Friday, August 22, 2008

Under Pressure (2): Unchanging ministry in changing times

The Church faces external pressure in the form of persecution and internal pressure in the form of false teaching.

Elsewhere I have written that persecution is comparable to The War of the Worlds, that unsubtle assault on humanity by aliens. Heresy, on the other hand, is like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The truth of the gospel is taken over subtlely by an alien world-view. The outward appearance remains in the form of orthodox words, but the content is replaced by quite different ideas. Both persecution and heresy are instruments in the hands of Satan to oppose God and the gospel.

Here's how Cyprian of Carthage expressed it:
There is more need to fear and beware of the Enemy when he creeps up secretly, when he beguiles us by a show of peace and steals forward by those hidden approaches which have earned him the name of the 'Serpent'...He invented heresies and schisms so as to undermine the faith, to corrupt the truth, to sunder our unity. Those whom he failed to keep in the blindness of their old ways he beguiles, and leads them up a new road of illusion.
This second, and internal, pressure also faces Timothy. Paul speaks to this in his second letter. Persecutors and false teachers are under the sovereign control of God, but they are not under the control of Paul or Timothy. We may wish that we never had to face heretics in the church. We may even begin to wonder why we have to deal with them. Why are they permitted to hinder the progress of the gospel? Why are they allowed to sow confusion and upset faith?

How should Timothy hold to a proper God-ward confidence under the pressure of the presence of false teachers?

By having confidence in God's sovereignty in salvation

Paul's answer to this is to direct Timothy to God's sovereignty in salvation. The Lord knows those who are his (2:19). This is a solid foundation for ministry. And those whom God knows, and brings to salvation in Christ by grace and through faith alone, will show the evidence of this by displaying the fruit of holiness (2:20; following 1:9). This is Paul's direct theological response to the infiltration of error in the church. Whatever damage it does, it simply cannot destroy this foundation. The Lord will save all his people.

By showing humble patience in correcting opponents

In 2:24-26 Paul spells out for Timothy the same kind of point that he makes in Ephesians 6:12 ("For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood..." Compare Ephesians 6:11 and 4:14). Correcting opponents cannot be done by merely human strength and wisdom. There is a spiritual conflict that Paul wants Timothy to be conscious of. What will secure a right response from those in error? Notice how Paul frames this scenario. Such men are:

*Senseless captives caught in the devil's snare to do his will (2:26)

*In need of God given repentance (which highlights the moral nature of error) without which they will never know the truth (2:25)

*Therefore Timothy must be humble, patient, gentle and not quarrelsome as he corrects them (2:24)

This is the atmosphere in which Timothy is to stand his ground and correct those in error. It is an atmosphere that calls for prayerfulness. It is also calls for wisdom because Timothy must avoid being dragged into time wasting, profitless disputes (2:14 and again in 2:23).

By demonstrating an unswerving commitment to orthodoxy

Paul urges this in 1:13. Timothy must "Hold fast the pattern of sound words." This is a moral and spiritual commitment to the truth. It is what you are meant to do with truth. By way of contrast the false teachers Hymenaeus and Alexander have "strayed concerning the truth" and have done so by letting go of the orthodox truth of the resurrection (2:17-18). And Paul has made the danger of error transparent. It will spread like a cancer. It is destructive, soul destroying.

Timothy can't control the existence of false teachers. Paul is clear, they will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived (3:13) and drawing followers after them (4:3-4).

How should Timothy respond?

He should keep going in the same direction, following the apostolic doctrine and pattern of life and ministry (3:14). Continue in what you have learned is Paul's admonition. The apostolic teaching and pattern of life are themselves rooted and anchored in the Holy Scriptures, the solid foundation for an all-round ministry (3:15-17).

What do you do in the face of false teachers?


*Lift your thoughts to God and Christ the Judge of all (4:1)

*Preach the Word at all times (4:2)

*Keep you head and keep going (4:5)

And you commit to identifying, training, and appointing men who will replicate this pattern (2:2).

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