For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
That one sentence can raise some questions right off the bat: does Paul really mean everything is good and permissible as long as it is received in the context of thanksgiving?
We should go ahead and talk about the three verses preceding these two before we dive in.
The importance of sticking to truth
Paul starts off 1 Timothy 4 by making a bold statement:
The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.
We don’t know exactly how the Spirit revealed to Paul that in later times some would abandon the faith and follow false teachings, but we do know that the Spirit was very intentional in conveying this to him.
Paul cites false teachings as the number one reason people will abandon the faith in later times (later times being right now!), and he uses some strong language in describing the people that teach these things: “deceiving,” “things taught by demons,” “hypocritical liars,” “consciences seared as with a hot iron.”
Clearly, he’s mad.
That’s because he saw the importance of sticking to the truth, especially if falsities were going to be the vehicle by which the enemy would lead so many people astray.
Most of us don’t take issue with some of the false teachings Paul brings up—abstaining from certain foods, etc.—but in this article we’ll talk about the underlying issues in Paul’s words that still apply to Christians in 2018.
Why abstain from marriage and certain foods in the first place?
The basic building block of the Christian faith is a relationship with Jesus Christ. Everything else stems from that.
The people teaching abstinence from marriage and certain foods had, unfortunately, strayed away from this basic building block and were trying to find justification through following a list of man-made rules. Some of this was a result of reverting to the rule following of Old Testament Judaism; some of it was a result of simple misunderstanding. They believed that if they deprived themselves, they would be justified.
For example, there are accounts of early-church monks torturing themselves, to put it bluntly, for the sake of heightened spirituality. Some would go most of their lives without cooked food. There is one account of a monk who leaned against broken glass for an entire night to keep himself from falling asleep. It’s an extreme example for sure, but it definitely highlights the importance of sticking to the truth!
All things are good
We receive things correctly when we receive them as the gifts they are—with thanksgiving—rather as though they were our rights.
Our food choices do not make us more righteous. We can refuse to eat certain things on the basis of health, but not greater spirituality!
In Genesis 9:3 God says this:
Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.
So, what can we learn from 1 Timothy 4:4-5 today?
Most Christians in 2018 don’t take issue with any of this. We’re generally pretty comfortable with the fact that God allows us to eat whichever foods we want, and that marriage is a holy and God-ordained institution.
That said, there are a couple of ongoing issues that the first few verses of 1 Timothy 4 speak to, and they still affect us today. These issues are legalism and false teachings.
The all-encompassing teaching of these “lying hypocrites” Paul talks about was legalism—dependence on personal moral behavior rather than on a relationship with Jesus.
At its best, legalism is an act of pride—a person’s assumption that they can earn their salvation, or perhaps do some earthly good deed in order to keep it—rather than a true desire to honor God.
At its worst, legalism is used in an attempt to gain superiority over others. The Pharisees are one example of the former. In Matthew 23 Jesus denounces the scribes and Pharisees for heaping burdens of the law onto the shoulders of others without doing anything to help move them, yet they loved to be recognized for their good deeds.
Legalism can also be our way of trying to manipulate God—to make Him act in response to our good earthly deeds. We make sense of it in our minds, believing that if we sacrifice something for God, He owes us something or is indebted to us.
Legalism can take lots of different forms: certain dating practices, avoiding secular music or pop culture in general, refusing to associate with certain people, the list goes on.
Most of us have slipped into the sinister jaws of legalism at one point or another—the devil is a skilled liar and, after all, no one is perfect! The key when we do slip is to remember the central truth that we are freely justified through our relationship with our savior. We don’t need to do anything to receive this justification…which is good news, since we can’t!
All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:24)
Today’s false teachings
Paul cites false teachings as the number one reason why people stray from the faith. If it’s keeping our brothers and sisters away from the love of Jesus, it is clearly urgent and something we can’t miss.
We’ve already talked about one common one: legalism. There are lots of others out there, and you are probably familiar with them. These include things like moralism, the prosperity gospel, and antinomianism (the belief that, because of the Gospel, the moral law is of no use at all, even as a way to honor God. This is a rare one, but important to stay away from, nonetheless!).
Most of these tend to have to do with obedience. Where do we draw the line between “we are already justified, so why put in any effort,” and trying to be perfectly spotless?
There’s a simple answer—one that’s hard to live out as imperfect humans, to be sure. We obey God in response to His love shown to us in Jesus Christ, not to gain some kind of moral superiority or extra blessings from God. In John 14:15 Jesus tells us, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
How we can practically live this out
Our Defense Against False Teachings
If false teachings are snatching away our brothers and sisters, we need to be able to recognize solid truth as well as false teachings when we hear them so that we can stay on the narrow path and help others do the same.
The most foolproof way to do this—and this is the most important thing I’ll say in this article—is to read the Bible for ourselves. We can’t always depend on the teachings of other humans.
That’s not to say you can’t trust anything you hear! Lots of good comes from hearing sermons in church, reading Biblically-centered articles and books, and learning from people with a sound understanding of the Gospel.
We just need to be armed with a solid, personal understanding of Scripture so that when those false teachings do come our way, we recognize and even have arguments against them.
Our Defense Against Legalism
Paul stated rather boldly in 1 Timothy 4:4-5 that everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.
If the Bible does not provide any support for our legalistic tendencies, how do we get rid of them without going too far in the other direction?
The Bible is very clear that God expects us not to make light of His kindness and that we should allow that to lead us to repentance (read: righteousness). Romans 2:4 (EHV) puts it better than I could:
Or do you have so little regard for his rich kindness, his restraint, and his patience, that you ignore the fact that the purpose of God’s kindness is to lead you to repentance?
God expects us to live lives that are different from the lives of others—righteous lives. There is absolutely nothing wrong with carrying that out.
What we need to do (possibly every day, until it becomes a habit!) is examine our motives for “righteousness”—are we legitimately trying to honor God and remember His kindness by living upright lives, or are we being legalistic and following a list of human-made rules?
We Can’t Do It On Our Own
God is the only one who can help us discern false teachings when we hear them, and He is the only one who can help us strike the balance between righteousness and legalism. It’s impossible if we try to do it on our own…which really takes the burden off of us, if you think about it.
When we are unsure of where to go or what to do, we can turn to the one beside us who has all-encompassing wisdom and understanding. He will be faithful to show us which is the right path.