1 Timothy 4:1-5 - Sanctified by the Word of God and Prayer
During the final years of the Apostle Paul's ministry there occurred a significant revolt against his teaching and doctrine. While the strength of this revolt lay in some of the major churches of Asia Minor, it also had an effect on other churches of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the fledgling church on the island of Crete. This revolt had not been unforeseen. On his final trip to Jerusalem, Paul had stopped at Ephesus and expressly warned the Ephesian elders that 'after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them' (Acts 20:29-30, A.V.). And within the space of ten years the scenario which Paul drew in these sentences had come to pass. In 1 Timothy 1:3 Paul had to instruct Timothy 'to abide still at Ephesus ... that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine (heterodidaskalien)' (A.V.). It appears that there had arisen in the church of Ephesus men who propagated a doctrine radically different from that taught by Paul and his associates and who encouraged a lifestyle characterized by asceticism. The letters known as the Pastoral Letters (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus) seek to curb this revolt and re-establish order in the churches affected.1
A complete description of the heresy is nowhere given in the Pastorals, but enough information is provided to draw up a rough sketch. For instance, the heretics maintained that the resurrection had already occurred (2 Timothy 2:16-18), possibly a distortion of teaching like that found in Ephesians 2:5-6. Then, they employed the Old Testament and what are described as 'Jewish fables and the commandments of men' (Titus 1:14; see also 1 Timothy 1:4, 7; Titus 3:9) to promote their beliefs about the evils of marriage and the consumption of certain foods (1 Timothy 4:1-3; Titus 1:10-16). The most systematic discussion of the heretics and their views in 1 Timothy 4:1-5 (A. V.):
Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.
Paul begins by emphasizing that the appearance of this apostasy should not come as a surprise, for it had been plainly and unambiguously predicted by the Holy Spirit.2
We are not told the means by which this prediction had come or when it had been given. Possibly Paul is referring to his own statement made some ten years earlier and now recorded in Acts 20:29-30. Whatever the case, this prediction is certainly in line with the ministry of the Spirit as set forth in John 16:13 (A . V.):
When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth ... and he will shew you things to come.3
Paul goes on to indicate the true source of the teaching of the heretics: seducing spirits and demons, and standing behind them, the malign, foul intelligence of Satan.4 Two specific lies put forward by Satan's human instruments are then noted: the rejection of marriage and the insistence that certain foods are morally unclean and thus to be avoided. No explicit refutation of the first error is made by Paul at this point in 1 Timothy. Nonetheless, it is clear that throughout the Pastorals as a whole marriage is set forth in a positive light (for instance, consider 1 Timothy 3:2, 4-5, 12; 5:14; Titus 1:6; 2:4). The second error, however, receives a twofold reply.
First, Paul argues from the inherent goodness of the created realm: 'every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused' (verse 4, A. V.). Then, Paul turns to the common practice among both the Jews and the early Christians of offering a prayer of thanks to God before partaking of a meal,5that practice known as 'saying grace', or 'asking a blessing'. Paul refers to this custom in verses 3 and 4 by the term 'thanksgiving' and then in verse 5 by the clause 'the word of God and prayer'. As J. N. D. Kelly points out, the 'prayer' to which Paul makes reference in verse 5 is the actual prayer of thanksgiving, while the 'word of God' is probably a reference to the practice of incorporating a verse or two of Scripture into that prayer.6However, a problem in understanding this verse is raised by the word which the Authorized Version translates 'sanctified' (hagiazetai). Many commentators pass over this phrase without comment, possibly because they consider it self-explanatory.7But the phrase, as translated, could certainly give rise to erroneous views about the purpose of the prayer of thanksgiving. In fact, some expositors understand Paul to mean that the prayer of thanksgiving actually imparts an additional sanctification to the food, above and beyond the fact of its intrinsic goodness as a creation of God.8 But if such was Paul's meaning, he would in effect be conceding ground to his opponents. For their refusal to eat certain foods was almost certainly rooted in a dualism similar to that held by many second-century Gnostics. Regarding the material world as inherently evil, Paul's opponents sought to avoid contact with it as much as possible. If then Paul believed that the prayer of thanksgiving was necessary in order to render the food fit for use, how would he essentially differ from his opponents?
Moreover, such an interpretation fails to recognize that Paul is using the basic meaning of this word 'sanctify' (hagiazo), namely, to set apart something as exclusively belonging to God.9In other words, 'to sanctify anything is to declare it as belonging to God'. This use of the term 'sanctify' need not involve any inward or moral change.10This way of using the term is frequent in the Old Testament 11and also occurs on a number of occasions in the New Testament, for example, in Matthew 23:17, 19; John 17:19. Clearly, the Apostle Paul is employing the term 'sanctify' with this meaning here in 1 Timothy 4. In other words, the prayer of thanksgiving for a meal sets the meal in its proper perspective. For by means of the prayer, the food is acknowledged as ultimately belonging to God and recognized as a gift from his hand. 12Understood in this way, this text serves as a timely reminder to us who live in a largely ungrateful culture of the importance of returning thanks to God for our daily bread. As Calvin wrote by way of comment on verse 5:13
To sit down at table without any prayer and, when satisfied, to go off without any remembrance of God is a way of eating fit only for brute beasts.