Good morning! We are glad that you have decided to gather with us this morning. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Josh and I am the Digital Pastor here at Crossway Church, and I am excited to be able to share with you this morning both in-person and online.
A couple of weeks ago, our lead pastor TJ led us through a short message series called Talking Points, where we looked at politics and faith and the interplay that happens between them. And this was obviously a very timely message given the current climate of our culture and state of our society (so if you haven’t had a chance to watch that series, I encourage you to check it out on our youtube channel). But as TJ took us through that series, I was reminded and convicted and made more aware of an issue that I would say lives at the forefront of our lives as Christians. An issue that is not only prominent in the life of our culture–especially today, but one that is at the center of our struggles even within the church. This issue, when it finds its way into our lives, leads us down a path that is headed in the wrong direction and can actually fool us and allow us to enjoy the process as it leads us into destruction. So, what is the issue that I’m referring to?
Well, the apostle Paul in his second letter to Timothy describes this problem to him, and basically writes to warn him about the difficulty it’s going to produce in his ministry, a sort of heads up about what he can expect from certain kinds of people. And before we look at Paul’s letter, let me give you a little context. Paul and Timothy had been doing ministry together for many years and Paul was a sort of spiritual mentor for Timothy. And now, Timothy was out on his own teaching and leading the church of Ephesus (the same church that Paul writes to in the book of Ephesians) and Paul was writing to Timothy while he was in prison in Rome so that he could encourage him and offer him guidance. So Paul’s intent in his letter was to sort of provide Timothy with a church status update and to give him some direction. And it’s in this “status update” that Paul mentions the issue that I want to look at this morning.
So Paul says to Timothy in 2 Timothy chapter 4…
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
~ 2 Timothy 4:1-5 ~
Here, Paul warns Timothy that he is going to be met with a very specific kind of resistance in his ministry. A people with “itching ears.” Paul says that people like this will “accumulate for themselves, teachers to suit their own likings and will turn away from the truth and wander into myths.
And I want to take this warning that Paul gives Timothy and look at it from the perspective of those of us on the receiving end of teaching. Timothy was a teacher and a leader and Paul brought this problem to his attention in order to encourage him to hold the line. Paul is saying, “Timothy there are going to be people who will only want you to teach them things that they want to hear, things that suit their likings –but don’t do it. Don’t teach like that. Instead, teach what is sound.”
But there also seems to be a warning for those of us on the other side. A warning that if we fail to heed, Pauls says, takes us wandering into myth and error. And if Paul were to have written this warning to the church instead of Timothy, it likely would have said something like this, “don’t be a people with itching ears. Don’t look to satisfy your own likings by finding yourself people who teach you what you want to hear. Value sound teaching, not smooth teaching”
And it’s amazing to me how relevant this warning is for us today. Paul could never have seen coming, the sort of information access that we have in today’s world. Today, you can find an authority who will validate any type of belief that you want to hold to. And we can do it in about 15 seconds. If you have something in particular that suits your likings and you want to find someone with a Ph.D. who can validate your position, who can scratch your itching ears, all you have to do is get on google and search for them. And my worry is that this problem–becoming a people with itching ears–has become so rampant in our culture, that our society has begun to prioritize scratching the itch over understanding the truth. I think we see this clearly in politics, we see it in the moral framework of our society, and I think we can even see it happen in the church.
So I would say that Paul’s warning rings even truer today than it did back then. Not only are we having to deal with the temptation of prioritizing our preferences above everything else, but we live in a context that is designed to help us do just that.
So, what can we do to offset this? What can we do to avoid becoming a people who are just looking to scratch their itching ears? How do we prevent ourselves from wandering into myth instead of truth?
Well, I want to share with you a principle that, if you understand and get right, will help you avoid becoming a person with itching ears. A principle that if you make the guiding principle of your life, will lead you away from error, myth, and the destruction that comes with it.
And here is the principle: prioritize truth over your preferences
Now, this may sound a little obvious or simplistic, but I want to take some time and tease this out a little bit more so that we can understand what’s really at work here.
So let’s start by understanding the key difference between truth and preference by spelling it out plainly.
Truth = corresponds to the way things really are
Preference = corresponds to the way I would like for things to be
And understanding this distinction is the key to realizing when we start to get the order of priority wrong. When we start to make our preferences the priority rather than truth. Because oftentimes we morph these two things into one. Sometimes we do it outright, and sometimes more sneakily. Maybe you’ve heard someone say something like, “well that’s true for you but not for me,” or “that’s my truth,” or “that’s your truth.” These are more explicit expressions of blurring the line between these two things in order to prioritize preference over the truth (basically by just calling your preference the truth).
