Knowing the Truth

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As you know, the Queen's 90th birthday has been in the news. And even opponents of the monarchy have been hard put to fault her behaviour. As one critic said, "In all these years, she's rarely put a foot wrong." And that's not least because of the influence of her mother, because when Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret were about to go out – to visit someone or go to a party – the Queen Mother would say to them, "Now, remember: royal children, royal manners." That is, 'Remember you're part of a royal family. Remember that what people think of that family rests with you. And behave accordingly.'

In tonight's Bible passage in our series in 1 Timothy, those of us who believe in Jesus are told, 'Remember you're part of God's family. Remember that what people think of God and the Lord Jesus rests with you – with leaders especially (as we heard last week), but also with all of you who call yourself Christians. And behave accordingly.' So would you turn in the Bible to 1 Timothy 3.14-15? The apostle Paul was writing this to Timothy, whom he'd left to sort out problems in the church in Ephesus. And he says:

"I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth."

Now you could read through 1 Timothy and make a list of all the misbehaviour Timothy had to deal with – from things like unbiblical teaching and immoral behaviour among the leaders, to things like materialism and lack of care for one another among everyone. And chapter 3, verses 14 and 15 are the heart of the letter, where Paul says: if you're going to behave as you ought to as a local church, you need to realise what the local church really is. So Paul's first lesson for us tonight is this:

1. Realise What The Local Church Really Is – And Behave Accordingly (vv14-15)

So look down at verses 14-15 again:

"I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth."

So for a start, we need to realise that the local church – for example this one, JPC – is the household of God, God's family. And we saw last week how the overall leaders of a church especially need to remember that. Just look back up the page to verses 4-5:

"He [that is, any of the overall leaders] must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church?"

That's reminding those of us who are overall leaders of this church that we are in charge of someone else's family – someone else's children – which is a serious thing. So, for example, when people trust their children to us in our crèches or Sunday groups or Holiday Club, we take it hugely seriously. Every child is signed in and out. Every leader is police checked and trained. And we have contingency plans for every eventuality from a fire to a toddler swallowing a piece of Lego. In a word, we really care when it comes to other people's children. And, end of verse 5, that's the standard of care for leaders of the church:

"…how will he care for God's church?"

The word translated 'care' there only turns up in one other place in the Bible – in the parable of the Good Samaritan, where it describes the extraordinary and exemplary care which the Samaritan showed the guy who'd been robbed and left for dead. And that's the standard of care that those of us in overall leadership are called to show you. We're aware we're imperfect – we only approximate to that, and we're also aware that we can't care in person for this many people. That's why we share leadership (i.e. care) through all our small groups – CYFA groups, Focus, Transit, JPCi groups, Home Groups, women's groups, Christianity and Discipleship Explored groups, Celebrate Recovery groups and so on. And to those of you who lead those groups, can I say how thankful I am for you, and for the amount of praise and appreciation of your care that I hear voiced by the people in your groups.

So if, with me, you are a small group leader of any sort, keep remembering: you're looking after someone else's children. So, you may be tired, and not feeling like preparing so well this time. Or you may be finding some of your group difficult. But they're God's family. So don't ask what care you feel like giving them. Ask what care he would want you to give them. That's the application of verses 4 and 5 to those of us who are leaders – to copy the caring leadership of a father.

But the application to all of us (leaders included) as God's family is to copy the children at the end of verse 4, and to be 'submissive'. That's about recognising and respecting God-given leadership, and co-operating with it, helping it and being loyal to it. But that godly submissiveness does not mean being uncritical or unquestioning of the leadership. And I'm always grateful when one of you comes with constructive criticism of something I've done, or of anything here that I share responsibility for. Because it shows you care enough for God's family to come and say, 'I think his family deserves better care than that, or more care in this area' – or whatever it may be. So we need to realise that the local church is God's family – and behave accordingly. What next? Well, look back down to verse 15, where Paul wants us to:

"…know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God…"

Now whenever the Bible talks about God as "the living God", it's to contrast him with all the dead gods – the false gods who aren't really there. So, for example, I once visited a Hindu temple and watched people making gifts to this god-statue, and ringing a prayer-bell to get its attention. And it wasn't the time or place, but I wanted to say to them, 'He's not real. He's not there.' By contrast, says Paul, the God of the Bible is "the living God" – he is real and he's with us here, in his church, by his Spirit. So in Ephesians, another of his letters to this church, Paul says (Ephesians 2. 19, 22):

"you are… members of the household of God… [And] In him [i.e. Christ] you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit."

