Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Scratch Their Itching Ears (RP1)


(Audio version; Music: "My Everything" by: Owl City and "More And More Of You" by WorshipMob)









Introduction

            In a little less than three months we will elect a new President of the United States. If you’re a political junky, election cycles energize you. If the government is your end all and be all; your savior, then political cycles are probably very stressful for you as you see the possibility of your hopes and dreams either being fulfilled or dashed depending on who is ultimately elected. For those of you who are like me, I hate political cycles. I understand the role government is intended to play in our society but government corruption seems to be so rampant that it’s difficult to take anything serious that comes from someone involved in our federal government. And the election cycle simply highlights the corruption and lies. In case you haven’t noticed, some politicians and candidates get away with saying anything they want because their sycophants want to hear it—whether it’s true or not. If you’re not sick of all the political rhetoric yet, give it another 60 days or so and you may very well be by then. And if the politicians and the candidates running for office don’t make you crazy by then, their friends in the media will gladly tip you over the edge with their obvious political bias as they hide corruption and perpetuate lies.

Many of you know me well enough by now to know that I am not in the habit of pandering to the events of the day in order to entertain anyone—I’m not in the entertainment business. However, sometimes leaders generally and religious leaders more specifically say things that compel me to say something (also, keeping my mouth shut is not one of my strengths). I’ve grown accustom to sleazy politicians pandering for votes using cheap fabrications and misinformation. The tactic is old, tired, and childish and really only works on those who are unable or unwilling to think for themselves. I can usually laugh that sort of stuff off as business as usual. However, when religious leaders attempt to do that in God’s name, I refuse to let their fabrications or misinformation go unchallenged. A while ago, I read something in support of a particular position held by one of the two political parties from Archbishop Desmond Tutu that I’d like to share with you. Here’s what Archbishop Tutu said: “I can’t for the life of me imagine that God will say, ‘I will punish you because you are black, you should have been white; I will punish you because you are a woman, you should have been a man; I will punish you because you are homosexual, you ought to have been heterosexual.’ I can’t for the life of me believe that is how God sees things.” The purpose of this writing is not to teach what the Bible says about homosexuality. I’ve done that in other lessons and you can search the website archive to find them if you are interested. For the purposes of this lesson, I will simply stipulate that the practice of homosexuality is consistently condemned in the Bible as an abhorrent behavior most often described, in both the Old and New Testament, as either detestable or indecent (cf. Lev 18:22; Lev 20:13; Rom 1:26-27). However, race and gender are morally neutral whereas sexuality is not.

But that’s not the point of this particular teaching. Let me ask you a question: What sounded more pleasant to you—what Archbishop Tutu said about homosexuality or what I just said about it? And that’s the point of this teaching! There are Christians who will read my words and be fuming with anger even though the words are not my own but instead come directly from God’s Word. The same Christians who are angry with me read the words of Archbishop Tutu and praise his wisdom even though his words are at best grotesquely misleading and at worst flat out untrue. However, many people are itching to hear what they want on that particular subject and the Archbishop is scratching that itch! But Archbishop Tutu isn’t the first to Scratch Their Itching Ears.

            This happens in our churches more often then you might think. A number of years ago, my family and I attended a local church led by a pastor by the name of Gil Jones. I wouldn’t normally us his real name in a lesson but when you read the article that was written about him that I include as a reference below, you’ll understand why using his name for privacy purposes is irrelevant at this point. Also, I want to warn you in advance that the article contains sexually explicit material and profanity.

Anyway, Gil was energetic and charismatic. He was creative and a great orator. His message was pretty simple—We’re all sinners in need of God’s grace. And his preaching reflected that sentiment and the people loved it. It was all grace all the time because sin was an unconquerable inevitability. Seven years after we first started attending, we finally learned why he was so personally adamant about unconditional acceptance of sinners—he was having multiple affairs with women in the church. At the time he was married with four small children. Not surprisingly, the church leadership asked him to step down. Gil eventually left and became the pastor of another church in Denver where he did the same thing. The church leadership there asked him to step down as well. A number of his friends from that church encouraged Gil to start another church, which he did. His appeal to his friends was that he was “just like them.” In other words, he understood about their sins because he was engaged in them as well. Not surprisingly, he did the same thing at that church by having an affair with multiple women from the church. One of the women he had been sleeping with said, “He basically set up a church around his being able to behave badly.”[1]

So, which message is easier to hear: No one has the right to judge you because we are all sinners; or, You can’t have a sexual relationship with someone you’re not married to and you certainly can’t have a sexual relationship with someone other than your wife once you are married? Well the message that Gil preached was the first one because he didn’t want to be confronted with the truth of the second one. The people loved his massages because it made them feel good about their own sins. His messages served to Scratch Their Itching Ears.

