instead describing the evil men who promote false doctrine and deceive others. This is because that first phrase describes an active evil, not mere deception. Paul pictures false teachers as lying hypocrites.
These men are not sincere; instead, they want power or prestige, or maybe they are bitter. They have evil secrets, but they put on a hypocritical front of godliness that enables them to lure people into their trap of deception.
Then Paul adds that their conscience has been seared with a hot iron. There are a couple of ways we can understand this illustration. First it was common in the Greek world to put a hot brand on the skin of a runaway slave or criminal. And some believe Paul is picturing false teachers as having Satan’s brand of ownership on them.
But the better reading is that Paul is thinking of a physical affect from intense heat. When a hot iron burns the skin it cauterizes blood vessels and deadens nerve endings with the result that the person loses sensitivity.
It’s a powerful picture because we might wonder why anyone would knowingly lead people away from the truth of God, especially someone who came from within the church. The answer is that their commitment to error has fried their conscience. It’s possible that they have lost all sense of truth and ability to see the obvious holes in their thinking. Or in some cases, they may realize what they are doing, but their conscience is so dysfunctional that they want to lead people away from the truth.
Verse 2 gives a sobering picture of the heart of a false teacher. We like to assume the best of people, but Paul says that evil has taken control of them. We shouldn’t give them the benefit of the doubt, or any opportunity for influence. We should recognize the evil and resist.
We also ought to be warned by this idea of having your conscience seared. It’s a powerful reminder that the human heart is deceitful. And when someone gives themselves to heresy, it warps their entire sense of right and wrong, truth and error. We need to stay tethered to truth because our hearts are very prone to stray.
We also need to carefully watch our obedience because sin also affects the conscience. Every time you make a choice whether for right or wrong it becomes easier to make the same choice the next time. We’ve all seen that in our own lives. The first time you do something it feels very strange, but it keeps getting more normal until you don’t even think about it. That’s scary when you think about sin. You can commit a sin so many times, that your conscience stops working. We need to guard our consciences very carefully so that they are true to Scripture and a helpful guide to godliness.
And so in vv. 1 –2, Paul gives a general warning. God said false doctrine would pop up; therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when it happens. We should be ready, and we should guard ourselves against its influence. Then in vv. 3–5, Paul addresses the ascetic theology that was affecting the Ephesian Church. Notice Paul’s response.
The Response: We honor God by enjoying his creation to his glory (vv. 3–5).
Paul responds to this heresy by driving home two basic points that he repeats a couple of times. First, God’s creation is good, and second, God intends for us to enjoy his creation with a spirit of gratitude.
Let’s begin by talking about the fact that…
God’s creation is good.
This is very significant because according to the Greek worldview, matter is inherently inferior to spirit. But the biblical worldview will have none of that because God made the physical world, and he declared it good at the end of the creation week. Therefore, Paul goes right after the fundamental flaw of asceticism in v. 3 when he says that the false teachers were telling people not to eat things that God created for our enjoyment.
Then Paul reaffirms this fact in v. 4 when he says that “every creature of God is good.” This doesn’t mean that everything in creation hasn’t been affected by the curse because everything has been. However, we shouldn’t view any of God’s creation as fundamentally evil because God made all of it, and he made all of it for our pleasure. Folks, creation is good, and God wants us to enjoy the world that he has made.
Now, we’ll talk in a bit about the fact that we have to enjoy it the right way, but assuming we do, there is nothing sinful about enjoying the things God has made. In fact, the right kind of enjoyment glorifies him.
