July 28, 2020
Biblical Studies

“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. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Phyletus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. 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 Tim 2:15-18, ESV)

This passage is intriguing–especially in light of the assertion in many quarters that eschatology—the doctrine of last things—is not important. That it’s a peripheral issue.

           It wasn’t to Paul.

           He has just instructed Timothy to be careful to correctly handle the word of truth, implying that failure to do so will meet with God’s disapproval and personal shame before Him. Citing a blatant example of handling the word of truth incorrectly, he calls out two men who have wreaked havoc on unsuspecting and untaught believers. Their message is that “the resurrection has already happened.”

           If I were to put their claim under a theological heading, it would surely be eschatology. Some suggest that what Hymenaeus and Phyletus taught was that there was no physical resurrection–that regeneration itself constitutes a spiritual resurrection and has therefore “already happened” for the believer in Christ. But if that were so, one would think Paul would say something like, maybe, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain and your faith is vain.” (Actually, he’d already said that to the Corinthians.)* Regarding the doctrine of physical resurrection per se, Paul is always unmistakably clear in his language. The Athenian philosophers in Acts 17, for instance, certainly have no trouble understanding him on that score.

           But the teaching of Hymenaeus and Phyletus seems to have clear chronological, and therefore, eschatological implications. This begs two questions.

           First, To what resurrection are they referring? Obviously, it is not Christ’s resurrection. To assert that had already happened would not be heresy. It is an essential component of the gospel message (1 Cor. 15:3-8). Paul warns the Galatians not to preach any gospel contrary to the one he preached, which included Christ’s physical resurrection. They can’t mean the resurrection of the saints whose tombs were opened at Christ’s crucifixion, since their appearance in Jerusalem was public and well-documented (Matt. 27:52-54).

           Paul’s resurrection theology is already established at this point (1 Cor. 15:20-23, 35-58; 1 Thess. 4:13-18), and Revelation will not be written for another thirty years. Hence, the two-stage resurrection of which John writes in Rev. 20:4-6 is likely still unknown to first century Christians.  On the other hand, the Corinthian and Thessalonian epistles have been written for some time, and the resurrection of which Paul wrote in them is the resurrection of believers at the time of Christ’s appearance in the air to remove the Church from the earth. And we can’t suppose that the only people who knew the theology of Paul’s epistles were those who received them! In fact, just one chapter later, Paul mentions that Timothy has carefully followed his teaching (2 Tim 3:10).

           Paul, the great teacher, taught what he wrote and wrote what he taught.

           Second, What are the effects of this eschatological statement by these two men?  Paul, not one to mince words, calls it “irreverent babble” and “gangrene.” I don’t think even the bold apostle would use these words to describe an unimportant, peripheral doctrine. Moreover, he says this teaching leads to ungodliness, that the perpetrators have “swerved from the truth”, and that their heresy (that’s what we call a swerve from the truth, right?) is upsetting the faith of some. He refutes the teaching of these men by waving a banner, as it were. On one side it reads, “The Lord knows those who are his;” on the other, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”

           These two rebuttals speak to not only the false claim of Hymenaeus and Phyletus, but also to the effects of their teaching. Thinking the resurrection was already past would certainly shake the faith of those who felt certain they belonged to the Lord–I know it would mine! Hence, Paul reassures them with the statement that God knows who are His own. Thinking the resurrection was already past would have a different effect on others, who would feel as if there were no use in godly living since it did them no good whatsoever. Sort of like deciding how to play hooky after you’ve missed the bus. The admonition to depart from iniquity is tailor-made for them.

           Can we say any theological notion that is irreverent, shakes people’s faith, and leads to ungodliness is unimportant? I can’t bring myself to say that.

*1 Corinthians 15:13-14.

Photo credit: benafiaskys on matadornetwork.com

A slightly shorter version of this post first appeared on UpStream, my other blog, on 9 June 2011.

Rob Heijermans

Rob Heijermans (rhymes with “fireman’s”) is a church planter and Bible teacher who has served with Biblical Ministries Worldwide since 1979. He is a 1977 graaduate (B.S. in Bible) of Lancaster Bible College. His travels have taken him to forty countries on four continents, including detailed research for this book in Israel. He has three married children and ten grandchildren. He and his wife, Madeleine, live in Ontario, Canada.

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