What does Scripture have to say to the Bible zealot–that one who lives to know and defend Scripture? [I’m not talking about the “Pharisee!” accusation; it is so overused and misapplied that it deserves a post all its own.] What will keep the eager Bible student from being either slack or heartless in his application of truth? What can go wrong in using Scripture as a litmus test of every fad and teaching that comes along?
I concluded last week’s blog with these thoughts:
“Could the ardent Bible scholar use some prompting to make sure his/her head knowledge translates into real live discipleship? Absolutely. Are there cautions for him/her in the Word of God as well? Certainly. More on that next time (hopefully).”
Toward that end I’ve been reading Paul’s letters to Timothy, his young protégé and ‘child in the faith’. And I’ve been thinking about the Church at Ephesus, which is where Timothy served.…
In his letters Paul exhorts Timothy to hold onto solid teaching, to be a careful student of the Word and to preach it unapologetically. He spurs Timothy on to train himself in godliness and to be on guard for things that precipitate falling away from faith. He repeatedly warns Timothy about false teachers and how to recognize them.
Interestingly, in Paul’s last face-to-face meeting with the elders of the church at Ephesus he had warned them of similar things:
“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, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.” (Acts 20:29-31 ESV)
So the church at Ephesus was well warned and well-armed, with the likes of Timothy and these solid elders. And we know they excelled at this business of detecting false teaching because years down the road they are addressed in John’s Revelation and commended for their unwearied zeal in refusing to tolerate evil and in rooting out false apostles! (Rev. 2:1-3) But something had been lost along the way…
They had lost sight of the motive behind their vigilance. Oh, they were great watchdogs. They hated the works God hates (He commended them for this–Rev.2:6) but they had forgotten love: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Rev. 2:4ESV) Love no longer motivated and controlled their zeal.
It hadn’t always been this way. Paul had instructed Timothy to keep love front and central in his teaching: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” I Tim.1:5 He had made sure Timothy understood that his role as the Lord’s servant was not merely to contend for truth but to do so in a way that was kind, patient, and gentle so that those in error could be rescued from ‘the snare of the devil’ and actually turn to embrace truth. (II Tim.2:24-26). The point of holding forth truth is after all not to damn the hearer but to save him! (I Tim. 4:16)
The Ephesian church had in fact been known at one time not only for their faith but for their love. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians mentions this even as he goes on to pray that they will comprehend the extent of Christ’s love for them so they ‘may be filled with all the fullness of God.’ (Eph.1:15; 3:17-19)
Considering the Ephesians’ need to contend with false teaching, I suppose it is no coincidence that the book of Ephesians is saturated with teaching on love:
- In love God predestined us for adoption 1:4,5
- I have heard of your faith and love 1:15
- Because of God’s great love He made us alive with Christ 2:5
- You are rooted and grounded in love 3:17
- May you know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge 3:19
- Bear with one another in love 4:2
- Speak the truth in love 4:15
- The Body builds itself up in love under Christ’s headship 4:16
- Walk in love as Christ loved us sacrificially 5:2
- Husbands, love your wives as yourself 5:25,28,33
- Peace be to you and love with faith 6:23
- Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. 6:24
If they were to be a church known for their discernment of truth and error it was imperative that they hang onto the motive of love. Without love, truth can be odious. No amount of knowledge or spiritual gifting can make up for its absence. “If I have all knowledge,…but have not love, I am nothing.” (I Cor.13:2)
Herein lies the caution for the Bible student zealous for truth and bent on confronting error wherever he finds it. Be sure your zeal is driven and delivered with love. Or in God’s own words to the Church at Ephesus:
I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Rev 2:3-5 ESV)
Let me stop here a moment and clarify how I am coming to understand this passage. It has long puzzled me how it can be understood as a call to ‘fall in love’ again–to somehow return to the immature first blush of passionate love we had as pre-marrieds. Even if we could by wishing return to this stage, how would this be helpful, given that being ‘in love’ is more about hormone-driven lust than genuine love? Did we not then mostly love the way we made each other feel? That early ‘love’ had not been tested over the long-haul of babies, jobs, moves and intermittent crises. It knew little of dying to self or ‘bearing all things’—both the ho-hum and high-test. Certainly it isn’t to this state of ‘love’ that we are being called to return in this passage?! If not, then what is being commanded?
As I understand it, what had been abandoned was not merely a passionate emotion. They had lost the sense of being constrained to obedience by the love of Christ. (Cf.II Cor.5:14,15) Their works had once been driven by faith working through love (Cf. Gal.5:6). Now their service had become a robotic duty, fulfilled to the letter but with none of the constraints of love. They were doing, but not loving.
This is a significant temptation for the lover of truth, the one with a gift for discerning truth from error, the eager Bible student… Pride can wiggle in and Love is lost as the motive and means of serving the Body. When we confront error do we do it from a heart that longs for truth to prevail– not for the sake of saying ‘I told you so’, but for the sake of the one(s) being misled, for the sake of the Body, for Christ’s sake? Do we genuinely desire the ultimate success and blessing of those we disagree with? Or are we ready to gloat when they fail?
It is all too easy when exercising our gifts in the Body to lose sight of the purpose for which they were given–for ‘building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ . This too was addressed to the Ephesians (4:12,13). This is love—seeking another’s good with what I have to offer, and this is the purpose for my gifts and yours.
When we lose sight of love, exercising our gifts and pursuing our individual callings can fill us with self-satisfied conceit. Instead of building others up we may find we are only provoking and engendering envy (Gal.5:26).
I confess I am preaching to myself today, as I hope you have guessed by now! As a truth-talker who sometimes blasts others without a view to building them up, I needed this message. It’s one thing to know the truth, but quite another to “not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth”…2Ti 2:24-25 NASB
I have found it helps to remember that we are on the same team–members of the same body. We are placed in that body and given gifts for its completion, not our own distinction. We are in this thing together for the glory of God, not our own glory, and for the building up of His church, not our own following. Bringing His bride to perfection is ultimately God’s job; the part He calls us to play will have to be done in love if it is to be effective. That’s the way He made the Body to grow! (Eph.4:15,16). Without love our best efforts are worthless (I Cor.13).
On a practical note, one sure way I’ve found to check and purify my motives is prayer. I may perceive errors, bad doctrine, questionable teaching. It may or may not be my job to set a person straight, but I can always pray. I can always ask God to reveal truth to all parties involved, including myself! And when I pray my heart is softened, any hostile intent exposed, and hopefully I come closer to understanding God’s heart toward the issue or person at hand. I become more concerned about His purposes prevailing than about being ‘right’. And that’s the best starting point for any disciple!
Thanks for listening in on my lesson this week. What are you learning about your part in the Body? I’d love to hear. Do send along a comment or an email.
Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling.” I Jn2:10
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leas, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” Rom.12:6-8
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. Rom.15:5-7
The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Rom.16:20