Subject Text

            2 Timothy 4:1-5
           
           1In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

Context

            This letter, known as one of the Pastoral Epistles, contains some very important lessons from Paul. You see, this letter was written by Paul from a Roman prison while he was awaiting his execution. There’s something about people condemned to death—they seldom mince words and Paul was no different. There was an ever increasing danger to the young Church that Paul was constantly battling in addition to outright unbelief: “They were increasingly endangered by a judaizing-gnostic countermission that included church leaders and probably coworkers. Some house churches were ravaged and near collapse.”[2] Paul’s letters to Timothy were not only intended to instruct but also to encourage Timothy to always be prepared to faithfully and diligently carry out his calling and to persevere in the face of coming hardships. Paul anticipated that there would be some who would abandon their faith. The Pastoral Epistles “Anticipate such behavior ‘in later times’ (1 Tim 4:1; cf. 2 Tim 3-4).  But they already know of false teachers who have ‘missed the mark with regard to the truth/faith’ and who ‘upset the faith’ of some in the church (2 Tim 2:18; 1 Tim 6:21). Some ‘will depart from the faith’ ( 1 Tim 4:1) and ‘will turn away from hearing the truth’ (2 Tim 4:4). Departure from the faith comes from accepting ‘teachings of demons ’” (1 Tim 4:1).[3]

Text Analysis

1In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

            It is important to remember in vv. 1-2 that Timothy is Paul’s protégé and here we see that Paul is passing the torch on to Timothy to continue Paul’s work. The Greek that translates: “I give you this charge” is a technical term that has multiple meanings including the term for the official transfer of office. This is a solemn moment as Paul organizes his affairs in anticipation of his imminent execution. Paul invokes the witness of God and Christ in the deed with the reminder to all of the things to come. That Christ will return in the final days as the ultimate Judge of all things and the establishment of the Kingdom. “All of v. 1 is thus a shout to lean into God’s certain future that is even now becoming present. But the commission still needs to be filled out in practical terms.”[4]

The practical terms of ministry for Paul, and by extension for Timothy, are identified broadly as five elements: 1) Preach the Word; 2) Always be available and prepared; 3) Rebuke/correct; 4) Encourage; and 5) Minister with great patience and careful instruction. It is important to remember that these ministry elements are given to Timothy in the context of an oath. This is evident by the aorist imperative verb tense used. “Timothy is to preach the word. As it conflicts with the Ephesian heresy,[5] he will need to confront the false teachers and their teaching, rebuke those who will not listen to him, and exhort those who will listen and follow the true gospel…Timothy must have complete and total patience, and his teaching must inform his preaching, confronting, rebuking, and exhorting. While Paul is thinking of Timothy in this verse, what he says is true for all Christian ministers.”[6] There are many interesting Greek words found in this text but I’d like to focus briefly on one:  This is the word for “rebuke.” The word is used twenty-nine times in the New Testament but only once by Paul. It is an extremely strong word that is used by Jesus to rebuke demons. Paul tells Timothy in his first letter that demons promote false teaching. I’ll come back around to this at the end but remember where lies originate from and false teachings are nothing more than cleverly disguised lies.

3For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

Vv. 3-4 are at the heart of this week’s lesson. In v. 3 Paul warns Timothy of a time when people will reject proper and sound teaching. Actually, they won’t just reject sound teaching, the text says, “they won’t put up with it.” Instead, they will insist on surrounding themselves with teachers that will tell them what they want to hear. They don’t want teachers that will tell them the truth, they want teachers to make them feel good about themselves and the lives they have chosen to live. “In this case the problem is viewed more from the angle of weak, sinful believers who are willing to be duped. Paul describes those who have surrendered to worldly values and sinful passions of various sorts so much so that these things determine the kind of teaching they will listen to.”[7] Paul describes it as only wanting to hear what their itching ears want to hear. So they gathered about themselves only those who would Scratch Their Itching Ears! The term can be understood as a metaphor intended to “Depict an appetite for novelty that cannot be satisfied; the metaphor implies that the false teachers will ‘scratch’ (satisfy) the itchy ears for them.”[8] Or else it can mean “A pleasant tickling more than scratching of their ears.”[9] In either case, “This group has a curiosity so active and a craving for novelty so insatiable that they are driven to extremes without any discretion for judging between truth and error.”[10] As if rejecting sound teaching weren’t bad enough, they crave and pursue false teachings and myths instead.

5But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

Our Subject Text ends in v. 5 with instructions and encouragement directed at Timothy. Clearly Paul envisages some difficult times ahead for Timothy when a clear and level head will be needed for his sake and for the Church’s benefit as well. Paul is certainly familiar with the difficulties and dangers that come with ministry—particularly since he is writing to Timothy from prison. Thereafter, Paul’s instruction to Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” seems a bit out of place here only because it hasn’t really been included in any part of Paul’s instructions to Timothy previously in this section of the text. But remember that Paul is turning over the ministry to Timothy and Paul, more than anything else, was an evangelist. In fact, he was known as the evangelist to the Gentiles. Timothy needed to receive and carry this torch as well from Paul. Finally, Paul generally restates his charge to Timothy in his final statement. V. 5 draws a dramatic distinction between the behavior of those who are unfaithful and the faithfulness with which Timothy is to carry out his ministerial duties in service to those already a part of the Church as well as those who may yet become part of the Church.

