To whom does the phrase about teachers who tickle people’s itching ears refer? If it refers to modernists, how can this statement be true? Their churches are practically empty. Does it refer to evangelicals who attract large crowds? Are Bible-believing preachers warned? Does it mean that believers should not enjoy good preaching?
I have no doubt the apostle Paul penned these words of 2 Timothy 4:3 to describe those individuals who proclaim false doctrine, not Bible-believing pastors who also have the ability to make messages interesting. When you consider the context of this short letter to “son” Timothy, you see how Paul deals extensively with the matter of apostasy and unbelief. The preceding chapter zeroes in on the spiritual conditions of the last times. What are we to do in view of these conditions? Preach the word; be sound in the faith (4:1, 2). Then we have the words of the verse you refer to:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry (vv. 3–5).
Many liberal churches are quite empty; on the other hand, many liberals are also influential and popular. We may see a new wave of influence on their part, as the present administration in Washington welcomes them and encourages them to bring forth their policies after twelve years of leadership that more or less ignored this element of religion. But these “teachers” do not include only mainline religious liberals. Look at the numerous cults that are enlisting new “converts.” Consider the fact that secular humanism and the New Age movement are religions that deny the truth of the Bible and sweep myriads of people into their way of thinking. Anyone who does not hold to the truth of the Word of God can be included in this use of “teachers.”
But the phrase holds a warning to professing Bible-believing proclaimers of the Word of God as well. There is always a danger of substituting or watering down the truth because human reasoning thinks that we can “reach” more people. The matter of entertainment is the big example today. There is always the danger that entertainment in whatever form it finds itself will take the rightful place of Scripture.
We must recognize the difference between being warmed and blest by preaching that gets to the person’s heart because it is the truth, and teaching that is welcomed by the unregenerated, shallow or back-slidden because they would rather hear error so they can stay settled in their sin and/or avoid the issue of salvation and eternal destiny. The latter is much more common than we perhaps realize, and thousands and thousands of churches would never tolerate the kind of preaching we as fundamentalists are used to hearing.
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