14 Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 16 But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. 19 But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” – 2 Timothy 2:14-19 ESV
Paul wasn’t afraid to name names and call out individuals for their unfaithfulness or failure to remain committed to the cause of Christ. First, he brought up Phygelus and Hermogenes, two individuals who had abandoned him in Asia. Now he brings up another pair, Hymenaeus and Philetus, whom he accuses of “swerving from the truth.” This particular couple had been teaching that the resurrection had already taken place, a bit of information that had resulted in confusion and doubt among the faithful.
Paul’s mention of Hymenaeus and Philetus was intended to provide Timothy a concrete example of what he meant by “irreverent babble” or quarreling about words. Paul had just instructed Timothy to take what he had been taught and “teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others” (2 Timothy 2:2 NLT).
One of Timothy’s primary responsibilities as a minister of the gospel was to provide those under his care with sound instruction and a Christ-like model to follow. Because the body of Christ was still in its infancy, it suffered from a serious leadership void and there was a great deal of ignorance regarding spiritual matters. Those who had come to faith in Christ knew little beyond their original understanding of the gospel message. They had eagerly embraced Paul’s message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, but beyond that, they had little knowledge of what living out their faith in Christ was to look like in daily life. Many had expected their salvation experience to result in a trouble-free, blessing-filled life, due to their newfound relationship with Yahweh. Yet, instead, they found themselves suffering persecution, facing difficulties of all kinds, and discovering that the Christian life was not a walk in the park.
And to make matters worse, there were those who had taken it upon themselves to serve as teachers, providing “instruction” in spiritual matters that had left their students more confused than ever. Conflicting messages and competing opinions were causing discord in the church, with people “fighting over words” (2 Timothy 2:14 NLT). And Paul deemed these arguments as useless because they produced nothing of value.
In the midst of all the confusion and competing agendas, Timothy was to be a source of sound teaching, “rightly handling the word of truth” and providing those under his care with accurate information regarding spiritual matters. That meant Timothy had to stick to the script. He was not free to adlib or add to the teaching he had received from Paul. There was no place for conjecture or personal opinion when it came to the gospel. And for Paul, the gospel was about far more than the message of salvation. It included the whole divine process of redemption, from salvation to sanctification, and ended with the believer’s glorification.
…those whom He predestined, these also He called; and whom He called, these also He justified; and whom He justified, these also He glorified. – Romans 8:30 BSB
I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. – Philippians 1:6 NLT
Like the apostle Peter, Paul expected every believer to “grow into a full experience of salvation” (1 Peter 2:2 NLT). He told the believers in Ephesus “to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15 ESV). Salvation was to result in sanctification or ongoing spiritual maturity, which will ultimately culminate in the believer’s glorification or final transformation into the likeness of Christ.
Paul expected Timothy to reach these truths faithfully and accurately. And if he did, Timothy would have no reason to be ashamed. Time would vindicate the veracity of his message. But those who “teach man-made ideas as commands from God” (Matthew 15:9 NLT), will be eventually be exposed as fakes and frauds, guilty of “worthless, foolish talk that only leads to more godless behavior” (2 Timothy 2:16 NLT).
Paul describes this false, man-made teaching, as a disease that can spread throughout the body of Christ with deadly consequences. And he uses Hymenaeus and Philetus as examples of those who propagate such lies. Out of ignorance, these two men had drawn erroneous conclusions regarding Paul’s teaching of the resurrection of the dead. They were claiming that this future event had already taken place. Not understanding the true nature of the resurrection, they had over-simplified and spiritualized it, falsely assuming that they were already experiencing it. After all, Paul had taught the Romans:
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his….Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. – Romans 6:4-5, 8 ESV
And hadn’t Paul just told Timothy that “If we have died with him, we will also live with him” (2 Timothy 2:11 ESV)? So, these men had simply assumed that the resurrected life was referring to this life. It was the modern-day version of “Your Best Life Now.” This teaching was leaving believers with the false impression that all the promises associated with the resurrection of the dead were to be expected in his life, not the one to come. And you can understand how this claim had left the suffering and persecuted believers in Ephesus confused and concerned.
All of this is why Paul told Timothy, “If we die with him, we will also live with him. If we endure hardship, we will reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:11-12 NLT). He called this a trustworthy statement, a promise supported by the full weight of God’s glory and goodness. To support his claim that God can be trusted to complete what He has begun and to fulfill all that He has promised, Paul reached into the Hebrew Scriptures, citing two Old Testament passages.
God’s truth stands firm like a foundation stone with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and “All who belong to the Lord must turn away from evil.” – 2 Timothy 2:19 NLT
By paraphrasing Numbers 16:6 and Numbers 16:26, Paul illustrates the timeless nature of God’s promises. He always does what He says He will do. His words have an eternal quality to them, spanning the centuries and assuring all those who hear and obey them that their God is trustworthy and true.
Despite the teaching of men like Hymenaeus and Philetus, the believers in Ephesus had no reason to doubt their salvation. Just because things did not appear to be turning out like they expected, they had no cause for fear or doubt. The Lord knows those who are His. They could rest in the promise that they would remain firmly held in the loving grasp of God – all the way to the end. Their only responsibility was to turn away from evil. They didn’t have to strive to remain saved. They weren’t under some obligation to continually earn their right standing with God through additional good works. They simply needed to live out their salvation in daily life, allowing the Spirit of God to produce fruit in their lives through His power, not their own.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.