Confronting the Big Problem with Three Actions:
Guard, Avoid, and Don't Stray
1 Tim. 6:20-21
By Paul Robison

In the letter of 1 Timothy, we discover that the church in Ephesus has been in chaos.  Paul hopes to come soon to help the church get back on its feet, but until he can arrive, he writes this letter to help Timothy and the members there know how to conduct themselves and to carry on (3:15).  He gives instructions about avoiding the heretics, former church leaders who have shipwrecked their faith, about salvation (which is for all and not just for those with special knowledge), about lifestyle (a peaceful, evangelistic, and spiritual one that all members should display), about good church leadership (providing qualifications for elders and deacons), about essential truths that can't be compromised (Jesus' incarnation, His resurrection, His ascension, His Gospel, His church, and His glorification), about the false teachings of the heretics (who were forbidding marriage and eating certain foods), and about specific instructions to Timothy (and we've seen how those could be listed in about 20 commands).  In the next section, Paul instructs Timothy about working with various group and other members, such as widows, elders, and slaves.  Now in 6:3-10, Paul gives further instructions about the heretics and the church members.  He gave inspired advice for developing spiritual strength, spiritual direction, and spiritual stamina.  Then we saw how Paul gave Timothy some spiritual assurance as he described Jesus, God, and what the future holds.  Then Paul talked about how to develop true spiritual riches during the time between Jesus' first coming and His second coming.  Paul closes the letter using a typical Grecian style, which is to take the first important point in the letter and repeat it once again. Remember how the letter began?  Let's go back now and read 1:3-7: “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia—remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine, nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith.  Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm.”  Now let's compare the concluding verses in 6:20-21: “O Timothy!  Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge—by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith. Grace be to you. Amen.”  There is much similarity in these passages isn't there?  We heard some of the same ideas and words being expressed. Paul wants Timothy to remember the big problem once again that had caused the chaos at Ephesus.  There are three actions here that we can imitate as well: guard, avoid, and don't stray.  What else does the Bible say about these actions?  This sermon combines what Paul says with what other writers say as well.  Before we look closer at those actions, let's notice two other particulars. Paul begins in verse 20 by saying, “O Timothy!”  Now that's getting pretty personal isn't it?  But Christianity is very personal.  Timothy, as the evangelist at Ephesus, had a job to do or a duty to fulfill that nobody else could do.  Paul is holding him responsible and accountable.  So, it is with us as well.  Each one of us is responsible to Christ, and each will one day stand before Him to give an account of how well he or she has fulfilled that duty as well.  Nobody else can take your place.  You will answer to Jesus on your own.  Here’s the next particular.  In the closing words in verse 21, Paul states “Grace be with you. Amen.”  Now the word “you” there is plural.  So, it could be translated: “Grace be with you all.”  Paul knew that Timothy would be reading this letter to congregation at Ephesus as well.  Yes, Christianity is very personal, but it is lived out in the context of body or group of believers.  Jesus wants us to draw strength from one another.  We can't really learn forgiveness, love, peace, and spiritual maturity by living alone.  Timothy was growing in his faith as he worked with the saints who were at Ephesus.  And that’s how we will grow as well.  Now let's return to three important actions.
The first action is “Guard!” “Guard what was committed to your trust.” So, this passage teaches us: Guard the Gospel!  Use your great imagination for moment and envision that I have here a suitcase in which there is $100,000.  I give it to you and say: “Guard this suitcase, and don't let anyone else touch it!”  That would be kind of frightening wouldn't it? Why?  Because you know that there's something very valuable in that suitcase!  Paul wanted Timothy to realize that the Gospel is of great value, and it also needed to be guarded from errors, falsehoods, and corruptions.  One commentator rightly observed: “[The Gospel] is not something which the church's minister works out for himself or is entitled to add to; it is a divine revelation which has been committed to his care, and which it is his [obligatory] duty to pass on [unchanged] to others” (Kelly).  Guard the Gospel!  The heretics had “departed from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy” (4:1-2)!  They were making up their own uninspired teaching and were calling it a special knowledge that only those “in the know” could understand.  Modern cults do the very same thing.  They take a term from Christianity and then give it a new meaning.  Then they proclaim that only “the enlightened” can really understand “the true meaning”.  For example, when we say “God”, we mean the one living and eternal God.  But one religious group redefines God to mean many gods. When we say “Jesus Christ”, we are referring to God the Son, the Creator of all.  But one religious group defines Him as an angel who was a created being that came into existence after God the Father.  Someone has rightly noted: “For cultism, like communism, plays a type of hypnotic music upon a semantic harp of terminological deception.  And there are many who historically have followed the strains down the broad road to spiritual eternal [condemnation]” (Martin, 29).  Our job also is to guard the Gospel from those who would change it, update it, modernize it, and subsequently pervert it!  Guard the Gospel!