That means, that we shouldn’t feel guilty about enjoying God’s good gifts. Clearly, Paul’s main focus is on food, but the things he says about food are also applicable to marriage because marriage is also God’s creation. We need to park here for a minute because Paul brings it up and because our thinking here tends to be off. We live in a highly sexualized culture, and because of that, Christians talk a lot about the evils of lust. And sadly Christians sometimes carry that view of the physical relationship into their marriages. They feel guilty about enjoying this aspect of marriage to the fullest extent, and they don’t grow this relationship. Their marriage really struggles as a result because they are missing something good that God made to help join the hearts of a man and his wife. Folks, God made us man and woman, and he made us to satisfy each other’s desires in the context of marriage. We need to make sure that we are thinking biblically about these things, and we need to make sure that we are acting on them. If you are married, you need to be satisfied in the wife of your youth, as God admonishes you in Proverbs 5:18. Otherwise, your marriage will suffer, and you will miss a good creation of God.
We also need to park on foods for a minute because there is a lot of bad thinking among Christians in this area. In particular, there are a lot of mom-blogs out there that are full of lousy attempts at biblical arguments for why everyone who is spiritual will embrace a particular diet. For some of these people, it’s not just a matter of being healthy; it is a matter of godliness. You have people arguing that a good Christian shouldn’t eat grains and others arguing you shouldn’t eat meat. These ideas are trendy, but they are Pharisaical legalism.
Now, some things have to be enjoyed with moderation. First Timothy 4:4 declares bacon to be a good thing, but being a good steward of your body probably means that you should eat it in moderation. But if your conscience is bound so that you deny the goodness of something God made for our pleasure, that’s wrong. If you come across a teaching that essentially denies the goodness of a food that God made, you need to reject that as evil.
Of course there are so many other implications of what Paul is saying. God wants us to enjoy nature. When you hike a mountain or walk along a beach, remember that this is God’s good creation. God has placed us in a good world, and he wants us to enjoy it, though we must enjoy it the right way.
The second major truth in Paul’s response is that…
We must enjoy God’s creation with a God-centered perspective.
I want to begin this discussion in v. 5. Paul doesn’t mean by v. 5 that food is inherently evil until we do something to cleanse it. He has already told us that God’s creation is good. Rather, we need to understand v. 5 in light of what Paul says in other places about food. In particular, Romans 14 talks about the fact that some people’s consciences are bound regarding some foods. In particular, the Jews had a hard time moving past OT food laws even though Jesus said they are no longer in force. The way we overcome this is by remembering the “word of God,” which seems to refer to God’s own statements regarding his creation. In particular, in Genesis 1 God declared everything he made to be good. Therefore, the point of v. 5 is to say that we enjoy creation to God’s glory when we view it in light of the truth of Scripture. If we aren’t looking at creation biblically, we won’t glorify God in it.
But if we are thinking biblically, we can enjoy it by means of thanksgiving prayers. This is how we ought to understand prayer in v. 5 in light of vv. 3–4. Verse 3 that thanksgiving must dominate our enjoyment. And v. 4 says that we should enjoy everything God has made, assuming we do so with thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is so essential because eating a steak or sitting on a beautiful beach does not necessarily glorify God. Selfish lust and greed can easily overtake our enjoyment of God’s creation. Pleasure becomes a god itself. But the answer is not asceticism. No, the answer is to look at creation with a God-centered perspective and to worship God through enjoying what he has made. Do you realize that you can worship God when you enjoy his creation?
When you enjoy a good steak, and you think, “This steak is really good because God is good and he has graciously given me food to enjoy” you are worshipping God because you are declaring his goodness. Or when you look out at the ocean, and you see it as a demonstration of the beauty and power of God, and you thank him for letting you enjoy it, you are worshipping God. When you enjoy your marriage, if you see the grace of God in this gift, and you give thanks that God created marriage, you are worshipping. We could go on and on with other applications, but hopefully you get the point. God wants you to enjoy his gifts, but we must guard against enjoying them selfishly. Rather, we must enjoy God’s gifts with God-centered perspective of worship.
Let’s keep that in mind today even as we enjoy dinner together. Your food is good because God is good. The fellowship will be good, not just because the person sitting by you is good but because God graciously gives relationships. And let’s live this way every day. Let’s glorify God by enjoying his grace.