Missing the Last Step

by Spiros Zodhiates

 "From which some having swerved have turned aside unto vain jangling" (1 Tim. 1:6)

While true love (agpe\ [26]) was the mission of Paul's teaching ministry, not everyone in the church shared his zeal for genuine Christianity. The apostle noted that "some" had swerved (astochéo\ [795]), or veered, from the love of God, but he does not say who these people were-they could have been Jews or Gentiles, men or women. Neither does the text explicitly tell us if those who had turned away were believers or unbelievers. Yet a careful examination of this verse will reveal the true spiritual estate of those whom Paul was speaking about.

The Greek verb astochéo\ (to swerve) finds its root in the noun stochos (one who misses his aim), a word not occurring in the New Testament. stochos, in turn, comprises two words: a (a particle expressing complete negation) and stchos ([n.f.], a target). Stchos also has two other meanings that vividly illustrate those who have "swerved" from God's love.

In ancient Greece, stchos signified both a brick and the top step on a stairway. In those days, just as in modern times, when a person ascended a flight of stairs, usually his most basic objective was simply to reach the top. Accordingly, the verb astochéo\ describes someone who comes close to the top of the stairs but misses the last step (stchos). For those who veered from Christ's love, the goal they failed to achieve was eternal salvation and everlasting life. They figuratively "missed the last step" into the Kingdom of God (cf. John 3:3) and remained unbelievers even though they still participated in the local congregation's activities.

This swerving is wholly the result of man's carnal nature-the Father shares no blame in the matter. While He has done nothing to exclude anyone from salvation; it is man who shuts himself and others out of the Kingdom (cf. Matt. 7:13, 14; 23:13).

Furthermore, astochéo\ not only refers to a person who is ascending a series of steps but also denotes the act of aiming at a target. Those who have swerved from God's love, thus missing salvation, have willfully aimed at another objective of their own choosing. Thus their lives are characterized by sin because they have "missed the mark" (hamartno\ [264]) or the true scope in life.

Physicist Albert Einstein was well known not only for his genius but also for being rather absent-minded. On one of his many lecture tours, Dr. Einstein was traveling by train and misplaced his ticket. While the conductor collected tickets from the other passengers in the car, the scientist was searching frantically for his ticket stub. The conductor tried to reassure Einstein that he knew who the scientist was and trusted that such a well-respected man would not travel without having purchased a ticket. After several moments Einstein looked up at the  conductor and said, "Young man, I know who I am-but I don't know where I'm supposed to get off!" Sadly, many unbelievers have been moving toward a relationship with God but their mistake is more purposeful and fatal than Einstein's absentmindedness. When Satan's deception prevails, he motivates unbelievers to follow illusory goals instead of spiritual realities.

Of those who have diverged from the way of life, Paul further notes that they have "turned aside" (ektrépomai, middle voice of ektrépo\ [1624], to turn away), presumably from the truth (alé\theia [225], cf. John 14:6). This verb consists of the Greek preposition ek (out of) and the action word trépo\ ([n.f.], to turn) thus offering a picture of those who have come close to the Kingdom but changed their mind before entering. Ek often denotes an exodus from the place one has already entered into (eis [1519], denoting motion into), but in this instance the meaning is a little different because those who have swerved from salvation never crossed its threshold in the first place. Hence, the verb ektrépomai can only refer to those who have turned aside from the path that leads into Christ's atonement, never having placed their complete confidence in Him.

If we understood that those who had turned themselves away from salvation were already in the Kingdom, there would be a risk of placing man in God's position. In other words, if a believer were able to write the final chapter of his salvation by reversing a process of growth which God began, then Jesus Christ would only be the "Author" (arche\gs [747], chief leader) while man would assume the position of "finisher" (teleio\\s [5051], perfecter, completer). Yet this is not the case-our Lord is both "the Author and the Finisher of the faith" (Heb. 12:2; a.t.) and the Savior who can complete what He has started.

Jesus depicted these unbelievers allegorically in His parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24-30). While the householder knew the tares were scattered throughout the field (v. 29), he let them grow among the stalks of wheat realizing that he would have to gather the weeds first and then burn them before harvesting the crop (v. 30). Those who have veered off (astochéo\) the way of salvation may often appear to be believers, but the Father is aware of their spiritual destitution despite any religious appearances that would suggest otherwise.

By turning themselves away from the path of the Kingdom, these unbelievers have steered into "empty talk" (mataiologa [3150]) which is translated as "vain jangling" in the King James Version. Spiritually speaking, there is no neutral ground-either one is a saved believer in God's Kingdom or else he is in the kingdom of darkness and possesses the potential to lead others to the same destination. The composite mataiologa originates from the adjective mtaios ([3152], fruitless, aimless) and the noun lgos, word, logic, instruction). Like the tares in Jesus' parable, those engaged in vain talking do not bear fruit (cf. Matt. 13:23) that will last for eternity. Nevertheless, they somehow manage to hide among true believers, but at God's judgment they will later be uprooted and cast into scorching flames (cf. John 15:6).

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