Hymenaeus and Philetus

Hymenaeus and Philetus

The following is an excerpt from my commentary which can be found on Amazon.

In 2 Thessalonians 2:2, Paul begins dealing with a false teaching that arose among the first century church. Some were apparently teaching that ‘the day of the Lord has come.’ While the exact reasons for this teaching are unknown, clues are given to us within this passage and in similar texts as to the origin and nature of this teaching. Many Christians, when thinking about the day of the Lord, imagine a time when the physical universe will be destroyed, all physical bodies will be raised, and everyone who has ever lived or will ever live will stand before a throne in the sky. If this was the accepted understanding of the nature of the day of the Lord among the apostles in the first century, one would struggle to guess how one could be convinced that such an event had already occurred.

Given the views presented in this commentary and in other works of mine, some will undoubtedly point to me as one who is guilty of this same false teaching that was presented in Thessalonica. There is, however, a fundamental difference between the two teachings. Namely, they said the day of the Lord was past prior to the fall of Jerusalem in AD70, but I teach that it is past after AD70. I have encountered well-meaning Christians who compare me to two false teachers that Paul dealt with in the first century: Hymenaeus and Philetus.

But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some. (2 Timothy 2:16–18)

In this excursus, I will deal fully with this passage and identify the origin and problems with the teaching of Hymenaeus and Philetus.

The Origin of this Teaching

The origin of the doctrine of Hymenaeus and Philetus should not surprise anyone familiar with the problems of the church in the first century because this teaching has a Jewish origin, and it was designed to lessen the importance of the Gentile believers[1]. Hymenaeus and Philetus were members of the church at Ephesus where Timothy was working – or they were at least influential in the congregation (1 Timothy 1:3). Like Paul was before his conversion, they were teachers and abusers of the Law:

For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, 7 wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions. 8 But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, (1 Timothy 1:6–8; cf. 1 Timothy 1:13)

These individuals did not understand the Law or the Prophets, they perverted the gospel, and they misused the Scripture. In fact, Paul had condemned Hymenaeus already.

This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight, 19 keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. 20 Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme. (1 Timothy 1:18–20)

Hymenaeus had a history of abusing the Law, and he was unwilling to change his actions after being disciplined by Paul. They had three key issues: (1) they abused the Law of Moses, (2) they blasphemed Paul’s apostleship and gospel, and (3) they were wrong about the timing of the coming of the Lord.

An interesting note about Hymenaeus and Philetus is that Paul warned the church at Ephesus that they would deal with these false teachers:

For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. 28 Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 29 I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:27–32, emphasis added)

Paul warned the elders at Ephesus of evil men who would attempt to draw away the purchased possession (called ‘the church’ and ‘the body of Christ’) in order that they could prepare to deal with these men so that they would not lose their inheritance. In Ephesians 1:13-14, Paul goes into detail about the inheritance:

In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, 14 who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:13–14)

What is ‘God’s own possession’? In Acts 20:28, it is called ‘the church of God’. A few verses later, Paul identifies the church as the ‘body of Christ’ (Ephesians 1:22-23). This ‘day of redemption’ (Ephesians 4:30) is the day that the purchased possession (i.e. the body) would be redeemed (Romans 8:23). F.F. Bruce[2], one of the most influential scholars of our time, gave the following commentary on Romans 8:23:

The ‘adoption’ here is the full manifestation of the status of believers when they are invested as sons and daughters of God (cf. verses 14–17) and enter on the inheritance which is theirs by virtue of that status. ‘The redemption of our bodies’ is the resurrection, a theme on which Paul had recently enlarged in 2 Corinthians 4:7–5:10. The same hoped-for occasion is called ‘the day of redemption’ in Ephesians 4:30, where believers are said to be sealed with the Spirit in view of it.[3]

Bringing this back to the current discussion of Hymenaeus and Philetus, the nature and danger of their teaching is in the fact that they were teaching that the resurrection (i.e. the redemption of the body/ the purchased possession/ the church) was already past. This was a direct contradiction to Paul, and it had dangerous implications. Like those in 2 Thessalonians 2:2, Hymenaeus and Philetus attempted to claim the same authority that Paul did as an apostle. Following this incident, Jesus commended the church at Ephesus, “I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false” (Revelation 2:2).

The Goal of Hymenaeus

The motivation and purpose of Hymenaeus and Philetus was to bind the Law of Moses on Gentiles who had obeyed the Law-free gospel. This would eliminate the possibility for Gentiles to be priests in the kingdom of God, and it would ruin the reputation and credibility of Paul who taught that the Gentiles were not under the Law and that the redemption of the body was yet future. A quick examination of 2 Timothy 2:1-19 will be beneficial in uncovering more about this situation in the first century. In this text I’ll deal with (1) the misuse of the law, (2) the source of Paul’s apostleship and his goal, and (3) the timing of the coming of the Lord (i.e. past or future to Paul).