That is, the church fellowship is 'God's living room' or his sitting room, if you like. So how should that affect our behaviour? Well, here's a recent example. I was talking to someone here after the service two weeks back. And we got into a mild disagreement over an issue. And it was the kind of conversation that left me feeling the air had been clouded, and needed to be cleared. Not that I think either of us said anything wrong – as in nasty or angry or anything. And I couldn't quite put my finger on it until studying this verse this week. I realised I felt that way because actually God was present by his Spirit at that conversation, and I just don't think it was as brotherly and worthy of him as it should have been. So I emailed the person to clear the air and apologise. And he emailed back to say it had been on his mind as well, and that he was also sorry that it just hadn't been the conversation the Lord would have wanted.

That's just a small example of how we need to realise that the church is God's dwelling place, by his Spirit – and to behave accordingly. And let me say here that in the Bible, the word 'church' means 'gathering of people' – so this building isn't Jesmond Parish Church – you are; the building is just what keeps the church (i.e. you) dry. And Paul is saying: the church (i.e. you believers living out your Christian lives together) is where the living God dwells. So you sometimes hear a preacher encouraging you to think, 'If Jesus had actually been standing there beside you, would you have done that? Would you have said that? Would you have made that sharp comment at Home Group? Would you have pushed your preference so strongly at that planning meeting? Would you have complained behind that person's back, rather than sorted it out with them directly?' And that is a really helpful way of feeling the reality of this, because by his Spirit, in the church, Jesus is always standing by our side. So let's behave accordingly. Then, looking at verse 15 one more time, Paul wants us to:

"…know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth."

When Paul says 'the truth', he means the truth of the gospel. Just turn back over the page to 1 Timothy 2.4-6 and you'll see that – where Paul talks about God our Saviour:

"who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For [and here comes the truth of the gospel:] there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all [when he died on the cross], which is the testimony given at the proper time."

So the gospel is truth because it's about things that really happened: Jesus really did live, really did die on the cross, really did rise again. And things that have really happened in history are true for everyone – and we need to say that.

So, as you can tell, I was at the hairdresser's this week. And it was a new lady I hadn't met before and she asked me what I did. So we got onto the gospel. And after a bit she said, "Well, that's very interesting – but it's really 'each to his own', isn't it?" That is, you leave me to believe what I want to and I'll leave you to believe what you want to. So I said, "Well, when it comes to matters of taste – like short hair versus long hair – I'd agree with you that it's 'each to his own'. But when it comes to matters of truth, it can't be." And I said, "I mean, either Jesus existed or he didn't. Either he died to forgive us or he didn't. And either he rose from the dead to show he's the Son of God or he didn't." And she said, "I see what you mean." Brothers and sisters, we are in possession of the most important truth in the world, aren't we? And at the end of verse 15 Paul says that we are:

"a pillar and buttress of the truth."

Pillars and buttresses are for holding something steadily up. So one part of this 'pillar and buttress' idea is that God wants us to hold the truth of the gospel steadily, and not give way and pipe down or change it in the face of pressure. So there's pressure from the non-Christian world – whether it's the mild pressure of someone saying, 'Well, it's each to his own, isn't it?', hoping you'll agree and pipe down, or the higher pressure of someone saying, 'I won't even look at something I think is homophobic.' And there's also pressure from the professedly Christian world, where plenty of churches are moving away from the Bible's teaching on a range of things, in the hope of making Christianity more acceptable to people. (The problem being that if people do accept it, it's no longer the gospel they're accepting – which means they may become churchy and religious, or adopt a 'spirituality', but they won't be saved.) But here at JPC, our church foundation statement says we're to:

"maintain and promulgate sound, Scriptural and evangelical truth in a large and populous town"

So the 'maintain' bit is saying we need to hold the truth of the gospel steadily, which is why we have in-depth Bible teaching and Bible study – not just brief 'sermonettes' or 'sharing groups' – so that we can each grow into our own thought-out convictions, and be able to hold on to the gospel.

