In his first letter to Timothy, Paul warns him of the “doctrine of demons” that forbids marriage and that commands abstinence from certain foods.
“But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared II by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means
of the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:1-5).
Some of us have misunderstood this passage to mean that the Torah dietary laws are a “doctrine of demons.” This is an impossible interpretation for a number of reasons. It is blasphemous to regard the commandments of God as the doctrines of demons. Paul himself observed the Torah, including Leviticus 11. Furthermore there is no prohibition on marriage in the Torah. Rather, God commands us to be fruitful and multiply. Others have supposed it to mean that so long as unclean meats are eaten “with gratitude” and with prayer, the meat is sanctified by God’s Word and rendered permissible. This, too, is a misunderstanding of the Apostle’s words. Let’s uncover the real doctrine of demons.
Gnosticism and Asceticism
There is no prohibition on marriage in the Torah. In fact, traditional Judaism regards marriage as obligatory. In Judaism, sexual relations within marriage are not only permissible, they are encouraged. Therefore, it is erroneous to suppose that the “doctrine of demons” Paul refers to in 1 Timothy 4 has anything to do with traditional Jewish teaching on marriage and food. On the other hand, the early Gnostics did teach abstinence from sex, marriage and certain foods. What is Gnosticism? Gnosticism was a troublesome perversion of Judaism (and subsequently Christianity) with which the Apostles were forced to contend and refute. Among Gnosticism’s many strange teachings, some adherents taught that the physical world was intrinsically evil, and that the human body was a cage for the spirit. Only by rejecting the physical world and its delights could the spirit be set free to soar. Gnostics taught the dualistic belief in which the spiritual world is regarded as good and the physical world is regarded as evil. Some branches of Gnosticism manifested in extreme asceticism. Their adherents swore off sex and marriage and often subjected themselves to long fasts and rigid diets in order to weaken their bodies so their spirits could be freed. They believed that the secret to setting the spirit free was the secret knowledge (gnosis) imparted by divine revelation, usually through visions or angelic encounters. It is the heresy of Gnosticism that Paul addresses in 1 Timothy and Colossians.
Everything Created by God is Good
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul uses Genesis 1:31 to refute the teachings of the Gnostics. Whereas they taught that certain foods were intrinsically bad because they were part of the physical world, Paul points out that the Torah says, “everything created by God is good,” as it says, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). This goodness also applies to foods and to sexual relations, both of which were created to be enjoyed.
Paul does not, however, mean to imply that we are free to indulge in every and any food and every and any sexual relationship. Rather, he says that permissible sex and permissible foods are “sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.” Sanctified means set apart. That is to say, the Torah (God’s Word) has “set apart” permissible foods (Leviticus 11) and permissible sexual relationships (Leviticus 18) by defining them as different from those that are not permissible. Marriage and eating food are both sanctified by God’s commandments permitting certain forms of them, while forbidding other forms. In addition, according to Jewish tradition, marriage and food are both instituted with blessings, i.e., prayers of thanksgiving. This is why Paul says, “nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:5).
We should not reject what God has created as good and has given to us to enjoy. But neither should we suppose that everything He has created is permissible. God’s commandments say that intimacy with your neighbor’s spouse is not permissible, nor is eating his dog.
Paul labels Gnosticism - not the laws of clean and unclean - as a doctrine of demons. Similarly, he writes against Gnosticism in his letter to the Colossians. Colossi was not far from the province of Galatia, and the Colossian believers found themselves dealing with some of the same questions regarding Gentile circumcision (i.e., conversion) with which the Galatian communities struggled. In addition, the Colossians seem to have been incorporating Gnostic beliefs in their observances. Paul corrects this error in his letter to the Colossians:
“Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind … If you have died with Messiah to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use) - in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Colossians 2:18-23).
Our traditional Christian interpretation of Colossians 2:20-21 suggests that Paul was calling the Torah’s commands and prohibitions “the elementary principles of the world” and the “commandments and teachings of men.” Because the beginning of the chapter refers to matters of Torah (Sabbaths, festivals, new moons, dietary laws [Colossians 2:16]), we assume that Paul is referring to those rites as “commands and teachings of men” all “destined to perish with use.” This is wrong. “Elementary principles of the world” refers to paganism or Gnostic beliefs, not the commandments of God. Torah commands are teachings of God, not man. The larger context of the passage clarifies that Paul is referring to a Gnostic perversion of God’s truth. It was apparently a supposed secret knowledge imparted by visions that advocated a high level of asceticism.
The religious tendencies Paul here describes are “self-made” and based upon the “commandments and teachings of men.” They are “of no value against fleshly indulgence.” The dietary laws of the Bible, on the other hand, are God-given and based on the commandments and teachings of God. Regarding those laws, Paul says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Shadows of Messiah
In Colossians 2, Paul defends the biblical laws saying, “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day - things which are a shadow of what is to come; and the substance belongs to Messiah” (Colossians 2:16-17). Regarding the biblical laws, Paul says that we should pay no heed to those who would judge us regarding our observance of them because they foreshadow things to come - a shadow cast by the substance of Messiah Himself. Every shadow has a shadow-caster, and Paul says that the biblical laws are like the shadow of Messiah. They show the shape of Messiah. They are God’s laws and the substance of them belongs to Messiah.
Therefore, we may be certain that Paul is not speaking against the dietary laws in Colossians 2, but against a perverse religious system of asceticism that misapplies some observance of Torah. In Paul’s view, the Gnostic worldview that denigrates the physical world is at variance with the Bible. The Bible declares, “And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
An excerpt from “HOLY COW!” by Hope Egan.