Thursday, 19 August 2021

Asceticism Vs. Everything Made Holy by God’s Word and Prayer? (1 Timothy 4:4-5)

In Paul’s first letter to Timothy he instructs his young colleague to anticipate and be prepared for departures from the faith. 

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving 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 thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5)1


This section begins with dé, which is rendered “Now” in a number of English translations to mark a transition to something new (CSB, ESV, N/KJV, N/RSV). However, as a conjunction dé more often serves as an adversative, “But” (ASV, ERV, NASB), which would then connect and contrast the current text with what has just been affirmed in 3:15-16 (no chapter break in the original) concerning the church as “a pillar and buttress of the truth,” including “the mystery of godliness” professed in the Christological hymn. “But,” sadly, not everyone remains faithful to the truth of the gospel (note chap. 1!).


As the Lord’s inspired agent (1:1, 12-18; 2:7) Paul receives and communicates prophetic revelations through “the Spirit,”2  although no particular process, whether direct or indirect, is identified here. The expression, “in later times” [en hustérois kairoîs] or “in latter times” (NKJV), is a general reference to the future without specifying a particular or limited time period.3  That “some will depart from the faith” was already happening (1:6, 19-20; 5:15; 6:10, 21 cf. 2 Tim. 2:18) and would get worse, something foretold on numerous occasions to various audiences throughout the 1st century.4 Early on the Christians in Thessalonica were forewarned of hē apostasía (2 Thess. 2:3), “the apostasy” (CSB, NASB), “the rebellion” (ESV, ISV, NIV), “the falling away” (ASV, NKJV), specifying something they had apparently been informed about already, thus no further explanation is needed or given. If it were important enough for Paul to have repeatedly spoken [élegon – imperfect active indicative] of these things (2 Thess. 2:5), surely the same teachings and warnings were provided to other congregations.5


The unfaithful ones will be “devoting” (proséchō, cf. 1:4; 3:8; cp. 4:13) themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,” an explicit affirmation of what was hinted at earlier (2:14; 3:6-7; cf. 5:15). Anything opposed to the gospel message (cf. 1:3, 11, 19; 2:3, 7; 3:9, 15) is ultimately of the devil and his evil forces.6 Apostasy is generated “through the insincerity of liars,” or “the pretentions of liars” (RSV), the noun hupókrisis7 alluding to “playacting” or “hypocrisy,” thus “hypocrisy of liars” (CSB, NASB, NRSV), or “hypocritical liars” (NIV). “Their hypocrisy consisted in their assumption of a mask of holiness, which holiness they considered was derived from their false asceticism and their abstinence from things which the Apostle proceeded to show were lawful.”8 As opposed to the “good” and “pure” consciences of the faithful (1:5, 19; 3:9), their “consciences are seared” (cp. Tit. 1:15). The verbal kautēriázō (its only occurrence in the NT) means to “mark by branding,” so a number of versions have added “with a hot [or ‘branding’] iron” (ASV, ISV, NASB, NIV, N/KJV, NRSV). Without the added phrase (CSB, ESV, RSV), the sense would simply be to “cauterize,” thus having become insensitive and unfeeling (cp. Eph. 4:19).


In particular they “forbid marriage,” an extreme view that arose among the ascetic Essenes (Josephus, Jewish War 2.8.2; Ant. 18.1.5) and later among the Gnostics (Clement of Alexandria, Strom. 3.6; Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 1.22).9 There was “no reason to dwell on this point at any length [dismissed with one short sentence]; the gross absurdity of such a ‘counsel’ as a rule of life was too apparent; it was a plain contradiction of the order of Divine Providence.”10 Note also 2:15; 3:2, 12; 5:14.11


They also “require abstinence from foods …” Unlike the peculiar anti-marriage philosophy, dietary restrictions were part of the Mosaic law (note 1:7; cf. Lev. 11:1-47; Deut. 14:3-21),12 while the question of meat sacrificed to pagan idols also posed a problem in a number of mid-1st-century Christian communities.13 Though Gnosticism did not develop into a coherent movement until the 2nd century,14 its incipient ideologies arose much earlier. Adherents embraced a distorted dualism, viewing the physical and the spiritual as antithetic forces, thus matter, considered flawed or evil, could not have been created by God. Such an erroneous belief system would naturally prompt the apostle’s stern denunciation.15


The importance of “thanksgiving” is a recurring theme in Paul’s teachings (note the double emphasis here, vv. 3-4; cf. 2:1).16 Whatever the radical ascetics were forbidding, “God created to be received with thanksgiving …” It is hard to be thankful for provisions denied or unavailable. Even though the Lord provides sustenance for all people (cf. Matt. 5:45), the ones who are truly grateful and consistently express thanks are “those who believe and know the truth” (lit. “the faithful and [the ones] knowing the truth”). This is not suggestive of two separate groups; the second description reiterates the first (cf. 2:4, 7; 3:15; 6:5).


For everything created by God is good” (cf. Gen. 1:31), “and nothing is to be rejected …” As an explanatory statement (hóti, “For” or “because”), this contextually applies to whatever the Lord has provided to be eaten that the misguided ascetics prohibit (v. 3; cf. 6:17).17 It would not necessarily include poisons, intoxicants, hallucinogens, or other harmful and addictive substances that were not designed by God for human consumption. The condition, “if it is received with thanksgiving,” fulfills the Lord’s intent, echoing and reaffirming v. 3b. The faithful ones knowing the truth gratefully receive and do not reject what is good (cf. 1 Cor. 10:30-31). 