But we're not to treat the gospel like some museum piece, thinking that all we're meant to do is preserve it in our little circle. If ever I'm passing the British Library in London and have time, I nip in to see Codex Sinaiticus. It's one of the earliest manuscripts of the whole Bible; the New Testament in Greek is in a glass case where they turn a page every day; and last time I was there it was Luke 23 – the crucifixion. And I'm always excited to see that really early copy of the Bible. But I also have this urge to smash the glass, get it out and say to the people who are 'coo-ing' over it, 'Look, this is about Jesus and what he's done for you – it's not a museum piece, it's your lifeline to God.' Can you imagine the headlines? 'Minister's Museum Moment of Madness.' Don't worry, I resist the urge. But that's what our founders were getting at when they said we're to:

"maintain and promulgate [i.e. spread] sound, Scriptural and evangelical truth in a large and populous town"

And the 'promulgate' bit is saying: the gospel isn't just for holding onto in here – but for getting to more people out there. And when Paul called the local church "a pillar and buttress of the truth", the other part of the 'pillar and buttress' idea is that they don't just hold things steady; they hold things up for people to see. And as he wrote that bit, and the Ephesians read it, almost certainly they'd have had in mind the temple of Artemis in Ephesus, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Its footprint was more than the size of a football pitch. It had 127 pillars holding up a building taller than our church building, and it would have been visible from all over Ephesus. The Ephesians would have got the message: 'That's what God wants us to be like as a local church. He wants our witness – individually and corporately – to make Jesus visible, make Jesus known, all over this city.' That's what God wants us to do. Through us and the other Bible churches, he wants Jesus to be as visible in this city as St James' Park. So that's Paul's first point: realise what the local church – what JPC – really is…

  • It's God's family.
  • It's God's dwelling place by his Spirit.
  • It's God's way of holding the gospel up steadily for this city to see.

That takes Paul onto his second point:

2. Realise What A Great Message The Gospel Is – And Share It Accordingly (v16)

Look down to verse 16. Paul's just said we're 'a pillar and buttress of the truth', which prompts him next to put that truth in a nutshell in verse 16:

"Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: [and 'the mystery of godliness' is just another expression Paul uses to mean the gospel. And here comes the gospel in a nutshell:]

He [i.e. Jesus] was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory."

So line one of that gospel nutshell: God's Son was "manifested in the flesh". That is, he actually became visible, audible and touchable when he became man, in the person of Jesus, that first Christmas. If you'd been there, you could have seen him, heard him and touched him. He lived as a man and then died on the cross. If that had been end of story, we would never have heard of Jesus, and the church would never have existed, because by the end of Good Friday it looked like Jesus' claim to be God's Son and our rightful Lord had been comprehensively disproved.

But, line two: "he was vindicated by the Spirit", which is a reference to his resurrection, because to vindicate someone means to prove them right after all. And when God raised Jesus from the dead that first Easter Sunday he was basically saying, 'You crucified him because you didn't believe he was my Son. But I've raised him to show that he is – and to show that his death wasn't him getting what he deserved, but him getting what you deserve, so you could be forgiven.'

Then line three: people aren't sure about this bit which says he was "seen by angels". But I agree with those who think it's about his ascension, return to heaven, and the worship of the angels as he took his place with his Father on the throne.

So lines one to three are what happened back then – Christmas, Easter, the Ascension. And then lines four and five bring us to what's been happening ever since – and what we're part of now: Jesus was, "proclaimed among the nations [because the gospel is true for everyone and needed by everyone], believed on in the world", and people are then puzzled about the last line, line six, of this gospel nutshell, because "taken up in glory" sounds like his ascension and return to heaven again, but I take it we've already had that in line three. So what's line six about? Well, I think it's just a reminder of where God's saving plan is ultimately heading – namely glory, which is where Jesus was taken up to and where believers will ultimately join him. And glory is 'Bible-speak' for being with Jesus, and fully and finally like Jesus, in a perfect, sin-free, new creation. Now it's always worth revising the gospel like that. But why does Paul come out with it in a nutshell here? Well, the clue is the beginning of verse 16:

"Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness [i.e. the gospel]"

I think Paul comes out with it here because he knows we need reminding that the gospel message is great. Because we certainly don't always feel it is, do we? We sometimes feel so worn down by discouragement at peoples' apathy or negativity towards it. We sometimes feel it's more of a burden than a privilege to have the responsibility of sharing it with others – when many just don't seem to want to know.