But many times it is much more subtle than that. We all know that sometimes the truth can be hard to determine. Not everything we come up against is as clear as black and white, sometimes it’s grey. Sometimes it’s hazy. But for many of us, we tend towards using that fact as a way to prioritize our preference. We use “haziness” as a convenient excuse to justify affirming the way that we would like for things to be.
But here’s the thing, if you’re not prioritizing knowing the truth, If your preferences are not being made subject to the truth, then as much as you may like them, as much as you may feel good about the way that you would like for things to be, you are in error. And so you’re not just prioritizing your preference, you are prioritizing error.
So then, what can we do to ensure that truth stays at the center of our lives? How do we make truth the priority and avoid making some of the mistakes we just hinted at. Let’s let Jesus answer this question for us…
Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
~ John 8:31-32 ~
So according to Jesus, the way that we come to a knowledge of the truth, the way we make truth a priority in our lives is by continuing in his word. To abide in everything that Jesus affirmed. And this truth will make us free. Now you may be thinking, set us free from what exactly? Jesus’ audience had the very same question, the verse continues…
They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin.
~ John 8:33-34 ~
Now I want you to notice what Jesus does here. In this passage, Jesus opposes sin to the truth. It is sin that has us in bondage but it is truth that sets us free. Now, remember the distinction we made earlier, between preference and truth, Jesus is making this very same distinction. Jesus is saying that when we abandon truth for the sake of our preference, then we are slaves to our own desires. We are trapped in the deception of our will instead of being made free by the truth revealed to us by Jesus.
This is exactly what Jesus affirms later on in John–in the passage that many of us are familiar with, Jesus says…
…“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.
~ John 14:6-7 ~
Jesus is pretty clear here, He identifies himself as the truth and as the revelation of God to mankind. It is through Jesus, his teachings, the things that he affirmed, and his death and resurrection that we have access to freedom-giving truth.
So, If we are going to prioritize truth over our preferences, and the word of God, as Jesus revealed, is the truth, then we need to prioritize the word of God over our preferences.
This cuts right to the core of our struggle as human beings. Our will vs. God’s will. How many times have we heard this in church? You need to read your bible, you need to have a regular bible study plan, you need to spend time in God’s word. And for a lot of us, we really desire those things, we want to know the truth found in hearing the voice of God in our life.
But here’s the thing, many of us are hearing the voice of God more often than we think, we just don’t like what He’s saying.
And so we blot out some things or ignore others and before you know it, we are at the center of a myth of our own making. Giving lip service to the importance of the truth but living in a world that we’ve conformed to our preference.
And this can be so easy for us to do if we are not regularly digesting what God has revealed to us in his word. This is why it’s so important that you make this a habit. That every day you are seeking after and internalizing what God has revealed to us about our existence. How to live, how to handle conflict, how to find fulfillment in our relationships, in our pursuits, how to love one another, understanding who God is, how we can have a relationship with Him. We take it for granted just how amazingly accessible God has made the answers to those questions for us in His word.
And so if we want to be people who prioritize truth. Who submit our preferences – the way that we would like for things to be – we submit that to the way things really are, then we should be a people who are consumed by the word of God.
This is how we avoid becoming people with itching ears. This is how we constantly keep ourselves in check and avoid wandering into myth and make-believe. We live and breathe the word of God. This what Jesus was saying when he said in Matthew 4 that:
“Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” We live and live freely by the truth of God’s word.
And we can’t do this just by coming to church on Sunday mornings once a week. I’m pretty sure most of us are dealing with the tensions of our own preferences every single day. Probably every hour of the day.
And so I want to suggest to you three habits that you can start incorporating into your routine that will help you stay focused on the truth and help combat the temptation to put your preferences first.
- Spend time in God’s word every day
And I know that this is not the first time you have heard this point of application. This is probably the first thing you hear in many Church messages, so I want to spice this up a little for you with an added challenge. If you are not already doing this, if this is not already a part of your routine, I want you to start this today, and I also want you to find another person to do it with. Start today and do it with someone else.