As a further explanation, “for [gár] it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” The present tense participle hagiázetai, “it is made holy” or “it is sanctified” (ASV, CSB, NASB, N/KJV), implies current and ongoing action, by” [diá] (“by means of,” NASB; or “through,” ASV) the habitual practice of acknowledging and thanking God as the source of every good gift.18 Each time nourishment is received with thanksgiving, it is set apart19 from what is rejected (or even consumed) without gratitude or awareness of who ultimately provides. This is affirmed through the “word of God,”20 which is not detached from “prayer,”21 in that the revelation of the divine will prescribes the duty, the content, and the manner of expression of the prayer of thanksgiving (cf. 2:1).22


--Kevin L. Moore



     1 Unless otherwise noted, the base text used here is from the English Standard Version in bold type.

     Cf. John 16:13; Acts 16:6-7; 20:23; 21:11; 26:16; 1 Cor. 7:40; Gal. 1:11-12; Eph. 3:1-5.

     3 Cp. Acts 2:16-17; 2 Tim. 3:1; Heb. 1:2; Jas. 5:3; 1 Pet. 1:20; 2 Pet. 3:3; 1 John 2:18; Jude 17-18.

     4 Matt. 7:13-23; 13:15; 25:31-46; Acts 20:27-31; Rom. 16:17-18; Eph. 4:14; 2 Thess. 2:3; 2 Tim. 2:16-18; 3:13; 4:3-4; 2 Pet. 2:1-2, 18-22; Jude 4; 1 John 4:1, 6; Rev. 2:5; 3:16. 

     5 Note 1 Thess. 5:27; 1 Cor. 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 14:33; Col. 4:16. 

     6 Cf. John 8:43-47; 1 Cor. 10:20-21; 2 Cor. 4:4; 6:14-18; 11:3, 13-15; Eph. 2:2; 6:12.

     7 Matt. 23:28; Mark 12:15; Luke 12:1; Gal. 2:13; 1 Tim. 4:2; 1 Pet. 2:1. 

     8 H. D. M. Spence, “The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to Timothy,” in Ellicott’s NT Commentary 3:196.

     “St. Paul is alluding throughout, not to Judaism proper, but to that false spiritualism and those perverted ascetical tendencies, which emanated from Judaism, and gradually mingling with similar principles derived from other systems …” (C. J. Ellicott, A Critical and Grammatical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles 70).

     10 H. D. M. Spence, “The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to Timothy,” in Ellicott’s NT Commentary 3:196.

     11 Paul’s advice in 1 Cor. 7:1, 7-8, 25-27, 32-35, 37, 40 is in the context of “the present distress” (vv. 26, 29-31) and is balanced by vv. 2-5, 9, 28, 36, 38-39.

     12 Many of these were “probably from reasons connected with the public health” (H. D. M. Spence, “The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to Timothy,” in Ellicott’s NT Commentary 3:196).

     13 Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25; Rom. 14:1-23; 1 Cor. 8:1-13; 10:14-33; Col. 2:16a, 20-23.

     14 See Robert M. Wilson, “Nag Hammadi and the New Testament,” NTS 28 (1982): 292.

     15 See also Col. 1:9; 2:3, 8, 15, 20, 21, 23; perhaps the Corinthian correspondence as well (see W. Schmithals, Gnostics in Corinth [Nashville: Abingdon, 1971]); even more so in the Johannine writings (see J. M. Lieu, “Gnosticism in the Gospel of John,” ET 90 [1979]: 233-37; H. Koester, Introduction to the NT 2:195-96).

     16 The fem. noun eucharistía (“thanksgiving”) is employed in 1 Cor. 14:16; 2 Cor. 4:15; 9:11, 12; Eph. 5:4; Phil. 4:6; Col. 2:7; 4:2; 1 Thess. 3:9; 1 Tim. 2:1; 4:3-4; the adj. eucháristos (“thankful”) in Col. 3:15; and the verbal eucharistéō (“give thanks”) in Acts 27:35; 28:15; Rom. 1:8, 21; 14:6; 16:4; 1 Cor. 1:4, 14; 10:30; 11:24; 14:17, 18; 2 Cor. 1:11; Eph. 1:16; 5:20; Phil. 1:3; Col. 1:3, 12; 3:17; 1 Thess. 1:2; 2:13; 5:18; 2 Thess. 1:3; 2:13; Philem. 4.

     17 See Mark 7:15-19; Acts 10:10-16; 11:4-10; Rom. 14:20; 1 Cor. 8:8; 10:25-26. “One may do as one wishes before God, but one may not impose those ‘wishes’ as regulations for others to follow” (G. D. Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus 100).

     18 See Phil. 4:6, 19; Col. 3:15; 4:2; 1 Thess. 5:17-18; Jas. 1:17; cf. Psa. 23:1-6; Mark 6:41; 8:6; 14:22-23; Luke 24:30; Rom. 14:6; 1 Cor. 10:30. On God’s provision, see also Psa. 34:9-10; 37:25; Prov. 10:3; Eccl. 5:18-20; Matt. 6:33.

     19 The verbal hagiázō essentially means to set apart or separate from what is unholy to being dedicated to God (cf. 1 Cor. 7:14; 2 Tim. 2:21).

     20 Cf. 1:19; 2:4, 9, 15; 4:1, 3, 6, 13; 5:17; 6:5, 21; 2 Tim. 2:15, 19; 4:2; Tit. 1:3; 2:5 

     21 C. J. Ellicott, A Critical and Grammatical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles 72.

     22 Cf. also Prov. 28:5, 9; Eph. 6:17-18; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 1 John 5:14-15.


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