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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Behavior Patterns of Apostasy (4:2-3)
Behavior Patterns of Apostasy (4:2-3)

Although the apostle clearly underlines the demonic element in apostasy, he does not minimize the accountability of the apostates themselves. Their own part in denying the faith (some will abandon the faith) and thus providing the outlet for the demonic deception (such teachings come through hypocritical liars; v. 2) left them "seared in conscience." The latter phrase, by no means mere rhetoric, is vital to Paul's understanding of the nature of heresy.

First, as noted previously (1:5), Paul makes a connection between adherence to the faith and the "good conscience." Here, the reverse operation is seen: rejection of the faith leaves the conscience seared as with a hot iron. Behind this image is the practice of branding slaves with a hot iron. Rejection of the faith enslaves one to sin and falsehood, by hobbling the faculty of discernment and making it an ineffective guide to right and wrong.

Second, just as the "good conscience" is related to Christian conduct, here the "seared" conscience issues in perverted conduct (v. 3). For Paul the conscience is the faculty of decision. It enables the believer to proceed from the faith, the vertical dimension of belief and knowledge, to the corresponding horizontal activity of godly behavior (see on 1:5). The false teachers had lost the ability to make such decisions effectively—since their concept of the faith was distorted, their ideas about godly living were equally distorted.

The signal Paul sends is clear. If genuine Christian conduct flows from a vital relationship with Christ, then an imitation that is fanatically forced on others is at best human in origin, at worst demonic. Observable conduct may not be the litmus test of orthodoxy or salvation, but negative results here ought to raise questions, whether one is examining one's own faith (2 Cor 13:5) or the claims of a "Christian" movement (Gal 5:6).

In verse 3 Paul identifies two aspects of the false teachers' misguided behavior: forbidding marriage and commanding abstinence from certain foods. These aberrations probably stemmed from the false teachers' mistaken notion that the resurrection (of believers) had already occurred (2 Tim 2:18). Their view of the resurrection involved a misunderstanding of the times and led to a too-realized concept of the spiritual life.

As parallel situations in Corinth and in later Gnostic circles confirm, this kind of "overrealized" outlook was (paradoxically) accompanied by a negative view of the temporal world. They insisted that the End had come and that salvation was fully obtainable "now," but the world around them remained stubbornly unchanged. Bizarre (to the uninitiated) patterns of behavior (asceticism or libertinism) represented either an attempt to cope with the paradox or an attempt to implement belief. The false teachers in Ephesus evidently favored asceticism. It is possible that both marriage and the eating of certain foods were considered part of the old order (the order of things that they believed had passed away with the resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit) and therefore to be avoided. The asceticism alluded to in Colossians 2:16-23 bears a striking resemblance, especially where foods are concerned. But it is also possible that this behavior reflected the attempt to enact the life of resurrection paradise by following the model given in Genesis 1 and 2, before the fall into sin—after all, Jesus taught that there would be no marriage in the resurrection (Mt 22:30), and vegetarianism seems to have been the rule in Eden/paradise (see discussion at 2:11-15). The negative view of marriage seems quite similar to sentiments held by some in Corinth (1 Cor 7:1-7). In any case, whether to cope with the evil material world or to implement the new theology, the heretics enforced a regimen of denial.

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