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What does 1 Timothy 4:1-3 mean?


I noticed that 1 Timothy 4:1-3 describes some deceived people who command others to abstain from “meats” (KJV) or “foods” (NKJV). Maybe I’m just a proud vegetarian, but what does this passage mean?

Steve Answers:

I’m a proud vegetarian, just like you!

That makes us susceptible to using the Bible to support our preferred lifestyle and even label it as godly or spiritual. That’s the opposite of relying on God to change our pattern of life to be more like the Bible.

It’s also the opposite of emphasizing character, which is the core of who we are, rather than behaviors, which are different ways we live out our character.

The King James Version of the Bible (published in 1611) uses the word “meat” for the Greek word bromata. It isn’t specifically animal food like chicken, beef, fish, or pork. It simply means food—any food. That’s why more recent English translations use the word “food” in this passage. Even the New King James Version (published in 1982) translates it as “foods.”

We might take a verse like this to promote vegetarianism or maybe turn it around to discourage someone from becoming vegan. That wasn’t the original purpose, although there might be some similarities in principle. Let me explain.

First, let’s consider what Paul meant when he wrote this letter to Timothy. Once we understand that, we can apply that message to our situation today. It might have an identical application, or it might be a bit different for today, since we live in a different time and place (culture).

For example, earlier in 1 Timothy, Paul wrote that men were to pray with their hands lifted up (see 1 Timothy 2:8) and women should not wear braided hair in church (see
1 Timothy 2:9). Now, before you require all males to raise their hands during prayer, and before you make any female with braids undo that weave, you should look at those passages in their cultural context. Then you should apply the principle to today, which might be the same application or might be different.

But your question was about meat/food in 1 Timothy 4, so let’s look at that passage. I’m just pointing out that the process we use to understand this is the same process we can use to understand other passages of Scripture. Otherwise, a superficial reading will result in superficial living.

During the time that Paul wrote to Timothy, pagan priests would bless food before it was sold in the market. Today we might have a stamp on a product to indicate it has been inspected and is “safe.” Perhaps we want it to be organic or “no MSG” or “no trans fat” or something like that. In Paul’s day, the nutritional elements weren’t as important as the religious stamp of approval. This was the question at that time: “Has this food been blessed by the pagan priest?”

If you were a seller of food, you wanted that stamp of approval, so you had a priest bless the food before you sold it. Then when somebody wanted to purchase the food in the market, the seller could assure the buyer, “Yes, it’s been blessed by the gods. Go ahead and buy it!”

Paul wrote about this in 1 Corinthians 8:4-13. He pointed out that wooden or rock images really aren’t gods, so food offered to them first was “approved” by objects, not by a god. But if that was a stumbling block for others who considered these objects to be real gods, then you should stay away from that food.

Paul wrote something slightly different in Romans 14:1-8. Food was the observable issue once again, but this time it had to do with feast days and fast days. In Rome, Jews had different feast days than Gentiles. What were Christians supposed to do when some of them had been Jews and some had been Gentiles? Which days would be the feast days and which ones would be the fasting days? They tended to bring their own traditions with them into the Christian church. Paul basically told them to chill. They were making a big deal out of something that wasn’t such a big deal.

Let’s get back to 1 Timothy 4. Verse 3 combines abstaining from certain foods with forbidding marriage. Indeed, during that time, a group of very serious religious people considered their bodies to be corrupt vessels for their holy minds. So they tried to deny their physical drives, such as food/hunger and sex in marriage. Yet God created both food and sex in the Garden of Eden. Let’s admit that because of sin, food and sex can be misused and abused. But that doesn’t mean that humans should never eat and never engage in sex. God invented food and sex! That’s why Paul told Timothy to receive these gifts from God with thanksgiving, sanctified by the word of God and prayer.

Somebody will probably stop right there and feel justified in eating whatever they want and participating in unbridled sexual passion and call out, “Thank You, Jesus!” What a mistake! What a misunderstanding! Jesus sets us free from our selfish use of food and sex so we can fully participate the way God originally intended.

For many people, this is just common sense. Indulging in God’s gifts for merely selfish gratification takes the gift without the giver. It would be like locking the bride away from the wedding cake so you could stuff yourself with the whole cake alone. Dumb!
And the other extreme is just as ridiculous. Denying what God has given us in order to be more godly completely misses the point. It would be like hiding a gift from someone because you like the gift and the giver. Huh? That’s crazy!

What does 1 Timothy 4:1-3 mean? To me it means that God has let us know that some religious people will be all whacked, and you can tell because they seriously abuse and misdirect people to focus on the wrong stuff, even while they pretend to be very spiritual. And the outside often covers up what’s really happening inside of those people.

Here’s how Jesus put it in Matthew 23:23: “Yes, woe upon you, Pharisees, and you other religious leaders—hypocrites! For you tithe down to the last mint leaf in your garden, but ignore the important things—justice and mercy and faith. Yes, you should tithe, but you shouldn’t leave the more important things undone. Blind guides! You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (TLB).*

Enjoy what God has given you in the way God intended.

*Verses marked TLB are taken from The Living Bible, copyright © 1971 by Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Ill. Used by permission.

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