So we do need reminding: it is a great message. And it is a privilege to know it and share it. So, for example, my hairdresser this week said, "Sometimes I think there is a God and sometimes I don't – how can you ever know?" And the answer is line one of this gospel nutshell: "he was manifested in the flesh" – God has actually made himself visible and audible in Jesus, so we can know that he's there and what he's like. We're not left thinking, 'Maybe he is… maybe he isn't…' – which is great. Again, a bit later the hairdresser said, "But how can you be sure it's true and not make-believe?" And that's line two – he was "vindicated by the Spirit" – that is, proved right after all by his resurrection. There's solid evidence for that as a fact you can trust – and that's great, too. And Jesus' resurrection means we even have an answer in the face of death. Line six of Paul's gospel nutshell: we have solid reason to believe in glory beyond this life – which is the greatest thing of all.

One Saturday before last Christmas, our children went to a friend's 7th birthday party. Just a few hours later that evening, that friend's mum collapsed and died. Her partner asked me to take the funeral, and although he's not a Christian he asked me, in the address, to repeat some of the things I'd shared with him about eternity and why I believe it's real. I drove to the funeral in real trepidation, knowing that people would probably be feeling angry, and anticipating that I might well feel some hostility as I stood at the front, but all I got from the two hundred faces looking back at me was the profound sense that, as Jesus said, they were "like sheep without a shepherd". I didn't sense any hostility. I just sensed two hundred people silently saying, 'Do you have any answer in the face of this?'

And we do. Brothers and sisters, sharing the gospel is hard work, it is discouraging, and it is difficult. But it's a great message. And it's a privilege to know it and share it – because it's true and because it's what people need in the face of life and death.

I'm out of time. So I'm not going to cover chapter 4, verses 1 to 5 as advertised. But in the sermon script that goes up on the church website, you'll be able to find the third point which I wrote but decided wouldn't fit the time tonight – see below:

3. Realise The Danger Of Wrong Teaching In The Church – And Be On Your Guard, Accordingly

Paul has just said that one of God's puposes for a local church is that it should be 'a pillar and buttress of the truth' – that is, it should hold the truth of the gospel steadily. But not every church will do that – which is what Paul goes on to warn us about in chapter 4, verses 1-2:

"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"

Now we don't know exactly how Paul thought that 'the Spirit' had 'expressly' said that people would 'depart from the faith'. But he might have been thinking of what Jesus said about the period between his first and second comings. Matthew 24.10-12:

"And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold."

And in a similar vein, Paul had already warned the leaders of this church in Ephesus in Acts 20.29-31:

"I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert…"

But, back to 1 Timothy 4.1: Paul says that "some will depart from the faith" by following the wrong teaching of others – and he wants to warn us against being one of the 'some', and to put us on our guard. He describes those whose teaching is wrong as 'liars' (v2). But that's not the best translation of the word used there – because, literally, that word is 'false-speakers'. The trouble with translating it 'liars' is that we tend to think of liars as people who are deliberately misleading others – and who are fully aware that's what they're doing. But for many people teaching wrong (i.e. un-Biblical) things in churches, that's not the case. Many false-teachers are convinced they're on the side of truth and that they're serving God by what they're saying. For example, I've heard professedly Christian leaders say they felt obligated to campaign for so-called same-sex marriage "because God is a God of justice and equality". So we need to realise that false teaching may be less easy to spot than we might think. We need to realise that false-teachers may sound and appear very 'spiritual' – quoting the Bible and using arguments that, superficially, sound 'Biblical', but the acid test of right teaching is not whether it uses the Bible, but whether it uses the Bible rightly.

