The Pastoral Epistles – The Opponents in Ephesus

One of the problems for reading the Pastoral Epistles is the identity of the “opponents” in Paul’s churches. Paul seems to have a group of elders in mind who are in rebellion against his Gospel, What is more, the opponents in Ephesus are like the people predicted to come in the “later days.” Jesus also described false messiahs and prophets who would come claiming to be messengers from God. First and Second John both describe teachers with wrong views about Jesus as “antichrist.”

Wolf Stealing Sheep

The idea that the “last days” have arrived in common in the New Testament, the earliest church believed that Jesus could return at any moment. In this they were correct. In 2 Thess 2 Paul teaches that in the last days there will be an apostasy, a falling away from the truth. In the last days, this falling away will be so intense that people will choose to believe the Man of Lawlessness, the Anti-Christ, rather than the truth of the gospel.  Did Paul actually believe that he was living in the last days?  I think that he did, but every generation of the church have had at least some people who thought they were in the last days!

But this text cannot be directly applied to any particular modern false  teaching in order to declare that we are “in the end times.” Certainly Jesus can come back at any moment, and there are plenty of people teaching all sorts of things in the name of Jesus that are simply not in line with the truth. But that is the condition of all of church history!

Paul describes the opponents in Ephesus as sub-Christian. They have Christian like ideas, but when examined in the light of the truth they are in fact not Christian at all.  Paul is not dealing with a group of people who have a honest difference  of opinion on a theological issue.  His opponents in Ephesus have rejected key elements of the gospel which separate them from the truth.

  • They have abandoned their faith. The verb Paul uses here (ἀφίστημι) is the same as 2 Thess 2, but also Acts 5:37 to describe a messianic pretender who led crowds astray. In Deut 7:4 it is used for turning away from God to worship other gods. These opponents have rejected the core truth of the Gospel (1 Tim 3:16) and can no longer be described as within the faith.
  • They follow “deceitful spirits” and hold to the “teachings of demons.” This seems like a strong polemic, the sort of thing that we would not say about an opponent today. But there are a number of Pauline texts that describe real spiritual warfare. In 1 Tim 3:6-7, for example, Paul warns that a leader in the church ought not be a recent convert, since it is possible for him to become prideful and fall into the devil’s snare.
  • They are hypocritical liars. Combining hypocritical and liar indicates that their teaching appears to be well-intended, but it is in fact false. This indicates that the opponents are not simply fooled into teaching something that is false, they are choosing to maintain a lie for some reason (Towner, The Pastoral Epistles, 291).
  • Their conscience has been seared with a hot iron. There are two ways to read this line. First the phrase may refer to someone who has told a lie so many times that they believe it, that there conscience no longer functions as it ought. They are numb to the truth, etc. Second, it is possible that this refers to being branded. The verb (καυστηριάζω) can mean sear, but it can also refer to branding someone with a hot iron. “The imagery suggests crime published with a branding mark on the perpetrator” (BDAG). In either case, their conscience has been destroyed by the “doctrine of demons” that they no longer know if they are teaching the truth or not.

I am not sure it is possible to identify the opponents from these four items alone. What is certain is that there are people in Paul’s churches in Ephesus who have defected from the Gospel in such a way that the are not Christians at all. Timothy is warned about these people and told to appoint elders who cling tenaciously to the gospel and are truly godly.

