4:1-5 The Spirit clearly says that in the later times some will desert from the faith, through paying attention to spirits who can do nothing but lead them astray, and to teachings which come from the demons, teachings of false men whose characteristic is insincerity, teachings of men whose conscience has been branded with the mark of Satan, teachings of those who forbid marriage, and who order men to abstain from foods which God created in order that men might gratefully take their share of them in the company of those who believe and who really know the truth; for everything that God has made is good, and nothing is to be rejected, but it is to be gratefully received; for it is hallowed by the word of God and by prayer.
The Christian Church had inherited from the Jews the belief that in this world things would be a great deal worse before they were better. The Jews always thought of time in terms of two ages. There was this present age, which was altogether bad and in the grip of the evil powers; there was the age to come, which was to be the perfect age of God and of goodness. But the one age would not pass into the other without a last convulsive struggle. In between the two ages would come The Day of the Lord. On that day the world would be shaken to its foundations; there would be a last supreme battle with evil, a last universal judgment, and then the new day would dawn.
The New Testament writers took over that picture. Being Jews, they had been brought up in it. One of the expected features of the last age was heresies and false teachers. "Many false prophets will arise, and lead many astray" ( Matthew 24:11 ). "False Christs and false prophets will arise, and show signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect" ( Mark 13:22 ). In these last days Paul looks for the emergence of "the man of sin, the son of perdition," who would set himself up against God ( 2 Thessalonians 2:3 ).
Into the Church at Ephesus such false teachers had come. The way in which their false teaching is regarded in this passage should make us think very seriously. At that time men believed in evil spirits who haunted the air and were out to ruin men. It was from them that this false teaching came. But though it came from the demons, it came through men. It came through men whose characteristic was a smooth hypocrisy and whose consciences had been branded by Satan. It sometimes happened that a slave was branded with a mark identifying him as belonging to a certain owner. These false teachers bear upon their consciences the very brand of Satan, marking them out as his property.
Here is the threatening and the terrible thing. God is always searching for men who will be his instruments in the world; but the terrible fact is that the forces of evil are also looking for men to use. Here is the terrible responsibility of manhood. Men may accept the service of God or the service of the devil. Whose service are they to choose?
The heretics of Ephesus were propagating a heresy with very definite consequences for life. As we have already seen, these heretics were Gnostics; and the essence of Gnosticism was that spirit is altogether good and matter altogether evil. One of the consequences was that there were men who preached that everything to do with the body was evil and that everything in the world was evil. In Ephesus this issued in two definite errors. The heretics insisted that men must, as far as possible, abstain from food, for food was material and therefore evil; food ministered to the body and the body was evil. They also insisted that a man must abstain from marriage, for the instincts of the body were evil and must be entirely suppressed.
This was an ever-recurring heresy in the Church; in every generation men arose who tried to be stricter than God. When the Apostolic Canons came to be written, it was necessary to set it down in black and white: "If any overseer, priest or deacon, or anyone on the priestly list, abstains from marriage and flesh and wine, not on the ground of asceticism (that is, for the sake of discipline), but through abhorrence of them as evil in themselves, forgetting that all things are very good, and that God made man male and female, but blaspheming and slandering the workmanship of God, either let him amend, or be deposed and cast out of the Church. Likewise a layman also" (Apostolic Canons 51). Irenaeus, writing towards the end of the second century, tells how certain followers of Saturninus "declare that marriage and generation are from Satan. Many likewise abstain from animal food, and draw away multitudes by a feigned temperance of this kind" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1, 24, 2). This kind of thing came to a head in the monks and hermits of the fourth century. They went away and lived in the Egyptian desert, entirely cut off from men. They spent their lives mortifying the flesh. One never ate cooked food and was famous for his "fleshlessness." Another stood all night by a jutting crag so that it was impossible for him to sleep. Another was famous because he allowed his body to become so dirty and neglected that vermin dropped from him as he walked. Another deliberately ate salt in midsummer and then abstained from drinking water. "A clean body," they said, "necessarily means an unclean soul."
The answer to these men was that by doing things like that they were insulting God, for he is the creator of the world and repeatedly his creation is said to be good. "And God saw everything that he had made and behold it was very good" ( Genesis 1:31 ). "Every moving thing that lives shall be meat for you" ( Genesis 9:3 ). "God created man in his own image...male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" ( Genesis 1:27-28 ).
But all God's gifts have to be used in a certain way.
(i) They have to be used in the memory that they are gifts of God There are things which come to us so unfailingly that we begin to forget that they are gifts and begin to take them as rights. We are to remember that all that we have is a gift from God and that there is not a living thing which could have life apart from him.
(ii) They have to be used in sharing. All selfish use is forbidden. No man can monopolize God's gifts; every man must share them.
(iii) They are to be used with gratitude. Always there is to be grace before meat. The Jew always said his grace. He had a grace for different things. When he ate fruits he said: "Blessed art thou, King of the Universe, who createst the fruit of the tree." When he drank wine he said: "Blessed art thou, King of the Universe, who createst the fruit of the vine." When he ate vegetables he said: "Blessed art thou, King of the Universe, who createst the fruit of the earth." When he ate bread he said: "Blessed art thou, King of the Universe, who bringest forth bread from the ground." The very fact that we thank God for it makes a thing sacred. Not even the demons can touch it when it has been touched by the Spirit of God.
The true Christian does not serve God by enslaving himself with rules and regulations and insulting his creation; he serves him by gratefully accepting his good gifts and remembering that this is a world where God made all things well and by never forgetting to share God's gifts with others.