Before beginning the mini-commentary, it is interesting to note that while Paul looks forward to a resurrection, he does not deny the decisiveness of the past: “…who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10, cf. Acts 26:22-23). Jesus defeated death through His death and resurrection, and the same would occur for the righteous at the end of the age (1 Corinthians 15:24-26). It is interesting to note that the same Greek words are used in 1 Corinthians 15:26 that are used in 2 Timothy 1:10. The last enemy would be destroyed by the power of God (i.e. the gospel; Romans 1:16). It is what was in the process of saving the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 15:2). Once the death-annulling gospel would be preached to the entire world, then the end would come (Matthew 24:14; 1 Corinthians 15:24). Like Paul affirmed within his writings, this would occur within that generation (Matthew 24:34). However, to say that they were completely in the past was contrary to what Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles taught. That being established, I’ll go into a discussion of 2 Timothy 2.

Beginning in verse 1, Paul emphasizes the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Paul often brings out the emphasis of grace under the New Covenant versus the emphasis of works under the Old Covenant. Paul described in Romans 7 Israel’s trouble with keeping the Law and how that brought about sin-death. He sums up this chapter by proclaiming,

Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. (Romans 7:24–25)

Paul then, in verse 2, reminds Timothy to keep in mind he things that he was taught by Paul. He is also to entrust these things to other faithful men. This is no doubt to combat the false teaching that had been published by Hymenaeus. As he encouraged Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:19, Paul wanted Timothy to be a good soldier in Christ and stand for the truth of the Gospel.

In verse 5, Paul stresses the importance of following the rules that are laid out in whatever task one undergoes. In terms of the current situation, Hymenaeus had been guilty of using the law unlawfully before (1 Timothy 1:6-8), so Paul wishes Timothy to not stoop to their level. Whatever Timothy would sow, that is what he would reap (Galatians 6:7-9). If he sowed to himself things of the flesh by using the law unlawfully, he would not receive the prize; however, if he sowed to himself things of the spirit, then he would reap spiritual rewards.

To assist Timothy in this conflict, Paul assures him that the Holy Spirit would give him the understanding that he would need to deal with this trouble. This is the same advice that Paul offered the Thessalonians in 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21. If Timothy would utilize these gifts, then the solution to this problem would present itself.

Beginning in verse 8, Paul reminds Timothy about the resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s willingness to stand by this Gospel caused him to be imprisoned as a criminal. He makes it plain that he was willing to suffer all these things for the sake of those who are chosen. The identity of this chosen people is crucial to understanding the remainder of this text. Two telling things about this group of people is that (1) they were chosen and (2) they had not yet obtained salvation. This identifies them as Israel after the flesh who had yet to obey the gospel. Paul dedicates much of his time in Romans in dealing with this group, but the following passages will highlight his view.

For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, 4 who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, (Romans 9:3–4)

I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? (Romans 11:1–2)

For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; 26 and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.” 27 “This is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins.” 28 From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; 29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Romans 11:25–29)

Paul evidently believed that Israel had a future as the foreknown people of God. Paul, as a fellow Jew, labored night and day in order that they could come to an understanding of the salvation that was available to them through Jesus. The glory, that belonged to them as a promise, could be received through obedience to the Gospel that Paul preached. When ‘all Israel’ would be saved, the redemption of the body (i.e.) resurrection would occur: “For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (Romans 11:15). The salvation of the elect was future, and Paul was in bonds for that ‘hope of Israel’ (Acts 26:6-7; 28:20). This was proof that Hymenaeus and Philetus were simply abusers of the Scriptures.

In the next passage, Paul presents several truths that I’ll take the time to examine. The first is, “If we died with Him, we will also live with Him” (2 Timothy 1:11). To state the obvious, Paul and Timothy had not physically died, so the death and resurrection here is not physical. Instead, this has reference to their baptism into Christ in which their body of sin was crucified with Him to the elements of the Law (Romans 6:3-7; Galatians 2:19-20). While they could count themselves as being alive to God (Romans 6:11) the resurrection had not taken place yet as seen in the future aspect of the statements in Romans 6. Instead, the resurrection would occur after the Holy Spirit completed His work (Romans 8:10-11).

If Christ is in you, though the body [the body of sin – Romans 6:6] is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead [that is, the miraculous Spirit] dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies [while the corporate element is stressed in some places, the individual element is stressed here] through His Spirit who dwells in you [a plural you is used here to bring back in mind the work of the Holy Spirit on the corporate level; see 2 Corinthians 3:18]. (Romans 8:10–11).

