For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
As Paul encourages Timothy to continue on with the work of an evangelist (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-2, 5), he presents a rather bleak picture for the future. Believers, influenced by their worldly, carnal desires, will no longer endure proper, healthy instruction in the message of Jesus; instead, they will have “itching ears,” seeking to hear what they want to hear, turning away from the truth, and toward fables, or myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
This warning is consistent with the message of the previous chapter: Paul spent much time in 2 Timothy 3:1-17 describing how many would conduct themselves in immoral ways despite professing belief in God. Such a distressing picture!
While the picture is distressing, it should not be surprising. We should not imagine that these difficulties are relegated only to these “last days” during which Paul is writing and in which we continue to live or the “time to come” after Paul’s writing. The people of God before Paul found it difficult to endure sound teaching, and often wandered off into myths. While Moses was on Mount Sinai, receiving the Law from God, the Israelites made a golden calf and served it (cf. Exodus 32:1-35). After the Israelites entered the land of Canaan they soon began serving the gods of the neighbors (cf. Judges 2:11-23). They also imagined that they could serve YHWH by bowing down before an image, a myth of their own making, and certainly not what God intended in Exodus 20:4; it would be the cause of ruin and exile for both Israel and Judah (2 Kings 17:7-23). Jesus attests to the fact that the ancestors of the Israelites mistreated the true prophets but honored the false ones (Luke 6:22, 26). Jesus Himself endured persecution by the hands of people who wandered off into myths, those waiting for the Messiah of their own imagination while crucifying the Messiah God sent them (cf. Matthew 23:29-36, Acts 7:51-53). This was not a new problem.
But why? All people have a built-in desire to hear the things that make them feel better. Likewise, all people have built-in defense mechanisms against anything that makes them uncomfortable or exposes difficulties in their thoughts and actions. Hence Paul’s description of “itching ears”: these people have decided to hear only what satisfies their lust. They are looking for relief in ways inconsistent with God’s purposes and at times when they may need exhortation. At such times, it is easier to believe the myth than it is to accept the truth.
The city of Jerusalem presents a great illustration of this principle. In the days before the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, prophets like Jeremiah declared YHWH’s judgment on Judah for its transgressions at the hands of the Babylonians. Other prophets like Hananiah declared that YHWH would break the yoke of Babylon and would maintain the sanctity of His Temple (cf. Jeremiah 28:1-17). In the days of Jesus, many Jewish people expected YHWH to preserve the Temple and Jerusalem and to destroy the infidel Roman power. Yet Jesus pronounced condemnation upon the Temple and Jerusalem because of their rejection of their Lord (cf. Matthew 24:1-36, Luke 19:41-44). And, lo and behold, most of the people followed after the views of Hananiah and the standard Jewish expectation regarding the Messiah. Few were those who trusted in the word of God as delivered through Jeremiah and Jesus. And when the events took place as the true prophets spoke, being right proved to be cold comfort to those who trusted in God’s word.
Therefore, to what, in particular, is Paul referring in 2 Timothy 4:3-4? The very question will get us into trouble! We can make all sorts of applications of what Paul has said, and that proves the challenge that exists.
2 Timothy 4:3-4 is often quoted and then directly applied to whatever issue exists at a given time. For some it will be modern cultural issues; for others, doctrinal disputations. Those applications are most often apt: we can find plenty of examples of people going astray from the true teachings of God and follow after myths that are more culturally acceptable.
The challenge comes, however, when we ossify the passage and believe it refers only to a given set of issues. The slope is very slippery: warnings are issued about deviations regarding a particular set of issues. There then is preaching and teaching on that set of issues. People who reject the truth on that set of issues are said to be the ones regarding whom Paul warns Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:3-4. And yet, ironically, people can then become guilty of the very thing which they are trying to avoid. They can easily start heaping up for themselves teachers talking only about that set of issues to the exclusion of all else, and that placates their itching ears. Meanwhile, they have neglected other challenging topics, may even resent hearing messages regarding those challenging topics, and lo and behold: they have now wandered off into myths!
Paul’s warning must be taken very seriously in a circumspect way. We must be constantly vigilant to hold firm to healthy, true teachings of God, and not to wander off into myths. We must never develop those itching ears but must seek after God’s healing message of truth. There are always going to be teachings that are difficult, controversial, and contrary to cultural norms. Yet there will also always be teachings that will challenge people’s assumptions and “sacred cows” in uncomfortable and unpleasant ways. Such is why Paul warned Timothy to be ready in season and out of season to exhort, reprove, and rebuke (2 Timothy 4:1-2). The medicine of truth might hurt, but it will always work out for the best. Let us not wander off into any myths, but instead seek after the truth of God in Christ Jesus!
Ethan R. Longhenry