12 thoughts on “The Pastoral Epistles – The Opponents in Ephesus

  1. Like you have said, it is not so much important that we understand who the opponents are, but much more important that we realize that we have opponents today as well. For this reason, Paul’s teaching on the requirements for overseers (pastors), elders, and deacons is extremely important. In a world where corruption amongst Christianity is highly publicized it is even more important that we designate leaders that are truly “above reproach.” Like the church in Ephesus if we flippantly appoint men into positions of leadership without first testing their faith and their belief in deep truths then we are putting ourselves in danger of false teaching (1 Timothy 3:8-9). Even when appointing men whom we find to be above reproach, Paul cautions us to, “be diligent in these matters (see 1 Timothy 4:12): give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch you life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:15-16). Paul addresses this to Timothy who he is encouraging to “keep on, keeping on” so to speak because of the threat of false teaching around him. Timothy is still young and as such much more perceptible to a swaying faith or opinion. As Timothy’s mentor, Paul wants to convict Timothy to stay strong in his faith so that he will not fall into the devil’s snare like many others. This is why Paul’s lays out so clearly the requirements for the leaders, but also for the leaders wives, children, and the widows in the community. He wants to address every people group so that no one is overlooked and thus subject to false teaching. It amazes me how strongly this fits into today’s churches and how these truths are blatantly black and white to what we must do today. The requirements for these groups haven’t changed, although we may view them slightly different in the context of our culture. For instance, women are still to be subject to their husbands, but are allowed to get jobs outside of the home, something that was not the norm in Paul’s time. Today we deal with widows in various different ways, sadly I think, but we should pursue the same kind of love and care for them that Paul discusses in 1 Timothy 5, especially if that widow is a part of our own family.

  2. Integrity is a massively important aspect of ministry and much like is indicated here Paul yearns for his young disciples to strive for a life of integrity, in the modern era the church is wrought with poor leaders and bad theologians corrupting the church here in america, individuals like Ted Haggard and other men who shine a negative light on the church are individuals who may have entered the faith and ministry with a genuine heart for ministry but at some point fail to as Kim put so well “keep on, Keepin’ on.” For every “bad pastor there are many good ones who succeed in ministry and spend their carreers serving the Church, and the Lord well. These are the men we should strive to be like.

  3. I think, as both you and Kim pointed out, it’s not important for us to realize who Paul’s opponents were, but we can use the ways he describes them as tips to look out for. Christians, particularly leaders in the church ought to be on constant lookout for false doctrines, and people who are teaching things contrary the Gospel of truth. I think the key to protecting Christians from these “hypocritical liars” , is good leadership. It seems, from reading the other comments, this is a pretty general consensus, it’s also seems that Paul had this intention when he wrote these things about the false teachers. Paul was pointing out to Timothy that these false teachers, and deceivers will appear, to encourage him to continue working at his own leadership, and his own heart. As much as some people are sick of the analogy, it is important to see that a Pastor needs to fill fill a shepherd’s role in the church, and protect the sheep from dangers within and without.

  4. I really agree with Zac that leadership is a priority within the church. Not just leadership that involves decision making, but accountability. A true leader is one that is not afraid of confronting a brother or sister in Christ when there is a prevalent problem in their life. The issue with false teachers is that it might seem ridiculous to someone today to read that a church was being mislead in false doctrine. But false teachers were/are very smooth with the way that the explain their doctrine. Leaders in the church need to be teaching from scripture rather than from smooth talkers.

  5. Going along with what everyone said, it is not necessarily who the opponents of the church are, but rather that we are on the watch for people who are teaching false doctrines. It is interesting to think that people in the church in Paul’s day believed that Christ was returning soon because of these false teachers; especially because we see how people believe this today as well, and they have believed all through history. Like you said in the post, there have been people all through history teaching false doctrine and that is not going to change. It is important for church leadership to be on the lookout for people who are teaching falsehoods, just like Paul told the church in Ephesus to be on the lookout for people who “devoted themselves to myths and endless genealogies”. Because, these “promote controversies rather than God’s work” (1 Tim 1:4).

  6. I like the point you make that, “…every generation of the church have had at least some people who thought they were in the last days!” (Long, Phil). I instantly thought that is a good point, however, would we be off to think otherwise? Jesus taught in Luke 12 that if a homeowner knew exactly when a burglar was coming, he would not permit his house to be broken into. Then ended the verse by saying “you also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected” (v39-40). I would encourage one to read Luke 12 to gain more insight on this topic but I have stated the point I wanted to make.

    What are some of the signs Paul list as a sign of the last days? Paul warns Timothy that the last days will be “very difficult times” (2 Tim. 4:1). Why?

    Paul says because people will be “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God…” (2 Tim. 4:2-4).