In this way, the disciples could be considered to have died with Christ but looking for resurrection. The future idea of living with God is seen in Romans and Thessalonians as well (Romans 6:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:10).

The second truth that Paul introduces is found in verse 12: “If we endure, we will also reign with Him.” Here the subject of the vindication of the martyrs is introduced. Paul had already said that he had ‘endured all things for the sake of those who are chosen’, and this passage demonstrates that he would be rewarded because of his suffering. In the letters to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2-3, the same theme is brought forth:

Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)

The rewarding of the crown of life is parallel to Paul’s statement about enduring persecution to gain a place with Christ on His throne.

On the other side of the coin, Paul warns that those who deny Jesus will be denied. Jesus said the same thing in Matthew 10:32-33. This saying of Jesus is found within the context of His command to His disciples to preach the gospel. He commanded, “And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” (Matthew 10:7). While this is sometimes called the limited commission, it is evident that it was not confined to a pre-Cross time. For one, Jesus spoke of the disciples having to flee because of persecution: “But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes. (Matthew 10:23). Furthermore, Jesus gives the same promise that He did in Matthew 24:13 in Matthew 23:22, “You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved. (Matthew 10:22). The ‘end’ and ‘coming’ that are looked forward to here is the coming of the Lord in AD70 in the destruction of Jerusalem on the ‘day of Judgement’ (Matthew 10:15)[4]. This would be the day when those that denied Christ would be cast out of the covenant community of Israel after the flesh.

Finally, Paul highlights the patience of God when it comes to Israel after the flesh. As noted in the reference to Romans 11:2, God had not yet cast off His people whom He foreknew. Though they were enemies of the gospel, they were still the elect people of God until the time when they would be cast out (Galatians 4:21-31; Matthew 21:43). Because of God’s faithfulness, Paul remained faithful to his goal of winning over his brothers according to the flesh.

In verse 14, Paul encourages Timothy to remind the church of these things just as Paul had reminded him. Israel’s hope was still in the future, and Paul was suffering towards that end. The result of Hymenaeus and Philetus’ doctrine was the ‘ruin of the hearers’.

Paul then tells Timothy to accurately handle the word of God – something that Hymenaeus and Philetus were not doing as shown before. It is interesting to note that in the Olivet Discourse, Jesus warns of those that would teach that the Lord had already come (Matthew 24:26). Earlier He had given the ultimate sign to know ‘when these things would be’: the abomination of desolation. “Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand),(Matthew 24:15). The last phrase is apparently added by Matthew but notice the point: in dealing with the timing of the coming of the Lord, the audience is encouraged to read so that they may understand. Paul follows the same pattern with Timothy: “Timothy, there are people denying to future aspect of Israel’s salvation in that they are saying that the resurrection is past. Handle the word of God properly and you can defeat this teaching.”

Daniel 12:1, 2, 7, and 11 are plain in placing the resurrection at the abomination of desolation in AD70. Hymenaeus and Philetus were arguing that the resurrection had occurred without Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, the destruction of the city, and the fall of the temple. Only one conclusion could be understood from this: the temple, the city, and the Law were all part of the New Covenant. This ‘upset the faith of some’ because it lessened the power of Paul’s Law-free gospel to the Gentiles and made their role as priests non-existent. The Hebrews writer argued, “For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also” (Hebrews 7:12). Hymenaeus and Philetus were basically arguing that the eschaton had occurred without the priesthood being changed. Like the sons of Korah, they had attempted to usurp the priesthood.

 In verse 19, Paul makes a reference to the New Covenant temple by saying that “the firm foundation of God stands.” What is the ‘firm foundation’? Multiple references are made in the New Testament to Isaiah 28:16 – a passage dealing with Jesus being the chief cornerstone. These passages indicate that Jesus is the cornerstone of the New Covenant temple and that the members are spiritual stones that make up the spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5). Despite their attempt to overthrow this house, its foundation remained strong.

Another reference that Paul makes in verse 19 is to Numbers 16:5. This entire chapter is dealing with the conflict between the sons of Korah and Moses. They tried to overthrow the priesthood ordained by God, but their end was destruction. This reference shows Timothy that even though they would attempt to overthrow the priesthood, ‘the Lord knows those who are is’.

The church at Thessalonica was facing the same problem, and it will be dealt with in the following commentary on 2 Thessalonians 2.

[1] In the following commentary on 2 Thessalonians 2, the origin of this same false teaching will be shown to be Jewish.

[2] Frederick Fyvie Bruce (1920-1990) was a biblical scholar who supported the historical reliability of the New Testament. He wrote over 40 books and was a professor for many years.

[3] F.F. Bruce: Romans: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), page 174.

[4] Compare Matthew 10:21-22 and Matthew 24:9-13 for more parallels.

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