Some Old Testament passages where we find “Guard!” are Proverbs 21:23 and 22:5.  The first passage declares: “Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles”, and the second one affirms: “Thorns and snares are in the way of the perverse; He who guards his soul will be far from them.”  So, these passages teach us this truth: Guard your mouth and soul!  James clearly warns about how difficult it is to guard our tongues in 3:5-10: “See how great a forest a little fire kindles!  And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.  The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.  For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind.  But no man can tame the tongue.  It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God.  Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing.  My brethren, these things ought not to be so.”  Someone has observed: “Isn't it amazing how the tongue is the only tool that almost never needs sharpening (modified Irving in Swindoll).  Guard your mouth!  A Nobel prize winning writer once said: “The meaning of earthly existence lies, not as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but in the development of the soul” (Solzhenitsyn in Rowell, 161).  Guarding your soul will help you to avoid future difficulties and temptations.  Isn't our souls the place where our supreme and final battles are fought (Neuman Ibid)?  Guard your mouth and your soul!
The next passage where we find “Guard” is in 1 John 5:21, the closing verse of that letter: “Little children, keep [or guard] yourselves from idols! Amen.”  The early Christians came from pagan cultures where gods and goddesses were worshiped in temples, and where there were larger than life idols.  Sometimes those Christians were also invited to feasts at the temples where meat offered to the idols was eaten.  John wants to see no compromise.  Guard yourselves from idols!  There is a spiritual application for this passage as well.  “No Christian must ever set up in his or her heart any idol which usurps the place rightfully belonging to the Lord Jesus … People today still worship sex, gold, wealth, power, fame, success, youthfulness, humanity, self, pleasure, [alcoholic beverages, drugs, gambling,] or even one's own family, instead of the Lord.  The fortress of the heart belongs to God's Son who died for us and freed us from our sins by His blood.  The final word of this letter is directed to the guardianship of that fortress.  May Jesus' disciples never forget that it belongs [totally] to the Lord Jesus Christ” (Coffman).  We must all help each other to keep on the narrow way that leads to eternal life.  Guard yourselves from idols!  So, we've seen that the Bible teaches us to guard the Gospel, to guard our mouths and souls, and to guard ourselves from idols!
The next action is the verb “Avoid!”  Notice in our text what Paul says: “O Timothy!  Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge ...”  Timothy has the valuable Gospel, but the heretics offer nothing but “empty sounds”, that's the literal translation for babblings.  Paul then calls their teachings contradictions or contrary propositions.  One commentator observes: “Thus they build up and propagate a body of false beliefs which amount to a denial of the gospel” (Kelly).  Avoid false teachings!  A teacher noted: “Ignorance had disguised itself as knowledge … [The heretics] were already preaching these unholy contradictions” (Spain).  How false teachings abound in our day!  Modern heretics claim that they know and have the inside story.  Some say there are at least 400 different religious groups here in America.  They certainly do not all believe the Gospel.  Their different roads do not all lead to heaven.  This is why we must compare any teaching with the teachings in the New Testament.  Paul wanted Timothy and the members at Ephesus to focus on the truths of the Gospel and avoid the heretics and their falsehoods. And we must do the same thing!  We need to be asking: “Are their teachings in agreement with Jesus' words and do they promote greater godliness?”  Avoid false teachings!
Another time the word “avoid” is used is found in Romans 16:17: “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.”  Paul told Timothy to avoid the false doctrine, and he tells the brethren in Rome to avoid the false teachers.  “… in every [congregation], there seems to be those interested on bringing it down.  Paul urged the brethren in Rome to be on the watch for those who stir up dissensions. ... This kind of person created obstacles and caused others to stumble. ... Jesus warned of false prophets who come in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ferocious wolves” (Mounce).  Avoid those who cause division!  A commentator gave this advice: “Mark them—eye them closely.  Do not shut your eyes to what they are doing, nor make excuses for them, nor for any others who cause divisions and occasions for stumbling contrary to the Gospel, but turn away from them” (Whiteside).  Avoid those who cause division!
