Why Do False Teachings Stand Out More Than the Truth?

Timothy is responsible for teaching the truth and handling error correctly (2 Timothy 2:14). “Remind” is a present imperative; Timothy must keep reminding his church of the doctrines that Paul outlined in 2:11–13.

Timothy will charge the people “before God” (2 Timothy 2:14), for the Lord hears all speech, even quarrels over nothing but wording. The next phrase, translated, “which does no good” (v. 14b), has a slight play on the word epi.

Quarrels over trivial verbal matters are good for (epi) nothing, but they lead to (epi) ruin since they harm both speakers and hearers.

Most strife over words is babble and folly, not heresy, but petty quarrels are harmful. Whenever people insist on a specific word, such as sin, broken, or atonement, there is a chance that they want to quarrel about words.

In controversy-heavy settings, people can also quarrel about the proper way to oppose errors. One wants a gentle approach; another wants specific denunciations of errors. Therefore, a quarrel about words can erupt if a pastor or ministry leader allegedly fails to condemn an error with sufficient vigor.

There is a time for confrontation and debate. J. Gresham Machen rightly observed that “men will fight” about “the critical things.” A religion that utters pious phrases but shrinks from controversy will never stand.

There is even a time to quarrel about words if they are essential. For example, this holds when skeptical theologians hide their convictions by using conventional terms in heterodox ways.

Thus, skeptical theologians may label Jesus as “Savior,” but they mean that his teachings and example “save” people from meaningless lives. Orthodox Christians are willing to have a theological battle over that. We fight for words that convey essential truths, but we disavow quarrels about mere labels.

Instead of quarreling, Paul tells Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

The command “Do your best” (Greek: spoudazō) calls Timothy to put forth every effort. Workers can be “approved” or evil. They can be rewarded or punished (Luke 10:7). But the harvest is plentiful, so the Lord needs workers (Matthew 9:37–38).

Teachers rightly handle “the word of truth,” that is, the gospel. This meaning of “word of truth” is evident in Ephesians, where Paul tells us that believers have “heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (Ephesians 1:13; Colossians 1:5; James 1:18). “Rightly handling” translates orthotomeō, which means “to cut straight or without deviation.”

In Paul’s culture, workers cut stones straight, cut roads straight through the countryside, and cut fields straight with plows. In context, however, the task is to handle the gospel faithfully. Teachers cut straight when they proclaim Jesus’ redemption and exhort all to repent and believe in him, without changing the message to conform to the tastes or distastes of the day.

The Danger of False Teaching

Timothy must “avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene” (2 Timothy 2:16–17a). “Irreverent babble” is empty, godless, and perhaps profane chatter.

It is like the smooth talk of false prophets (Isaiah 30:10–11) and unlike the “seasoned” speech that will “give grace to those who hear” (Colossians 4:6; Ephesians 4:29). If these babblers considered themselves “progressive,” as aberrant thinkers often do, then, Paul says, they progress toward ungodliness.

And if their ideas spread, they spread like a crippling disease. By contrast, true teaching is healthy — sound and true (2 Timothy 1:13; 4:3).

Paul is concerned about the spread of false teaching. Among the false teachers “are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened.

They are upsetting the faith of some” (2 Timothy 2:17b–18). Hymenaeus is probably the same man whom Paul condemned for blasphemy in 1 Timothy 1:20. No one knows precisely what Hymenaeus said, though false teaching about the resurrection may connect to Greek disdain for the body.

Challenges to biblical teaching on the body and the resurrection were common in the early church. Errors spread in opposite directions. One party said that bodily pleasures are dangerous so that believers should practice self-denial (1 Timothy 4:3).

Another party said that bodily pleasures are inconsequential so that believers can indulge themselves (1 Corinthians 6:12–20; 15:32–34). Later gnostic literature spiritualized the resurrection, reducing it to enlightenment.

The idea that “the resurrection has already happened” (2 Timothy 2:18b) may represent an acute case of realized eschatology. That is, this view taught that believers already lived, in full, in the age to come.

Apostasy causes harm. The messages of false teachers are bound to upset the faithful. Paul insists, “God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity’” (2 Timothy 2:19).

False teaching may roil the church, but it cannot wreck its foundation, which is proximately the apostles and the prophets but ultimately, the person and work of Christ (Ephesians 2:20).

Nothing can reverse God’s saving acts. He protects his own until the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2; 1 Peter 1:3–7). Their salvation is certain, for God has written their names in the book of life (Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:4–5).

It upsets believers when people such as Hymenaeus and Alexander “swerve” from the faith that they once proclaimed. Still, if anyone doubts his status, Paul reassures them by quoting Numbers 16:5: “The Lord knows those who are his” (2 Timothy 2:19).

Numbers 16 describes the rebellion of Korah. Korah gathered 250 leaders of Israel to accuse Moses and Aaron of usurping Israel’s leadership (Numbers 16:1–3). In Numbers, Moses asked God to judge between him and Korah, saying: “The Lord will show [or ‘make known’] who is his” (v. 15 ESV or NRSV).

Paul follows the Septuagint, which reads, “The Lord knows who is his.” God knows who does and does not belong to him. He knows who leads and speaks truly. God called Moses and Aaron; he did not know Korah, who soon perished for his contumacy.

Similarly, the Lord also knows that Hymenaeus and his allies are self-appointed and false. So God’s people can stay calm. There are always false teachers, and God always unmasks them eventually (Matthew 7:22–23; 25:12; Luke 13:27).

To Hymenaeus and his tribe, Paul commands, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity” (2 Timothy 2:19b). That is, if they truly call on the Lord, they will forsake their rebellion, lest the Lord exclude them and shame them (Psalm 5:9–10; 6:8–10).

The Lord promises to preserve his church despite the threats caused by heretics. Korah did not destroy Israel, and no one can destroy the church. Further, the Lord summons self-designated believers to forsake their ideas and conduct.

Paul’s invitation to “depart from iniquity” echoes Moses’ exhortation to the Israelites to depart from Korah, lest they die with him when judgment comes (Numbers 16:25–35).

Warnings Against False Teachers

Passages such as 2 Timothy 2:19 warn us to separate from people who profess faith but deny it in word and deed. If we encounter false teachers or libertines, we warn them (Matthew 18:15–18; 1 Corinthians 5:9–13). We do not act as though we were one with them.

Second, we take heart, for God promises that he will assess and judge those who falsely claim leadership in God’s house. Unless they repent, they will be exposed and punished. Until then, trustworthy leaders must oppose teachers who would lead God’s people astray (Jude 3–5).

Lastly, we trust that God’s foundation stands. Jesus said, “I know my own, and my own know me” (John 10:14). This knowledge includes the grace of preservation. Jesus lays down his life for his sheep and promises that “they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (vv. 28–29).

Westminster Confession of Faith 17.1 states the point carefully: “They, whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.”

For further reading:

What Does the Bible Warn about False Prophets?

What Is a False Messiah?

What Is Apostasy?

What Did Jesus Mean When He Said, ‘I Never Knew You’?

What Does it Mean That God Is Just?

Who Is the Father of Lies?

Do We Strive for God’s Justice or Our Own?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/AndreyPopov

Dave Jenkins is happily married to Sarah Jenkins. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon.

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