Application

            I don’t know about you but when I read these verses I have to shake my head in amazement that the words describe, with frightening detail, the events of our own days. Charismatic leaders, especially religious leaders, can say virtually anything they want without question. Truth is irrelevant! People only want to hear what makes them feel good about what they think is true or about how they are living their lives. I have to tell you that I see this more and more every day and it breaks my heart. Let me remind you about a story from a long time ago. I’ll share the relevant part of the story:

            Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Gen 3:1-6)

Remember when I told you earlier where false teachings come from? Well here we have the father of lies doing what he does best—deceiving God’s followers! You might also note that Satan didn’t drag Eve kicking and screaming to the tree and cram the apple down her throat. No, I suspect her ears were itching and Satan was more than happy to scratch the itch.

So let me just say something to you from the deepest part of my heart—don’t be deceived! Please be willing to listen to the truth even if it is very difficult to hear and be willing to speak the truth even if it is very difficult to say. Don’t simply go along with what someone says just because it affirms what you believe or how you live. First see what God’s Word says and then think for yourself. I wish I could somehow convey to you how serious this matter is. My professors at Seminary used to say: “You have a duty as a follower to follow only the Truth even if it leads you to the cross and as a Pastor to teach only the Truth even if it means leading someone to the cross.” It won’t always be easy but sometimes we might have to have some very hard conversations with family and friends about the Truth of God’s Word. We must be willing to hear some very hard truths contained in God’s Word about our own lives and make the changes necessary to conform to those truths. The truth of God’s Word is life giving even if it leads to the cross.

Let me share an illustration with you about this principle that might help. I have friends who have a young son that was diagnosed with cancer in January 2010. Hearing those words from the medical professionals was certainly heart-wrenching but the hardest truths were yet to come when the doctors began educating them about leukemia and the grueling treatments that would be needed in order to save their son’s life. It was a long and difficult road that eventually led to remission of the disease. Now what do you suppose would have happened if the doctors and nurses didn’t want to tell them the hard truth that their son had cancer or what if they didn’t want a doctor or nurse that would tell them the truth about their son’s condition? Well you can guess that for yourself. So next time you hear someone like Archbishop Tutu invoking God to try to draw an analogy between, race, gender and sexual preference as though God does not make a distinction between things that are morally neutral and things that are not, ask yourself if that person is seeking to convey biblical truth or whether it’s someone who is out to Scratch Their Itching Ears!

***Warning***

            Let me please offer you a word of warning. When dealing with unbelievers, like Timothy you must first do the hard work of evangelism before trying to use the Scriptures to rebuke them. Remember that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to enlighten us and lead us to the truth. However, the Holy Spirit does not dwell in unbelievers so it is unreasonable to hold them to the same level of biblical understanding or ethical conduct as believers. If you don’t first lead them to Christ, you will only be beating them over the head with truths they don’t accept as true! This will not bring them closer to Christ but will instead drive them farther away. Don’t expect them to be clean before you bring them to the One who will “wash them white as snow” (Is 1:18). Don’t be afraid to associate with unbelievers or invite them into your churches. Unbelievers must hear about Jesus and see how he has worked in your lives. I’m not saying that biblical truth does not apply to unbelievers. I’m saying that the salvation of unbelievers should be the primary goal. Think about it, conformity to biblical truth for unbelievers (if that were even possible) in this life is irrelevant if they are lost forever. It would be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic even while it sinks to the bottom of the ocean.


Programing Note

My next lesson will post on Wednesday August 31, 2016.




[1] Prendergast, Alan, “”There’s nothing holier-than-thou about Gil Jones,” Westword, August 22, 2013, Accessed August 13, 2016, http://www.westword.com/news/theres-nothing-holier-than-thou-about-gil-jones-5121710.
[2] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p. 661.
[3] Ibid., p. 44.
[4] Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 2006), p. 600.
[5] The Ephesian heresy was an aberrant form of Judaism combined with Gnosticism. It emphasized the Law but minimized Christ and faith. It taught the virtue of asceticism and denied the resurrection. It produced sinful lifestyles and was destroying the Church’s reputation in Ephesus.
[6] William D. Mounce, WBC Pastoral Epistles, (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, 2000), p. 573.
[7] Philip H. Towner, 1-2 Timothy & Titus, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1994), p. 205.
[8] Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, p. 604.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., pp. 604-605.