Another time the word “avoid” is used is found in 2 Corinthians 8:20: “Avoiding this: that anyone should blame us in this lavish gift which is administered by us—providing honorable things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men.”  In this situation, Paul had been collecting money from Gentile congregations, and it was to be taken to Jewish brethren.  Paul had a group of brothers who were traveling with him to deliver this substantial gift.  Paul didn't want anybody accusing him of taking money from this contribution.  Having a delegation to take this gift kept things on the up and up.  It was the honest and honorable things to do before God and before men.  Isn't this passage teaching us: Avoid a bad reputation or record?  Did you know that the Titanic was not sunk by huge gash made by an iceberg?  A group of scientists studied the sunken boat using sound waves to probe the wreckage, and they discovered that there was surprisingly little damage.  What they found were six relatively narrow slits across six exposed watertight holds.  From those six slits, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.  The point is this: small damage below the waterline and invisible to most can sink a huge ship.  In the same way, small compromises, little untruths, and wrongdoings often unseen by others, can ultimately sink a person's reputation.  Avoid false teaching, avoid those who create division, and avoid a bad reputation!
The last action is the reverse of what Paul says in verse 21: “by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith.  Grace be to you. Amen.”  The heretics have strayed from the faith, so the opposite is for us not to stray from the faith.  Don't stray from the faith!  Listen to these verses in 1 Timothy.  The first is 1:5-6 again: “Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk.”  Now look at 5:15: “For some have already turned aside after Satan.”  Now look at 6:10: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”  Now 6:21 again says: “by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith.”  Did you hear the language of straying from the faith and turning aside to Satan?  Now, we have some religious friends who tell us that once someone is saved that he or she always remain saved.  But it doesn't look like this doctrine can be sustained by the letter of 1 Timothy.  In fact, this letter shows just the opposite!  Those who are faithful can stray and did fall in Ephesus!  Paul describes two of heretics as men who have shipwrecked their faith (1 Timothy 1:18).  Don't stray from the faith!  One commentator observed: “This parting shot at the false teachers significantly uses the same word “have stayed” [as seen also at the letter’s beginning] to describe the defection ...” (Guthrie).  The faith are all the doctrines taught by Christ and the apostles that we find in the New Testament.  Christians must continue to be careful to put into practice these teachings.  “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).  Don't stray from the faith!
There is something else we should not stray from.  Look now at 2 Timothy 2:17-18: “And their message will spread like cancer.  Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some.”  Don't stray from the truth!  Jesus said that God's word is truth (John 17:17).  John affirms that grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17).  The Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of truth (John 16:13).  So, God, Christ, and the Spirit are the sources of truth.  This is an objective truth which has been recorded in the New Testament and which can be known. “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him: 'If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’” (John 8:31-32). Jesus tells us in John 8:44 that the devil does not stand for truth, and he is the father of liars.  Since modernists claim there is no truth and all is relative, whose side are they on?  Who is their father?  From the Garden of Eden to the present, there has been the continuous struggle between truth and falsehood.  The New Testament is our authoritative standard which reveals the truth, but one can stray or wander from that truth. James says in 5:19-20: “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.”  Don't stray from the faith, and don't stray from the truth!
False teachers in Ephesus, who had shipwrecked their faith and had created a following for economic profit, were the primary occasion for this letter to Timothy.  Paul's positive instructions to overcome the chaos are crafted in direct contrast to false teachers.  Paul admonishes Timothy and the members to live lifestyles that have been shaped by the Gospel of truth (ESV Study Bible).  That Gospel is valuable and worth guarding, false teaching should be avoided, and we should be very careful not to stray from the faith and the truth!  Are you a follower of the One who calls Himself the Way, the Truth, and Life?  Real freedom and truth are found in Jesus.  Be immersed in His name to escape God's wrath.  If you are straying from the faith, it's not too late to return to the truth.  Don't leave the arena, but get back in the Christian race!  Guard, avoid, and don't stray!  Jesus is calling you personally.  Don't disappoint Him if you need to change!  Stand for truth!  Be loyal to Jesus!