    We have to ask then who was Paul talking to? Why was this any different than his day? The letter was written to Timothy for the church in Ephesus, so we can safely say that Paul was saying in the last day’s believers will act this way. But how could a believer act this way if they have the love of God in them? Paul continues, “having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!” (Sidenote this is not the first time Paul has said this warning he makes a similar point in 1 Corinthians 5:9-12).

    After reading into Paul’s letter’s to Timothy I cannot help but believe there were some very serious issues going on in the church of Ephesus. So serious, that Paul sent his most favored soldier in Christ Timothy. Whom he calls genuine, a true son in the faith and that there is no one like Timothy (1 Tim. 1:2, 2 Tim. 2:5, and Phil. 2:20). Given the warnings in 1 Timothy 4 and the encouragement, Paul gives him in not giving up but being an example to them despite his youth (1 Tim. 4:11).

    So perhaps we cannot know specifically who these people were, I, however, think we could boil it down to the people in Ephesus. Their consciences were seared because they turned away from God and heaped up for themselves false doctrines according to their desires and followed false teachers as a result (2 Tim. 4:3-4). Therefore, the four main things you listed (abandoning their faith, following deceitful spirits, hypocritical liars, and seared consciences) were the condition they developed themselves.

    Longenecker states, “These opportunist without moral moorings are promoting asceticism, a position that is said to stand in stark contrast with the goodness of God’s creation” (TTP 278). I find it interesting just how much controversy is happening in these epistles and can understand more of what some of the controversial statements Paul makes in them. Longenecker states that there are people who really question 1&2 Timothy’s authorship. not just Paul himself but the validity in them.

    • I assume you are talking about his Wealth in Ancient Ephesus and the First Letter to Timothy? I picked that up at SBL two years ago and have read some of it. It sent my down the rabbit trail of Greek Romance novels (I bought Reardon’s collection of novels soon after).

      My ETS paper this year makes use of some Greek novels, comparing them to prison rescues in Acts.

  7. It is interesting to look through these different opponents through a modern scope and realize that these opponents are very much still around today. Although they are not explicitly following the mold of these original opponents, they are certainly comparable. Abandoning faith is slowly becoming a cultural norm with religion being replaced by feel good mentality’s and happiness being the only true fulfillment. Following “deceitful spirits” has become social media and influential voices (celebrities and famous people) seeping their way into convincing and “selling a very attractive worldly pattern of thinking. Being a hypocritical liar stems from the deceitful spirits that we spend so much time obsessing over. Their message becomes the core of our mentality and it plays a big role into what how we interact and influence others. The last opponent, seared with a hot iron, continues off of the previous 2. Branding quite literally has become the foundation of society today. It is easy to see how modern day culture really doesn’t look that different from the time Paul is writing this from.

  8. It seems that times almost never change, yes society changes over time and are way of thinking has evolved but it seems that are thinking is still on the verge of the same path. Today we struggle a lot with the same things that they did back then such as the things you stated above abandoning of faith, deceitful spirits, hypocritical liars. The church also frequently ha thought that they were in the end times based on the circumstances surrounding them. Every generation has a difficult circumstance where the church thought the devil had a huge foothold in the world and that Jesus would be coming any day now. Today that is also the case many people feel like Jesus will come especially with the way the earth is heading now.

  9. With all due respect Dr. Long, how could you affirm an “any moment return” and in the same breath cite 2Th. 2 which clearly states the opposite. No one except the Father “knows the day or hour” does not mean “any moment.” The Day of The Lord follows certain events and conditions cited in the N.T. Yet, at the same time, The Father and Jesus are much more in control than what appears to our fallen eyes. God can remove us in an instant from the earthly scene. I don’t mean to turn around imminency into our own precariousness, but scripture clearly states certain events transpiring before the Day of the Lord.

  10. This book shows that people have been trying to change the Gospel since the very beginning. You see religions now such as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. These groups have Christian roots, but are most certainly not Christian. The people that are Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons have been led astray by false teachings. I think Timothy’s warning can be used in the context of today’s churches. It is important to only appoint people who have God truly in their heart to be an elder. It could be very detrimental to a church if they had elders who were more focused on embezzling money instead of working for the better of the church.

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