1Now the Spirit plainly saith He had industriously admonished Timothy about many things; and now he shews the necessity, because it is proper to provide against the danger which the Holy Spirit forewarns to be fast approaching, namely, that false teachers will come, who shall hold out trifles as the doctrine of faith, and who, placing all holiness in outward exercises, shall throw into the shade the spiritual worship of God, which alone is lawful. And, indeed, the servants of God have always had to contend against such persons as Paul here describes. Men being by nature inclined to hypocrisy, Satan easily persuades them that God is worshipped aright by ceremonies and outward discipline; and, indeed, without a teacher, almost all have this conviction deeply rooted in their hearts. Next is added the craftiness of Satan to confirm the error: the consequence is, that, in all ages, there have been impostors, who recommended false worship, by which true godliness was buried. Again, this plague produces another, namely, that, in matters indifferent, men are laid under restraint; for the world easily permits itself to be hindered from doing that which God had declared to be lawful, in order that they may have it in their power to transgress with impunity the laws of God.
Here Paul, therefore, in the person of Timothy, forewarns not only the Ephesians, but all the churches throughout the world, about hypocritical teachers, who, by setting up false worship, and by ensnaring consciences with new laws, adulterate the true worship of God, and corrupt the pure doctrine of faith. This is the real object of the passage, which it is especially necessary to remark.
Besides, in order that all may hear with more earnest attention what he is going to say, he opens with a preface, that this is an undoubted and very clear prophecy of the Holy Spirit. There is, indeed, no reason to doubt that he drew all the rest from the same Spirit; but, although we ought always to listen to him as communicating the will of Christ, yet in a matter of vast importance he wished especially to testify that he said nothing but by the Spirit of prophecy. By a solemn announcement, therefore, he recommends to us this prophecy; and, not satisfied with doing this, he adds that it is plain, and free from all ambiguity.
In the latter times At that time certainly it could not have been expected that, amidst so clear light of the gospel, any would have revolted. But this is what Peter says, that, as false teachers formerly gave annoyance to the people of Israel, so they will never cease to disturb the Christian Church. (2Pe_3:3.) The meaning is the same as if he had said, “ doctrine of the gospel is now in a flourishing state, but Satan will not long refrain from laboring to choke the pure seed by tares.” (70) (Mat_13:20.)
This warning was advantageous in the age of the Apostle Paul, that both pastors and others might give earnest attention to pure doctrine, and not suffer themselves to be deceived. To us in the present day it is not less useful, when we perceive that nothing has happened which was not foretold by an express prophecy of the Spirit. Besides, we may here remark; how great care God exercises about his Church, when he gives so early warning of dangers. Satan has, indeed, manifold arts for leading us into error, and attacks us by astonishing stratagems; but, on the other hand, fortifies us sufficiently, if we did not of our own accord choose to be deceived. There is therefore no reason to complain that darkness is more powerful than light, or that truth is vanquished by falsehood; but, on the contrary, we suffer the punishment of our carelessness and indolence, when we are led aside from the right way of salvation.
But they who flatter themselves in their errors object, that it is hardly possible to distinguish whom or what kind of persons Paul describes. As if it were for nothing that the Spirit uttered this prophecy, and published it so long before; for, if there were no certain mark, the whole of the present warning would be superfluous, and consequently absurd. But far be it from us to think that the Spirit of God gives us unnecessary alarm, or does not accompany the threatening of danger by shewing how we should guard against it! And that slander is sufficiently refuted by the words of Paul; for he points out, as with the finger, that evil which he warns us to avoid. He does not speak, in general terms, about false prophets, but plainly describes the kind of false doctrine; namely, that which, by linking godliness with outward elements, perverts and profanes, as I have already said, the spiritual worship of God.
Some will revolt from the faith It is uncertain whether he speaks of teachers or of hearers; but I am more disposed to refer it to the latter; for he afterwards calls teachers spirits that are impostors. And this is (
ἐμφατικώτερον) more emphatic, that not only will there be those who sow wicked doctrines, and corrupt the purity of faith, but that they can never want disciples whom they call draw into their sect; and when a lie thus gains prevalence, there arises from it greater trouble.
Besides, it is no slight vice which he describes, but a very heinous crime — apostasy from the faith; although, at first sight, in the doctrine which he briefly notices there does not appear to be so much evil. What is the case? Is faith completely overturned on account of the prohibition of marriage, or of certain kinds of food? But we must take into view a higher reason, that men pervert and invent at their pleasure the worship of God, that they assume dominion over the consciences, and that they dare to forbid that use of good things which the Lord has permitted. As soon as the purity of the worship of God is impaired, there no longer remains anything perfect or sound, and faith itself is utterly ruined.
Accordingly, although Papists laugh at us, when we censure their tyrannical laws about outward observances, yet we know that we are pleading a cause of the greatest weight and importance; because the doctrine of faith is destroyed, as soon as the worship of God is infected by such corruptions. The controversy is not about flesh or fish, or about a black or ashy color, or about Friday or Wednesday, but about the mad superstitions of men, who wish to appease God by such trifles, and, by contriving a carnal worship of him, contrive for themselves an idol instead of God. Who will deny that this is revolting from the faith?
To deceiving spirits He means prophets or teachers, to whom he gives this designation, because they boast of the Spirit, and, under this title, insinuate themselves into the favor of the people. This, indeed, is true at all times, that men, whatever they are, speak under the excitement of the spirit. But it is not the same spirit that excites them all; for sometimes Satan is a lying spirit in the mouth of the false prophets, in order to deceive unbelievers, who deserve to be deceived. (1Kg_22:21.) On the other hand, every one that renders due honor to Christ speaks by the Spirit of God, as Paul testifies. (1Co_12:3.)
Now that mode of expression, of which we are now speaking, originated at first from this circumstance, that the servants of God professed to have from the revelation of the Spirit, everything that they uttered in public. This was actually true; and hence they received the name of the Spirit, whose organs they were. But the ministers of Satan, by a false emulation, like apes, began afterwards to make the same boast, and likewise falsely assumed the name. On the same grounds John says,
“ the spirits, whether they are of God.” (1Jo_4:1.)
Moreover, Paul explains his meaning by adding, to doctrines of devils; which is as if he had said, “ to false prophets, and to their devilish doctrines.” Again observe, that it is not an error of small importance, or one that ought to be concealed, when consciences are bound by the contrivances of men, and at the same time the worship of God is corrupted.
(70) “A force d’ et mauvaises herbes.” — “ means of darnel and pernicious herbs.”