Backing up again to verse 1, Paul uses some very strong language about the teaching of such false-teachers: he says the ultimate source of what they're saying, or the ultimate influence behind what they're saying, is Satan and his spiritual forces. He says people who follow such false-teaching are "devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons". And that's a reminder that behind the visible scenes of our human lives there are invisible spiritual forces and a spiritual battle going on. The goal of Satan (who leads those spiritual forces) is to keep people from being brought back into relationship with God through the gospel. So, one of his methods is to keep people from even hearing the gospel – and to distract them and get them to dismiss it immediately if they do (see Mark 4.4, 15). But another method is to influence churches to "depart from the faith" (to quote Paul in verse 1). Under this method, false-teachers in the churches distort the Bible, misinterpret the Bible and move away from the Bible – so that people going to such churches will no more hear the real truth of the gospel than people who've never been to church at all. People going to such churches may become churchy or religious or adopt some kind of 'spirituality', but because they've not heard the real truth of the gospel, they'll remain unsaved – which is just what Satan wants. So, going back to the beginning of this section, Paul writes (1 Timothy 4.1-2):

"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, [which come] through the insincerity of liars [false-speakers] whose consciences are seared"

And the warning is: Don't be one of the 'some'. So how can we be on our guard against such false-teaching? Well, the crucial protection is to hold on to the Bible, and to believe and act on nothing you're taught unless you're convinced it's a correct interpretation or application of the Bible. That's why in everything we do here – from sermons to CYFA talks, from seminars to small groups – we want you to have the Bible open, to check out whether what is being said (from the front, or by a leader, or by other members of the group) is what the Bible is actually saying. And, unless and until you are convinced that it is what the Bible is saying, don't believe what's said and don't act on it. Because, as Paul went on to write in 2 Timothy 3.16:

"All Scripture [i.e. the writings of the Bible] is breathed out by God…"

So, only about the words of the Bible can you say, 'These are God's Words – these words are trustworthy and authoritative.' The same cannot be said about the words of any human teacher in the church, however faithful and reliable that human teacher may be. And that's because their teaching will inevitably involve decisions about how to interpret the Bible and how to apply it to life today – and no human teacher will get those decisions all right. So, the best thing to do is to find the most trustworthy Bible-teachers you can – and then distrust them! That is, find people who approach the Bible submissively, who treat it as God's Word, who handle it carefully and responsibly – but don't think that what they say is right just because they're saying it. Always follow along in the Bible, exercise your own judgement, and ask yourself, 'Is this really a correct interpretation and application of this part of the Bible?'

So that's the third lesson from this part of 1 Timothy: realise the danger of wrong teaching in the church, and be on your guard, accordingly. That's a lesson which applies to all Christians at all times. But just to end with, let's see what particular false-teaching Paul had to warn the Ephesians about in their day, because false-teaching from previous generations often resurfaces again and again, even if in slightly different dress. Paul says there were false-teachers (v3)…

…"who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth."

Now we don't know exactly why these false-teachers were forbidding marriage or certain foods. On the marriage front, it was probably because they thought of sex as something 'unspiritual' – it is, after all, a thoroughly (although never merely) physical activity. And sadly, in the history of the church, sex has often been represented as being at best an 'unspiritual' distraction from 'spiritual life', at worst as something sinful in itself. Take, for example, the French Christian leader Yves of Chartres. He lived in the Middle Ages and taught married people that they should abstain from sex for five days of the week: on Thursdays in memory of Jesus' betrayal, on Friday in memory of his death, on Saturday in memory of the Virgin Mary, on Sunday in memory of the resurrection, and on Monday in memory of the faithful departed. So, come the week with Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday in it, I take it the whole seven days would be a write-off as far as sex was concerned.

And then on the food front, it may have been that these false-teachers thought certain foods were 'unclean' and so would hinder your relationship to God. Or it may have been that they thought disciplined abstinence would help you somehow 'get closer to God'. Whatever exactly the false thinking of the false-teachers was, the Biblical thinking of the true-teacher, Paul, is crystal clear in response. He says the false teachers (vv3-5)...

…"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."

So Paul wants us to ask, 'Did God create the institution of marriage (heterosexual marriage, we now have to say in our confused context)?' And the answer is: yes he did (see Genesis 2.18-25). And Paul is simply saying what Genesis 1.31 had already said:

"God saw everything he had made and it was very good."