Now maybe you’re thinking, ok start today. Well I came to or I listened to the service this morning so I’m good for today, but I’m not gonna let you off the hook that easily. Here is the mindset I want you to have when you think about reading scripture, here’s how I want you to approach your time spent reading your Bible… the word of God has the final say. The word of God takes priority over my preference. And this means that even every thought and every teaching that comes off of this stage on a Sunday morning is subject to God’s word. Now obviously when we as Crossway Church use this platform or any of our platforms, it is for the purpose of communicating the truth found in God’s word, but you need to develop the habit of submitting everything in your life to the truth revealed by Jesus for yourself. So don’t wait to start, and don’t substitute anything else in place of you yourself setting aside time to come before the word of God.
And the reason I want you to find someone else to do this with, actually a couple of reasons, the first is accountability, I want you guys to encourage and hold each other to doing this every day. And the second is for you guys to help one another in your understanding. Sometimes it is difficult to discern what God is trying to teach in scripture, and so having someone else to talk with and understand with, can help offset any temptation you have to just plug your preference into a difficult passage. Help one another aim for the truth. So, starting today, begin spending time in God’s word, and find someone else to do this with you.
The second habit I think you should start making a part of your routine is to:
- Bring every question of truth before the word of God
Make it a part of your process that every time you feel the tension, the tug to make truth fit with your desires or any time you question what the truth is, bring it immediately to scripture. Make it a priority to see what God says about the matter.
I was looking through my search history a couple of days ago and found that the majority of what I search is just different varieties of questions that I’m looking for answers to. I would say like 70% – 80% of it was literally just straight questions. And it immediately dawned on me that for many of us, we spend more time searching for answers everywhere other than where Jesus says we will find them. How often are we coming before the word of God with our issues, with our ignorance, with our struggles rather than a search engine, or our friends, or a youtube video? And listen, I’m not saying looking to those things is wrong, but what I am saying is that we need to shift our habit of going to other things first, to going to the word of God first. Make God’s answers the priority, and go to scripture with a willingness to submit your preference to the truth that you discover. For some of us maybe that means making little notes throughout the day whenever we question something so that we can bring those questions to scripture later on. Maybe some of us can even bring those questions to scripture immediately, but whatever you need to do, don’t just let those questions and tensions leave you, and don’t prioritize something else in your search for answers. Bring every point of tension first, to the word of God. Make it normal for that to be your starting point.
And the last habit that you can start to form that will help you keep your preferences subject to the truth is to:
- Memorize Bible verses
Now I know for many of us, this task can sound almost childish. Right, like memorizing Bible verses is what kids over in Crossway Kids do and when they can recite the verses back, they get like a Crossway Kids buck or something. But listen, our ignorance of the truth makes it easier for us to choose our preferences instead. And it does us no good to go before the word of God to find truth, if we immediately leave and forget what that is.
Memorizing Bible verses will help you choose the truth.
King David put it this way in Psalm 119:11 he said:
“I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”
~ Psalm 119:11 ~
In other words, David says, I memorize Bible verses so that I might prioritize the truth over my preferences.
When we internalize what God has revealed to us, then we are ready to always be on the defensive. We are able to immediately identify things and thoughts that we have that don’t line up with the truth. And so we’re setup, armed and ready, to avoid becoming someone who is only looking to agree with themselves, to avoid becoming someone with itching ears.
And I can promise you is that if you make these 3 things a regular habit in your life if you spend regular time in God’s word, you bring all of your questions of truth before scripture, and you make it a point to internalize what you find, then you can be confident that your priorities are in order. That you are doing what Jesus said to do in order to come to a knowledge of the truth, by continuing in his word.
Now maybe everything I’ve said so far sounds good but maybe seems like a daunting task. Sounds like something that takes a lot of discipline and something we are likely to fail at, so let me just give you a word of encouragement: We ARE going to mess this up. We are going to prioritize our preference over the truth at times. Probably more often than we realize. . .but listen, our freedom from sin, our freedom from the bondage of our own preferences, comes from the truth of the gospel message, which is that even though we choose ourselves much of the time, even though we often prioritize our preference over the truth, Jesus Christ has come as God in a body, to not only make the truth less hazy for us but to bear the penalty we deserve for our failure to live up to it. And what great news that we can be made free as Jesus said, not by perfecting the things we’ve been talking about, but by trusting in Jesus, who reveals it all to us.
So as we go about trying to be more diligent in understanding the truth, as we begin to practice prioritizing the word of God over our preferences, as we strive to avoid becoming people with itching ears, remember that we are enabled and empowered to do this by the work of Jesus. And we can rest in knowing that when we trust him when we submit our lives to Him and continue in his word, then we are living in truth and freedom.