In line with that, Paul says, "everything created by God [i.e. everything which came about through God's creating described in Genesis 1-2, as opposed to through the fall described in Genesis 3] is good." So (heterosexual) marriage is not to be 'forbidden' (v3) or 'rejected' (v4) as if it is bad in itself. And the same goes for foods. Genesis 9.1-3 gives humankind permission to eat not just a vegetarian diet but also meat. And although certain foods were not allowed under the law of Moses for God's Old Testament people, that was something temporary, to help them stand out distinctively from the other nations around them. But after Jesus' first coming, God intended his people to become an international community of believers in which (so Jesus and his apostles taught) those temporary food restrictions no longer apply – 'kosher food' was just a temporary 'marker' to set God's Old Testament people apart from the other nations; it's not a 'marker' for believers today. The upshot of all that is that we're free to eat meat – all kinds of meat – or free not to, and we're free to drink an alcoholic drink, or free to be teetotal. But if I choose to be vegetarian or teetotal, I'm not to go around trying to forbid meat or alcoholic drink to you – it's a matter of freedom for both of us.

But Christians know that real freedom comes from living within God's will, according to God's ways. And I think that's partly why Paul says that things like (heterosexual) marriage and all foods are (vv3-5):

"…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."

The point is: just because something is good in itself – like sex within (heterosexual) marriage, or like all foods (including an alcoholic drink) – that doesn't mean we receive and use it any which way we like. No, the way we use those things is to be governed by our relationship with God. So, we 'receive them with thanksgiving' – aware that God is the giver of them and that we should therefore not only be grateful to him for them, but respect his wishes as to how his gifts are used. And those things are "made holy [i.e. used for his purposes, used the way he wants them to be] by the word of God and prayer [i.e. by letting the Bible show us how he wants them used, and praying for help to live accordingly]".

So when it comes to food, the Bible rules out greed: the fact that steaks are good doesn't mean that eating ten 12oz steaks on the trot is good. When it comes to alcoholic drink, the Bible rules out drunkenness (or any consumption which means I can't say the Lord Jesus is still fully in control of me – see Ephesians 5.18). And even when it comes to (heterosexual) marriage, the only context in which God says sex is good, the Bible describes the relationship between husband and wife in such a way as to make clear that love will sometimes abstain from asking for sex, for example out of consideration for the other being tired (just as love will also sometimes give sex when it doesn't particularly feel like it). The bottom line is that we don't just use the good things God has given us any which way we want; we look to his Word to tell us how he wants them used, and we look to him in prayer for help to do so.

One last question and then I'm done: why would anyone fall for the kind of false-teaching in 1 Timothy 4.1-5? Why would teaching "forbidding marriage" and "requiring abstinence from certain foods" be remotely attractive to anyone? The answer is probably that these false-teachers were saying, 'This is the way to get closer to God – this will bring you spiritually nearer to God.' And that's why, back in verse 1, Paul says that to follow such teaching is to 'depart from the faith'. Paul often referred to the gospel as 'the faith'. And that's because at the heart of the gospel is the truth that Jesus died to take on himself the judgment our sins deserve – namely, separation from God – so that we could be brought, fully forgiven, back into relationship with God – and we receive that simply by faith, by trusting in what Jesus has done on the cross. So if your faith is in Jesus and what he did for you on the cross, you are as 'close to God', as 'spiritually near to God' (in terms of being forgiven and accepted), as it is possible to be. And there's nothing you can do – like abstaining from things that are good in themselves – that will make you any more 'close to God' in that sense.

So people who understand that their relationship with God depends 100% on Jesus and his death will be guarded against this kind of false-teaching because they'll realise it has nothing to offer them – that it's falsely offering a 'closeness' to God which is theirs already, through faith in Jesus and his death. But people who are still unsure of the basis of their relationship with God – who don't yet understand and trust that it depends 100% on Jesus and his death – will be more vulnerable to this kind of false-teaching.

And that's probably another reason why Paul came out with that gospel nutshell back in chapter 3, verse 16 – and why there are other gospel nutshells throughout this letter. It's because he knows that the best way to guard against wrong teaching is to have a better and better understanding of the gospel – and a firmer and firmer faith in the Lord Jesus and his death – which is what the gospel is all about.

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